I'm starting to get into 3D animation. My primary use will be developing scenarios of yet to be created real-world items such as ships and aircraft operating in their potential environments. Is Maya my best choice? How about 3D Studio Max? Any others?
Maya and Max are both very good hig-end programs. It's tough to pick just one.
As a third option, which depends greatly upon what you want to do with 3D and how much time you're willing to spend. is Cinema 4D.
Cinema 4D, while not as infinately deep as Maya (and 3DS) is certainly a main contender for things like Broadcast design and a quicker program to generate excellent elements without spending as many years becoming proficient.
Begining with Maya is very frustrating. But once proficient (or even nearly so) your 3D universe opens up to far more complexity.
As a compositor by trade, I may have been better served initially with Cinema 4D. But after years of struggle and learning with Maya, I can't look back!
If you choose Maya or 3DS, you will need to rely more upon Java scipt and C+ type expressions to crack the packages wide open.
Depends what you want to do and how much you're willing to pull your hair out.
Pyro...From your response it sounds to me like I'd be better off picking one of the high-end guys from the start. Now, can I expect to be able to do the same kind of work and create the same scenarios in either in Maya or 3DS Max? Is one considerably better than the other at various tasks or is the feature set equivalent?
Well, Maya is more 'rare' than 3D studio. 3DS is far more popular. Doesn't mean better. If for instance, you wanted to do feature film work, you'd be asking "Maya or Softimage." If you're thinking about game design, then Maya or 3ds.
You have to look at the industry you're working in to make a more educated choice. In any case. Of these 3 programs, Maya, Softimage or 3DS, once you learn on of them, the others are a much simpler re-training.
I'm not a 3D artist specifically, but in commercials and effects for braodcast, I see Maya and Cinema4D the most (dedicated fx houses usually have Maya, Soft and Houdini.) In features, you see Maya and Soft.
So there's no real advice I can offer you as to which one "is best" or "most powerful". Maya is certainly a good all-round choice and for all the effort you'll spend learning a high-end package, you can't go wrong. If you learn Maya or Soft, freelancing will be easier than with Max, by far.