Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Building a dinosaur - 3D modelling Triceratops horridus

One of the most exciting things about modern paleo art is the use of 3D modelling to reconstruct extinct life. Today single animals of all types, herds of migrating dinosaurs and entire environments can be modelled and animated within a single computer and the use of modern computer modelling technology to re-create dinosaur gaits, calculate sauropod neck posture and illustrate dinosaurs in the media, blogs and papers has become a powerful new tool for palaeontologists and artists alike. We have become used to seeing these depictions in images and films but the whole process of how these images and animations are created is still unfamiliar to many people.

A big part of my day job is modelling and animating the in vitro mechanisms of action of drugs and the biological processes they affect or influence, something I enjoy as the science is quite astounding and very interesting. This involves the modelling of all sorts of weird and wonderful molecules, proteins and cells such as macrophages, fibroblasts and the environments they populate such our own cells, vessels and organs. For reference for the larger objects I can use SEM images but much of the time the actual morphology of many of these very tiny but fascinating objects is unknown and is open to speculation, something the scientists and I indulge in as we develop the models and animations. As seen below, I often model some very tiny things for my own research in creating more realistic images, in this case trying to match the detail of microscopy in using 3D modelling and post-production techniques:

3D CGI image of Tetrahymena pyriformis, an extant freshwater protozoan and very small indeed.

The wireframe model of Tetrahymena in the modelling environment.

As I spend so much time modelling in 3D it only seemed natural that at some point I would take the plunge and model a dinosaur, and I will be posting the whole process on this blog to give some insight into the methodology and techniques used by 3D artists to re-create depictions of ancient life. Much of this journey into paleo-art is going to be as new to me as it is to you, and some bits you'll be familiar with I'm not and vice-versa - it promises to be an interesting trip!

Of course, modelling a dinosaur presents a whole raft of problems. I don't have direct access to many specimens so direct study is out for all but Tyrannosaurus rex . . . and I'm drawing those frequently. Luckily there is plenty of literature about and so I should have no problem finding a subject.

So, what dinosaur to choose? Well, after spending a week in the field with the Marmarth Research Foundation last year I'd grown attached to one of the most common of dinosaurs found in the Hell Creek, Triceratops horridus which we spent several days excavating. Although Triceratops is well-represented in the canon of paleo-art it does offer some serious challenges to the 3D artist both from a modelling perspective and an animation point of view so seems a good subject for this part of the journey. How long this will take I have no idea so this will be a series of occasional posts which I hope gives some insight into the whole process of creating 3D models and animation, and any comments on accuracy or other details are very welcome.

So where do we start? Well, the first step is to create one of these:

Ceci n'est past une cube. It's a dinosaur.

Oh, and research . . . and the software . . . and . . . and I think that's a whole new post.


  1. Hi Stu,

    which 3D software will you be using?


  2. Hi Matt,

    I'll be using Cinema 4D for the bulk of the modelling, but will be writing about the full range of software I use in the next post.


  3. Thanks Stu,

    looking forward to it!

  4. I'm a Carrara user, excited to see your process!