What Is a Wireframe?

wire sculpture and shadows

There are certain things essential to understanding any discussion on 3D animation: bones, skeletons, texture mapping, keyframes, the list goes on. One of those things is the wireframe - but what is a wireframe, exactly, and what is it used for?

A Wireframe in 3D Modeling

A wireframe is what a 3D model looks like when the maps and even the polygon faces have been removed to leave only the outlines of its component polygons, consisting of vector points connected by lines.

A wireframe can also be called a wire mesh.

To understand what a wireframe looks like, picture a chicken coop or even a chain-link fence. The walls are comprised of wire twisted into connected polygonal shapes with empty space between. Now imagine taking the wire mesh from a chicken coop and wrapping it around a bust of someone's head until the wire bends to the shape of the bust. This would be similar to a wireframe, only instead of real wire it uses vector points.

What Makes Wireframes Useful?

Wireframes can be useful for a variety of reasons. If you're trying to work out a polygon pinching or folding problem caused by a particular vertex point or line, switching to a wireframe view can help you pinpoint the cause. Wireframes also make for fast renders, and if you're looking to do a test render to look at something that doesn't require the polygon surface or texture maps, you can cut a lot of time from your animation and refinement process by rendering wireframe basics.

Wireframes are also effective when you're matching your 3D model to a reference and need to not only move individual vertex points in alignment with the reference image or model, but need to be able to see the reference through the model you're currently working on. For example, if you're building a scale model of the Empire State Building based on a photo you've imported into 3D Studio Max, it's easier to shape your model's outline to the photo if you can see through the model as if working with tracing paper.

If you're trying to reduce polygon count to cut render time and reduce the complexity of your model, viewing your 3D space in wireframe mode can also help you see where you have too many polygons and can simplify the model. Some 3D programs even have the option to only view a particular model or models in wireframe mode while leaving the rest of the scene fully or partially mapped.

Another good use for wireframe models is to conduct quick demonstrations on concepts. You don't want to spend hours, days, or weeks working on a fully detailed, properly mapped mockup for a concept that's up in the air and could very easily be shot down; instead you'd create a very basic concept model and animation to demonstrate to your team, a client, or whomever else may be involved. You might even create multiple mockups, and choose the one that was approved to further refine and detail the model.

Lastly, using wireframes can make animating on a slower, older computer much faster and easier, and can reduce the size of your test render files. If you have a slow CPU and you're running high-end animation software, just looking at a complex scene or pivoting your camera around in the workspace can make your program or even your computer freeze or crash.

Working in wireframe mode reduces the CPU load and gives you a little more freedom to work easily, though eventually you'll have to switch to fully-detailed models and renders if you really want to perfect your animation.