Ron Rockwell

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Form vs. Feature Part 1

Form vs. Feature Part 1

The tools you use to create three-dimensional effects on FreeHand objects make a big difference in the final appearance and the time involved. There's not an absolutely right or wrong way to mold a form, but there are definitely many ways. In this first part of a two-part series, you'll learn about the new Extrude tool in FreeHand MX.

There are many ways to create the illusion of three-dimensional objects with the multitude of drawing tools and functions within FreeHand MX. Blends, gradient fills, vector and bitmap effects, and Xtras will be covered in Part 2 of this series. In this installment, the new Extrude tool will be explored and explained. It is both simple and complex to operate, depending on your level of experience with the tool, and the effect you are attempting to achieve. If you want "Superman" style text zooms, then the Extrude tool will fix you up in seconds. However, if you want hollow objects, donuts, spirals, and high degrees of rendering, then your work will be a little tougher to complete. But that's not to say it's hard - it will just take a bit more time. The hot dog illustration in Image I has six extrusions and took about three hours to draw. Even with 1.5GB of RAM, a lot of time is spent waiting for the program to complete its calculations and redraw the screen.

The Extrude Tool
Initial use of the Extrude tool is pretty simple: click the tool on a vector object and drag the cursor to create a vanishing point. Unfortunately, you'll rarely be finished that quickly, so a few pointers might be welcome. You can see the Extrude tools in Image II. All of these commands are found by choosing Extrude from the Modify menu.

  • Release Extrude: Clicking this icon or choosing it from the menu will convert the extruded artwork into the polygons that make up the shape. This could be as few as four polygons for a simple cube, or many thousands of polygons in a complicated extrusion. The artwork cannot be modified in any way with the Extrude tool at this point as it is a simple vector graphic.
  • Remove Extrude: This option will take away any extruded effects and return the graphic to its original shape.
  • Reset Extrude: After you've manipulated an extrusion in certain ways, you cannot apply changes without resetting the extrusion, which takes you back to the original extrusion. In essence it's a lot of Undos in a single click. After using Reset Extrude and making your changes (usually color), you must redo any rotation and scale adjustments you had previously done. The bright side is that you have an idea of what you want it to look like, so it takes less time than originally.
  • Share Vanishing Points: With multiple objects in a drawing, there are times you wish to have them all "pointing" to the same spot on the horizon. To use this option, select all the extruded objects necessary, and click the Share Vanishing Points option. All the objects will then show their vanishing points. The next mouse click will apply a single vanishing point that you can drag to any location.
  • Rotate Extrude: If you have a lot of extra time on your hands, you can click this icon or choose it from the menu. It serves the same purpose as double-clicking an extruded object: it displays the rotation circle. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.
I find it easiest to have all the icons/buttons for extrusion actions installed in my main toolbar to save time.

If you've just played with the Extrude tool a couple of times, it may seem daunting to work with. But it's actually quite easy to master. As with other things in life, there are rules to remember, however. For one, in order to create an object in 3D, FreeHand converts the object into hundreds and thousands of tiny polygons - usually triangles - that create facets (or faucets if you're drawing plumbing fixtures) that give the illusion of three dimensions. Therefore, the higher the degree of rendering you ask FreeHand to do, the more polygons that will be created, and coincidentally, the more RAM and time required to manipulate the object. The key here is to work at low levels of rendering, or "steps" as it's called in the Object panel, until you have completed the sizing, positioning, lighting, and other factors. Then, when you're ready to print or commit to a different format, increase the number of steps in order to smooth out the facets.

Another rule is that the Extrude tool works only on vector objects and text; you cannot extrude a bitmap. Well, you can trace the bitmap and extrude the various objects, but I can't imagine why you would (the multitude of points in a tracing would take up so many computer resources that it would be impossible to get any work done).

More Rules
You can't simply change the color of an extruded object (but you can cheat - see Color Switcheroo). If you have rotated and changed the size of an object, you will be prompted to Reset Extrude, which brings you back to the first step in your extrusion. At that time, you must choose Modify > Extrude > Reset Extrude; double-click Contents in the Object panel to Subselect the object as a group; then double-click Contents once more to actually change fill or stroke color. Then you redo your rotation and size changing with the new colors in place. You must have the Extrude tool active to change any 3D attributes. As an added bonus, any change you make to the artwork (live on the page with the Extrude tool) can be accomplished by entering numbers in fields in the Object panel. That means you can maintain consistency between extruded objects by entering the same numbers for X, Y, and Z-axes and other attributes such as lighting arrangements. You probably know that Adobe Illustrator's extrusion function requires you to open a dialog box to change attributes, then close the window to see the result. If it's not to your liking, you must return to the dialog box. FreeHand is much more user-friendly in that respect. Last, if you have multiple objects that you wish to share a common vanishing point, it's a matter of selecting the objects and choosing Modify > Extrude > Share Vanishing Points.

Oh, best of all, you can extrude live text; just click the extruded text with the Text tool. The text editor will open, and you can make any changes you wish, including changes in color on an individual-letter level.

Using the Extrude Tool
Before applying an extrusion, choose the base color you want for the object. Since FreeHand adds shadow and highlight colors, it's best to select a color with a middle value - not too dark or light.

Click the shape or text with the Extrude tool, dragging in the direction of your vanishing point (you are, in fact, dragging the vanishing point). Seconds later you have a 3D extrusion.

The most common extrusion you'll probably make will be a text object. In Image III, "POW!" was extruded in the with default settings, resulting in a solid mass receding to the horizon. But to show that extrusions don't have to be simple, the path that is shown was applied as a profile to give the text a boxing glove appearance. A full description of profiles appears further in these pages. For the record, when the extrusion was complete, it was cloned and the extrusion released. Then all the components of the extrusion were deleted, leaving only the rotated text which was colored and modified.

I must apologize for throwing so many features at you in one illustration, but the magic of the Extrusion tool is the ability to combine various attributes. By reading through to the end, you'll see that everything will have been covered in good detail. With that in mind, the top of Image IV shows the extrusion profile shape drawn to give my extrusion a jelly jar shape (notice that the shape is nearly closed: the extrusion will create a shell around the object that is extruded). Immediately beneath the path, you can see the circle that was extruded. At the bottom, the extrusion was double-clicked with the Extrude tool to bring up the Rotation Circle. Then the tool was clicked inside the bottom of the Rotation Circle and dragged upward to rotate the extrusion vertically. Please note that the object you choose to extrude will be the core of the extrusion. That is to say that all the extrusion work will be done around the object. Small objects result in skinny extrusions; large objects gain a wider extrusion. You may have to try two or three sized objects to get the appearance you're looking for.

Clicking and dragging the Extrude tool inside the Rotation Circle rotates the object around its X- and Y-axes. Rotation around the Z-axis is achieved by clicking and dragging the cursor outside the Rotation Circle. The triangular point on the circle is a Z-axis reference marker.

When the object is rotated to your satisfaction, double-click the Extrude tool on the desktop to deselect the object. Then click the object once with the Extrude tool. The object center point is indicated by the "X" at one end of the dashed Z-axis line. At the other end is a circle that controls the depth of the extrusion. Click and drag this circle to lengthen or shorten the object. The vanishing point is marked by a cluster of diamonds. A rectangular box will appear when the object is selected with the Extrude tool, showing the actual perspective. Sometimes this box will be partially off the object, but it doesn't affect your editing or the final result.

It's important to remember that, yes, you can skew, rotate, scale, and mirror an extruded object, but once you do so, you can no longer use the extrusion tool for editing the object without using Reset Extrude and starting over.

Using a Profile
Simple extruded circles, squares, and text can be pretty boring. FreeHand MX allows you to create a profile for an extrusion, and the best way to explain the tool really requires figures to do the heavy lifting. Image VI shows a circle, a square, and a compound path that have been extruded and share the same vanishing point. Each example has the same profile, but a different approach: either bevel or static, and a static with a twist applied.

I hate to admit it, but the Extrusion tool does not create a true 3D extrusion on the first click, due to the math involved in the extrusion process. There, I've said it. Look particularly at the bottom of Image V - the length of the extrusion accents the fact that you're looking at the objects all on the same plane, without perspective. A true 3D extrusion would rotate and skew the original object in conjunction with the extrusion's vanishing points. Instead, the object remains at its original orthographic placement and shape, square to the page. Once you rotate the extrusion (explained below), distortion occurs, but the original object is not distorted correctly. The solution to the situation is extremely simple and results in a correctly distorted object: when you first apply the Extrude tool, click as near the center of the object as you can, and do not drag out a vanishing point. The vanishing point can be manipulated later.

In the extrusion shown in Image VII, the path is modified from the path in Image IV, and is more open, which will create a solid extrusion. You can see how the bevel profile wraps around a straight-line extrusion of the object. A static profile, however, acts as a spine to the extrusion. An object with a static profile will maintain a consistent shape from one end to the other, but follow the spine of the profile. The bevel profile in this image is a good example of how the object size changes the appearance of the extrusion - compare to virtually the same profile in Image V.

More than likely, you've noticed that most of the extrusion examples so far have a rough, faceted look to them. They were done with minimal rendering resources - the default of 5 in Lighting and 5 in Profile. It bears repeating and can't be overstated that extruding objects is extremely RAM intensive, so you must be patient and do any profiles, rotations, twists, and other adjustments before bumping up the number of Steps in either the Profile or Lighting windows. The simple act of moving an extruded object to a different location on the page can cause a wait of several minutes - if not an unwelcome "Could not complete your request - not enough memory" message. The boxing glove-type extrusion in Image II has nearly 28,000 objects with 5 steps. Increasing the steps to 10 would require 56,000 objects, and the program comes to a halt.

Edits Made in the Object Panel
If you're like most people, you'll want to change the length of the extrusion, its orientation, vanishing point placement and rotation live on the page. Although it can be done in the Object panel (for consistency with other objects, for instance), it's much more satisfying and less frustrating to work directly with the object. However, there are many options to consider in the Object panel. The screenshot in Image VIII shows the available options. Entering numbers in any of these fields will affect the appearance of the object, and will take the same amount of time to render.

Lighting Options
You have a choice of surface rendering approaches, the number of steps involved in the rendering, and how much ambient light surrounds the object. Beyond that, you can control the position and brightness of two light sources. FreeHand is not a 3D rendering program, but supplies several lighting choices as seen in Image IX, reached by clicking the light source icon in the Object panel that appears when an extruded object is selected.

Surface choices are shown in Image X, and bear a little explanation.

Image XI shows the effects of the different surfaces. The Flat surface option creates an extrusion, but does not give a modeled light. As it's named, the object is flat, but the polygons that make up the extrusion are stroked with a lightened version of the fill color (this happens to be a bug). A stroke on the original object will separate the face of the object from the extrusion. The usual option is the Shaded surface, and here's where the lights come into play. Wireframe creates a skeletal outline following the profile of the extruded object; the paths that make it up are 1-point lines with the color of the object's fill. A Mesh surface shows the same wire outline, with the addition of outlines of all the triangular polygons that make up the object. Both Wireframe and Mesh show all sides of the object, as if it is hollow. Last, there's the Hidden Mesh surface. This surface is different than the others in that you must start with a stroked path, and the end result is that the rendering hides all the construction lines that aren't in view. Good to use when you don't want to see the dark side of the moon. The Wireframe and both Mesh surface treatments are super if you're creating a techie background and need a blueprint effect.

If you choose to have a shaded surface, then you'll find the various light sources by clicking their drop-down menus shown in Image XII. Their locations are simplistic, but they get the job done.

The workhorse of the Extrude tool lies in the application and use of profiles. As seen earlier, a profile can surround an object, or act as a spine. Image XIII shows how to create various objects that seem challenging at first. In all the examples, the object to be extruded is on the left, followed by the profile and the resulting extrusion. The extrusions have been rotated to show off their best sides, and don't share a common vanishing point.

To create a sphere, start with a very small ellipse. Imagine the area of a ball that touches the table - that's how small an area you want, or you'll end up with a flat spot. The profile is a semicircle, oriented as shown, or rotated 180-degrees. If you rotate it 90-degrees as shown in the next example, the original object lies at the bottom of the funnel shape (out of sight), with the extrusion rising up and traveling outward from the center.

A torus or donut is tougher. Create a compound path: draw a circle; clone it; reduce the size of the clone; and center the two circles upon each other. Use Modify > Join to make the compound path (or you can use the Punch Xtra). Draw another circle that you want to be the thickness of the donut, and Ungroup it. Select the top point in the circle and choose Modify > Split. Then rotate the circle 45-degrees counterclockwise, and copy it to the Clipboard. Now select the Extrude tool and click the compound path; in the Object panel, click on the Profile button and select Bevel from the drop-down menu. When the Paste In button is active, click it, and the default straight line in the preview box will be replaced with your broken circle. Wait a minute or two and your donut will appear. If you see a space station or Saturn-looking object, rotate the original profile, copy it, and paste it into the extrude panel.

The bottom two examples in Image XIII use the Twist function. The difference is that in the upper one, a U-shaped path containing only four points is used as the profile. The Twist entry is 720 degrees, creating two complete revolutions. A U-shape is necessary to provide a center point from which the spiral will revolve. So, with the simple profile, a path is created of straight lines rotating and stopping at 90-degree intervals. The next example has been rotated end-on. To create a smooth spiral or spring shape as shown on the bottom, use the Add Points Xtra several times on the long stretch of the profile. I split the end paths off first and joined them later. Now the profile rotates extremely smoothly. To get rid of the end paths as in the far-right examples, you will have to get the object oriented exactly as you want, then use the Release Extrude function to convert the spiral into a group of polygons. Use the Lasso tool to select the end objects and then delete them.

Both the Static profile and the Twist option are unique to FreeHand in 2D drawing programs. In Image XIV, two squares and two circles arranged in a square were grouped, then extruded. A 360-degree twist was applied. If you ever have to draw the staff of Aesculapius (the two intertwined snakes on the winged staff symbol used by doctors), this is the technique.

And, in the "because I can" department, I took that same extrusion with a twist angle of 720-degrees, and applied a circular static profile, resulting in the snarl of rubber bands shown in Image XV.

Color Switcheroo
Okay, you've got the extrusion exactly where you want it, the profile is perfect, even the lighting and profile steps are just right. Then the customer says they want more of an robin's-eggshell blue instead of this off-white-blue color that was approved earlier - now what? Well, if you follow the generalizations of the program, you'll select the extrusion and attempt to change colors using all the various methods you know. All to no avail - you'll be greeted with a message telling you to use Reset Extrude. "That's just perfect! Back to square one," you say, pulling your hair out. Well, if you use this simple method, you'll be flying high in no time. Simply use a named color when you select your fill color. Doing so allows you to create a new color and drag it on top of the named color in the Swatches panel. Just a few minutes later, the extrusion will change color, and you'll still have most of the hair on your head. In case you're not up on named colors, create a color in the Mixer or Tints panels and click the "Add to Swatches" button next to the color well, or drag a swatch from the color well and drop it on the Swatches panel. You'll be prompted to name the color. Choosing a new color and dropping a swatch of it directly onto the color square in the Swatches panel will change the color of every object that has the named color, so be specific when you name the color for your extrusion.

Adobe Illustrator has two features that I'd love to have in FreeHand: plastic rendering and image mapping. Since we don't have either, you must create workarounds. Simple rendering techniques using gradient fills can give you a highly polished surface appearance. For flat-sided image mapping, it's easy enough to apply an Envelope to the art you want mapped and adjust it to fit. Beyond those features, I'll take FreeHand MX's Extrude tool any day, considering the static profile, mesh modeling, and the fact that since the extrusion is a top-level object we make live adjustments for length, rotation, and attitude instead of going back and forth through a dialog box.

Many thanks to Peter Moody, David Spells, and other engineers at Macromedia for the technical support they provide.

More Stories By Ron Rockwell

Illustrator, designer, author, and Team Macromedia member Ron Rockwell lives and works with his wife, Yvonne, in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Ron is MXDJ's FreeHand editor and the author of FreeHand 10 f/x & Design, and he co-authored Studio MX Bible and the Digital Photography Bible. Ron has just introduced a "Casual FreeHand" course available at www.brainstormer.org.
He has Web sites at www.nidus-corp.com and www.brainstormer.org.

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