How 3-D Graphics Work

How to Make It Look Like the Real Thing

This illustration shows the wireframe of a hand made from relatively few polygons -- 862 total.

No matter how large or rich the virtual 3-D world, a computer can depict that world only by putting pixels on the 2-D screen. This section will focus on just how what you see on the screen is made to look realistic, and especially on how scenes are made to look as close as possible to what you see in the real world. First we'll look at how a single stationary object is made to look realistic. Then we'll answer the same question for an entire scene. Finally, we'll consider what a computer has to do to show full-motion scenes of realistic images moving at realistic speeds.

A number of image parts go into making an object seem real. Among the most important of these are shapes, surface textures, lighting, perspective, depth of field and anti-aliasing.



The outline of the wireframe can be made to look more natural and rounded, but many more polygons -- 3,444 -- are required.

When we look out our windows, we see scenes made up of all sorts of shapes, with straight lines and curves in many sizes and combinations. Similarly, when we look at a 3-D graphical image on our computer monitor, we see images made up of a variety of shapes, although most of them are made up of straight lines. We see squares, rectangles, parallelograms, circles and rhomboids, but most of all we see triangles. However, in order to build images that look as though they have the smooth curves often found in nature, some of the shapes must be very small, and a complex image -- say, a human body -- might require thousands of these shapes to be put together into a structure called a wireframe. At this stage the structure might be recognizable as the symbol of whatever it will eventually picture, but the next major step is important: The wireframe has to be given a surface.

Surface Textures

Adding a surface to the wireframe begins to change the image from something obviously mathematical to a picture we might recognize as a hand.

When we meet a surface in the real world, we can get information about it in two key ways. We can look at it, sometimes from several angles, and we can touch it to see whether it's hard or soft. In a 3-D graphic image, however, we can only look at the surface to get all the information possible. All that information breaks down into three areas:


  • Color: What color is it? Is it the same color all over?
  • Texture: Does it appear to be smooth, or does it have lines, bumps, craters or some other irregularity on the surface?
  • Reflectance: How much light does it reflect? Are reflections of other items in the surface sharp or fuzzy?

One way to make an image look "real" is to have a wide variety of these three features across the different parts of the image. Look around you now: Your computer keyboard has a different color/texture/reflectance than your desktop, which has a different color/texture/reflectance than your arm. For realistic color, it’s important for the computer to be able to choose from millions of different colors for the pixels making up an image. Variety in texture comes both from mathematical models for surfaces ranging from frog skin to Jell-o gelatin to stored “texture maps” that are applied to surfaces. We also associate qualities that we can't see -- soft, hard, warm, cold -- with particular combinations of color, texture and reflectance. If one of them is wrong, the illusion of reality is shattered.

We'll take a look at lighting and perspective in the next section.­