Choosing a 3D Animation Software Package
For the budding 3D animator, choosing the "right" animation program is a bit like choosing a car. Even though there are many choices, every model is going to offer the essential function of getting you to from point A to B. Horsepower, extras and reputation will be the factors that make up the difference between them. Those differences will be reflected in the varying prices, from cheap to mortgage-payment high. Which one is the "right" one? Like a car, the answer will vary with the user.
Autodesk has captured a very large part of the professional-level 3D application market share with three well-known, comprehensive products.
Maya is used in television, films and video games. Using integrated-nodes, animators can create and edit 3d models, and then animate them. Rendering is one of Maya's strong points, with animators able to render their creations with photo realistic results. Maya's visual effects are considered excellent.
3ds Max traditionally serves the gaming niche. Its interface is regarded as more user-friendly and intuitive than Maya's, and the application is able to create multiple figures quickly, a great asset for game developers. Recent updates give 3ds Max painting tools it previously lacked and plugins are widely available as both official and unofficial additions to the base product.
Autodesk purchased Softimage XSI from Avid in 2008 and dropped the XSI from the name. Softimage is increasingly popular among animators in the film, gaming and advertising industries. While it lacks some of the features and plugins of the more established Autodesk products, Softimage's workflow and UI are generally considered to be superior of that of Maya. Softimage also offers developers the use of ICE (Interactive Creative Environment), which gives users the ability to extend the application via a node-based dataflow diagram, essentially creating 3D effects and tools without having to write a script.
Though all three products have a great deal of overlap and can be argued to be three flavors of the same application, each has a very dedicated and vocal following. Where each app might have served a particular market best, the lines between them are rapidly blurring. Choosing which one to buy and/or learn now largely boils down to a matter of user preference, as all three are expensive (Softimage is the least so, at about $2500.00), have steep learning curves and have high computing requirements.
Pro: Industry-standards, complete packages, wide support. Maya and Softimage both have free trial products that give users a chance to try before you buy.
Con: Very expensive, high system requirements, non-beginner friendly learning curves.
Newtek Lightwave 3D
Lightwave's origin was as the 3D component of the Amiga-based Video Toaster. Since then, Lightwave has moved on to be a popular all-in-one CGI solution. Though it has been used in both film (Matrix Reloaded) and television (Babylon 5), it has lost market share to Autodesk's suite of products. Today, it is commonly used by smaller companies for "small" CGI jobs, such as title sequences.
Like most of the other 3D applications mentioned in this article, the learning curve is steep for newbies, but the strong user base means that there is plenty of support for anyone wanting to dive in. Recent improvements in speed and ease-of-use have brought character animation in Lightwave up to par with Maya or Softimage. Rendering remains Lightwave's highlight, though even the most recent update lacks render passes, limiting the ability to tweak during post-production.
Lightwave has a ways to go to recover a share of the saturated 3D animation market, but remains a viable, well-supported, powerful tool for those looking for a complete, professional package.
Pro: Less expensive than Autodesk products, complete package, strong support.
Con: Still expensive (about $2000.00), lacks some industry-standard/expected abilities, not as popular as Autodesk products.
SmithMicro Poser (Debut, Poser 8, Poser Pro 2010)
SmithMicro Software's Poser comes in three flavors: Debut, Poser 8 and Poser Pro. Debut is essentially a stripped down version of Poser 8, and is intended as way for the raw beginner to quickly realize their creations, though it may be too simplistic for anyone who plans to move on beyond experimentation. Poser Debut includes a library of pre-generated content, so that the animator does not have to create everything from scratch, including male and female models as well as a variety of animals. Poser 8 is the full application, containing more tools and content. Material, Face, and Hair "rooms" give the animator the ability to create or edit different textures to be used on the character model. Poser Pro is aimed towards the budget-minded professional market, with more features such as 64-bit rendering on both Windows and Mac. Render Queue is SmithMicro's tool for running a render farm across several networked machines in the background.
Poser has a huge following that ensures a wealth of support; tutorials, scripts, and content are bountiful and easy to find. While priced for the home market, Poser is not necessarily easy to learn and is not generally regarded as competitive to more complete 3d animation applications. Poser models have a sameness that marks them as Poser creations and can be slightly stiff and plastic-looking though recent improvements have reduced that certain "Poser look".
However, with a lower price point and modest system requirements, the Poser products can be a good entry point for those seeking an introduction to 3d modeling, animation and rendering, or for those looking for a simple package to create 3d illustrations.
Pro: affordable, somewhat user –friendly, lots of pre-generated content, lots of support.
Con: Somewhat simplistic, not industry-standard.
Blender is an open-source, 3D content creation suite ported to all major platforms. Offering a complete range of tools for animation, modeling and design, Blender has for free what other packages charge hundreds or thousands of dollars for, including fluid simulation, cloth and soft body physics, hair, lighting effects, and motion blur.
The downside is that the learning curve for Blender is extremely high, with even pros remarking upon the difficulty in mastering everything Blender has to offer, which may make it daunting to newcomers. Still, the price is right and there are plenty of books and free tutorials to help the novice.
Pro: Free, complete package, open-source, big user base.
Con: Complex, not particularly user-friendly, high learning curve.
As can be seen from this short list, most 3D animation packages will offer the same thing: modelling, animation, effects and rendering. Some do one task better than others, and most do the same thing a bit differently. The higher-end, professional packages will have bells and whistles that consumer-level products will not. And every app will have advocates and detractors, passionately arguing about which is best and worst at the job.
If you're testing the waters, try Blender or the consumer-priced Poser products; if you think you're dead serious about a career and want to hone your skills on industry-standards, the Autodesk products or Lightwave may be the best choice for you. Regardless of your choice, enjoy the journey – every package mentioned here (and several more that weren't) will give the 3D animator all the tools he or she needs to embark on the long journey from beginner to pro.