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The Most Popular 3D Software of 2021

By EJ Hassenfratz
Cinema 4DUnreal EngineBlender

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?
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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.
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Pure Ref

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. 
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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!
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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.
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Daz Studio

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.
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Marvelous Designer

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? 
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ZBrush

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.
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Quad Remesher

Another popular program for generating lighter geometry is Quad Remesher.  It will automatically remesh or retopologize your mesh to make it way lighter and more manageable for animation.  Perfect for using alongside Volume Builder meshes.

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. 
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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!
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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
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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. 
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Blender 

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.
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Unreal Engine

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.  
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Houdini

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.
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Arnold

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.  
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Octane

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. 
OTOY also has incredible tools in its product family such as EmberGEN—an insane real-time fire, volumetrics, smoke, and particle simulation tool—as well as Sculptron, it’s real time GPU mesh sculpting and animation toolset.
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Redshift

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. 
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Nuke

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.