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How to Learn Blender Cycles

  • tutorial
  • By Jared Nielsen

The learning curve for Blender is notoriously steep. Add Cycles to the mix and you’re more or less rock climbing. What’s for dinner? Node spaghetti. Mmm. Blender Cycles is intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be kicking back with a smug expression on your face as you watch your creation render (for hours).

The video above is the first episode in The Hello World Program Computer Science series. I knew nothing about Cycles when I set out to make it. While I don’t consider myself an expert, I now feel confident and comfortable enough to tackle any project. In this post I outline the important lessons I learned. I hope it helps you learn how to learn Blender Cycles.

Set a Realistic Goal (No Pun Intended)

Learn Blender Cycles: CompSci Calendar

This is the Comp Sci Calendar, inspired by National Geographic’s Cosmic Calendar featured in Cosmos.  For “What is Computer Science?” I wanted to recreate the Cosmic Calendar, but with objects and ideas representing the history of computer science. This gave me clearly defined goals. Unfortunately, they weren’t realistic and it took me much longer to accomplish than I anticipated. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Make it a small step.

There are a lot of tutorials out there on how to create a complete scene, and while they are very informative, you don’t really learn anything. The best approach is to have a vision, something you want to bring into the world, and then figure out how to make it real by cobbling together bits and pieces of information scattered across the interwebs.

Hit the Books (or Tubes, For That Matter)

  • YouTube

    • YouTube is my first stop for learning a new skill in Blender. Don’t Google what you need, YouTube it. But, it’s one thing to watch a tutorial on YouTube. It’s an entirely different thing to implement and adapt those skills in your project. The wealth of tutorials on YouTube is astounding. It seems like everyday some young whipper snapper is starting his or her own Blender Cycles tutorial channel. But, there are four issues with Blender Cycles tutorial videos:
    • Outdated material

      • The development cycle of Blender is fast, especially concerning Cycles and rendering. It doesn’t take long for a video to become irrelevant. Seen a Blender 2.4 tutorial lately? Why are we still allowing those to occupy server space?
    • Poor quality

      • Not everyone can be Andrew Price. A lot of tutorials are nearly unwatchable, even if the information is useful, due to bad audio or video recording. And some of the slick productions aren’t necessarily informative. If you find a tutorial useful, the least you can do is Like it. And if you’re planning to make tutorials, get a mic, please!
    • Long-winded

      • Far too often, the little nugget of info that I need is buried somewhere in the middle of a rambling, ill-conceived screencast. While it is sometimes useful to watch someone make and correct mistakes, time is precious and there are so many episodes of Adventure Time to watch.
    • Speed

      • The flip-side of long-windedness is too-fastedness. Some authors speak very quickly or rush through the information requiring you, the viewer, to rewind and pause repeatedly (or worse, read the mondegreen captions) to get what we need.
    • Recommended YouTube channels:
    • Blender Guru
    • Gleb Alexandrov
    • BornCG
    • Sardi Pax
    • EnigmaToots
  • Stack Exchange

    • Love it or hate it, Stack Exchange is a very useful resource. If I can’t find what I’m looking for on YouTube, this is my next stop.
  • Blendswap

  • Reddit

    • While not incredibly active, /r/blender users are incredibly helpful.

    • I haven’t had great success getting answers here, but if you’re desperate, there are nuggets of wisdom nestled away in these threads. Unfortunately, many of the discussions are several years old and the information no longer applicable to current technology.
  • Last but not least: Wikipedia

    • Seriously. This is the big picture, scholarly approach to learning computer graphics. Read up on basic concepts such as bidirectional scattering distribution function (BSDF) and shaders. While this approach probably won’t solve your immediate problem, understanding the underlying principles will set you up for knowing how to approach a project in the future. Don’t know nothing about anistropic? Read this great article.

Do the Work

There’s a point at which every project, no matter how interesting it is or how much you love it, starts to feel like work. Embrace the monotony and boredom and finish the damn thing. Real artists ship. I can’t guarantee this for you and your workflow, but once I push beyond this initial plateau, new and exciting ideas and possibilities present themselves to me and I get sad because it’s also the point at which I realize I don’t have time to do everything. CG is time consuming and if you want to get good at it you have no choice but to buckle down.

On the flip-side, there’s also a point at which one can get caught in an endless perfectionist loop and fuss over materials, or camera angle, or depth of field or some other minutiae. It’s very easy to do with Blender Cycles because there are so many variables to tweak. Embrace imperfection and finish the damn thing. Done is better than perfect. You can spend the rest of your life tweaking one frame and at the end of it all, no one cares but you. Again, your time is precious: focus on the essentials and try to spend as much of your time outside and/or with people. No one on their deathbed is going to say, “I’m glad I reduced the caustic noise in that scene”.

Learn Blender Cycles

Here’s the playlist of the videos I learned from while making the Comp Sci Calendar:

School Me

What did I miss? How do you learn Blender Cycles? What are your go to resources? Tips and tricks? Advice? Share in the comments below.

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