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Best 3D animation program?
April 13, 2010 5:47 AM   Subscribe

What is the best program that I should learn for 3D animation?

I’m looking for guidance/recommendations as to how to best learn 3D animation and recommendations for which program I should use.

Background material if relevant:

I am currently a freelance medical writer and write medical journal articles and continuing medical education material for physicians; this work I find interesting and will also continue to do (and if I go back to work full time, I will continue to write medical journal articles in the area of oncology).

I would like to offer an additional skill for my freelance business. Moreover I would love to create not just written documents to teach physicians or researchers, but interactive material and interesting animations (eye popping) that demonstrate how the drugs work on a cellular/molecular level to complement the text. Finally, I may need to work in a workplace full-time again (business has slowed down the last few months – if this continues, in the next 6 months may need to return to a job) and if that happens I would like to work for a med ed/pharma company that also creates interactive material and animations – so it would be nice to walk into a potential work place and say “I have educational training in biology, wrote these papers, and here are demo materials that I produced in animation program _____” I never plan to find work in a movie studio/game studio/or places that people typically take their animation skills, either a freelance or full-time job.

/End of background

I have a bit of down time and plan to take some of my business money and purchase a better computer and a few programs (along with a subscription to something like or Money will be tight – I have enough for the next few months and a project that will be me afloat for the next few months – but I do have some $ to invest in the computer and 3d animation program. I will spend whatever time it takes to drag myself through tutorials and then try to create samples/whatever (and at minimum will pay for a subscription to learn material).

I am considering Maya because there were lots of tutorial videos for this on digital. Also when I searched cell animation plus 3d animation I only found one book in amazon, and this book described maya and mel. I also found out blender is free. I am an idiot and have no idea as to the difference between these programs, and maybe another 3d animation program would be a better choice.

Which is the best program? Why? What program is used more in the industry (cell animations/medical animations?) If a small company hires a freelancer, do they care which program they use? If a workplace decided to hire someone because of 3d animation skills (or potential), which program should person know?

Any other great resources that you used to teach yourself a 3d animation program would be helpful, too.
posted by Wolfster to Computers & Internet (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to check out Cinema 4D. It's popular with motion designers and freelancers because it is easy to use and exports well to After Effects. It's popularity seems to be growing as well. It's not exactly the industry standard, but it's easy to use and learn. MeMail me if you want a list of tutorial sites that can help you learn how to use it or see what it can do.
posted by milarepa at 6:33 AM on April 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Most top-flight programs have similar capabilities. This company uses 3ds max, whereas this guy uses Maya. Maybe there's a better set of specialty plug-ins for one app or the other, but you could start with any of the standard 3D apps to get going. You can't go wrong with either of the two I mentioned.

And most top programs offer a free "learning edition", some for all comers, others, only for those with educational affiliation. Maya's is, I believe, universally available.
posted by Gyan at 6:35 AM on April 13, 2010

It's been my impression that Maya is basically the industry standard for animation and film, whereas 3D Studio Max has generally been used by the gaming industry. I don't know if that's actually the case or not, but the one professional 3D/interactive studio I've ever visited pretty much used Maya exclusively. Regardless, either would probably be useful. Though they are certainly different, the fundamentals that you would need to know to use one would definitely help in picking up the other if you needed to switch.

I'm not sure if you've looked into pricing or anything yet, but be forewarned that professional level 3D software is extremely expensive -- Maya, with a standard commercial license, will run you about $3,500 - $4,000 (US). So called "learning editions" are great for figuring out if a piece of software is for you, but they generally won't let you render images without a watermark, or won't let you save, or something like that.

Blender is free, yes, but I feel like it's not even remotely on the same level as Maya and 3DSMax. Its user interface, like a lot of open source software, is pretty terrible. If you can get past that really steep learning curve, it might be useful.

Good luck!
posted by malthas at 7:05 AM on April 13, 2010

2nding Cinema 4D. Great middle tier modeling, animation and rendering package, and the After Effects integration is deep and powerful.
posted by Scoo at 7:20 AM on April 13, 2010

3D modeling is hard. Animation is hard. Both have a really tough learning curve to become a fluid user who can create useful product in a useful amount of time.

Often, once you've reached proficiency, you'll find it efficacious to simply buy the model to save time and money. $50 for a partially rigged heart or head or face is a huge win. Creating a well thought out demo will usually take a lot longer than writing a description, by a factor of well over ten to one. In example, I can describe the workings of a heart, focusing on a valve, and the three floppy bits that make the valve work. But to create something that looks good, divides/dissolves to show what I want, lighting, and animating it takes a huge investment in time and effort. And that's one demo. If you want to show vascularization on the heart itself you're probably starting over with a different model, darn it all, and rigging it to suit, then doing the cutaways, lighting, animation, rendering...

I'm a big fan of creating 3D from scratch, don't get me wrong. (3DS, Maya, POVray) But perhaps your time investment could be better leveraged by learning 2D compositing, or hooking up with an animator or two to carry out your vision based on your entrenched skills and clientbase.

Check out Derivative's TouchDesigner.
posted by lothar at 9:55 AM on April 13, 2010

If you are on a Mac, you could check out Cheetah 3d which is pretty cheap.

The problem you face here is 3D is complicated and all the tools the pros use are very costly. You can certainly learn the basics on cheap stuff like Cheetah or Blender but the UIs themselves are pretty hairy and your UI familiarity won't transfer across tools.
posted by chairface at 1:25 PM on April 13, 2010

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