There are a lot of great 3D software packages out there, and some are a lot better than others. The most important thing to remember, though, is that the software you use is secondary to practice and talent. I've seen 3D artwork done with off-the-shelf $99 programs that's better than what some people can do with $15,000 integrated solutions. A better tool can, however, enable a talented artist to express work more professionally with higher quality. 3D software can be very inexpensive and basic (one of the most basic is Bryce3D by Corel). There are also many mid-level or prosumer packages such as TrueSpace, Cinema4D, and the like that can deliver wonderful results, but do have limits. The most popular professional 3D applications are Maya by Alias|Wavefront, 3ds max (formerly 3D Studio Max) by Discreet, Lightwave by NewTek, and SoftImage by Avid. All four of these professional applications are excellent programs and range from $1,500 to $8,000. Before choosing a 3D package, you must weigh two very important factors: your budget and your 3D artwork goals. Your goals are actually the most important and in many cases define the program you're going to need because using a tool not suited to the job you intend to do will end up holding you back later. I'll sum-up those goals by industry and the application most preferred in those industries later in this article. Incidentally, pricing of software has recently changed. Before 2002, Maya was over $7,000 for the base package and $15,000 for the full suite. Years before that highend 3d software was over $50,000. Lightwave has dropped about $1,000 to its current $1,595. 3ds max has maintained consistent pricing. Price drops are mostly due to changes in hardware computing power and thus the cost to build a workstation capable of 3d rendering—something which is now very inexpensive to do and thus widens market share, total number of sales, and the like, which in turns lowers necessary per-unit pricing for those companies to make a profit. This means lower cost for 3d software. Now, before you run out to arbitrarily buy one of these 3d applications, consider a couple of things. First, bear in mind that sometimes a 3D application isn't the whole package you'll be needing to meet your goal. For example, Maya is a great 3D program, but is mostly unusable for professional film or TV production by itself—you need a third-party renderer because Maya's built-in renderer usually can't produce professional results fast enough, and is also riddled with a few stability issues. The cost of third-party renderers can be even more costly than the 3D software itself. Maya, for example, is almost exclusively seen used with Pixar's Photorealistic RenderMan (PRMan) renderer via a software bridge called MTOR (also by Pixar) or by MayaMan (by AnimalLogic). Some higher end studios write their own bridge translators. PRMan (with MTOR or with MayaMan) is a good $8,000 and you can plan on adding thousands more for each CPU (a dual CPU PC counts as two) included in your renderfarm. The second point is that various programs are better or worse at various tasks, and your task may not be the mainstream use I'm thinking of when I make my recommendations below. For example, 3ds max with its built-in renderer is capable of excellent 3d logo graphics and other animated openers seen at the start of a news program or special, even though 3ds max has limited professional TV use. I'll try to address as many uses as possible. Before I list software packages, I'd like to define two ‘parts' to finishing a job: 3d software is what allows you to create the computer-generated models in 3d space, and shade (texture) and light them. Examples of 3d software include Maya, SoftImage, Houdini, 3ds max, Lightwave, Cinema4D, TrueSpace, and so on. Renderers are the programs that actually take your 3d models and corresponding lights and shaders and compute an actual image (picture). All 3d software include built-in renderers, but some of the best renderers are ‘external' programs separate from the 3d software that talks to one or more 3d program packages to get rendering instructions. Examples of renderers include Brazil R/S, PRMan, Entropy, VRay, Messiah, and the like. RenderMan (PRMan, Entropy, and others): When combined with Maya, Houdini, or SoftImage, this is one of the best combinations possible. RenderMan-compliant renderers are the renderers of choice by large studios such as ILM, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Digital Domain, and many others, and with good reason. The output quality is astonishing and the RenderMan specification provides for countless tweaking controls in order to adjust your rendering speed vs quality trade-off to the precise levels you require. It's architecture provides for several universal standards requiring studios to program specific shaders and controls to achieve best results at the fastest speeds. RenderMan is most noted for being very fast while maintaining exceptional quality, true displacement, and true 3d stochastic motion blur. RenderMan is a REYES (Render Everything You Ever Saw) renderer, meaning that it doesn't render scene elements that aren't required to generate the final picture you will be seeing. RenderMan is also a MircoPolygon renderer—something not to be underestimated—and a feature that works best with higher-order surfaces such as NURBS (Non-Uniform Rational B-Splines). NURBS are modeling surfaces based on spline curves and control vertices instead of the traditional polygonal modeling elements. The advantage of NURBS being rendered by a RenderMan renderer is that micropolygons are generated at render time sufficient along NURBS curves to ensure a visibly smooth curve edge and surface. This means that no matter how close the camera gets to a NURBS edge, that edge will remain smooth. If the camera pulls way back, that curve is generated more quickly because unnecessary micropolygons aren't being generated to smooth the curve when so few can be seen. With polygonal models, you must increase the polygonal surface to include enough elements for a smooth curve edge based on how close you believe the camera will get. And, if the camera pulls away, you'll still be calculating all of those polygon elements even if hundreds of them fill only one pixel—a total waste. True displacement is another of RenderMan's strongest features. In any RenderMan surface, because each pixel is one or more micropolygons, you can assign displacement maps that result in extremely fine surface detail with only a very minor hit to rendering speed (fast). Other renderers slow to a crawl when subdividing surfaces in order to accommodate sub-pixel displacement maps. 3d stochastic motion blur is true motion blur which means that overlapping objects moving under different vectors in 3d space all produce accurate motion blur to the camera. RenderMan does this fast—not as fast as some motion blur cheats—and flawlessly. RenderMan is also capable of handling HUGE texture maps via mipmapping (multiple scaled map sizes as required for various scene elements), virtually unlimited complex shaders, and over a billion polygon faces in a scene without fear. The downside to RenderMan is that it's not a simple plugin renderer where you just push the render button, and it's the most expensive renderer choice out there. You need to understand your tweaking controls well, and you need either competent bridge software that allows your 3d software to export the 3d objects, shaders, and lights to a RIB (RenderMan Interface Bytestream) file, or you need to have programmers on staff to handle such duties. Examples of commercial RIB export bridges are MTOR (Pixar's own), MayaMan (Maya-to-RIB) and MaxMan (3dsmax-to-RIB) by AnimalLogic, and a few others. Not all exporters offer tweaking controls for every (if even most) of RenderMan's controls—controls you might need to tweak. MTOR and MayaMan/MaxMan, however, do a fine job of this though you still must not expect all features in your program to be translatable to RenderMan. This introduces a lot of design constraints and requires detailed planning. Many people find it necessary to enlist the aid of technical directors responsible for managing RenderMan due to its complexity. Thus, RenderMan's vast scalability, open shader language, and extensive controls are also its biggest downfall for those who want an easy path from modeling to rendering. Large studios, naturally, find this to be RenderMan's greatest benefit. The power gained by the ability to program your own shaders should not be underestimated, but it does require some programming. Finally, over all and notwithstanding its complexity and non-user friendliness, you pretty much can't go wrong with a top-quality RenderMan renderer such as PRMan. The quality coupled with speed (when properly used) is astonishing. Indeed, many who have casually tried PRMan have not used it correctly or to its fullest potential. Entropy, by the way, is currently new and has a few bugs to work out, but will likely be a big player in the end. Brazil R/S: A newcomer, Brazil is a special plugin renderer currently available only to 3ds max software users, but with future plans as a Maya tie-in. Brazil is a very high-quality renderer with outstanding (perhaps best in the business) caustics and reflection/refraction raytracing. It also offers high-quality fast global illumination, area lights, and other top-quality features. I am unfamiliar with Brazil's motion blur abilities or lack thereof. Brazil has been tested to handle over one-hundred-million polygons in a scene without destabilizing, though I'm not familiar with its ability to handle huge maps or mipmapping because of its current 3dsmax-only tie-in. At the time of this writing, Brazil is still in beta and so I hesitate to comment on its stability. So far, stability has been pretty good, but I have hit a few crashes. Recent tests that I've run comparing Brazil to highend RenderMan renderers (in this case Entropy) show Brazil to be at least twice as fast while simultaneously producing higher quality—it just doesn't offer the film-needed sub-pixel displacement, stochastic motion blur, or open shader language architecture (at this time) for full scalability into a large studio pipeline. But, otherwise, this is a damn good renderer not to be underestimated by even highend studios. Mental Ray: Previously packaged almost exclusively with SoftImage, mental ray has been around for a while. It is often used as a ray server (for raytracing work) for plugin-use in PRMan (which lacks raytracing until version 11 out Q4 of 2002). Mental Ray produces outstanding quality in rendered images, but is not the fastest renderer out there by a long shot. It is also available as a plugin-in to 3ds max, though it's tie to max is horrible at best through lack of renderer controls. With PRMan's upcoming raytracing, area lights, and global illumination abilities, and the new Entropy RenderMan renderer, the future of mental ray in the large studio pipeline is uncertain, but its strong ties to SoftImage may keep it alive and well. Mental Ray is also very expensive, but feature packed and fully scalable. Maya: Maya is the 3d application of choice for large studios. It handles large and complex scenes well without losing stability, has perhaps the most built-in features and refined toolsets, is highly customizable, but is also fairly difficult to learn for the average 3d user. It has excellent NURBS modeling, advanced sub-division surfaces (available in Maya Unlimited which can be modeled like polygons but render like NURBS), and stable booleans for polygons or NURBS. Maya is node-based, making linking and connection of node attributes (such as shader/texture elements, animation controls, and the like) very graphic and artistic. Maya has excellent character rigging and animation tools. It's dynamics and particle options are incredible and the reason why Maya was the only program able to handle the Star Wars Ep1 pod race crash scenes. In this case, Maya's dynamics allowed for metal to twist and tear as it impacted the ground, in ways that were previously impossible or would have required unprecedented amounts of hand-animation time. On the downside, Maya's internal built-in renderer isn't particularly good. Though it's fully capable of producing very high quality images, the renderer has bugs, is unsuably slow (from a studio standpoint for animations), and other issues sure to boil your blood even though the main application is quite stable. This is why Maya is almost always linked to a RenderMan renderer for image output. Maya is also quite difficult to learn for many, and once you've introduced an outside RenderMan renderer you'll likely be grinding your teeth getting your scenes properly RIB-translated unless you've got a support team of Technical Directors. However, with its latest pricing and unbelievable power, Maya is a great buy. 3ds max: Now one of the more overpriced packages, 3ds max is very popular. It has the highest number of sales of any 3d application. Expect max to be easier to learn than most applications, packed with features and excellent polygon modeling tools, and very useful tools for video game model-design. When combined with Brazil R/S, max can produce incredible still image and animation results that are hard if not impossible to beat. By itself (with it's built-in scanline renderer), render output is fair at best and animation output is plagued with quality issues such as pixel jitter, pixel crawl, and pixel roping. If you're going to use 3ds max for anything other than simple color logo animations or design, I strongly recommend you use the Brazil plugin renderer. When combined with Character Studio (an expensive plug-in character design/animation package), max has superb character features. The downside to max is that it's perhaps the least stable of the pro applications, and nearly impossible to use for ultra-complex or high-detail scenes (for example, will become corrupt or unstable when dealing with photorealistic animations involving many elements or complex highly-detailed models). Obviously, even if you use a quality renderer such as Brazil, if the primary 3ds max application often crashes or becomes unstable when working with complex scenes you will be unable to get your work to the renderer. 3ds max has a huge number of plugins available to it, including many other renderers such as VRay (which shows some promise) and FinalRender. FinalRender is an inexpensive renderer that builds upon max's scanline renderer adding many great new features, but thus carries over some of max's inherent flaws such as animation artifacts and jitter. When interfaced to RenderMan, such as through MaxMan or even Entroy's own Max-to-RIB translators, 3ds max does export NURBS as true surfaces providing perfectly smooth curves and edges at any resolution. Houdini: In use primarily by larger studios only, Houdini is a very technical and highly-controllable solution. It is a favorite among large studios with teams of technical directors (TDs) who need to tweak or adjust Houdini in order to better fit a production pipeline. It employs very intelligent node-based underlying architecture and strong RenderMan output abilities. The downside is that it's insanely expensive (when purchased for commercial use; the educational versions are quite inexpensive even in comparison to other 3d software), difficult to use, and overly technical. Lightwave: In some ways, Lightwave is the best all-around solution available. It's stable, can deal with large complex scenes, has a full suite of toolsets, and is very affordable at $1,595. Its built-in renderer is the best of any 3d application's built-in renderers except for SoftImage's MentalRay, usable for production right out of the box. Rendering options now include advanced features such as global illumination. Lightwave is used for Star Trek effects (such as Voyager), and many other television visuals pretty much as-is out of the box. Lightwave is relatively easy to learn, is divided into modeling and animation packages (both a pro and a con, but mostly a pro), and well-supported. The downside is that it's motion blur is not the best by a long shot, and advanced renderer features such as global illumination are unusually slow. Still, if your needs are not as extravagant as highend film effects or you can't stomach the idea of managing technical aspects of RenderMan and multiple pipeline translations needed for a Maya+PRMan solution, then my advice is to buy Lightwave. I believe it's the best bang for your buck, and the best all-around solution for any hobbyist or professional outside of a major film studio. Another downside to Lightwave, if you plan on using RenderMan, is a lack of support for RenderMan. An independent LightMan RIB exporter exists, but please note that due to Lightwave's internal structure that many advanced RenderMan features are non-attainable. For example, there is no way to export sub-division surfaces as true curves, meaning RenderMan will receive polygonal curve/edge approximations only. SoftImage: Available in two versions, SoftImage 3D (the old version) and SoftImage XSI (the newcomer and replacement), Soft is also a favorite among large studios and individuals. I'm least familiar with this package, but it supposedly is capable of dealing with large scenes and it certainly has very advanced non-linear animation controls. The new XSI version has an advanced graphical user interface and good support. XSI is also incredibly feature-packed, right out of the box, and able to compete in highend commercial film work. The downside is that Soft is very expensive. Soft is almost exclusively packaged with mental ray (see above). Also, as far as I am aware, only the older SoftImage 3D program can be connected to RenderMan... Soft XSI cannot, though non-commercial bridges are being built by major film studios as we speak in order to evaluate XSI's future potential in their PRMan pipeline. trueSpace: trueSpace was designed more with the hobbyist in mind. It's inexpensive, easy to learn and use, and has a good feature set, but it sometimes misses in stability and animation features. trueSpace is not suited to a large scale production enviroment, however individuals certainly can make use of it and have for a wide variety of projects. It is probably best suited to game art and still shots. Cinema4D: Cinema4D has been steadily improving since its consumer release and may soon move from a prosumer level to join the ranks of professional studio applications. A rich feature set including subdivision surfaces, nurbs, rigid and soft body dynamics, cloth simulation, is complemented by an intuitive user interface and GI/caustics rendering abilities. Built-in 3d painting modes allow you to paint directly to your model surfaces, and the program is stable as well. On the downside, Cinema4D's lack of large studio clients leaves it less able to deal with large format rendering, including lack of motion blur to film plate resolutions. It is also very difficult to integrate into a studio pipeline due to quite limited scene export options. My personal recommendations based on task are as follows: Producing photorealistic animations involving high detail: Go with Maya output to RenderMan, but ONLY if you can handle RenderMan's $8,000 price tag, the $5,000 more you'll need for each CPU in your renderfarm, AND the considerable technical knowledge you'll need to work with RenderMan. Lightwave would be my second choice, though not if 3d motion blur or true displacement is important to you as it is for major studios (unlikely in most cases). Also tied for second choice is 3ds max + Brazil. If you can get 3ds max to handle the larger scenes you have in mind, you will find 3ds max output to Brazil R/S rendering to be one of the highest quality solutions available anywhere. Brazil R/S may not offer the same level of control and open shader language that PRMan does, but it seems to have nailed the quality plus speed issue quite well. If price is important, Lightwave is ceratinly the way to go and would be my first choice because of how 3ds max is 3 times the cost of Lightwave. No other combinations are likely to work well for you. Producing photorealistic stills involving high detail: 3ds max output to Brazil R/S, or any of the major apps output to RenderMan. Lightwave also does very well when output to its own built-in renderer, and is certainly the best choice if price is a factor. If you can afford the time of Maya's ultra-slow renderer, then even Maya's built-in renderer can do quite well here. Producing photorealistic stills involving simple to medium detail: Most any app will do fine for you, but obviously the ones I listed above for high detail photorealism would be most desirable if affordable. Some of the more consumer or prosumer applications may lack some features... such as trueSpace's inability to handle caustics or raytraced light refractions correctly or at all. If you're new to 3D, go with Lightwave unless you've got your sites set squarely on a large film studio. Producing artistic scenes: Same advice I just gave above for medium detail renders. Producing simple to medium-detail work very quickly: 3ds max or Soft. Producing game models: 3ds max. Maya might also be useful, but to a lesser extent, although it has recently been gaining in popularity for games use and may even one day surpass max. For now, 3ds max is still the standard for games modeling, however, with the strongest ties to game engines. Other software, such as Lightwave and Soft, are also capable here, though there is less support in the games industry for them. Not everything in movie special effects is 3d? Also, bear in mind that not everything you see in the way of special effects is 3D. For example, with exception of the high-speed shots of the pod races and a few other planet-side and high-speed space motion shots, all of the starships you saw in Star Wars Ep1 were physical models. Same with Starship Troopers and the film versions of Star Trek. The reason is that the physical models still look better. This is in the process of changing now. Finally, the biggest and best studios (like ILM) use programs like SoftImage and Maya or PowerAnimator from Alias|Wavefront because they employ artists who have been in the business for years (or even a decade or more) and those artists 'grew up' on SoftImage and the predecessors of Maya because that's all that was available back then for professional use. Why would these artists learn a whole new package when they don't need to? That's the last reason why some software garners higher 'prestige' and elitism. Truth is that in a few years new talent will begin to change this and diversify high-profile apps in use by studios like ILM as well as provide for better cross-compatibility so that work can be shared between artists and 3D applications of choice without having to limit recruiting to one app or train new recruits on another. The future of Hollywood is Linux, but Linux may not be the future of smaller VFX houses responsible for various broadcast TV shows and print media. Finally, the future of these professional 3D programs is also not set in stone. NewTek has been pushing Lightwave quite hard and making great strides in program ability. Discreet (producers of 3ds max) is the wealthiest of the 3D companies (a division of Autodesk) and is the fourth-largest software company in the world and so is likely to stay. If Discreet decided to tackle the film market by introducing a new more robust 3D application based on Max but with new stability and architecture it would have the resources to do so. Avid (producers of Soft) is very stable because of its very high-end and robust editing and compositing software solutions, but Soft hasn't been selling as well as in the past. In many ways its future remains uncertain. Alias|Wavefront (producers of Maya) and its parent company SGI are in more turbulent times right now despite A|W doing okay (recent A|W layoffs have scared a few), because SGI is losing its high-end hardware market to Wintel and its stock continues to plummet. Remember, SoftImage used to be the number-one app for professional film use only a few years ago—a position usurped by Maya. Who will be the king of Hollywood 3D in 5 years from now? Hard to say, but times are changing... My final bit of advice is this: DO NOT judge a 3d program or a renderer by their galleries of images promoted by those program's companies. Even if you see lots of 'cool art' by a particular program or renderer, it doesn't tell you much more beyond the skill and talent of the artist—not how often that program crashed on the artist nor how long the artist may have struggled with it. Choosing the Right Hardware: When hardware is considered, you have three choices for platforms—two of which are professional and one of which is both cost-effective and the most powerful. They are: NT (PC on Windows2000/XPpro), Irix (SGI), and OSX (Mac). I love Macs, but they're the weakest performer when it comes to 3d (contrary to popular belief; see [urli]352[/urli] for specific reasons why). Maya and Lightwave are the only high-end apps currently in the process of being ported to Mac, and only now that OSX is available (the Unix ports of Maya and Lightwave, though a Mac OS9 version of Lightwave has been available for some time). Even so, performance is significantly below standard as is reliability. Irix on SGI, on the other hand, is as stable as you can get but also ridiculously expensive and only a mediocre performer. Today's dual Athlon (because of the superior FPU power [crucial in 3d] over Pentiums) can vastly outperform Macs and even surpass SGIs easily costing ten times or more as much. All four leading apps are ported to Windows2000/XPpro (which, assuming good hardware support, is as stable as Irix and blows away Win98 or WinME) for obvious reasons. Still, the biggest studios continue to use SGI because of in-place pipeline architecture, though the latest trend by the largest Hollywood VFX studios has been to embrace Linux on dual Athlon and dual Xeon boxes because they out perform their SGI systems. ILM, for example, has just replaced 20 percent of its systems with Linux Wintel PCs, and is continuing to replace more. ADDITIONAL TOPICS OF INTEREST CAN BE FOUND HERE http://zaon.org/forums/forumdisplay.php?s=&forumid=7 Special thanks to ZaonDude from the Zaon Forums for this article. Hopefully it will help you all.