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The Most Popular 3D Software of 2021
If you're looking to craft 3D worlds and characters in 2021, these are the most popular programs to get it done!
Motion Designers work in a variety of programs, genres, and dimensions. While you can absolutely showcase eye-popping animation in 2D, there is no denying that 3D has grown more popular in the last few years. Companies of all sizes love to showcase their wares in stunning renders, and the hottest NFTs tend to be built in 3D software. So where should you begin?
As 3D artists, we’re asked to do so many things, be good at so many disciplines, and always be on top of the latest tools and techniques. Staying in the loop is no easy task, so in this video I’m going to cover some of the top software that 3D artists are using...and hopefully open your eyes to what you can add into your own workflow!
We're going to cover:
Ready? Let’s dive in!
The Most Popular 3D Software of 2021
3D Software for Planning and Assets
Let’s begin with the most critical step in a 3D workflow: the planning phase. If you’re failing to plan, you’re planning to fail. Developing a concept and mood boards is key to creating amazing renders. It’s easy enough to generate boards on Pinterest, but you can do even better using a free app called PureRef.
PureRef allows you to gather references to create mood boards, and have them sit right on top of your interface. You can even adjust the transparency over your app, too. So whether you’re modeling, creating materials, or trying to match a lighting setup, PureRef allows you to have your reference images close at hand.
High-quality renders require high-quality assets. Luckily, there’s plenty of software out there to help artists source and create premium 3D models.
Quixel Bridge, Megascans and MetaHumans
Quixel Bridge is a free Content Management software from Epic Games that allows you browse and export massive libraries of assets in their Megascans and MetaHumans catalogue for use in your 3D application of choice, such as Cinema 4D. The best part is that the Quixel Bridge for Cinema 4D plugin allows you to easily export assets with materials automatically setup for your renderer of choice.
In addition to Megascans there is MetaHumans, which is a crazy insane plugin by Epic that allows you to create realistic digital humans with a few clicks of a button. This software is fairly new, with limited export ability, but MetaHumans is definitely something to keep your eye on!
World Creator and Forester
If you're rendering a lot of nature scenes, World Creator and Forester are must haves. World Creator is a real-time terrain and landscape generator that does what the name says: helps you quickly and procedurally build a world. After you create your world, you can then export into game engines, modeling apps, and 3D apps like Cinema 4D.
Landscapes typically require natural elements, and that’s where Forester comes in! Forester is a plugin for Cinema 4D that allows you to create customizable natural elements such as trees, plants, rocks, and grass super easily. With their C4D plug-in, you can easily import, customize, and animate Forester assets with precision control.
So that’s nature, but what about people? Daz Studio is the go-to software for creating realistic 3D characters, and it’s free! Daz allows you to build your own customized and fully-rigged characters from scratch. Then you can pose them, add hair, clothing, accessories, and apply pre-set animations or animate them from scratch. In addition to the free assets, Daz has a massive library of assets you can download on their marketplace called Daz Central.
Another popular program for generating characters is Marvelous Designer. Marvelous is the popular choice for making realistic clothes and cloth sims. The simulations in this software are super fast, detailed, and insanely realistic. It’s no wonder Marvelous has become a go-to for 3D motion designers.
It’s very easy to export your characters from C4D or your app of choice, bring them into Marvelous for dressing, and export back to C4D for final rendering. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of cartoonish characters with realistic clothes, and you can bet that wardrobe was created using Marvelous Designer.
So we covered a lot of software that can provide premade assets, but what about modeling your own content from scratch?
Enter ZBrush, a standalone sculpting and modeling app. ZBrush is the go-to application for sculpting not only soft surface modeling but hard surface as well in an intuitive and powerful way. A lot of people might associate ZBrush with highly-detailed and realistic character sculpts, but I’m seeing it being used in mograph more and more.
When you sculpt, you need a ton of geometry to get all that detail. To be able to animate in Cinema 4D, you’d need to have way less geometry...and that is possible using ZBrush’s ZRemesher, which creates a lower-poly object while trying to maintain as much detail as possible. This way you have a lighter asset to use with joints and deformers in C4D.
In addition to being an awesome sculpting app, ZBrush also allows artists to create UV maps or paint textures, and they just recently added a dynamics system that allows you to create beautiful cloth simulations.
3D Programs for Texturing
Once you create a model, the next step is to texture it, right? So let’s cover some software that will help you do just that.
Substance Painter, Designer, and Alchemist
The gold standard in material authoring is the Substance software suite that includes Substance Painter, Designer, and Alchemist. While Alchemist allows you to create high quality 3D materials out of 2D photos with a simple click, Substance Designer and Painter allow you to create materials from scratch.
Substance Designer is a super powerful, node-based material authoring app that allows artists to procedurally create tileable materials. It’s got a crazy amount of control, and the materials you generate can easily be brought into your 3D app of choice as normal, displacement, and roughness maps. You can even use it to create HDR’s - how cool is that?
And last but not least is Substance Painter, which you can think of as Photoshop for 3D models. It enables you to paint directly onto the surface of your assets in real time, allowing for a very intuitive, artistic, and immersive way to texture. You can even grunge up your models by painting on wear and tear, scruffs, scratches, and rust!
Rizom's UV Virtual Spaces
One caveat for using Substance Painter is that your model needs to be properly UV unwrapped. UV Unwrapping is about as fun as getting your teeth pulled, but RizomUV makes it fairly painless. Rizom UV’s Virtual Spaces software is many 3D artists' top choice for easy and intuitive UV unwrapping. Rizom also has software bridges that makes the UV export from 3D software to Rizom and then back very streamlined.
3D Software for Motion Designers
Speaking of 3D software, let’s talk just that! 3D applications! If you know me, you know my 3D app of choice is Cinema 4D.
In my opinion, Cinema 4D is hands down the easiest 3D software to learn, and the most popular choice for most freelancers and studios. It’s got amazing integration with Adobe products, has an intuitive UI, and the best known 3D artist in the world—Beeple—uses Cinema 4D as his tool of choice. Best of all, C4D has an amazing community that is all about sharing knowledge.
Feature wise, it boasts powerful yet easy to use tools. It is robust, with an unmatched Mograph system that allows for object cloning, powerful procedural animation workflows, easy to use real world physics system, Placement Tools that make kitbashers drool, and so much more!
Plus it’s got a Jiggle Deformer, so I mean...come on.
Okay, let me take my C4D fanboy hat off for a second and talk about Blender. Did you know it’s free? Well it is, and that’s one of the major benefits of this open source and fully featured software. Once you get past its not-so intuitive UI, it’s a very powerful application that supports all aspects of the 3D pipeline such as modeling, rigging, compositing, and even video editing.
One of its most well-known features is Grease Pencil, which I'm not ashamed to say has this C4D-maestro a tad jealous. It allows you to draw directly in your 3D viewport. The 2D-use cases for Grease Pencil are just incredible: storyboarding, concept development, onion skinning...it’s nuts. In addition to Grease Pencil, Blender boasts many powerful tool sets such as its sculpting tools. This includes Dynotop, a dynamic tessellation sculpting method that adds and removes detail as you paint.
Another plus with Blender is its built in renderers, Cycles and Eevee. Cycles is a powerful, unbiased, ray-trace-based rendering engine. Eevee is Blender's real-time render engine—which uses the same shading nodes as Cycles—allowing for quick scene previews and easy switching between renderers. Blender also boasts a supportive and active community that provides a lot of free training content on Youtube.
Next up is Unreal Engine. While originally developed for cutting-edge video games, this program is now used in every corner of the entertainment industry: From previz, to virtual sets, and even motion graphics. It’s claim to fame is being an incredibly versatile program with nearly unmatched real-time rendering capabilities, allowing you to build out your creations with very little concern for render time.
Oh, and it’s absolutely FREE!
It integrates well with other 3D apps like Cinema 4D, and you can even take your scenes from C4D and put them directly into Unreal to take advantage of its real-time rendering. A final bonus is that the entire Megascans library is totally free to use inside of Unreal Engine.
And finally, one 3D software that isn’t for the faint of heart: Houdini. Houdini is an insanely powerful 3D App used in 3D animation and VFX
throughout the film, commercial, and video game industries...and is being used more and more for motion graphics work. It does have a reputation for a very steep learning curve; you won’t just pick up Houdini in a week. But as many Houdini enthusiasts will tell you, it’s worth the growing pains.
It’s totally node-based and procedural, allowing for a crazy amount of control. Most of the amazing dynamic simulations you see online are probably done using Houdini, but it’s so much more than that. Particle sims, modeling, you name it—Houdini can do it. Plus, with its Houdini Engine, it allows for its assets to be imported and procedurally edited in Maya, 3DSMax, C4D, Unreal Engine, and Unity. Think After Effects MOGRTS. And they have an apprentice version that is free that you can learn on and use for non-commercial projects
Third Party Renderers
Now onto one of the most divisive topics...third party renderers! At any given time of the day, someone is typing “what renderer did you use” under an Instagram video. Let me preface this section with the fact that most modern renderers are super good and, at the end of the day, it’s more about the talent of the artist. What I mean is...don't sweat this part too much.
OK, that being said, let’s talk about the big three: Arnold, Redshift, and Octane.
Arnold is the CPU/GPU-based unbiased renderer that has worked on Mac for longer than the other two, but also might be the slowest of all 3. Arnold does have an amazing toon renderer, and that CPU and Mac support means that it’s not GPU dependent like others, so it’s more accessible for a lot of artists.
Now speaking of GPU-dependent and Mac support, Octane has been standing out in this area lately, expanding support to many Macs. Octane is an unbiased renderer that creates beautiful finished products; its hard to make a bad render using it. It’s got a massive community and I’d say it’s the most popular third party renderer out there. It’s also the renderer of choice for Beeple.
The company behind Octane—OTOY—is a pioneer in the industry with a lot of interesting and ambitious projects, including RNDR, it’s decentralized cloud rendering platform.
Finally, we have Redshift, a biased renderer. That means you can really dial in stylistic looks that break reality. For any C4D users, it’s also owned by the same company—MAXON—so you can expect really tight integration over time.
It’s super fast and has a totally node-based material system. Redshift’s strengths are how fast it renders volumetrics and its overall speed. This is because of its ability to dial in samples for literally any aspect of your scene. Unlike Octane, Redshift does take a bit more time to lock in beautiful renderers. If you’re good at lighting, it really doesn’t affect you all that much.
3D Post Production Programs
To finish up, let’s talk about post production. Most designers know that After Effects and Photoshop are the go-to programs for compositing, especially for Cinema 4D users, because of their tight integration. But more and more I am seeing Nuke used as the compositor of choice for many 3D artists.
Nuke is a powerful node-based compositing and visual effects app that was first developed by Digital Domain. Its main strength is being a totally node-based workflow, making for much more streamlined and powerful compositing. Plus it has a full 3D workspace, allowing for the import of 3D geometry, and the combining of 2D and 3D elements. Nuke also has a really nice particle tool set.
For 3D artists that love working in nodes, this is quickly becoming the compositing app of choice.
Get Started in 3D Design
There you have it, my list of the most popular 3D software. The 3D industry is always changing, and it’s an exciting time to be a creative with so many tools at our fingertips! If you want to jump into the pool and learn to swim, we've got a course that's just for you: Cinema 4D Basecamp!
Learn Cinema 4D from the ground up in this intro course from Maxon Certified Trainer, EJ Hassenfratz (that's me). This course will get you comfortable with the basics of modeling, lighting, animation, and many other important topics for 3D Motion Design. You’ll learn basic 3D principles and best practices, laying the foundation to tackle more advanced subjects in the future.
Tutorial Full Transcript Below 👇:
EJ Hassenfratz (00:00): As 3D artists, we're asked to do so many things to learn so many disciplines and be on top of the latest techniques and tools. That's no easy task. That's why I put together this list of some of the top software that I'm seeing 3d artists using in hopes to open your eyes, see what's out there and see what you can add to your own 3d workflow. Ready to dive in. Let's check it out.
EJ Hassenfratz (00:32): Let's begin with the most critical step in the 3d workflow. And that is the planning phase, because let's be real. If you're failing to plan, you're planning to fail concept development in creating mood boards is key to creating amazing renders. Now it's easy enough to create boards on Pinterest, but even better is using a free app called pure ref. Pure ref allows you to gather references, create mood boards, and have them actually sit right on top of your interface and even adjust the transparency over top of your application to so whether you're modeling, creating materials, or just trying to match a lighting setup, pure F allows you to have those reference images close at hand. Now the key to creating high quality renders is that it requires high quality assets. Luckily there's plenty of software out there to help artists source and create high quality assets.
EJ Hassenfratz (01:26): First up is quick. So bridge mega scans and meta-humans quick. So bridge is a free content management software from epic games that allows you to browse and export massive libraries of assets that are in their mega scans and meta-humans catalogs for use in your 3d application of choice like cinema 4d. Now the best part is, is that the quick sole bridge for cinema 4d plugin allows you to easily export out assets with materials automatically set up for the third party, render that you have set up within cinema 4d, whether that be regift, octane, you name it. Now, in addition to mega scans, there is meta-humans, which is a crazy insane plugin by epic. That allows you to create realistic digital humans with a few clicks of a button. This software is fairly new at this point with limited export ability, but many Cubans is definitely something to keep your eye on.
EJ Hassenfratz (02:24): If you find yourself rendering a lot of nature scenes we'll trader and Forrester are absolute must haves. Let's start off with world creator. It's a real-time terrain and landscape generator that does what the name says. It helps you to quickly world build and do it procedurally. Now, after you create your world, you can then easily export into game engines, modeling apps in 3d apps like cinema 4d. Now landscapes typically require natural elements, and that's where Forester comes in. Forrester is a plugin for cinema 4d that allows you to create customizable natural elements like trees, plants, rocks, and grass super easily with their C4 D plugin. You can easily import customize an animate or assets with fine tune control. So that's nature. But what about people? Daz studio is the go-to software for creating realistic 3d characters. And it's free. Daz allows you to build your own customized and fully rigged characters from scratch, pose them, add hair, clothing, and accessories, and even apply animation to them or animate them from scratch.
EJ Hassenfratz (03:36): In addition to the free assets that are provided, Daz has a massive library of assets that you can download on their marketplace called Dez central. Now another software people use with characters a lot is marvelous designer. Marvelous is a very popular choice for making realistic clothes and cloth Sims. The cloth Sims that are made in this software are super fast detailed, and so insanely realistic that it's no wonder it's being used a ton in motion graphics. It's very easy to export your characters from C4 D or your app of choice. Bring into marvelous for dressing, and then export back into cinema 4d for final rendering. Now, I'm sure you've seen plenty of characters with realistic clothes, and you can bet that those clothes are created using marvelous designer. So we covered a lot of software that can provide pre-made assets and help you make custom assets.
EJ Hassenfratz (04:27): But what about modeling your own content from scratch? Answer zebra shh. A standalone sculpting and modeling app. Zebra is the go-to application for sculpting not only soft surface modeling, but hard surfaces as well in intuitive and powerful way. A lot of people might associate zebras with highly detailed in realistic character sculps but I'm seeing it being used in MoGraph more and more. When you sculpt you need a ton of geometry to get all that detail. So to be able to animate it and say, cinema 4d, you need to have way less geometry. And that's possible using zebra rushes Z remeasure, which basically creates a lower poly object while trying to maintain as much original detail as possible. This way you have a lighter asset to use with say joins and deformers in cinema 4d. In addition to being an amazing sculpting app, it also allows artists to create UV maps, paint textures, and they just recently added a dynamic system that allows you to create beautiful cloth simulations, perfect for creating clothing.
EJ Hassenfratz (05:34): Another popular software that you can use to generate lighter geometry in 3d applications is quad remeasure. It'll automatically rematch or re typologize your mesh to make it way lighter and more manageable to use. Quadri measure is perfect for using alongside volume builder mashes. Now, once you created the model, next step is to texture it, right? So let's cover some software that will help you do just that the gold standard in material offering has to be the substance software suite. That includes substance painter, designer and Alchemist. While Alchemist allows you to create high quality 3d materials out of 2d photos with a simple click substance designer, and painter allows you to create materials from scratch. Substance designer is a super powerful node-based material offering app that allows artists to procedurally create tillable materials. It's got a crazy amount of control and the materials that you generate you can use in your favorite 3d app of choice, and you can export out any texture maps.
EJ Hassenfratz (06:38): You would need like normals, displacement, and roughness maps, and you can even use it to create your own HDRs. How cool is that? And last but not least a substance painter, which you can think of as a Photoshop for 3d models, it allows you to paint directly onto the surface of your models in real time, allowing for a very intuitive, artistic and immersive way to texture your models. You can even grunge up your models by painting on wear and tear scuffs, scratches, and rust. Now, one caveat for using substance painter to paint directly on your models is that you actually need your models to be properly UV, unwrapped and UV unwrapping is about as fun as getting your teeth pulled, but rhizome UV makes it fairly painless. Rhizome UVS, virtual spaces. Software is many 3d artists, top choice for easy and intuitive UV. Unwrapping rhizome also has software bridges that makes the UV export from 3d software to rhizome.
EJ Hassenfratz (07:40): And then back to your 3d software workflow, very streamlined speaking of 3d software, let's talk just that 3d applications. Now, if you know me, you know, my 3d app of choice is cinema 4d. In my opinion, it's hands down the easiest 3d software to learn and the most popular choice for most freelancers and studios. It's gotten amazing integration with Adobe products has an intuitive UI and the best known 3d artists in the world by people uses cinema 4d as his tool of choice. It's got an amazing community. That's all about sharing knowledge and it's got something called a jiggle deformer. So, I mean, come on. All right, let me take my C 4d fan boy hat off for just a second and talk about blender. Did you know it's free? Well, it is. And it's one of the major benefits of this open source and fully featured software.
EJ Hassenfratz (08:33): Once you get past, it's not so intuitive UI, it's a very powerful application that supports all aspects of the 3d pipeline like modeling, rigging, compositing, and even video editing. One feature grease pencil is something that as a C4, two user, I am super envious of blender. Having it allows you to draw directly in your 3d viewport. The 2d use cases for grease pencil are just incredible. We're talking storyboarding concept development, onion skinning. It's insane. In addition to grease pencil, blender, boasts many powerful tool sets like at sculpting tools, including dyno top it's dynamic tesselation sculpting method. And what that does is adds and removes detail as you paint. It's really awesome. Another plus with blender is it's built in renderers cycles and Evy cycles as a powerful unbiased Ray trace base rendering engine. While Evie is blenders real-time render engine, which uses the same shading nodes as cycles.
EJ Hassenfratz (09:35): And this allows for quick scene previews in real time, and then easy switching between the renderers blender also boasts a supportive inactive community that provides a ton of free training content on YouTube. Next up is unreal engine. And what started out as primarily a software used only to develop video games is now used by virtually everyone in the media industry it's being used for previous virtual sets and even motion graphics. Its claim to fame is being an incredibly versatile program with nearly unmatched real-time rendering abilities that allow you to build out your creations with very little concern for render time. Oh, and it's absolutely free. It integrates well with other 3d apps like cinema 40, where you can even take your scenes from cinema 4d and put them directly into unreal and take advantage of its real-time rendering. One other bonus is that the entire mega scans library I mentioned before is totally free to use inside of unreal engine.
EJ Hassenfratz (10:35): And finally, the one 3d software that's not for the faint of heart. Houdini. Houdini is an insanely powerful 3d app used in 3d animation and VFX and used throughout the film commercial and video game industries. And it's being used more and more for motion graphics work. It does have a reputation for having a very steep learning curve. You're not just going to pick up Houdini in a week, but as many Houdini enthusiast will tell you it's totally worth the growing pains. It's a completely node-based and procedural workflow allowing for a crazy amount of control. And I'm willing to bet that most of the amazing dynamics simulations you see online are probably done using Houdini, but it's so much more than that. It's got particle sames, crazy procedural modeling, you name it. Houdini can do it. Plus with its Houdini engine, it allows for its assets to be imported and procedurally edited Maya 3s, max C 4d unreal engine and unity think after effects McGirts and they have an apprentice version that's free that you can learn on and use for non-commercial products.
EJ Hassenfratz (11:42): Now let's move on to one of the most divisive topics third-party renderers at any given time of the day someone's typing. What render did you use into an Instagram section? Let me preface this section with the fact that most modern renders are super good. And at the end of the day, it's not about how good the render is, but how good the artist is. So don't get too caught up with which one do you use? That being said, Octane's the best? Just kidding. Let's talk about the big three Arnold Redshift and octane Arnold is the GPU CPU based unbiased render that has worked on Mac for a longer amount of time than the other two renders, but also might be the slowest of all the three renders. Arnold does have an amazing tune render and that CPU and max support means that it's not GPU dependent like the other renders.
EJ Hassenfratz (12:34): So it's more accessible for a lot of artists. Now, speaking of GPU dependent and max support, Octane's actually been super good in this area lately expanding support to many Macs with octane ex octane is an unbiased render that creates the most beautiful renders. It's really hard to make a bad renter using octane. It's got a massive community using it. And I'd say that it's the most popular third-party renderer out there. It's also the render of choice for people, the company that makes it, oh, toy is pretty visionary and pioneering in the industry with a lot of interesting and ambitious projects, including render it's decentralized cloud rendering platform. Oh, toy also has incredible tools in its product family like Ember gen that has insane real-time fire volume metrics, smoke and particle simulation tools, as well as sculpt Tron it's real-time GPU mesh sculpting and animation tool set.
EJ Hassenfratz (13:30): Finally, we have Redshift, which is a biased renderer, meaning you can really dial in to stylistic looks that can break reality. And for anyone who is a cinema 4d user, it's also owned by the same company max on. So you would expect really tight integration over time. It's super fast and has a totally node based material system. Its strengths are how fast it renders volumetric lights and its overall speed because of its ability to dial in samples for literally any aspect of your render. Unlike octane Redshift does take a little bit more time to dial in a beautiful render, but if you're good at lighting, it really doesn't affect you all that much. All right, let's talk about post-production. I'm sure everyone's familiar with the fact that after effects and Photoshop are the go-to software for compositing, for most 3d artists, especially cinema 4d artists because of its tight integration with Adobe products, but more and more I'm seeing nuke being used as the compositor of choice for many 3d artists, nuke is a powerful node based compositing and visual effects app that was first developed by digital domain.
EJ Hassenfratz (14:41): Its strengths are at being a totally node based workflow making for a much more streamlined in powerful compositing workflows. Plus it has a full 3d workspace aligns for the importing of 3d geometry and the combining of 2d and 3d elements directly. It's also got a really nice particle toolset for 3d artists that love working in nodes. This is quickly becoming the compositing app of choice. So there you have it, my list of some of the top 3d software that I'm seeing artists using now, the industry's always changing and it's a really exciting time to be an artist with so many tools at our fingertips, but was there some software that I did not mention that you think I should have be sure to complain in the comment section below or if there's a fever app that I did mention be sure to shout out that app that you really love and be sure to like and subscribe, ring the bell so you can get notified of all the latest school of motion tutorials. Thanks so much for watching. I hope to see you back here again sometime soon. See up
Music (15:45): [outro music].