Animation and visual effects are awesome. Although sometimes we forget that someone has actually created every single creature, monster, and background. So many different industries are using it that the animation industry is booming and talented artists are in high demand. If you’re interested in getting started in 3D art and animation, here’s a peak at some of the awesome programs for beginners to check out. These all have free educational versions to go and practice with.

 

1. Substance Painter

Substance Painter is taking over the world of 3D model and asset texturing. When you’ve made a model it starts out all grey and you have to paint in textures. In the past you’ve had to paint textures in Photoshop and put them on your model. Then if anything didn’t match up you’d have to go back and forth between Photoshop and your 3D modeling software. The process was not intuitive or artist-friendly at all.

Substance Painter is changing all of that by making texturing much more fun. Using a new type of rendering called PBR (Physically Based Rendering) all the attributes of the materials match real-world physics. Sounds intense, right? Don’t worry, you don’t have to understand physics to benefit from this amazing program. Actually it’s makes it much simpler.

In the past, if you wanted certain parts of your model more or less shiny you would have to make the shine separate from the color. Everything was isolated and confusing. But in SP, you can create materials based off of 4 main attributes (Color, Height, Roughness, and whether it’s Metal or not) and it’s all right there. You can turn on or off any of those channels depending on your needs.

So if you wanted some polished steel, just set Color to grey, Roughness to 0% (so it’s smooth and shiny), and Metallic to 100%. Then you can paint that material wherever you want it. Need some scratches? Then you can make a brush that’s just negative Height and carve away. Need some dirt/grease in the nooks and crannies? SP can automatically find where the dirt or grease would settle using intelligent masks.

It’s an incredible tool and Allegorithmic posts tons of learning materials online for free. So go check it out.

Strengths:
  • Super fun and intuitive way to create textures
  • The ability to create, mask, and layer materials
  • Immediately feedback and seeing what the model looks like with your textures.

Resources:

To Download: https://www.allegorithmic.com/buy/education

To Learn: https://academy.allegorithmic.com/

 

2. Autodesk Maya

Here’s the big one. Autodesk Maya is industry standard tool for just about everything 3D and one of the most powerful tools to have in your arsenal. In an industry with so many different skill sets (Modeling, Texturing, Rigging, Animation, Cloth Simulation, Lighting, Rendering, OH MY) It’s gained popularity by being good for almost everything.

While potentially intimidating at first glance, it actually becomes intuitive very quickly. In our 3D Modeling and Character Animation courses, we cover a huge portion of the program, however it’s not vital to know every tool in the program. That’s why we focus on the most important tools for you to have the creative freedom to create whatever’s in your mind. Even now, after over 10 years working with this program, I’m discovering new features and tricks.

This program is awesome for developing games due to its integration with Unity and Unreal. Taking our classes can kickstart a career in games.

So now we know about Maya being used in animated movies, video games, but that’s not all. It’s also used extensively for movies and visual effects, check out the screen on the left.

And it’s doesn’t even end there. With an ever-growing industry in VR and AR, as well as mobile games, medical visualization, and more, there’s a huge demand for people who know how to use Maya, and most people don’t get formal training until college. Get a step ahead of the rest at Digital Media Academy.

Strengths:
  • Highly flexible program with many strengths
  • Used in almost all professional environments from film to tv to games
  • Full of useful tools and features that are constantly getting updated.

Resources:

To Download: https://www.autodesk.com/education/free-software/maya

To Learn: https://youtu.be/LJLo6MafPVM

 

3. Autodesk Mudbox

Next on the list is Mudbox. Mudbox specializes in fast and intuitive digital sculpting and painting. Basically a big fun sketchpad to try out character ideas in 3D. I specifically call it a concept sculpting tool for my students because it’s so easy to pick up. you can create all the characters and creatures you can imagine.

Once you’ve created that sculpture, you can then paint it. Mudbox doesn’t have tools as robust as Substance Painter for painting, or as precise modeling tools as Maya, but in terms of the ability to show an idea rapidly, it’s very useful.

Now let’s talk NEW FEATURES. Previously, a model had a specific surface construction of four sided squares, and you were limited by this construction (called Topology). If you needed more detail to sculpt for instance a nose, you’d have to subdivide the entire model adding detail not only in the area of the nose but across the entire model. This uneven distribution of detail could result in a lot of frustration if you wanted to add detail on one part of the model but the other half was already at 10 million polygons.

So when Mudbox released version 2018.2, they included a feature called Dynamic Tessellation which allows you to forget about all that technical jargon of Topology and polygons and just lets you sculpt. While other such as zBrush and Blender have had these tools for a while, it’s still a welcome late addition in Mudbox.

Strengths:
  • Super fast and intuitive
  • Dynamic tessellation allows creative freedom
  • Ability to handle millions of polgyons

Resources:

To Download: https://www.autodesk.com/education/free-software/mudbox

To Learn: https://youtu.be/H3qZwt5l3xE

 

4. Unity

Unity is the most used game engine, especially for indie game development, so it’s an incredibly valuable tool. It supports a massive number of platforms, there’s a huge community, and tons of tutorials. It offers fully featured 2D/3D game engines and much more. If you are interested in getting started in game development, this is the tool to check out.

With a vast wealth of tutorials on how to make 2D platformers, you could easily create your own side scroller like Cuphead.

Or go crazy like these developers at No Matter Studios and create a 3D adventure game where you get to fight giant monsters.

But that’s not all. Unity has also recently become a favorite for filmmakers and animators as a platform to tell stories. Many animated films are being created in game engines for the ability to either engage with the audience more or for the benefits of being able to see your film rendered in real time. Some examples are Sonder, Adam, and Mr Carton. Read more about it here.

They’re also exploring and combining VR with animated short films, such as Son of Jaguar, Pearl, and more on the Google Spotlight Stories channel or download the app on your phone.

So there are many uses for Unity and we offer different courses to teach you to start creating the projects that interest you. Check out our offerings to find the class that’s right for you.

Strengths:
  • Approachable and intuitive game engine
  • Lots of community, tutorials, and support online
  • Many different uses, including 2D/3D games as well as VR and animated film production

Resources:

To Download: https://store.unity.com/download?ref=personal

To Learn: https://unity3d.com/learn/tutorials/s/roll-ball-tutorial

 

5. Blender

Another crowd favorite for independent developers, Blender is a very powerful free and open-source software that does absolutely everything 3D and more. Having gone from pretty good to incredible in the last several years, Blender is a big contender against a lot of the larger more expensive 3D animation softwares out there. When looking at job listings in the 3D animation industry, you’re almost guaranteed to see Maya as a required skill, but if you ask the artists there, you might find some people who will rave about how great Blender is.

So what’s so great about Blender? It’s a free software, it must be worse, right? How much do I have to pay to unlock all the actually useful tools? Well, actually, Blender is 100% free and artists swear by its tools and functionalities. A lot of people say it’s more intuitive in a lot of ways.

As a matter of fact, one of the new features in the recent Blender 2.8 release is a new UI and “Blender 101” theme to help new users get acquainted to the software.

They’ve also had a new real-time renderer called Eevee that they’ve integrated that looks quite impressive. It is a great way to see how your model looks with lighting and texturing with rapid feedback.

First you see what animators are used to seeing (solid colors) before sending it to render for minutes at a time to see a final image, followed by a view of the new Eevee real-time renderer, showing you much closer to what the final image looks like.

There’s also a very cool tool called the Grease Pencil tool that provides a really cool 2D animation tool set that integrate the best of 2D and 3D.

But that’s not all, they’ve got great tool sets for modeling, texturing, animation, lighting, rendering, simulation, game creation, video editing, and more. Check out their features page to read more about any of those specific categories.

Strengths:
  • Extremely versatile
  • Supportive community and extensive tutorials
  • $$$ Free.. $$$

Resources:

To Download: https://www.blender.org/download/

To Learn: https://www.blender.org/support/tutorials/

 

Recap

So there’s a list of some of the best and most free 3D animation software for beginners. I’d suggest just going on YouTube and searching for more information about the ones that look most interesting to you. Also, if you’re looking for a great place to kick start your 3D animation knowledge, there’s nowhere better than Digital Media Academy’s summer course offerings. We get skilled industry professionals to guide you through making your own original projects and help get you ahead of the game.