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How To Select The Best 3D Software?

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James Kozick
How To Select The Best 3D Software?
on Mar 25, 2018 at 7:05:33 pm

My background and work is primarily in music composition and video. I've also done some 2D animation in Flash. But, in the meantime I've been bit by the 3D animation bug. For example, I recently have been creating some animated human figures using Adobe Fuse/Mixamo, downloading them to C4D, and importing them into video along with my music composition.

So far, C4D has been the software I've been using. I've heard that it is one of the "easier" softwares which are all notoriously known as being very difficult. I am no 3D artist, but would like to be able to continue adding 3D elements to my music/video work.

My question is whether from what I've said so far is C4D the best software for me or are there others I should consider? I know that everyone has their favorite and this is a C4D forum. But, I would appreciate any thoughts on this. I'm considering a C4D purchase upgrade and would be interested in any feedback before I do so.


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Steve Bentley
Re: How To Select The Best 3D Software?
on Mar 26, 2018 at 7:40:45 am

You're going to have trouble getting an unbiased answer on that topic, or, brave souls who are willing to withstand the pile-on... but consider this - 3DstudioMax, Maya, Softimage and few others are now all owned by Autodesk - (they also own Discreet Logic too - the makers of Flint Flame and Inferno). So does that mean going with one of those 3D packages will benefit from some terrific in-house trickle down? or will one or the other become obsolete or not make its quota and be consigned to history's scrap heap? Who said: "The best way to beat the competition was to buy them and then shutter the company!"?
I'm actually shocked this hasn't happened to any great degree in AutoDesk's case. While there would be a mass industry-wide revolution if they shuttered Maya, I'm not sure how deep the in-roads of 3DS MAX are in the pro industry - would there even be a whimper? Perhaps that's changed with their new owners and it's now a going concern. I just don't hear about MAX anymore. And Softimage hasn't seen an update in 3 years, so perhaps it'll be first on the block.

So there's that- then there's what platform you are on, what graphics cards system you have bought into and what do you want to do with your 3D package when you get it. (fx, characters, simulation stuff - water smoke fire etc, flying logos, environments, etc). Not every package works best on a particular platform, some packages work best with specific graphics engines. And certain ones are better at certain tasks and others suit generalists better.

Finally two more questions - price point and how often are you going to be head-down buried in the software?

Also consider that with some packages you pretty much have to add more sheckles for an after market renderer. The quality of render engines has exploded in the last 5 years and it's become hard stay viable with some of the package's built in renderers.

All of the packages have come a long way, to the point where unless you are specializing it's hard to pick a king of the hill.
More and more are coming from FX houses who have developed their own in house tools and they sell the package (or an addon to another mainstream package) to offset development cost and seed the world with future, already trained employees. So dig a little beyond the usual suspects.

But if you are a one man show or small band of trouble makers, you might want to put ease of use at the top of your list. Some packages don't take kindly to users with too many hats. And what's the cost of a render farm - not the hardware but the farm licenses.

With that in mind here's a few thoughts on the big ones: (in no particular order)


C4D: I find C4D crazy easy to keep up with. I can be off the box stuck in the compositing world for months and get back on the bicycle with very few wobbles. And it's finally come of age where you can get under the hood to do some specialized stuff or link it with an outside render engine to tease out some specialized looks. But it has been late to the party on a number of fronts, so while other apps licked certain issues years and years ago and could focus on pushing the boundaries, Maxon was still playing catch-up. In the pro world C4D can get you there with most things (especially with add-on render engines or doing some tricks in 2D after the fact) but often if you want to go that extra mile, you can find yourself looking jealously over the fence at the neighbor's shiny new 3D app. Keep this in mind too, as you are swooning over some renders you may have seen - was it a still or an animation? C4D can do mind boggling things in stills, but sometimes (and only just sometimes) when you move that remarkable thing over time, its sins become manifest.

Maya: Maya is deep - I mean Marianas Trench deep. There's very little you can't do in Maya providing you have a programmer or two. Not that you need a programmer or two. I'm talking about that" extra mile" stuff. With a coder at your side there are few places you couldn't navigate. That being said, in a normal production pipeline, even without a coder, you will have few wants. And if you are using it every day you will learn to swim those depths and give Mark Phelps a run for his money. But dabbling is tougher in Maya. I know guys, who like me, have been with it since it was Alias, and they know their corner of its universe inside and out and can make that corner dance, but ask them about another area of the software and they will say without hesitation that they don't know how to work many of the features. I have a theory, that as much as the "specialist" (as opposed to generalist) appeared in the FX industry because of the sheer amount of work, and it's the only way to make FX production feasible/profitable, it could also be because it's the best way to work with Maya (one of the kingpins in the FX world). In a Maya pipeline, lighting guys don't work on animating, particle guys don't do textures, modelers don't write shaders (there's another whole topic right there!). Even guys who rig and paint the character weights don't do the animating in many shops. To get the most out of any tool I suppose you have to practice the craft every day, but with Maya I find you have to narrow your focus a little to keep the expertise up - and swim a mile down every day to stay in shape.

Softimage: This used to be the king of the Character animation apps. I'm not sure what its long term lifespan is. We used to model in Maya, animate in Softimage (and render in something else). You could do both in either but this pipeline ended up being a perfect synergy. But in the intervening years there has been so much cross pollination, everyone else caught up. I'm not sure what the user base (hence future) of Softimage is. And to be fair, I left it behind a decade ago. Again, no update since 2015. (cue scary music)

Houdini: Among the guys I know, we all think of Houdini as the TD's (Technical Director's) package. I always think of Houdini when there's a problem we can't solve with another package (usually dealing with particles or sims or environments or something we need mathematical and microscopic control over). Often you don't even need a programmer like you might with another app. Houdini can do it all of course but it tends to specialize, even among the specialists. With Houdini you can go deep deep deep like you can with Maya but you might need to bring your PHD diploma along for the ride, or at the very least, your waterproof propeller beany. Again not a package for dabblers (or for the timid). And with a smaller user base, fewer experts to lean on when the going gets tough. But when it comes to magic - wow!

Blender: So first: Free!!!! And second - if you are diehard 3D guy you might spend your first week scratching your head. The interface is just soooo different it's tough to figure out where stuff is. But if you can get beyond that it's remarkable what a community effort has come up with. There are things Blender can do out of the box that rival or surpass C4D with a plug-in add-on (smoke for instance).
That being said, I always worry that in a production situation you will get backed into a corner because there is no one being paid to come to your aid. Yes the community is very responsive and helpful, and one might argue even better at dealing with user demands than some billion-dollar software company. But it can take time to get the right good Samaritan to solve a particular problem in just the right way.
On the plus side this package had tools in its first year that took Maxon a decade to implement. But I wonder, from a developer point of view: if one was developing a 3rd party render engine, would you want to put effort towards a group that expect their software for free? I worry it will lag behind in this area (or any bleeding-edge improvement in the industry) simply because it will be harder to earn development money back. But the internet is a wonderful thing and I'm always amazed at what makes money in unconventional ways.

Lightwave: I must admit I'm not current on this app. But I also don't hear about it very much in the Biz - never have. It had it's heyday back in Babylon 5 days and turned a lot of heads, and we gave it the ol' college try back in the late 90's but it was just so different from what we were used to, we chose another path. It seems to be a concept designer's tool these days. There was always something up with Lightwave's render engine (when it was fast we ignored this problem for the most part), and of course it could be the user too, but it had and still has a "look" (and not in a good way).

Fuze and Mixamo: I'm not sure where this pair is going but so far I've been unimpressed with how they looked after their user base. We used some mixamo stuff for a project because it was easy and hooked into C4D effortlessly. By the time we went back to update that project Adobe had bought it and created some vaporware called The Fuze Project, and left us all with a broken app and nebulous promises that were never kept. I'm glad to hear its being used again, but lately I've been helping some people who have been stung by the current package not playing well with other 3D apps (export for rendering and final animation). Given Adobe's history of slow feature additions and fixes (no, I don't want a darker interface in AE again this year, after two decades I want a much needed paint package!) , I personally don't have a lot of hope for this one given that there are so many other options out there that don't cost an arm and a leg and are more mainstream. I don't know if putting Fuze on your resume will get you too far.

3DSMax: I can't for the life of me figure out why you can still buy this software. Not because it's bad or anything, its not, but when the company who bought it now owns pretty much all the other's... It always seemed to be a hobbiests package or one that got used a lot on low FX budget TV shows. It was also probably more pirated that Pshop... I can't figure out why they are keeping it around. I can't believe it generates near the sales that Maya does and they must have bled it already for the tech they wanted from it. To be fair I've been away from Max for a long time so I can't speak to its functionality now. I only worry about its future. When you make the leap into a package you are investing time, lots of time. So you should look to the future and pick something that will be around and/or keep you employed as a skilled user of that product for years and years to come.

Modo: Can't comment. Seems to do some cool things but not enough for us to upend our pipeline.

Let the pile-on begin!

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Justin Thomson
Re: How To Select The Best 3D Software?
on Mar 26, 2018 at 1:59:31 pm

I'm partial to Cinema4d ☺ and having worked along people using 3DSMax and Maya, I don't see much they can do that Cinema4d cannot.

I Only use Cinema because I've been using it so long. Best you just grab some demos and start playing around.

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James Kozick
Re: How To Select The Best 3D Software?
on Mar 29, 2018 at 10:38:42 pm

Thanks so much for all of the info above. It has helped to clear the fog somewhat. For the moment, I think I'll just stay with C4D, but I will also keep an eye on the others you so well brought to my attention.

Thanks again!

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