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Producing Pixels (Part 2 of 3) – Choosing your 3D Animation Software

Having understood the overview of a typical production pipeline, it’s time to consider choosing your 3D animation software for your production needs.

This is not a post to promote any software in particular, but more to shed light on the practical considerations for choosing software, so budding studios and animators like yourself can make informed choices. And if you’re running a studio now, we can compare notes and learn from each other!

Ronald Fong 3D Animation Production Planning (2)

Procedural vs Non-procedural 3D Animation Software

Procedural 3D Animation Software

Houdini and NukeX are, by nature, node-based procedural (a.k.a non-destructive) software. We can take a simple input like a sketch of a tree, for example, and lay down a series of nodes that transform it into a 3D tree with realistic leaves and branches. We can then switch the input to another sketch of a tree, and we get another output. This allows us to reuse the node script, or “recipe” if you will, across a series of shots, or entire shows. Because of its reusability, it’s almost always a future investment to work in procedural software.

Non-Procedural 3D Animation Software

Non-procedural (a.k.a destructive) software are the likes of Blender and Maya where we fluidly create and make changes to our 3D models, and lose all ability to switch the source input. While this has a huge benefit of intuition and artistry, it’s not the most scalable or reusable for repetitive tasks.

Pseudo-Procedural 3D Animation Software

Maya has an edge over the majority of the 3D animation software in that it has a referencing system. This allows different departments to keep a “live” reference to Maya files from other departments. So, when other departments update their work, it automatically propagates through the CGI pipeline. C4D, Blender, and 3Ds Max are fairly individualistic software in comparison; they don’t have an equivalent feature at the time of writing. This essentially makes Maya a pseudo-procedural software and it makes it a good software choice for team production.

All this is about to change as the CGI industry is working on developing for USD (Universal Scene Description). As the name suggests, it’s a universal way to store scene data across all 3D software that adopts this standard. In the future, 3D software can all read/write USD files, and data shall no longer be software-exclusive. But it’ll take years before it’s entirely ironed out. Meanwhile, I write articles to help people make informed choices!

Paid vs Free 3D Animation Software

“Why use Maya when Blender is free and can do more?”

That’s the common argument for Blender advocates. And I’m a Blender advocate myself, but I’ve heard of a very strong counterargument. Here it is:

“Yes, and precisely because it’s free, companies cannot entirely trust it for the entire production.”

“If I pay for the software, I’ll be getting professional-level support. If the software is free, I cannot get priority access to address my urgent production concerns with the developers, and I’ve to resort to backdoor solutions from the community.”

Well, that’s true to some extent. This is why, as much as I love Blender for sculpting and object-tracking work. We still use Maya at work at Masonry Studios for the majority of the 3D pipeline. While I can’t say Maya is 100% reliable software, it has historically handled all our professional projects, with some quirks that we’ve developed solutions around. And because of this investment, we’re likely to stick to it.

And this is true for many large companies that still render on CPU farms. One can argue that GPU rendering is so fast and reliable, it’s silly to be rendering on CPU farms. But what about a company that has already invested a ton of money in CPU infrastructure, and has yet to develop tools for the GPU side of things?

The conclusion is, both sides of the argument are correct. There’s no need to impose ideals onto the other side of the argument. But it’s absolutely important to be aware of the latest CGI developments and make educated choices when building a new small team. At the time of writing, GPU renderers like Redshift are the obvious choice.

Closed vs Open 3D Animation Software

Closed vs Open, or, proprietary vs open-source. In general, for small studios, the more “open” it is the better. Large studios and small vendors likely need to work together on the same project. If files are stored in proprietary solutions, it makes it difficult to collaborate. Unless, you intend to be on the technological frontier, developing your own simulation/rendering solutions, you’d likely be better off using something off-the-shelf or open-sourced, something affordable, non-exorbitant, and not “closed”.

There are some software roadmaps that tend to be a little bit more “closed”. That means that they tend to store their files exclusively in their own file format and develop technologies and features that can hardly export/integrate into other software/pipelines.

It’s likely that they are so proud of their solution, or wish to cash out on certain features. One can argue if it’s a clever business move or an unfriendly gesture for digital artists. Regardless, most times, it’s not a good idea to buy into and get locked into any ecosystem. For the reasons explained above, it’s important for data and information to be shared across the pipeline, across the industry.

So, if your 3D software is adopting and developing for open-source technologies, it’s a very good sign of willingness to develop with the overall CGI community in mind.

How do we know if they are forward-looking?

For example, SideFx’s new render engine Karma is entirely built off MaterialX, an open-source shading model that seeks to standardise and democratise what used to be exclusive shading networks.

In recent CGI developments, no production render is so unique that they cannot benefit from interchangeable formats like USD or MaterialX. We see SideFX’s Houdini/Solaris/Karma, Autodesk Maya/Arnold, and Blender actively developing for USD and MaterialX and it’s a very good sign.

What software does Masonry Studios use?

Once again, this is not saying these are the best 3D software forever, it’s a configuration of software that made sense when we got into the business. And at the time of writing, they fit together well in technical terms – Redshift is very robust in Houdini, and cross-functional in Maya. Overall, the following configuration fits well for our general project budgets and this list may help you in choosing your 3D animation software.

  • 3D Animation Software: Maya / Houdini
  • VFX Software: Houdini
  • Rendering: Redshift
  • Tracking and Compositing: NukeX
  • Editing: Resolve
  • Sculpting Tool: Blender / Zbrush
  • Imaging: Photoshop
  • Motion Design: After Effects
  • Review: DJV
  • Rigging: Advanced Skeleton
  • Color Management: OCIO/ACES

Conclusion

Pick software that is generally forward-looking, non-exclusive, has open-source data formats in its development roadmap and has a fairly large user base for community support.

Moving on to the last part of this “Producing Pixels” series, I’ll cover how to assemble your dream team for CGI projects!

Ronald Fong

Author Ronald Fong

A CGI animation director and educator who blends storytelling prowess with visual finesse, shaping his expertise in the creative realm. From technically-driven 3D animator to founder of Masonry Studios, he navigates challenges, shares insights, and empowers the next generation of creatives through tutorials, talks, and business wisdom.

More posts by Ronald Fong

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