All posts in: FormZ Tutorials
soap box illustration

Are you totally sick and tired reading about me gushing over Maya yet? 2 out of my last 3 posts deal with my recent (er, ongoing) transition to this new modeling software and I’m here once again to let you know that still loving every minute of it. Mostly – though I’m not going to lie when I say it can be frustrating at times.

Most of that frustration has come from trying to figure out how I can keep using all of the 3d models I’ve built in FormZ over the years. Before I started using Maya, it scared me to death that all that work I’ve done over the past 8 years might be rendered obsolete by switching 3d platforms. You’ve probably noticed that I reuse a lot of my existing content to create new illustrations for my royalty-free stock image collection, and the thought of not being able to use any of that content anymore was keeping me up at night. Of course I still (and always will) have a licensed copy of FormZ in my creative arsenal, but that’s not the point – I want to do the bulk of my work in Maya from this point forward and reverting back to FormZ to create my stock illustrations is not what I want to be doing.

That said, figuring out how to import .fmz files into Maya has been a high priority for me. Early attempts were not good – Maya doesn’t like smoothed solid geometry very much, and simply exporting generating an OBJ file and then trying to import didn’t work well at all. A lot of geometry ended up getting lost in the translation, and the parts that did make it were often broken beyond repair. I was frustrated, but the optimist in me knew that there had to be a way.

It took me a long time of old-fashioned trial and error to find the best method of exporting solids-based smooth 3d models from FormZ to Maya, and I’m happy to report that I found a workable solution. To show you how that works, let me take you through the steps using my soap box 3d model as an example:

Step 1:  Prepare your model for export

In FormZ, open the 3d model you wish to export and delete all the lights, cameras (views), and unused shaders. It’s also smart to delete any geometry that is unrelated to the model you wish to export.

wireframe mesh

All unnecessary components (lights, views, unused shaders, etc) have been deleted in FormZ. Only the mesh wireframe remains.

Step 2: Export to DXF

Once you’ve deleted all of that unnecessary data, go to File > Export and select DXF. You would think that a more common format like OBJ would work better, but trust me on this – I tried them all and DXF works the best. Give it any name you like and save it anywhere – it doesn’t matter.

Once you press Save, a popup window will appear presenting you with a series of options for exporting to DXF format. The settings I typically use are as follows:

DXF export settings

DXF export settings in FormZ

You can choose whatever you prefer for Units, as well as the Grouping Method. It just depends on how you like to work.

Step 3: Import into Maya

Jump over to Maya and go to File > Import and choose your DXF file you just created. I should mention that you can import 3d content into an existing scene if you’d like, but I like to import models into an empty scene so that I can quickly identify and fix any issues that may come up.

import dxf file into maya

Navigate to where you stored your DXF file, select it, then press Import

Step 4: Cleaning up your model within Maya

It will take a few seconds for Maya to process the DXF file (especially if it’s a complex model) so don’t worry if it takes a bit of time. But once it’s finished, you will probably get something that looks like this:

reversed normals

Imported model with reversed normals

That doesn’t look all that great, does it? Yes, it appears that the entire model imported correctly, but there are obviously issues with the some of the geometry. Some parts look ok, but other parts are black. Once again, no need to worry! The problem is that the normals on those surfaces need to be reversed, and it’s an easy thing to fix:

A. Select all of your geometry

All geometry selected

All geometry selected

B. Go to Modify > Convert > NURBS to polygons

converting NURBS to polygons in maya

NURBS surfaces need to be converted to polygons

This is what the resulting mesh should look like.

Resulting polygon mesh

Resulting polygon mesh after the conversion

Note that you can select how dense you want the polygon mesh to be in the options panel before you actually do the conversion. For the sake of simplicity, I just went with the default settings.

C. Before reversing the normals, we need to delete the old NURBS surfaces.

The best way of doing that is by going to the Show menu and turning off all the geometry EXCEPT for the NURBS surfaces. Once only those surfaces are exposed, select them all and delete (or save them to another layer if you want to keep them).

Using the Show menu to hide all geometry

Using the Show menu to hide all geometry except for the NURBS surfaces

D. Reverse the normals

Once you delete the NURBS surfaces, go back to the Show menu and turn on all the geometry (the way it was before you turned them off). You should be left only with polygons at this point, so you can select all the black pieces individually or all at once and reverse the normals by going to Normals > Reverse.

Reversing the normals

Reversing the normals

Once that is complete, all of your geometry should look uniform and clean – just like this:

All normals reversed

All normals reversed and ready for texturing

Of course every model will be different, but of all the FormZ to Maya file conversions I’ve done so far, the reversed normals issue is the biggest problem. It did take me a while to figure out that I had to convert to polygons first (hey, I’m still a noob) but I’m feeling much better about my archive of FormZ models that will live on for years to come in Maya.

I’m not really sure why, but FormZ just doesn’t get any love in the 3d modeling community. While it does have a respectable following with architects and environmental designers, product designers and animators don’t even seem to give it a second look. But the fact is that it’s a very good 3d modeling program for everyone from beginners all the way to experienced designers (like me) who don’t need all the fancy animation tools that are a part of other 3d software like 3ds Max and Maya. Sometimes all a designer needs to do is to build a simple 3d model that will result in an attractive rendering. And that is what FormZ does so well.

Setting up a simple and nice looking scene in FormZ and it’s built in rendering engine (RenderZone) is very simple. This tutorial will guide you through the steps of creating a simple, but well-lit and attractive scene for placing your objects into.

Step one: build some sample objects

Begin by creating a new file from the main menu (“File > New Model”). A blank 3d space will be created which is void of any environmental data. Ah, a blank canvas! Note that there is one default light provided in the light palette, plus a collection of default surface styles in the surface style palette. Ignore those for now…we will deal with them later. After selecting “File > New Model”, this is what you should see:

Now build a flat floor surface by selecting the 2d surface rectangle tool in the Modeling Tools palette, and drawing directly on the grid in the main window. Then add a few primitive shapes to set onto that surface. A couple boxes and a sphere is fine. The size of all these elements isn’t important – just make something that sort of looks like this:

Step two: create your environment

Now that you have a few sample objects built, it’s time to define the parameters of the environment you will render these object in. Go to “Display > Display Options…” and you will see a dialog box that looks like this:

Since we will be rendering this scene with RenderZone, press the “RenderZone Options” button. This will launch the RenderZone settings window. In the “Scene” tab, set the rendering type to “Raytrace” and the “Background / Project Color” to white. That’s all you need to do here, so hit “Ok” to close the window.

Step three: create your lights

Setting up the lights is probably one of the most important steps in creating a good rendering, and it’s really not all that complicated with FormZ. The goal is to create a uniform series of lights that illuminate your objects from all sides without being too harsh, and you can do that in just a few simple steps. In your light palette, click on the title text of that window (which is “Light Name”). This will launch the light parameters window, and here you can manage all of the lights in your scene. Since the only light currently in our scene is the default one, we need to add a few more. Click on the “New” button to create a new light, and up will come the “Light Parameters” window. This is where you define all of your settings (like intensity and shadows) for the light. For the sake of simplicity, lets create a simple directional light with an intensity of 100. Give it a name of “New Light”.

Now, click on the “Shadows” tab, and select “Soft (mapped)” and Quality: High. Increase the softness to 20.

Press “Ok” and close the window. As you can see in your scene, it looks like nothing happened – the light doesn’t appear by default, so we need to make it visible. In your Lights palette, click on the column with the diamond shape next to your new light (highlighted in the screenshot below). Now your light should be visible in the window:

If you tried to render your scene right now, it would be very dark and the light would only be coming from one direction – because you only have two lights after all. But that can be fixed very easily by copying your new light and positioning those duplicates all the way around your objects. But before we do that, let’s put our new light in a slightly better position. Go to the front view and position your light as you see in the image below. Note: you can do this by using the “Move” tool (from the Tools palette) and selecting only the handle at the top of the directional light indicator (the heavy looking dot). Don’t select the long line, because it will move the entire light – we only want to change the angle!

Now go to the top view, and position it again just like so:

Finally, select the “One Copy” option and then the “Move” tool from the Tools palette. Then click on the handle of your light and move it 90 degrees. Since you have the “One Copy” option selected, a new light will be created and your original one will stay as it was.  Do this again two more times so that you have four lights positioned around your objects in the top view:

Step four: creating your surface styles:

For the simplicity of this demo, let’s create two surface styles: one for the floor, and the other for your objects. Let’s begin with the floor: click on the first blue (defualt) surface style in your Surface Styles palette. Change the name to “Floor”, make the color white, and change the Reflection type to “Catcher” as shown in this screenshot:

Click on the “Options” button next to Catcher and set the following paramaters: Shadow Intensity: 100, and Reflectivity: 45:

Press “OK” to close the window and return to the scene. To make the surface style for your primitive shapes, double-click on the next pre-existing surface style in the Surface Styles palette and select the following parameters: Color: white, and Reflection: Matte. Click on the “Options” button next to Matte and set the following paramaters: Ambient Reflection: 0, Diffuse Reflection: 26, and Glow: 21.

Finally, we need to assign these surface styles to our objects. With your white “Floor” surface style selected in the Surface Styles palette, choose the “Color” tool in the Tools palette (the icon that looks like a color palette). Click on the outside line of the floor surface, to assign that surface style to the floor. Deselect the floor (“Ctrl + D” on Windows, “Command + D” on a Mac), and do the same thing with the surface style for your objects.

Step five: render the scene

Your scene is ready, so it’s time to render it. For the best looking rendering, let’s compose the scene a little better. First, change the view to “Perspective” (“Views > Perspective”). Next, zoom in so that your objects fill the window better. Now you’re ready! Press “render” (“Ctrl + k” on Windows, “Command + K” on a Mac) for a raytrace rendering, and this should be the result:

One final note:

Now that you have built a basic scene with basic lighting and materials, you may want to consider saving this file (without any other models included) as a template that you can use to start any new project. Of course you may not always want to render your objects in this sort of environment, but it’s a good starting point, and better than beginning from scratch. Besides, building a 3d model in a decently-lit scene is much better than doing it without lights and shadows. It’s much easier to evaluate your surfaces and textures with good lighting!