3D animation CGI advice?
November 1, 2010 8:22 PM   Subscribe

So, basically, I want to know what the various options are for CGI/3D animation software. Factors to consider are, price, ease of use/learning curve required, system(s) required and so on. I know I'm being vague, but I really just want to know what the various options are. For instance, I have dabbled a very little bit with Blender, but found it beyond arcane and hard to use. Any help would be appreciated.
posted by geekhorde to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Maya (for animation) - $3-4k for a full version, $100-300 for a student license
Mudbox (for modeling) - comes with maya
3DS Max (for modeling) - $3-4k for a full version, $100-300 for a student license
Renderman (for rendering) - $995
Shake (for compositing)
and Aftereffects (for compositing, a little animation, basic stuff)

Those the various industry standards. Most of the big studios like Pixar and Dreamworks use proprietary software like Marionette and Renderman. IIRC Marionette is not available to small users like ourselves, but a personal license can be obtained for Renderman for a small amount of $$.

Maya is your bread and butter. You can model, animate, texture and light with it without needing too many plugins. Plugins will obviously make things a lot better. You're going to need a fairly fast computer with lots of memory and harddrive space for Maya and/or 3DS Max -- Maya works on both Macs and Windows, but I think 3DS Max is PC only. Anyway, Maya took me a while to get, but I had kind of an off teacher (I graduated with a BFA in Digital Arts and Animation from a well known school in California) handling my instruction so I am probably not the best person to talk to about that. But yeah! Yay 3D modeling!
posted by patronuscharms at 8:48 PM on November 1, 2010

Learn more about what you're interested in. "CGI/3D animation" has very distinct components like modeling, texturing, animating, and rendering the final image. A lot of software is used in each of these tasks, like the aforementioned Blender. Also, a lot of this software is as arcane as Blender. Also, the prices range from expensive to "priced institutionally," i.e., not affordable for individuals. A lot of the industrial software (Maya, 3dStudio, XSI, Cinema4D) does have extensive learning/trial versions.

As a random suggestion, consider ZBrush. It's strictly a modeling/sculpting program (well, it does do some rendering…). It's gotten a lot of praise over the years for its intuitive and very powerful toolset — it's like modeling with clay, but that's like saying that Photoshop is a lot like doodling in a sketchbook.

It's still got a mind-boggling array of buttons and menus, and it does need a tablet for practical functionality.
posted by Nomyte at 8:48 PM on November 1, 2010

*Those ARE the various industry standards. Sad day for me as a typer, gosh.
posted by patronuscharms at 8:50 PM on November 1, 2010

Response by poster: Those are both wonderful answers. Thanks guys!
posted by geekhorde at 8:54 PM on November 1, 2010

What program you should learn depends on what you want to do, what sort of computer you have, etc. Regardless of your choice, be aware that even the "user friendly" 3D programs have a pretty steep learning curve.

You have 4 basic choices, in my opinion, each with their own pros and cons.

1. Maya: Industry standard, and used all over the place for animation, modelling, etc. You'll never exhaust this program's power. It also has a nicely priced student license. Downside is that it is confusing as hell to a new user.

2. 3ds Max. Similar to Maya in that it's very popular. Used a lot with architectural rendering and game backgrounds. Very powerful, often paired with Vray. I find it less intimidating than Maya.

3. Cinema 4D. Used primarily for motion graphics. Much easier to learn than Maya or 3ds Max. Good integration with After Effects. Easy animation capabilities, including easy to implement dynamics. Great online community. The problem is that its modelling tools are not so great and its student license is not cheap.

4. Modo. Not as popular as the others, but it has great modelling tools. Seriously. I made more progress with this in a few hours than I did with Maya during the first few days. Very well designed. Relatively cheap too. I am not a huge fan of some features, but it's an awesome program. It's not used as much as the other programs though and that could be a huge downside depending what you want to do.

That's my two cents, but like I said, what you want to do and where you want to go with it really matters. If you want to get a job, go with 1 or 2. If you want to make tricked out animations without losing your mind, go with 3. If you want to model intense stuff, go with 4 and maybe learn how to render it in another program.
posted by milarepa at 9:02 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wings 3d is a free, basic 3d modeling tool. You can use it to learn basic polygonal manipulation, the skills of which translate into any 3d modeling tool (I originally learned on 3ds max ages ago, but was able to handle Maya and Wings 3d). As you can see from the Gallery on their site, it can actually let you produce some nontrivial geometry.

It does not handle animation (making stuff move) or rendering (making it have cool lighting, not look like plastic). It's strictly for modeling.
posted by mnemonic at 9:17 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do you have a valid student email? Autodesk has long-term (3-year) free trials for 3DS Max, Maya, Autocad, etc for students.
posted by suedehead at 9:35 PM on November 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

I started out with Art of Illusion, which was a great way to learn the basics of 3D for free. After I knew the basics, I started learning Blender, enough to do what I wanted...video compositing mainly, but also lots of little illustration and animation projects.

I've studied 3D Max and Maya in the past, but I have lots of hobbies and I'm pretty happy with these tools now.

I ended up using both of the free packages for a paid project, and found that they worked just great. Just another data point. I've bought almost all the Blender books and a couple of cool iPhone apps with training videos.
posted by circular at 9:39 PM on November 1, 2010

If you go with Maya, a big problem with learning it at home is that it you're nearly helpless if you find yourself in a technical cul de sac. An invaluable book is these situations is How to Cheat in Maya.

Jason Ryan sells tutorials that walk you through the basics, like how to set up your Maya preferences and how to plan your animation.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:43 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

You can check out Ars Technica's two parter on 3D software for the Mac. Many of the packages they mention are multiplatform.

Part the first.
Part the second.

You should also check out the author's page on Ars.
posted by chairface at 9:50 PM on November 1, 2010

if you are interested in compositing, Nuke is becoming very popular. I use Fusion when working from home, and I like it a lot.

Shake has been discontinued, so isn't being used much these days

I see from one of the links above that there is a free student download for smoke, an editing/compositing package that shares a lot of tools with Flame/Inferno, which is what I use at my office job. Flame is really great, but expensive. I hear that smoke is really good
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:31 AM on November 2, 2010

I do visual effects for work and I use a awesome package called Houdini from Side Effects Software. I personally moved from 3D Studio Max -> Maya -> Houdini and have never looked back.

The demo version off SESI's website is fully functional; main limitations are a tiny watermark and render resolution limitations. $99 for the apprentice version removes the render limitations & watermarking. Commercial pricing is on their site and its ouch inducing; am glad my office has licences :)

Learning curve wise, once you get over the initial hurdles of any software, houdini is much much easier to use in practice. In Maya and 3ds I'd be needing mel/maxscript just to control my particles or do certain kind of effects. With houdini it's all nodes to mix and match and expressions vs full on scripting. SESI has also released lots of video tutorials to ease the learning curve.

Houdini runs on 3 platforms, windows/mac/linux. Also, houdini is awesome in that every day there is a new release for bug fixes and occasionally minor enhancements; just login to their website and download.

Bottom line is you will need to find out what you are planning to do; some packages do certain stuff easier than other packages (e.g. 3ds max has the most awesome fume fx for quick, nice fire effects, afterburn for volumetric etc)
posted by TrinsicWS at 3:03 AM on November 2, 2010

For NURBS based modelling, Rhinoceros is very, very easy to use. Big with industrial designers and architects.
posted by signal at 7:54 AM on November 2, 2010

Rhino is really great, and the OSX version (while in alpha mode) is free right now, but it's usually for modeling and rendering (with VRay or such), not for animation.
posted by suedehead at 9:53 PM on November 4, 2010

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