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Top 15 Applications for 3D Artists

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With the variable plethora of different applications, scripts, tools, plugins, platforms, engines, and packages available on the market today, how is an aspiring 3D artist (or a seasoned professional for that matter) to know which package he or she ought to be using? In this article I have attempted to do some of the heavy lifting for you, and narrowed this list down to what is, in my opinion, the top 15 applications out there for 3D artists right now. Enjoy!

  • 3ds Max

    One of most widely used 3D applications by professionals, and students alike, is "Autodesk 3ds Max". Autodesk actually has a ton of programs for 3D modeling, animation, and special effects, but 3ds Max is optimal for someone who is learning 3D, and wants to take it into a profession. The latest release of the software platform is the 2010 version, which has over 350 new features, (including a render-quality viewport display, and the new "Graphite Modeling Tools"). Visit the official Autodesk website for more:www.usa.autodesk.com.

  • Maya

    "Autodesk Maya" is an award winning application that is used in all kinds post production studios across the world, and is easily one of the most professional, and versatile 3D platforms available. Maya uses the Maya Embedded Language (MEL) and Python scripting, has amazing character animation and modeling tools, and gives you the ability to create breathtaking visual effects for film and television. There is quite a steep learning curve with Maya, but once you can get used to everything, and get acquainted with all the twists and turns, it is well worth the time and effort. Maya 200 is available for trial download from the official Autodesk website:www.usa.autodesk.com.

  • Softimage

    "Autodesk Softimage" (formerly Avid Softimage XSI) is a node-based visual effects platform, that is used for everything from games to movies, and even in television post production. The Interactive Creative Environment (ICE), which is the node based part of Softimage, gives the user a vast array of options for animating and customizing animations. The latest version (Softimage 7.5) is available for trial download at the official website, which incidentally, has a bunch of training videos to get you more acquainted with the software before you have to buy it. Check it out here: www.softimage.com.

  • Zbrush

    "Pixologic Zbrush", in my opinion, is one of the best character modeling and sculpting tools available. With the ability to sculpt up to a billion polygons, the amount of precision and detail you can achieve is second to none. Whether you are creating concept art, or full characters for games and movies, Zbrush has vast exportation options that will allow you to bring your sculptures into your preferred animation platform, and make them come to life with ease. You can download a trial copy of Zbrush 3.1 from their official website at: www.pixologic.com.

  • Modo

    "Luxology Modo" has won some awards for its usability, but is lower end on the 3D side of things. Although it is quite easy to use, and offers a ton of high quality options (such as sculpting, rendering, and animation), it just doesn't quite stack up to programs like Maya and 3ds Max. It is, however, much lighter on the wallet (at less than $1000), and generally a lot easier to learn too. You can grab a trial version of Luxology Modo 302 from the official website at: www.luxology.com.

  • Blender

    One of the best things about "Blender" is the fact that it is completely and utterly 100% free (yeah you heard right...I said FREE). Besides the fact that it is free, another great thing about it is the sheer amount of high quality modeling and animation tools that it provides. With features like Python scripting, bullet physics, dynamics support, advanced rigging, and animation, and even exportation to popular renderers, the quality of what you can create is only limited by your own knowledge (or lack thereof) of this exceptionally deep program. Available on all versions of Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, FreeBSD, Irix and Sun Solaris, Blender is an excellent tool for students (tight on cash), and professionals alike. You can download your free copy of "Blender" at the official website:www.blender.org.

  • Cinema 4D

    "Maxon Cinema 4D", now in it's 11th release, is one of the most user friendly 3D applications available. You can choose from an array of different editions and bundles (depending on what 3D environment you are working in). Whether it be post production, architectural visualization, or even engineering, the different bundles have different modules to fit your every need. Cinema 4D has different modules (such as Sketch & Toon, Thinking Particles, Hair, and Mograph) that allow you to utilize different tools for what your project entails. Whether it be explosions, cartoons, animation, or even motion graphics openings, Cinema 4D has got a module for you. You can get a trial version of "Cinema 4D R11" from the official website at:www.maxon.net.

  • Lightwave

    "NewTek Lightwave" is another high-end 3D platform that has a steep learning curve, but is used quite widely in the post production world. It is a complete modeling, animation, and rendering package, that provides full functionality right out of the box. Actually, more artists have won Emmys using Lightwave, than with any other 3D package on the market. It might not be one of the most prominent applications to find tutorials for, or even to get plugins to help you out, but it could be one of the best tools you ever use. You can get a trial copy of NewTek Lightwave 9.6 at the NewTek website here:www.newtek.com.

  • Houdini

    "SideFX Houdini" is another great node-based application, that is quickly becoming more widely used in post production and visual effects. The one down side so far, is that Houdini Escape (the budget version) is a little under $2000, but Houdini Master ( which includes everything that Escape has, but also Particles and Dynamics) is almost $8000. Without Particles and Dynamics, Houdini is just like any other 3D application, with all of the modeling, animation, and render capabilities. To really unleash the power of Houdini, you really do need to have the full-fledged version. SideFX does, however, also offer Houdini Apprentice HD (a student version) where you can render your work, watermark free and ready to stick in your demo reel, for only $99.00. Grab the demo of Houdini 10 at the SideFX website:www.sidefx.com.

  • Massive

    For those of you who have never heard of "Massive", it was developed when "Lord of the Rings" was made. It is a crowd generator and simulation application, that is capable of creating unique "agents" that move, look around, walk, and talk with each other, using built in artificial intelligence. Your "agents" can be anything from traffic on the street, to trees, to huge armies of soldiers that are battling each other...the possibilities are really endless. Massive is a pretty costly product, but if it is really something you are looking to learn, FXphd.com has a class where you can use a student VPN version to learn the software:www.massivesoftware.com.

  • Vue

    "Vue", by E-on Software, is a great program for creating landscapes and scenery. It works as a standalone program, as well as an integrated solution to work inside of Maya, 3ds Max, Cinema 4d, Lightwave, and Softimage. On top of creating forests, deserts, oceans, and anything else on the ground, there is an optional plugin, called Ozone, which lets you create atmospheres such as snowstorms, white puffy clouds, or even clear blue skies with glaring red suns. This program is great for those times when you just can't rent a helicopter and fly over the Amazon rainforest for pickup shots. You can grab a Personal Learning Edition (PLE) over at the official E-on Software website:www.e-onsoftware.com.

  • Poser

    "Poser 7" and "Poser Pro", by "SmithMicro, are a cheap alternative to creating and animating characters in 3D. You can create your own characters, choose from thousands of pre-made characters (at ContentParadise.com), or you can even customize pre-made templates. You can also export directly to 3ds Max, Maya, Cinema 4D, or Lightwave. Poser 7 and Poser Pro will cost you $249 and $499 respectively, but you can snag the 30 day trial copy at the official website here:my.smithmicro.com.

  • Daz3D

    "Daz3D" are the makers of Bryce, Carrara, and Daz Studio (some of the low end 3D modeling applications that can get the job done, but don't give you the high level of detail and control that the higher end applications do). Bryce is a landscape and terrain editor, Carrara is a modeling application, and Daz Studio is a character building software. All three together give you a nice little studio for making some cool things, at a price that is very easy on your pocketbook. Check out the Daz3d website for more: www.daz3d.com.

  • Mudbox

    Another digital sculpting application (similar to Zbrush), is Autodesk "Mudbox". Designed specifically for character sculpting, modeling, and texturing, it is a great application to integrate into your workflow with Maya or 3ds Max (considering that they are all Autodesk applications). You can try out the trial version at the Autodesk Mudbox official site:usa.autodesk.com.

  • RealFlow

    Next Limit "RealFlow" is a particle-based fluid and dynamics simulator, and is quite possibly one of the best tools for the job on the market to date. Able to operate as a standalone application, as well as a plugin for Maya, 3ds Max, Softimage, Cinema 4D and Houdini, you can create beautiful fluid animations, and even other particle simulations (such as tornadoes, hair, or poker chips falling onto a table...to name a few). All of the particles that are created will work with (and against) each other, using real world physics parameters that you can modify in any way that you see fit. You can grab the trial of RealFlow4 at the official website here:realflow.com.

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