How to hack your mind

Hack your brain for production ready mindset.

ADVICE & WARNING: Heavy reading ahead, be sure to bookmark (CTRL + D) or print (Hardcopy or PDF) this page for future review. You won’t regret it.

The mind plays tricks to make things seem seamless.

But as great as they (your minds and mine) are, often they don’t ensure proper “measurement” when you convert ideas into 3D or to real tangible items. The result, something appear larger than they should be. In animation character would emerge too large, while others that are in the right size would shrink when seen in the same shot. How close a pair of characters is too close (in same shot), and how far is too far? While you animate a boy running in a set, you figured out that you need to make larger set to fill the time gap of that particular shot or the chase won’t be convincing. Then there are workloads, how to break a set to the right size and details that your stress load is manageable?

These always been very puzzling for someone new into 3D and it even happens to those are seasoned. If you think this is “another Blender tutorial,” you are completely wrong. This article’s main purpose is to calibrate (or the better word is to HACK) your mind to the actual of things (or how there really appear from one point of view). The knowledge you are going to read here isn’t limited to 3D, it is also useful for 2D concept artists, screenwriters, architects, industry designers and daily quick approximation. In short, these are tips and tricks of how to do more with less, in a more structural approach.

The problem:

Our mind think like flowing water. But the flow is really weird if you put “logic” into it. Things always pop inside your “internal imager” but you never notice that they weren’t there before. Like when you are walking into a room, (in this part, your mind only have an empty space like in a box.) Then I add “bed” into the sentence and “automagically” your mind would introduce all sorts of furniture, cupboard, carpet, windows and curtain. Next I said “pillow is red” again the whole thing change into something that is most cliche (for most of us at least) that the red pillow can be with.

Our minds are in a constant flux. They change but we never really pay attention to what changed. Things can get large when you first imagine it, then resize when you come back to it. This has been known to cause lots of problem either it is for industrial design, relationship or even managing expectations. Friendships were thorn by this, people argued, fists were pounded, hearts were broken. All just because our minds are flowing from one idea to another, creating those that sometime shouldn’t exist.

But working and being in this finite and tangible world, everything has specs. Everything has at least 1 number associated with it. Be it height, size, weight, or even color; numbers play a big role. Even curves has numbers, if not how do Bézier curve work on your computer screen?! It is overwhelming to think that the amount of numbers attached to things around you. Even in nature, we can’t say a tall mountain and not compare it to another for reference. But there are shortcuts. Let’s tackle them one by one.

1. How to gauge size:

Basic measuring without ruler, use your body parts (Use Safe-for-work parts only)

There are few body part that you can use as measurement. But you only need 2. One is for small measurement, another is larger measurement (large unit). Fore warn that not all body parts are standard size, therefore which parts you use for measurement will differ, as in someone will have larger hands than others. But all of the parts must be

  • Accurate (which their size won’t change)
  • Predictable
  • Is closest to common number (either in inch, feet or centimeter)

The following are body parts measurement that I use often and some that you might find awesomely useful.

1.1 Small measurement

Thumb to middle finger (while stretched to max):
This is my 8 inches measurement, I have another that is 7 inches (Thumb to index finger). With both I can get 1″, 2″, 4″, 5″ & 6″ within few seconds.

Handbreadth (or hand):
The width of your four fingers where they meet the palm—usually about 4 inches, mine is 3 inches.

Stretch out your hand so that the tip of your thumb is as far away as possible from the tip of your pinky, usually 8 to 10 inches. I don’t use this as mine are just over 8 inches, and it differ quite abit between both hands.

Width of the thumb when pressed on a surface, normally it is an inch. Don’t use this often.

1.2 Larger measurement

Elbow to end of wrist (where the palm begins):
This is my standard 1 foot measurement.

Cubit (Noah use this to build the ARK!!!):
The distance from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. Often 18 inches. I don’t use this often as mine in odd measurement (18.5″).

The maximum length of a foot (12 inches), if you have large feet (or shoe) this is very useful.

The maximum length (between the middle fingers) when your arms are stretched. This is the common 6 feet.

There are many more, you will have to discover them for yourselves. Take a ruler with inch and centimeter and measure away!!! 😄

1.3 How to use?

Now that you have your measurements, the next step is to know how to use them. For small things, the best way to apply this is together with gesturing. This is how it works. Let’s say you wanted to 3D model an accurate size drinking glass, 1st you make a gesture of holding one, projects the size (diameter of glass) to a flat surface, measure it with your body part, after you got its diameter next is to decide on height of the glass. Using the same method you can easily model a spoon, pen and any ball that you can gesture its size.

Another example that will drill your understanding is to model a 3D sword that can be pulled from its housing (right hand to left hip). 1st you need to decide what is the length of the sword. As logic goes, it must be able to be pulled from an arm length stretch. Next is to decide where the housing is mounted. Is it on the hip (opposite of the drawing hand) or the back of the character? Let’s try with the one on the hip. Let’s project the distance from your hip to your palm to a flat surface (try a wall), the next step is to measure with your body part. In less than a minute you will have accurate measurement of a sword base on your body size, custom-made-size just for you. It’s better than Googling for “sword length” that might not give you what you want.

1.4 The bigger than huge stuff

To look like idiot, you can use your body parts to measure a tall crane or a river or even a bus before it run over you (#insert laughter or rolling eyes here). To handle bigger objects doing such measurement is at the cost of time and is very dangerous. How about measuring a crocodile with massive fangs and bone crushing jaw? Do you jump into its cage and body measure it with your cubit?!! 😄 (Only crocodile hunter does that but he was killed by a sting ray instead) How to measure?

1.4.1 Reference Size

If you are making real size models for real size sets, you must have few reference basic objects size. Let me list the basic few.

Stuff inside the house:

  • Table top height = 75 cm, 2.5 ft (30 inches)
  • Chair Height = 1 cubit, 18 inches, knee height
  • Stair Step size = 1 foot, 12 inches, 30 cm (for Asian it is 8 inches)
  • Door size = 36″ x 80″
  • Window width = 36″
  • window frame lowest height = 2.5 to 3 ft

Stuff outside the house:

  • Flag pole = 16, 18 or 24 ft
  • A common floor height = 9 to 12 ft
  • Lamp pole = same as flag

Now if you see a tree next to a 16 ft lamp pole, its height can be easily estimated. A 12 floor building that each floor twice the height of that tall lady (almost 6 ft) is approximately 144 ft. A school bus that has 21 rows of seat (including driver’s) is approximately 2 ft x 21 = 42+ ft. Endless possibilities.

1.4.2 Modular size

When estimating floor size, tiles are your best friend. But not just tiles, many man made objects are in modular size or arranged in modular spacing. One example is the spacing of poles inside a building. Normally they are 12, 18 or 24 feet apart.

If you are building a sci-fi set from scratch, being modular (in size) is the best practice you should have. In Star Wars, all its man-made sets are made modular. One very good example of this is shown by this Youtube user:

1.5 Test your calibration

Now that you have almost all of your measuring tools ready, let’s acid test them.

  • A 3 ft tall chubby teddy bear, please gesture its height from the floor.
  • A 60 cm (2 ft) length Kohaku koi fish, estimate its length.
  • 2 300 pages hard-cover novels, gesture their thickness.
  • A pair of feet going up a stair, imagine how those feet meet the steps.
  • Approximate the size of an original VW Beetle, when done, try Google for a blueprint and compare your estimation. (This is hard so take your time)
  • Gesture a basket ball size and estimate its size.
  • Estimate a train’s length that you have seen in real live, use all tools you have learned.

2.0 Building set that makes sense

Modeling few objects and render them is easy. But if you are really up to it, you should be thinking of modeling sets. Sets that are big enough for your characters to be in. Make them believable, working and inspiring. A good set design will move the story, but that is another topic that someday I’ll get into in this blog. But one mind boggling thing about building sets is the amount of work needed to get the set into enough details that they will not fall apart at different viewing locations. This is when your measurement skill and observation skills are put to real test.

FYI: This is the best set design I have ever seen. BLANK. Pocoyo LOVE!!! 😄

But why is building set has anything to do with using body measurements, you might ask. The answer is making sets is the ultimate form and the final incarnation of modeling/measurement (to put it in extreme terms). Hence mastering quick measurement is a fundamental necessity. Even if you are making a stop-motion set you still need to make objects in ratio. Let’s say your set/stage involve the making/modeling/molding of furniture, with basic knowledge of furniture common measurements you can work faster, that is less of thinking on how to make them look real (as in appearance) and more of understanding of how to make it functional (composition wise too). Everything “in-between” you can use the gesture method mentioned before to estimate their dimensions.

Wait! There are more shortcuts to make sets than just understanding fast measurement. (Now this is back to Blender and 3D apps). Below is the list, short and quick:

2.1 Model stuff you can see

Why model stuff you can’t see, right? How to decide what not to model? Keyword: Think like a camera

2.2 Decrease mesh/texture details with distance

Polygonal density, mostly concerning organic shapes. How many polygons to make a smooth curve? It all depends on how far the object from view. Basically there are 3 categories of mesh density: FG (foreground, high density), MG (mid-ground, medium density), BG (back ground, low density). This is also the same for texture. For texture, pixel density to rendered resolution. That is how many texture pixels that will end up in a rendered pixel. A ratio of 4:1 (texture:rendered) or 8:1 is acceptable, but something over 10:1 is over killed. Many Hollywood movies have this problem. The bad things about this is, you are doing much work while in the final render a group of pixels will interpolate into only 1 color on 1 pixel.

2.3 Group similar model types, for quick modeling, sequential tasking

Always group similar type/category objects. Plan the modeling process, model them one by one, until finish. Don’t “multitask,” only machines can multitask not human. (More of this in video below)

2.4 Turn off objects behind the camera

There are many ways to turn off objects in a scene/set. One way is to use render layers. Another is by not loading them into rendering scene. This way when rendering, renderer don’t have to render calculate all unseen objects (this is also true while previewing). But there is few exceptional rule for this. If your object cast shadow or reflection, then it shouldn’t be turned off. One rule stay true: Plan Ahead, Work Wisely

One more thing… take a break every 90 minutes of work/writing/reading. Human (mind and body) pulses every 90 minutes. This is backed by scientific research. I encourage you to read this article: The 90 Minutes Practice. Then you should watch the video below, to understand why you mustn’t work like a machine. Be humane to yourselves, please!

I hope what is shown here open your mind to tackle things like measurement, gauging size and details in simple and quick manner plus understand your energy capacity thus be able to manage it well. Happy mind hacking!!!

PS: There are also a lighter version of the same topic, it can be seen through this link: Set Building Mindset, Thinking Process & Solving Problem.


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