3D Modeler

Learn about the role, salary, software and skills to become a 3D Modeler

Student work by Alexander Murdoch

What does a 3D Modeler for film do?

3D Modelers build and sculpt digital characters, props, machines, and environments — often referred to as “assets” — which are then rigged and animated by an Animator, or placed (as a stationary or simmed object) in a scene by a Layout Artist. They start with a brief or by gathering reference materials; often they are provided with concept art or a 3D scan of a prop, character or vehicle from the live-action shoot or a third party site. 

Role and responsibilities

Digital doubles of actors doing magical things real humans cannot, alien warfare, a mechanical arm, even simple props like a coffee cup — almost anything that is to be laid out, moved (animated) or have FX added to it in a scene is the responsibility of a modeler. 

Modelers are responsible for helping to make a film more dynamic, adding personality and emotion to its characters, and building on the overall realism of the story (even if done so stylistically). 

Not only must a model look good, it must be highly functional and have the ability to work with downstream departments and their tools. This could be as simple as optimising geo so it doesn’t make an artist’s scene heavy but can become much more complex depending on how it’s used. For example, modelers often have to work with FX department to ensure models are made in a suitable way to be manipulated, such as building destruction where all components need to be water tight (i.e. no holes or gaps between the modular pieces that make up the complete model).

Responsibilities of a 3D Modeler in film may include:

  • Producing high-quality organic and hard surface models in line with brief and/or reference material production of highly accurate, photo real and stylized CG asset
  • Interpret abstract ideas into the creation of compelling photo real or stylized assets
  • Presenting work in a turntable style environment with acceptable lighting for progress reviews and approval (including scale reference)
  • Ensuring consistency of UV mapping and polygonal subdivisions 
  • Facilitate the creation of high quality photo real texture maps
  • Create “hold out” geo, or Match-Move geo, which are not necessarily seen in the final render but are used by downstream departments, such as Lighting and FX, to be able to generate more realistic outcomes.
Software and other tools used

Modelers are commonly required to use one or more of the following software:

  • Maya
  • ZBrush
  • Blender
  • Mari
  • Substance Painter
  • Unreal Engine (and other real-time engines)
  • Houdini
Skills required

Modelers require a mix of technical, creative skills, and interpersonal skills. Knowledge of anatomy, zoology, and basic rigging and asset creation is also useful in this role. 

Professional 3D Modeler, Victoria Passariello has some advice on what employers are looking for in an Asset Artist when applying for a job:

“Extremely good and clean topology, good use of chamfers and smoothing groups, great UV layouts, understanding of PBR, and good development of textures. A strong portfolio will show a good eye for proportions, silhouette and gesture, incredible attention to detail in all aspects, and images of the work with good enough lighting to be able to see the best of the model and textures.”

Employers are often searching for the following skills in an Modeler:

  • A good understanding of form, colour and texture, and know how these elements work together (demonstrated via showreel) 
  • Ability to interpret and follow reference material to create clean, detailed and accurate models
  • Strong polygonal subdivision modeling skills
  • Real world understanding of proportion, depth, scale and physical space
  • Highly efficient UV layout experience using an UDIM workflow is required
  • Knowledge of anatomy and zoology
  • Experience processing and working with scans (Megascans, LiDAR scans, etc.)
Average salary

Wages for 3D Modelers start at around USD $75,000 and peak at around USD $180,000. 

For more information about this field, read: What is 3D Modeling? 

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