This article appears in Issue 103 of InDesign Magazine
Among the highlights of the Adobe MAX conference was a brand new addition to the set of Creative Cloud applications, Adobe Dimension CC. This new program allows Creative Cloud subscribers to immediately start building amazing 3D graphics, without having to learn a whole new complex set of tools.
If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Adobe used to sell a program called Adobe Dimensions (with an s), which also touted itself as a user-friendly 3D graphics application. But Dimension CC is an all-new, built-from-the-ground-up application that was known as Project Felix when it was released in a public beta in late 2016. Like its ancestor, Dimension CC is designed to be easy to learn for folks who are already well versed in applications like InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator. The user interface is stripped down, with just a few menus and panels surrounding the main work area, called the canvas. And services like Adobe Stock and CC libraries are seamlessly integrated.
If you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at 3D graphics, but were intimidated by the complexity of the tools, you should definitely give Dimension CC a shot.
No glasses required!
One thing you should understand before you start working with Dimension CC is the meaning of the term “3D graphics.” These are not in any way related to what you see in 3D movies or still images, where you have to wear special glasses to get the effect. When working with Dimension CC, you’re manipulating 3D models of objects that can be viewed from any angle or distance on the canvas. You enhance the realism of the graphics you create by applying materials, images, and lighting to the object(s). When it’s time to render your final image, you can create either a layered Photoshop file or a flattened PNG that you can continue to tweak in Photoshop, place into InDesign, publish to the web, and so on.
The basic workflow in Dimension CC is as follows:
Place a 3D model on the canvas. You can choose from several models built into Dimension CC, download a model from Adobe Stock or a CC Library, or place one (saved on the OBJ format) from another source, like Turbosquid.com.
Apply materials to the object. 3D models are just vector objects whose surfaces are composed of tiny polygons (technically triangles). They have no appearance until colors, graphics, and materials are applied to the surfaces. Dimension CC has many different materials built in, including glass, metal (several kinds), plastic, wood, concrete, cardboard, granite, wicker, and even beer! You can customize any material by changing the values of properties like base color, glow, opacity, metallic luster, translucence, and density. And you can download many more materials from Adobe Stock or third-party sources (in MDL format).
Add a background image. It’s not necessary to put a background photo behind your 3D objects, but it is the best way to integrate them into a real-world scene. And with one click, Dimension CC can analyze the perspective and lighting in a background image and apply these factors to the scene.
Transform the model to fit the image. To make a convincing composite image, you’ll often need to scale, rotate, and move models into place.
Adjust the view. To change your view of the 3D models you place on the canvas, you can use camera tools to zoom in or out, pan in any direction, or rotate the scene. There is also a Horizon tool for adjusting the perspective.
Add or adjust lighting. Dimension CC offers two kinds of lighting that you can apply and customize: environment lighting, which is created by placing an image around the object, and using the colors and details of the image to simulate light reflecting off the surroundings and onto the object. The second kind of lighting is sunlight. You can control the angle, intensity, and height of the sun, as well as the amount of cloudiness to simulate any time of day or type of weather.
Render the image. The final step is to output your composition to either a PNG or a layered Photoshop file. There are three quality levels to choose from. Note that high quality images can sometimes take a very long time to render.
Sample Project: Launching the CreativePro Cafe
The best way to learn a program like Dimension CC is to just jump right in and start making something. Let’s say I had an idea to start a new chain of coffee shops for creatives. Yes, I know Starbucks already exists, but my coffee shops will be cooler because they’ll be called CreativePro Cafes! Plus they’ll offer drinks with names like “Liquid Layout,” and the tip jar on the counter will be full of InDesign tips printed on little cards.
But with all the caffeinated competition, I know it’s going to be a tough sell to get the backing needed to launch a new chain of coffee shops. So I have to put together a compelling story, in the form of a brochure. Naturally, I can make a brochure in InDesign, either starting from scratch, or by using one of the templates at InDesignSecrets. And for the main image, I want to see a steaming cup of coffee sitting on the counter in an imaginary CreativePro Cafe. For the background, I can search Adobe Stock, using the term “coffee shop counter.”
When I find one I like, I can save the low-res preview to one of my CC libraries, or if I know I’ve found the perfect image, I can license it right away (Figure 1).
Now the work begins in Dimension CC. After launching the program, click the button to Create a New Project. Note that Dimension can run only when there’s an open project. So you won’t find a Close command in the File menu (Figure 2). The only way to close the file you’re currently working on is to create a new file, open an existing file, or quit the program.
The User Interface
Every project starts with a blank canvas. But before we bring in a model and our coffee shop background image, let’s take a quick tour of Dimension CC.
Design and Render tabs
The user interface is divided into two main tabs, which you can access at the top left: Design and Render. For building your composition, you work in the Design tab. You need to switch to Render only when you want to export the final image.
On the far left is the toolbar, which is divided into three sections by some subtle gray lines (Figure 3).
Figure 3: The Dimension CC toolbar. Notice how the tools are divided into three sets, according to their functions.
The top three tools are for selecting and transforming 3D objects—they are Select and Move, Select and Scale, and Select and Rotate. Unlike many Adobe applications, there are no dedicated selection tools in Dimension CC, so in order to select an object, you can click on it with one of these three tools.
The middle two tools in the toolbar (Magic Wand and Sampler) are for selecting parts of objects and sampling or applying materials. And the bottom four tools (Orbit, Hand, Dolly, and Horizon) are for adjusting the view. There’s also a small set of tool options above the canvas area (Figure 4). With these, you can access various selection modes, change the alignment of transformation tools, and so on.
Just to the right of the toolbar are the Content panels (Figure 5).
At the top is the Assets panel. This is where you can choose 3D objects, materials, lights, and background images and add them to the canvas. Below the Assets panel is a Creative Cloud Libraries panel, where you can access assets in existing CC libraries, create a new library, or search Adobe Stock. Note that unlike other Adobe apps, panels stay put in Dimension CC. You cannot undock them or rearrange them like you can in InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator.
Scene, Actions, and Properties panels
On the right side of the window are the three panels you use to make adjustments to the scene and everything you place into it: the Scene panel, the Actions panel, and the Properties panel (Figure 6).
The Scene panel at the top is somewhat akin to a Layers panel in other applications, in that you can use it to target specific items for tweaking. You can also rename items in the panel, and click on the small triangle on the right to reveal subitems. However, this is not a Layers panel in the traditional sense. There are no layers in Dimension CC, and changing the order of items in the Scene panel will not affect their appearance on the canvas. The only way to make an item appear in front of or behind another one is to move it with the Select and Move tool.
At the top of the Scene panel is Environment. Click this when you want to make changes to the entire scene, by changing the canvas size (1024 × 768 by default), customizing lighting properties, shadows, reflections, and so on. Click an item to adjust that item’s properties.
The Render Preview panel
Combining 3D objects composed of thousands of tiny polygons with materials and lighting into a finished image takes a lot of computation—way too much number crunching to have the canvas always display an accurate view of what you’re creating. And rendering a finished image can take quite a long time, especially if you use the highest quality setting. Depending on your hardware and the size and complexity of your image, you might start the render process, go out to lunch, and when you get back Dimension will still be chugging along.
That’s why Adobe added a Render Preview panel to give you a quick impression of what the final image might look like. You can open this panel by clicking the Show/Hide Render Preview button at the top right of the canvas (Figure 7) or using the keyboard shortcut \ (backslash).
The preview will initially start out very grainy, and gradually become clearer as the program makes several passes over the image, refining it each time. You can also increase the size of the preview by clicking the fullscreen preview button, though this will naturally take longer to display than the small default preview.
When you don’t need to see an accurate preview of the rendered image, keep the panel closed to reduce the processing burden on your computer.
You’ll Be Blown Away
As you use Dimension CC, there will be times when your computer’s fan cranks up to speeds you didn’t even know it could reach—like, jet-engine-ready-for-takeoff speeds. The volume of fan noise may get distracting to the point where you may worry that your CPU is melting. Rest assured: this is expected. It’s just the result of a program telling your CPU to do a massive number of complex calculations as fast as it can. In Design mode, the noise usually peaks if you quickly make several transformations to an object in successive order. When you give Dimension a little while to rest, the noise dies down. But in Render mode, the fan may blow at top speed through the whole process. Batten down the hatches (or just don a pair of headphones).
Placing the Model
For our CreativePro Cafe brochure, we want an image of a coffee cup sitting on the counter. So, to find a cup, go to the Assets panel, and click the Models button. Then either browse the models built into Dimension CC, or use the search function. Typing cup filters the available models to show just the coffee cup (Figure 8).
Click it to add it to the center of the scene, or drag it from the Assets panel and release it on the canvas where you want it to go (Figure 9).
The coffee cup object is now listed in the Scene panel. You can double-click it there to rename it. There are also controls to show/hide and lock/unlock the object, similar to what you’re used to seeing in InDesign’s Layers panel (Figure 10). You can also target the parts of the model, the cup and lid, for various purposes, as we’ll see shortly.
Now it’s time to customize the appearance of the coffee cup. We just want to change the look of the cup, not the lid. To select just the cup, first click on the canvas, so the cup is totally deselected. Then go to the Scene panel, and click the small triangle to the right of the Cup item to reveal the Cup Material (Figure 11). Click it.
Now you can use the Properties panel to alter the appearance of the surface of the cup. The default Base Color is a light gray, but if you click the color square, a dialog box opens where you can select a different solid color using one of several supported color models, including RGB, CMYK, Hex, and HSL (Figure 12). Notably, Dimension CC currently does not support spot colors. In this case, I’d like to use the logo I came up with for the CreativePro Café.
For the most flexibility in sizing and positioning the logo on the cup, I would go to the Actions panel and click the button for Place Graphic as Decal (Figure 13).
So I can click the folder icon and navigate to the logo file to place it on the cup. The logo is fitted to the cup shape, and controls appear on it that I can use to rotate or scale the logo. You can also simply drag on the logo to reposition it on the cup surface. For more precise adjustments, you can tweak the values in the Properties panel (Figure 14).
Adding the Background Image
Next, let’s add the background image of the coffee shop counter we found on Adobe Stock. In the Creative Cloud Libraries panel, I’ll choose the library where I saved the countertop image. Scroll down to the Graphics category to locate the image, and then click it to add it to the scene. By default, a dialog box called Match Image appears, asking if you want Dimension to automatically apply lighting and perspective from the background image to the model (Figure 15). In most cases, you can get very good results by leaving the default settings as they are and clicking OK.
When Match Image is done with its work, you can see that the grid of the ground plane more closely matches the lines of perspective in the photo. And the cup appears backlit, due to the presence of lights behind the cup (Figure 16).
Adjusting the View
At this point, our cup looks like it might really be in the coffee shop, but it looks like it’s hovering in midair. That’s because the ground plane doesn’t quite match up with the countertop in the image. To fix this, we need to use the Horizon tool. Drag on the ground plane until the grid lines match up nicely with the wood grain of the counter (Figure 17). This is simply a trial-and-error process, but eventually, you will zero in on just the right spot.
To make more precise adjustments, you can select one of the tool options above the canvas area to restrict the movement of the camera, so it just turns the ground plane, or moves it up and down. You can also drag directly on the horizon line to raise or lower it, and you can tilt the horizon by dragging one of the circles (Figure 18). In this case, I would raise the right side of the horizon to match the slight tilt of the countertop.
Fitting the Model to the Image
To bring the cup closer, take the Select and Move tool, and drag anywhere on the cup (not on the colored widgets) to slide it along the surface of the ground plane (Figure 19).
While I’m sure that the CreativePro Cafes will offer large cups of coffee on our menus, right now the size of the cup is ridiculously huge. So to reduce its size, take the Select and Scale tool, and drag anywhere on the cup (Figure 20). Remember that if you want to turn the cup on the counter, you could do so by dragging with the Select and Rotate tool.
Adjusting the Lighting
The lighting that was created from the background image needs some work. I could replace it by choosing a light from the Assets panel (Figure 21). But in this case, I’d rather just tweak what I have now.
The backlit effect (complete with shadows on the ground plane) is technically correct, since the only lights that are apparent are behind the coffee cup. But it’s just too dim overall. To fix this, we can go to the Scene panel and target the Environment. Then go to the Properties panel, and make some changes to the lighting. In this case, I would start by changing the Rotation value of sunlight to simulate light coming through a window in front of the coffee cup. At an angle of 0°, the sunlight is coming straight at the cup. I might move it a bit to, say, –40°, to keep a shadow visible on the counter, and then increase the Intensity value until the overall brightness of the cup matches that of the countertop (Figure 22).
Next, we notice that the shadow on the counter is a bit dark, but we can easily make it lighter by reducing the Shadow Opacity value in the Ground Plane settings (Figure 23).
Remember, as you’re adjusting lighting in Dimension CC, that the display in the canvas area is not 100% accurate. The Render Preview will give you a much better idea of what the final image will look like. So always keep the Render Preview open and visible while you’re working with lights. Otherwise, you might be surprised and disappointed that the rendered image you waited so long for looks very different from the way you thought it would.
Rendering the Image
The final step is to render the image to a format that we can place into our brochure in InDesign. In the Render tab, choose the desired Quality and Export Format. Then, click on the Export Path to name your file and choose where it will be saved. Then click Render.
During the render process, if you think the render preview looks good enough to use as your final image, you can click the camera button to save a snapshot of the image in its current state. There’s also a button to cancel the process, and a progress bar showing elapsed render time and completion percentage (Figure 24).
When the render is finished, you can click the link in the Render panel to open the file in Photoshop and add some extra details. For example, to bring our coffee cup to life, let’s add some steam coming out of the top. There are plenty of nice images of steam in both raster and vector formats in Adobe Stock. The one that I liked best was vector, so I opened it in Illustrator, copied the paths I wanted, and pasted into Photoshop as a Smart Object (Figure 25). That way, I could scale it in any way I wanted without losing detail.
The final step is to place the image in the InDesign file for the brochure (Figure 26). Mmm, I can almost smell the coffee!