The Most Controversial Topic in Blender – Selection

Getting Started in Blender

As a long time CG Animator, Jason is interested in giving the free and opensource tool Blender a try. This series of posts documents his journey as he learns the tool and becomes part of the Blender community.

full course
  1. Learning Blender.. why?
  2. Blender – Controlling the Interface
  3. Blender’s 3D Viewport
  4. The Most Controversial Topic in Blender – Selection
  5. Blender – Let’s move this thing… there!
  6. Maya – Will it Blend(er)?
  7. Blender Customization – Keep Customizing And Blender On!

selection_blenderThe concept of selection (or picking) in Blender has to be one of the most controversial and most discussed topics in the history of its existence. For those of you who aren’t aware, the current default method for selecting an object in Blender is to use the Right Mouse Button.

This is probably one of the reasons why I (and many others) go through the following “Blender New User Loop” a number of times before sitting down and really giving Blender a try:

  1. Discover Blender and realize it’s … free!!!
  2. Download Blender and install it, gleefully thinking of all the amazing animation I’ll create with this amazing free tool!
  3. Open Blender to see a nice default scene with a cube, camera, and light.
  4. Click with the left mouse button on or near the cube and see a little.. target.. appear.
  5. Frown.. click again.. and the target moves.
  6. CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK on the cube to select it and nothing happens!!
  7. Close Blender.. must have been a bad install. What kind of cute cat videos are out on the internet today?

I’m sure many of you have had this same experience.

I’ve even gone through the trouble of trying to change the defaults to be more Maya-like.  That worked okay.. but it just never stuck.  I kept finding odd inconsistencies.. and it would just get frustrating.  So, like everything else, I finally went back to the defaults and decided to just learn how to use Blender the way they intended and see how that went.

As with my previous tutorials, you can follow along with the video or the written post.  Whichever works best for you, is fine with me!

If the Right Mouse Button selection drives you absolutely nuts, you may find it interesting that in 2013, Andrew Price (otherwise known as Blender Guru) created an extremely well-intentioned, researched, and produced video series about Blender’s Interface. In it, he made a case for changing the selection to a more industry standard Left Mouse Button. He received a lot of backlash, which is a real shame because he had some really fantastic points.  Plus the videos were really well made.  And, Andrew has an Australian accent, which is very pleasing to listen to (even though I’m personally more partial to a Kiwi accent).

A month or so after Andrew began posting his series, Jonathan Williamson (Blender expert and part of the fantastic training site CG Cookie) added a few tasks to the Blender Developer site to clean up Blender’s selection and hotkey paradigm with two tasks: Default Keymap: Review and/or Rework Selection and Default keymap: revamp. Some great discussion has happened around the topic, with lots of heated passionate debates as to what’s exactly the right thing to do. This is probably why almost three years later… they are still debating.

While I love the idea of making Blender’s selection and hotkeys more consistent, I’m not positive when it will get completed. So in the meantime, I’m sticking with the defaults and learning Blender the way it is. Once the defaults change.. then I’ll re-learn it with the new defaults and move on.

Selecting an Object

There are many ways to select objects in Blender, including the Outliner, Select Menu, Hotkeys, Mouse interactions, etc. I’m going to point out the ones I use most often and demonstrate how to learn them. I recommend trying them out and figuring out what works best for you.

Action , What it does
RMB, Select the object under the cursor.
SHIFT RMB, Add to the selection. If the current object is selected it will either make it active -or- if it already is the active object it will deselect it.
a, Toggle selection. This is extremely handy and used all the time – if I have something selected hitting a will deselect everything and hitting it again will select all.
ALT RMB, Display a list of objects under the cursor to select.

There are also 3 different modes you can enter for selection, which allow for quicker selection of multiple objects. These are extremely useful, and I highly recommend getting used to at least one or two of them.

While using these modes, LMB will always add to selection, and holding down SHIFT or just using MMB will remove from selection.

Hotkey Mode Description
b Box Select Hit b to enter Box Select mode. Draw a box with the LMB around the objects you want to select.
CTRL Lasso Select Drag with the LMB while holding down CTRL to draw a lasso around some objects. They will be selected when you release the mouse button.
c Circle Select Almost like painting your selection. Hit c then use the
LMB to paint what you want to select. Use the scroll wheel to grow and shrink your selection. When finished hit ENTER or ESC.

I find most of the time I use RMB to select, SHIFT to add, and a to toggle. When modeling, I’ll use b for box select, and then I’ll remember about CTRL for lasso select.. but I hardly ever remember to use c for circle select. Possibly if I did more modeling than animating, that would change.. but maybe not.

Preparing to Practice

In order to practice selection, it’s super useful to have a massive amount of stuff to practice on. Luckly, we can create this pretty quickly in Blender using some Modifiers. I know we haven’t talked about Modifiers yet, but if you follow along with me it should be a piece of cake. Mmmm… cake.

Our goal is to use the Array modifier twice to create a whole grid of cubes. Then, we will apply the modifiers, and center the object’s pivots. This will essentially turn 1 cube into a whooooooole bunch of cubes that we can play with.

The array modifier is very cool. It basically creates a number of copies of your selected object that you can offset in many ways. Learn more..

Creating Cubes

Step 1 – Select the Cube

Your scene should already have a cube in it. This is the default cube that comes with a new scene in Blender.

If it doesn’t, choose the menu Add->Primitive->Cube to add a cube to your scene. Now, make sure it’s selected.

CubeCreated

Select the default cube in your scene.

Step 2 – Add an Array Modifier
We will use the Array Modifier to create an easily selectable grid of cubes. First, find the Modifiers Area in the Properties Panel on the right-hand side of your Blender window.

ModifierArea

Find the modifier area in the Properties panel.

Now, click on the Add Modifier pulldown. This will bring up a list of potential modifiers. Don’t worry, I know there are a lot of them! I’ll send out some links soon with great examples of how to use these sweet puppies.. in the meantime, just click on the Array modifier to add it.

 

Add an Array Modifier

Add an Array Modifier

Notice all the cool information that was added into the Properties Panel for the Array modifier?  The important thing here is to check out the Count number and ensure that Relative Offset is turned on.

Make sure "Maintain Offset" is checked in the Array Modifier.

Make sure “Relative Offset” is checked in the Array Modifier.

 

Step 3 – Make More Cubes!

Now we can start playing with the number of cubes and how far apart they are from each other.  Go ahead and drag on the Count slider to add more cubes.  Notice that as you drag the box gets bigger?  By default, it may appear that the box is just growing, it’s actually adding a bunch of cubes!  Increase the Relative Offset value to make more space between them.

Increase the "Count" value to add more cubes, and adjust the Relative Offset to give them some space.

Increase the “Count” value to add more cubes, and adjust the Relative Offset to give them some space.

 

Step 4 – Copy the Modifier

This is great, we’ve got one direction going, but our goal is to make a grid.  We can easily achieve this by simply stacking two Array Modifiers on top of each other!  One going in the x direction, and the other in the y direction.

In the Properties Panel, click Copy for the Array Modifier.  This will duplicate the modifier with the same settings.

Copy the Array Modifier.

Copy the Array Modifier.

 

Step 5 – Make it a Grid

By default this doesn’t give us what we want, it looks like nothing is happening.  That’s because we need to change the direction of the offset.

Easy enough to do, just make the Relative Offset 0 in the x channel, and increase the y channel.

Change the Relative Offset so it's in the Y Channel.

Change the Relative Offset so it’s in the Y Channel.

 

Step 6 – Apply The Modification

Now it looks like we have a whole bunch of cubes.. but what if none of these cubes actually exist.  We still have one cube, with a few modifiers stacked on.  We need to apply the modifiers to make these things real.

In the Properties Panel, click on the Apply button in each Array Modifier.  This will bake everything down so now we have actual geometry that looks like a bunch of cubes.

Apply the two Array Modifiers.

Apply the two Array Modifiers.

 

Step 7 – Make Them Individual Cubes

It may look like we have a bunch of cubes, but we actually still have a single object.  We need to separate the cubes into individual objects to work with them.  This is not difficult, but will take a few steps.

First, hit TAB to go into Edit Mode.  We haven’t talked about Modes yet for Blender, but we will soon.  For now, just know that Blender has multiple modes you can edit things in.  We’ve been working in object mode.. meaning we’re working on object’s transformation data (translate, rotate, scale, etc).  When we pop into Edit mode, we’re working on the shape data (faces, verts, etc).  There’s much more nuance to this, and many more modes available.. but for now, you can pretend it’s like Maya’s Component mode.

When you switch to Edit mode, you’ll notice that all the verts are selected.   If they aren’t, hit a a few times until they are. Sweet!  We want to separate all of these boxes, so hit the hotkey p.  This brings up the separate menu.  Choose by loose parts to separate the object into individual bits.

Go to Edit Mode by hitting Tab, and then hit p to break apart the geometry by Selection.

Go to Edit Mode by hitting Tab, and then hit p to break apart the geometry by Selection.

Info: If you were trying to find the separate menu in the header bar under the Mesh pulldown.. you’re not alone!  I searched everywhere for this menu item.. and finally found it under Mesh->Vertices->Separate.   This is one of the challenging things about Blender.  Some of the functionality you need is really hard to find unless you know where to look for it.   Why does this not have a similar entry under Faces?  Why not Edges?  I don’t know.. it probably makes sense to someone to only have a single entry for Separate, and putting it under the vertices menu was the best choice.

At any rate.. it’s one that I’ve had to memorize in order to do it correctly, especially since using p as the hotkey doesn’t feel very intuitive to me.  Perhaps the thinking was.. separating these guys out is kind of like un-parenting them from each other?  So… since p stands for parent.. people will figure it out.

Ugh.  Anyway.. now you know.  If you need to separate a bunch of objects that are all together.. use the p hotkey and choose separate 

 

Step 8 – Center Origins

Now we’ve got everything as separate objects, but we have one more step – we need to center each object’s origin to the center of its 3d geometry.  The reason we need to do this is that some of Blender’s selection tools depend on you selecting based off the origin, not the geometry itself (I’m looking at you circle select mode).

First, hit TAB to go back to object mode.

Then choose Object -> Transform -> Origin to Geometry.

Hit Tab to go back to edit mode, then choose Object->Transform->Origin to 3D Geometry to reset the pivots.

Hit Tab to go back to edit mode, then choose Object->Transform->Origin to 3D Geometry to reset the pivots.

You’ll see that this works when you have all these awesome orange dots in the middle of each cube!

Now we have a field of cubes ready to select!

Now we have a field of cubes ready to select!

 

Practicing Selection

Now that you have a whole group of cubes, it’s time to practice! These are the steps I took to get used to selection with Blender.  It was a bit repetitive.. but holy crap, it worked great!

Start With Simple Selection

Simply select and deselect individual objects with the RMB.  Be intentional.  Look for what you want to select, then PICK IT.  Then, look for another object and PICK THAT!  Then PICK ANOTHER THING!  How fun!

Next, try selecting multiple objects by holding down SHIFT.  Notice how you can add more objects!  What happens if you don’t hold down SHIFT after selecting a bunch of objects?  Play around with selecting a row.. then selecting an individual object.  Then select one, hold down SHIFT and then select it again.

Multiple Selections

Now let’s try box-select.  Navigate to a top view and then select the upper left quadrant of boxes.  Now select the lower left.  What happened?  Did it add to your selection?  Try box-selecting the whole thing.  Then hold down SHIFT and box-select a region.  What happens then?  Can you make interesting boxy patterns?

What if you want to select everything?  Try hitting a at any point and see what happens.  What if you hit it twice.  Try this pattern:  Select the upper left quadrant using box-select, then deselect all, then select the upper right quadrant, then deselect all, then lower left, then nothing, then lower right.  How does that feel?  Do you have control?

Let’s now try lasso select.  Use CTRL and grab a circle in the middle of the grid.  Now deselect and try a few circles.  Notice the similarities and differences between lasso and box.  Are there particular cases where you would use one or the other?

Finally, give circle select a try.  Deselect everything and hit c.  Use the scroll wheel to decrease and increase your circle size.  Try and make a happy face with selection.  Make some other patterns.

Update: After creating this initial post, we got a great link from one of the most creative and talented users of Blender, Daniel Lara who creates some incredibly inspiring work with Blender.  In fact, his Grease Pencil Channel is incredible!  Anyway, Daniel mentioned that he spent 7 years using the Left Mouse Button for selection.. but then changed after seeing this video from Sebastian König.

At this point, you should feel pretty confident with selecting objects!  Keep practicing.. move around your scene.. go crazy!  The more confident you are, the easier it will be once we move on to.. MANIPULATION!!

Jason Schleifer
Jason Schleifer

Jason and his mad scientist eyebrows have been pushing the boundaries of CG animation and sharing his knowledge for nearly 20 years. Widely recognized as an industry leader and mentor to hundreds of animators, Schleifer, formerly of Weta Digital and Head of Character Animation at DreamWorks, now works as Head of Content and is a co-founder of Nimble Collective.

9 Comments

  1. Nice coverage of a topic that as you say can get pretty heated! I am a painter mostly, and so the rmb select is actually fine with me since I want my paint on my lmb – and for me, the paradigm of selection and action separated works this way. I do think that the lmb as selection default is taking more time also because of the inconsistencies you mention – almost breaking the user experience when they come to those places where the selection change blocks them from some other user expectation. I do hope they get the new keymap worked out – and as long as they keep the old legacy for me and others, I have nothing to say about the change 😀

  2. Spiraloid says:

    Interaction gestures are such a jacobs ladder. allowing the user to remap is only a sliver of the problem. especially if you use sequential chord keyboard and mouse gestures (cntrl-alt-spacebar LMB drag to pan etc)

    • Totally – I remember when we were working on Premo at Dreamworks. It was so easy to say “Okay, select is the left mouse button, shift + select is add, ctrl + select is remove and done!”. Then you say “We want this to be consistent across the interface!” So you look at the outliner.. in most text lists, ctrl+click allows you to select individual items AND remove from selection. Well.. that’s slightly inconsistent.. so.. do you change selection in the main app to reflect that?

      It keeps going and going and going.. so even seemingly simple interactions ripple down and start to get difficult when you try and make things consistent across different editor types. Add interaction modes (editing, animating, etc) and .. ugh. Just gets crazy. 🙂

  3. The opening “Blender new user loop” is hilarious … because it’s 99% true for me, EXACTLY what happened (not the cat video part, I never watch cat videos, never … really.)

  4. John says:

    Wait, is there really no selection mode/modifier that will toggle the selection (select -tgl in Maya)? Just being able to select or deselect seems very limiting. I very often use that option to my advantage both in the viewport and graph editor in Maya and XSI. It may sound counter-intuitive, but being able to select one thing, then do a quick toggle select of that area is actually a pretty powerful tool to have.

    • Hi John,

      I agree, I’ve used that before as well in Maya and it’s very helpful. The closest thing I could find was a simple inverse selection (CTRL+i), but that handles everything that’s possible for you to select at that moment.. not as nice as Maya where you can invert selection within a bounding box.

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