The 3D animation industry seems dominated by industry giants such as Autodesk 3ds Max and Maya that have been competing at the top of their field for over a decade. These software packages are humongous in size and price, but largely thanks to the rise of the Internet in the past five years, an entirely free and open source option has emerged. If you haven’t worked with Blender yet, then you’re a few clicks away from owning an application that every animator should have and learn.
While most 3D software suites are many gigabytes in size, Blender’s install file is barely over 10 MB and is only 2 GB once fully installed! If you download Blender, then you’re partaking in a great digital movement. Aside from the great fact that it’s completely free, it’s also available for all major operating systems under the GNU General Public License. That means you can use or modify it in any way you desire with no restrictions or hidden licensing fees. You own everything you create with it and are free to distribute your work or even Blender mods however you’d like. You can read all of the frequently asked copyright questions here if you’re not convinced yet.
Okay, it’s free and suspiciously tiny, so it must not be as robust and powerful as its pricy competitors, right? Wrong. Don’t take my word for it though, just watch this 1080p animated short film, Big Buck Bunny, that was made using an older version of Blender and was released in 2009. While it may not be as impressive as top tier Pixar productions, it’s certainly comparable to the famous Ice Age movies that were made by Blue Sky Studios.
As always, I don’t urge people to use software because it’s cheap, expensive, simple, complex, or any other appealing factor. All animation programs are nothing more than different tools to get the same job done, and bells and whistles are worth exploring, but knowing the basic animation principles is far more important than using the best animation software. Different employers use different software, so it’s likely that over the course of your entire career you’ll be asked to learn many programs and interfaces. Try them all and have fun! Here are some of the best things Blender has to offer for animators.
- Armature (skeleton) deformation with forward/inverse kinematics and pole target support.
- Non-linear animation editor for mixing individual actions created in Action Editor.
- Character animation pose editor, automated walk cycles along paths, and animated constraint systems.
- Vertex key framing for morphing, with controlling sliders.
- 'Ipo' system integrates both motion curve and traditional key frame editing.
- Audio playback, mixing and editing support for sound synchronization, and timeline help markers.
- Python scripting access for custom and procedural animation effects.
- Conformal and angle based unwrapping methods, as well as seam based unwrapping.
- Interactive 3D paint for vertex weighting and automatic skinning that’s heat equilibrium based.
- Volume deformers use mesh cages to deform complex objects.
- Bone layers and colored groups for better rig organization.
- Particle system can be attached to any mesh object. Control methods include weight painting, textures, curve guides, and wind/vortex effects. Particles can be deflected by moving geometry.
- Hair strands can be created by a static particle system, supporting all particle control methods.
- Fluid simulator with fully animated inflow, outflow, obstacle, and fluid objects. Gravity and viscosity settings can also be animated. Supports vector blur that’s integrated with particles.
- Export scripts available for external renderers such as Renderman, Povray, Virtualight, Lux, Indigo and V-Ray.
Community and Tutorials
Not only does Blender offer free software, they even provide extensive tutorials for free on their site! Is English not your first language? Their Wiki User Manual has been adapted to over 20 different languages. Have you done everything you can on your own and want to join a Blender community? Choose from the dozens of sites that span 18 countries, or one of the two official Blender forums. If you still need help after free software, free tutorials, an extensive forum (a previous Blender version was downloaded over 800,000 times in a single month), and dozens of community art, then there’s even a Blender certification program that can connect you with verified professionals to personally train you.
Animation Schools to Consider: