Blog: How to make 3D squiggles

alt title: "Yes I am persevering my comical efforts to avoid blender at all costs"

This is just a quick and dirty write-up of how I've been building stuff in unity lately and generating visual content.... I got to the point with this spinning sigil and realised it's actually a super involved process and is worth sharing (even if it's mostly because of how funny it is). Across all of these processes I am beginning to think about translation processes or maybe transduction processes; I am thinking about what makes a digital object an Object, and what its conceptual/material boundaries are, and how a "thing" can be instantiated across different dimensions and mediums.


The images above are - a gif made by exporting still images from unity, the still images layered in ps before being gif-ified, and a closeup of the reduction in colours when gif-ifying.

I'm going to talk through experimenting / creating with a new shape (rather than the exact process of above). To start, I do these loopy shapes on paper, usually with posca and a brush pen (and being fiddly and picky with which brush pen does make a difference tbh, but both my posca and brush pen are running out. :( )

Then I go in and mask out all of the paper and do some tidying up, although since I don't use the original illustration as the material / skin for the object anymore I don't do too much. I still really love the look of the graphic flat illos, especially when they're duplicated and layered, and I also like that with this version my failing posca and harsh editing has lead to more variety in the colour when you get close up.

Then I separate each individual element into its own layer, and engage photoshop's extremely weird 3D area with "NEW 3D EXTRUSION FROM SELECTED LAYER". I used to use the extrusion primarily but it gives you very sharp / blocky depth, so now I've been playing with the bevel and inflate options instead.

wiggle these sliders ^ to make these wiggles happen v

When I'm happy with the shape I export as OBJ - as a side note if I want to keep the illustrated skin I have to generate UVs first, but I'm not doing that; I could also use the UVs to reskin/re-illustrate a mesh in ps but I'm preferring to just play in unity at the moment.

Then I import the OBJs of each little squiggle into Unity..... it turns out that I can also edit the mesh in unity if I want to by using probuilder. I am a huge fan of the fact that you just press "probuilderize" and then it's compatible... I wish more buttons were that well named and effective.

One of the meshes had weird inverted black/hollow sections that I could somewhat fix (not really) with probuilder. I had already given it a new material that I made with a collage of screenshots of my process / previous drafts.

^ weird gaps in the mesh that i made all bumpy instead

The collage I used as the albedo/base skin for the items, although I also tiled it for the material

The collage is way too busy as an albedo/actual skin, but it makes really interesting things happen when I use it as a normal map.... I did my usual set-up for a diorama / scene and created a brightly coloured skybox (to get funky lighting and cool reflections) and then an inverted sphere as the background/container for my objects. Then I chucked one of the materials that has the collage as a normal map on the sphere..........

!? I'm kinda obsessed with the textures and warping / inverted reflection it does. It feels like an icypole.

The other iceberg looking floaty objects were things I had previously made using probuilder when I first installed it.

Then I put the same weird normal map material on my squiggles and tried to export some gifs.... but unity crashed and I hadn't saved...... (haha.....) so I decided to make a less hideous skin again using screenshots and captures of everything + with the background grid of photoshop.

I'm really enjoying this screenshot/collage/zoom/smudge way of working for some reason, I don't know why. It feels like I'm able to pay attention to the aesthetics and materials of photoshop and digital image in a way that I haven't really done before. It isn't at all contoured to the shape or form of the squiggles, I'm just interested in creating an image that I find interesting... maybe next time I'll use some UVs as a guide so it's shaped more for the objects.

Once I rebooted Unity I put all my squiggles back in the scene and reskinned them with ^ that image as albedo and the previous texture as the normal map, and also fiddled with the colour scheme. Then I tried again to export some gifs..... I've used this tutorial numerous times and now have a proper transcription written down in my notes because there's always one tiny thing I forget to do. Unity is so fiddly! about the strangest things! unity recorder can export gifs but not with transparency, so you have to do an image sequence, and for some reason the layer selection (only recording whatever is in a particular layer) doesn't work unless you use a tagged camera (rather than main camera) even if the tagged camera IS the main camera. Also both my laptop and desk pc are very full and I think it's also causing problems, I couldn't export enough stills for a clean loop, which involves importing everything into photoshop and using the timeline etc to make a gif.

I got enough for this though:

I really love these still representations of animations, they feel like they're revealing the "magic" or illusion for what it is; exploding the simulated 3d object for its constituent parts. But it also presents its own seductive properties at the same time.

I also got this at one point, which was a little too wonky, so I made a proper mirroed ver instead.

Here's the high res glyph / sigil I've ended up with:

Pretty cool! and so clearly (to me at least) - dictated by the particularities of a) photoshop and b) unity, and the layering of different technologies of 2d and 3d simulation. I probably could've/should've cleaned it up a little and made it properly symmetrical.... also it's great that now with probuilder I can probably do some of this duplication and layering in 3D too - while you can do plenty of layering and intersecting with unity and keep it organised with parent objects, the meshes aren't actually joined; they're still distinct objects. Being able to bring things together as a "solid", self-contained and whole object feels important to me, since so much of what I am thinking about is contact surfaces and difference (between objects and between object and subject/interactor).

I think these experiments are really letting me get familiar with the tools, and figure out some particular approaches to the materials (aesthetic / conceptual / technical). Especially in how I can go about creating different looking and feeling visuals; the idea of simulated texture and how softness and sharpness can be key to what defines these objects (and any potential behaviours they enact in a virtual environment) is really coming to the forefront for me.

I'm particularly informed by Eve Kososfky Sedgwick's relatively brief reading of Renu Bora's Outing Texture in her book Touching Feeling (2003, p. 14-15):

Bora notes that ‘‘smoothness is both a type of texture and texture’s other’’ (99). His essay makes a very useful distinction between two kinds, or senses, of texture, which he labels ‘‘texture’’ with one x and ‘‘texxture’’ with two x’s. Texxture is the kind of texture that is dense with offered information about how, substantively, historically, materially, it came into being. A brick or a metalwork pot that still bears the scars and uneven sheen of its making would exemplify texxture in this sense. But there is also the texture—one x this time—that defiantly or even invisibly blocks or refuses such information; there is texture, usually glossy if not positively tacky, that insists instead on the polarity between substance and surface, texture that signifies the willed erasure of its history.

I'm interested in how this configuration works when dealing with digital, simulated materials, and how gloss can be imbued with evidence of the sorts of material processes that I've talked about. I clearly need to do more reading especially on the generated tactility of a virtual object; the call or seduction to touch, and whether this desire can really be satisfied in virtual environments.

As is probably evident I'm really attached to the idea of The Object at the moment, rather than The Body, but hopefully I can swing some of this making into the direction of avatars and bodily forms instead. I also really want to use these objects - which look very different from each other - to create a sort of ecology or ecosystem with the aforementioned behaviours, interacting with each other (and eventually hopefully a visitor in a virtual space). Ideally I would figure out a way to automate some of these processes or differentiation between forms, but at the moment the ritual of the process is really important to how layered and rich the final images feel, imo.

Okay just a sec actually I sorted out some files and made some gifs. I think it would be so cool if parts of it were warped and bendy too, especially as it spins. I feel like blender can definitely do that easily but :( I can't use blender. So maybe let's see if I can get SMOOVE CURVES in probuilder and not just jagged triangles LOL.

Close-ups of reduced colour during gif stage:

Single spinny gif:

The duplicated/layered glyph, although I need to figure out if properly merging into one object is really so necessary + viable

:) that's all for now. Sorry if these images ate your internet I know they're big.