Curious Creatures


When Billy and I first joined Fat Pencil back in late May, we began with what has become the studio’s standard initiation process: a number of training modules specific to some of the skills we use in our work here, as well as the now traditional Portland-area-bridge-modeling project. However, Joshua had an additional, special proposal: ahead of its upcoming 3D Basecamp conference, Trimble SketchUp had announced a 3D modeling competition, and Billy and I could each work on a submission to get acclimated to using the program. The theme was Curious Creatures: we were to model “a ‘never before seen’ creature or a unique interpretation of an animal we already know.” Ten finalists would have their models exhibited in AR (augmented reality) throughout the Vancouver Convention Centre for 3D Basecamp attendees to interact with during the conference.

Though Billy and I had each dabbled with an early version of SketchUp over a decade ago, neither of us had used it much recent years. We both decided that the Curious Creature challenge sounded like not only a fun task, but a great way to jump back, headfirst, into modeling with SketchUp. Here’s a closer look at our journeys:

I set out to make a fantasy creature that was a mash of opposites in many ways: something grand, drawing on high fantasy, and yet also silly, common, and slightly goofy in presentation. Ultimately, I blended together elements of the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl and the rock dove (aka common pigeon) to give rise to...the Draco Pigeon. 


some images that inspired the Draco Pigeon

To avoid the pitfalls of modeling organic forms, getting bogged down in fine detail and realistic textures, I favored more graphic elements instead. Knowing that whatever I could make graphically in 2D, I could translate to 3D, I leaned into Pop Art and Cubism as influences for my early design, starting my creative in Adobe Illustrator.


the Draco Pigeon begins its life as an Illustrator image

When it came to the modeling, I tried to operate SketchUp like any other 3D program I knew at the time. I started with box modeling large shapes, getting major forms together. When I hit a roadblock in achieving a certain shape I would look up tools and extensions, or ask my more seasoned teammates questions. 

The most challenging hurdles were working with mesh topology and understanding the SketchUp tool behaviors. I think this was an exercise that really tested all the irregular ways to use the software as a whole.

Through the Extension Warehouse I was able to find supplemental tools one would see within other 3D packages: Artisan tools for organic modeling, SketchPlus for many utility features, and BoolTool & Zorro for merging, intersecting, or slicing objects.

When I think of weird and fantastical creatures, two things instantly come to mind: medieval bestiaries (if you’ve never looked at 14th-century depictions of, say, a manticore, I highly recommend it) and the work of the Early Netherlandish painter Hieronymous Bosch. One of Bosch’s most famous works, The Garden of Earthly Delights (painted 1490-1500), is full of bizarre beasts, and I decided it was time for some of them to get the 3D treatment. I pulled out a handful of favorites, and eventually landed on two particular specimens as my inspiration.


some standout contenders, with the final selections circled in yellow

Probably because I first learned to draft by hand, I still often think of translating objects from 2D to 3D through orthographic projections: top view, front view, side view. Drawing the griffin this way helped me visualize its volume. Also -- maybe due to my time working in stop-motion animation, knowing every puppet has an armature at its core -- I contemplated the griffin's skeleton.


extrapolating some other views of the griffin, and imagining the x-ray imaging

The griffin's head was the most challenging part in terms of conception in 3D -- I spent a while staring at pictures of bird skulls, figuring out how to model it. The little bird's tail was tricky as well, because it was very detailed for its diminutive size. The contest parameters indicated that our creatures needed to fit within a minimum 5’x5’x5’ to maximum 10’x10’x10’ boundary, so the bird was only about 1'2" tall. I discovered SketchUp's limits in terms of more complicated functions at a small scale, and ended up modeling the tail at 10x its final size and then scaling it down.


bird skulls are crazy! < click for a nerdy bonus link!

I played with how to model the griffin's neck and torso using the profiles I’d drawn, with tools like Fredo’s Curviloft extension. I created the limbs by combining Curviloft shapes with spheres I’d stretched and squashed. Taper Maker turned out to be the ideal tool for creating claws and bristles.

Before submitting our creatures, we took them for an AR test drive in the studio.

A couple of months after we'd sent in our models, we got word that mine had been chosen as a finalist, and would be exhibited at the Vancouver Exhibition Center during 3D Basecamp. Although neither of our creatures ultimately won a top prize, it was fun to get to experience one of them in AR at the conference. We also loved seeing the other submissions that had been chosen for display, and the range of ideas thought up by other SketchUp users.


It was really exciting to see other conference attendees interacting with my model (seen here via the Social Wall on the 3DBC app)!


Another bonus of attending 3D Basecamp was getting to meet and chat with SketchUp employees, including Eric Sargeant, the Online Training Content Producer who helped think up the Curious Creatures Competition. I asked him some questions about the idea and implementation of the event, and he generously replied (responses edited for length & clarity):

AF: How did you decide to hold this competition for 3D Basecamp 2022?

ES: I was on the Knowledge Hub planning team and we originally wanted to do a 'virtual sculpture garden'...but then didn't know where or how best to display it. We pivoted to an AR sculpture exhibition instead. During the planning process, we tested several different methods of displaying the community-submitted models, from VR, to an immersive 360° website (think pano exports from Enscape). Ultimately, the goal was to get as many users at the conference to interact with the models as possible and any option that relied on specialized equipment, logins, apps, or waiting in a queue to view on a desktop or iPad had its own cost/benefit trade-offs. We knew that there was some risk that not every mobile device could download or display the AR models, but figured that since everyone has a mobile already, and the Convention Centre had wifi, that system/setup would allow us to reach the most people.

AF: How many submissions did you receive?

ES: We received about 40 submissions in total. Half of those didn't meet the competition guidelines - which meant we have 20 good submissions to narrow down to 10.

AF: What was the decision-making process like for choosing the finalists and winners?

ES: The criteria were: 1. creativity in idea, 2. modeling skill/technique, and 3. immersiveness (ie, how well it encouraged interaction, movement, etc).

AF: What was the process for making the creatures accessible in AR at the conference?

ES: This was the big challenge. I looked into using an app, but then people would have to download that app in addition to the 3DBC app so that was less than ideal. I also looked into using open source Javascript and uploading the models to a website (that would have worked ok but we would then need a server/site to host it). We knew that the 'View in AR' capabilities were about to be released for 3D Warehouse (3DW) models so we wanted to use that functionality to help promote 3DW. Having never done anything like this before, we knew we were taking a bit of a risk. In order to view in AR, the 3DW models need to be converted to both USDZ (Apple) and gLTF (Android). That process was technical and we wanted to make sure that as many people as possible could view with as little friction as possible.

AF: I know the creatures are now available on the 3D Warehouse - if people want to view them in AR at home, can they do so, and if so, how?

ES: The models are still available online and will be for some time. To view them at home, people can navigate to the 3DW link, and then click the 'View in AR' button to open a QR code. When scanned on the viewer's phone or device, the model will launch automatically and prompt them to scan the room so the viewer knows where to 'place' the model in the real world.

AF: Do you have plans for similar competitions in advance of future 3D Basecamps?

ES: No plans yet for the future AR exhibitions. Given the great community involvement and wow-factor of the final models at 3DBC 2022 in Vancouver BC, I suspect we'll want to do it again in 2024.


Alexandra Friedman is a Designer at Fat Pencil Studio