Modelling a vehicle in detail for animation

For some time I’ve wanted to develop my modelling skills. This is the process of making virtual objects using software such as Blender. Like most things, the best way to develop these skills is to practise.

I hadn’t modelled a vehicle in any detail before. However, with plans for Professor Mac to drive a vehicle in his new video, this gave me a perfect project for developing my modelling skills. The vehicle I needed to model was a rather large vehicle you find at the sides of shipping docks.

Reference Images for modelling

The starting point in any modelling activity is to find reference images, and there are many available on the internet. I liked the look of the Liftace reach stackers manufactured by Konecranes. They are used to lift shipping containers and stack them around docks. They also move the containers from the stacks and load them on to road and rail vehicles for transport.

Professor Mac's model of a grey vehicle is lifting a red shipping container at the end of an extended arm
My model of a lifting vehicle with a shipping container

One of the most important aspects of modelling is to get the proportions of the object correct. If this is wrong then the human eye picks this up as something isn’t “right”. Having the correct ratio of sizes of the object makes it look “right”. One way to get the correct ratio of sizes is to use reference images.

It’s great if you have engineering drawings with dimensions on them. However these are often not available. An alternative approach is to establish the dimensions of a few key parts and then use these as a scale reference for the rest of the object. In the case of the vehicle, I was able to use information about its length and width from images in marketing brochures to get a relative scale. I then used the images as a guide when creating the vehicle detail.

The first model layout

I started by modelling the length and width of the under frame of the vehicle. I then added wheels as these are significant features. In the image below you see the basic frame of the vehicle with wheels in place.

Six wheels are attached to a model of a basic steel vehicle frame
Vehicle frame with wheels

When creating the Professor Mac videos I like to use some models which are created by the Blender community to promote their work. Modellers share their models on sites like Blend Swap. The wheels I used are off-road truck wheels created by a modeller called Ruff. I had to make some changes to them so that they worked better for my purposes.

Modelling Detail

The balance between modelling large elements of the geometry of an object with the smaller details is a key factor in making it look realistic. In my vehicle the large elements are the main lifting arm, the wheels and the cab in which Mac sits. To these I added pivot points, bolts, tubes and pipes. In the cab I modelled the steering wheel and the dashboard with speedometer and other gauges. Small details like air vents and switches add to the realism. You can see a video of the vehicle modelling on my YouTube channel.

Professor Mac is holding a grey steering wheel with the blue dials of the dashboard lit up behind it
Vehicle controls

Texturing

You don’t need to add detail through geometry alone. Texturing is a process where you apply images to the surfaces of the object. This may be words like Professor Mac on the side of the lifting arm, or mud splatters such as those shown on the wheels. Along with colour and surface roughness this creates a surface finish that is realistic.

Moving the vehicle

To get the vehicle to move you have to create a framework within the model. This is known as an armature and it is used to move the vehicle parts. In the vehicle I had to get the armature to correctly move the lifting arm around the main pivot point. The armature had to also realistically move the pistons, which in the real vehicle control the position of the arm.

Getting the wheel rotation speed in the correct proportion as the vehicle moved in different directions was a significant challenge. I’ll blog about that on another occasion.

Lifting the Containers

Once I had the vehicle modelled I was then able animate the lifting of the shipping containers. This is simply achieved by a process of parenting the container to the end of the vehicle lifting arm. What this means is that the container follows the movement of the arm. This is just like a small child following its parent – hence the term parenting.

Professor Mac's lifting vehicle is stacking a red shipping container on top of blue shipping containers
Stacking shipping containers

Modelling the vehicle taught me a lot about the process of modelling. This has had great benefit when modelling other objects required for the new Professor Mac video.

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Mac

I teach physics and engineering through animation.

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