Normal Map Modeling

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3D models in a game must be edited carefully if you want them to be lit properly with Normal maps.

Baking a normal map from a high-resolution model will often look better than one sampled from a texture. The normal map pixels will be recreating the surface angles of the high-poly mesh, resulting in a very believable look.

Low-Poly Mesh

3D models used in a game have to be optimized to fit within memory and performance limits. You cannot simply use as much detail as you want. The number of vertices you can use per model depends on many factors, see Polygon Count.

Contiguous Meshes

Use contiguous low-poly meshes to avoid overlap baking errors, to minimize aliased edges in-game, and to optimize the UV layout. Explained by Joe "EarthQuake" Wilson in the thread Question about continuous meshes for low poly bakes.


Normal maps can be mirrored across a model to create symmetrical details, and save UV space, which allows more detail in the normal map since the texture pixels are smaller on the model.

With object-space maps, mirroring requires specific shader support. For tangent-space maps, mirroring typically creates a shading seam, but this can be reduced or hidden altogether, depending on the method used.

Typical Mirroring Workflow

  1. Delete the mesh half that will be mirrored.
  2. Arrange the UVs for the remaining model, filling the UV square.
  3. Mirror the model to create a "whole" mesh, welding the mesh vertices along the seam.
  4. Move the mirrored UVs exactly 1 unit (or any whole number) out of the 0-1 UV square.
  5. Bake the normal map.

Sometimes an artist will decide to delete half of a symmetrical model before baking. This is a mistake however because often the vertex normals along the hole will bend towards the hole a bit; there are no faces on the other side to average the normals with. This will create a strong lighting seam in the normal map. It's typically best to use the complete mirrored model to bake the normal map, not just the unique half.

To prevent the mirrored UVs from causing overlaps or baking errors, move the mirrored UVs out of the 0-1 UV space, so only one copy of the non-mirrored UVs is left within the 0-1 square.

To avoid texel "leaks" between the UV shells, make sure there's enough Edge padding around each shell, including along the edges of the normal map. None of the UV shells should be touching the edge of the 0-1 UV square, unless they're meant to tile with the other side of the map.


Make sure the triangulation is mirrored too. If not, this will cause shading errors because only one side will match the original bake.

Center Mirroring

If the mirror seam runs along the surface of a continuous mesh, like down the center of a human face for example, then it will probably create a lighting seam.

In Epic Games' Unreal Engine 3 (UE3) their symmetrical models commonly used centered mirroring. Epic used materials that mix a DetailMap with the normal maps; these seemed to scatter the diffuse/specular lighting and help minimize the obviousness of the mirror seams. For their Light Mapped models they used a technique that almost completely hid the mirror seam.

Offset Mirroring

Offset mirroring is a method where you move the mirror seam off to one side of the model, so the seam doesn't run exactly down the center. For example with a character's head, the UV seam can go down along the side of the head in front of the ear. The UV shell for the nearest ear can then be mirrored to use the area on the other side of the head.

This avoids the "Rorschach" effect and allows non-symmetrical details, but it still saves texture space because the two sides of the head can be mirrored (they're never seen at the same time anyhow).

Offset mirroring doesn't get rid of the seam, but it does move it off to a place where it can either be less obvious, or where it can be hidden in a natural seam on the model.

Flat Color Mirroring

Tutorial for painting out seams on mirrored tangent-space normal maps by warby solves seams by painting a flat set of normals along the seam, using neutral blue (128,128,255). However it only works along horizontal or vertical UV seams, not across any angled UVs. It also removes any details along the mirror seam, creating blank areas.

Element Mirroring

The mirror seam can be avoided completely when it doesn't run directly through any mesh. For example if there's a detached mesh element that runs down the center of the model, this can be uniquely mapped, while the meshes on either side can be mirrors of each other. Whenever the mirrored parts don't share any vertex normals with the non-mirrored parts, there won't be any seams.

Smoothing Groups & Hard Edges

Each vertex in a mesh has at least one vertex normal. Vertex normals are used to control the direction a triangle will be lit from; if the normal is facing the light the triangle will be fully lit, if facing away from the light the triangle won't be lit.

Each vertex however can have more than one vertex normal. When two triangles have different vertex normals along their shared edge, this creates a shading seam, called a hard edge in most modeling tools. 3ds Max uses Smoothing Groups to create hard/soft edges, Maya uses Harden Edge and Soften Edge. These tools create hard and soft edges by splitting and combining the vertex normals.

When a mesh uses all soft normals (a single smoothing group) the lighting has to be interpolated across the extreme differences between the vertex normals. If your renderer doesn't support the same tangent basis that the baker uses, this can produce extreme shading differences across the model, which creates shading artifacts. It is generally best to reduce these extremes when you can because a mismatched renderer can only do so much to counteract it.

Hard edges are usually best where the model already has a natural seam. For example, you can add a hard edge along the rim of a car's wheel well, to prevent the inside of the wheel well from distorting the shading for the outside of the car body. Mechanical models usually need hard edges where ever the surface bends more than about 45 degrees.

For most meshes, the best results usually come from adding hard edges where ever there are UV seams. There are no hard rules however, you must experiment with different approaches to find what works best in your game.

When you use object-space normal maps the vertex normal problem goes away since you're no longer relying on the crude vertex normals of the mesh. An object-space normal map completely ignores vertex normals. Object-space mapping allows you to use all soft edges and no bevels on the low-res mesh, without showing lighting errors.

Hard Edge Discussions & Tutorials

Using Bevels

Bevels/chamfers generally improve the silhouette of the model, and can also help reflect specular highlights better.

However bevels tend to produce long thin triangles, which slow down the in-game rendering of your model. Real-time renderers have trouble rendering long thin triangles because they create a lot of sub-pixel areas to render.

Bevels also balloon the vertex count, which can increase the transform cost and memory usage. Hard edges increase the vertex count too, but not when the edge also shares a seam in UV space. For a good explanation of the vertex count issue, see Beautiful, Yet Friendly.

Using hard edges with matching UV shells tends to give better performance and better cosmetic results than using bevels. However there are differing opinions on this, see the Polycount thread "Maya transfer maps help".

Edited Vertex Normals

If you use bevels the shading will be improved by editing the VertexNormals so the larger flat surfaces have perpendicular normals. The vertex normals are then forced to blend across the smaller bevel faces, instead of across the larger faces. See the Polycount thread Superspecular soft edges tutorial chapter 1.

Level of Detail Models

A Level of Detail model (LOD) is a lower-resolution version of a game model. Using a normal map with LODs may introduce seams.

Modeling The High-Poly Mesh

Subdivision Surface Modeling and DigitalSculpting are the techniques most often used for modeling a normal map.

Some artists prefer to model the in-game mesh first, other artists prefer to model the high-res mesh first, and others start somewhere in the middle. The modeling order is ultimately a personal choice though, all three methods can produce excellent results:

  • Build the in-game model, then up-res it and sculpt it.
  • Build and sculpt a high resolution model, then build a new in-game model around that.
  • Build a basemesh model, up-res and sculpt it, then step down a few levels of detail and use that as a base for building a better in-game mesh.

If the in-game mesh is started from one of the subdivision levels of the basemesh sculpt, various edge loops can be collapsed or new edges can be cut to add/remove detail as necessary.

Round Shapes

The closer in shape the low-poly mesh is to the high-poly mesh, the better the normal map will be. See the Polycount Forum thread Understanding averaged normals and ray projection/Who put waviness in my normal map?.

Edge Thickness

Floating Geometry

See also Modeling High/Low Poly Models for Next Gen Games by João "Masakari" Costa

Sloped Extrusions

mental ray Round Corners Bump

The mental ray renderer offers an automatic bevel rendering effect called Round Corners Bump that can be baked into a normal map. This is available in 3ds Max, Maya, and XSI. See Zero Effort Beveling for normal maps - by Robert "r_fletch_r" Fletcher.

Jeff Patton posted about how to expose Round Corners Bump in 3ds Max so you can use it in other materials.

Michael "cryrid" Taylor posted a tutorial about how to use Round Corners in XSI.

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