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What is Blender, and Is It Right for You?

By Remington Markham
After EffectsCinema 4DNukeIllustrator

With incredible versatility, and a price point that can't be beat, what's stopping you from jumping into Blender?

Blender is an open source 3D application developed by both Blender Foundation and its community. In the past, Blender has oftentimes been overlooked as the “free alternative” if you couldn’t afford other industry applications.
However, with its recent updates it has become a viable alternative on its own. Boasting industry-standard features and some unique tools, it now stands next to the competition.
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Becoming a Motion Designer can be expensive, especially if you plan to work in both 2D and 3D. Between the Adobe Creative Cloud, C4D, Nuke, Maya, and every other piece of software, you could be spending thousands just to gather the tools you need.

What is Blender?

To break down all the features of Blender would take a whole article series. It might be easier just to show you.
Party Tug by Ian Hubert
Blender Foundation releases daily builds, and they are constantly adding new features thanks to the hard-working and talented development team and intensely devoted community. Since the release of Blender’s large 2.8 update, we’ve seen a ton of companies take interest and donate to the Blender fund including Ubisoft, Google, and Unreal.
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Rabbids by Ubisoft Entertainment
Blender is even becoming a fixture in the feature film industry, being used on Netflix’s “Next Gen” and “Neon Genesis.” It’s 2.5D Grease Pencil toolset was used to animate 2019’s oscar-nominated “I Lost my Body,” Another Netflix distributed film.
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Next Gen released by NETFLIX 7 September 2020
Given it’s open-source nature, Blender add-ons are easily developed, and they play a large role in the use of the software. Blender Hard Ops (hard surface modeling toolset), is used quite frequently in the gaming industry at companies such as Epic Games and Sony
Blender ships with Cycles, a traditional but very powerful ray tracer rendering engine. The fact that it’s packaged in Blender for free is, alone, reason enough for 3D artists to check out. Cycles is the same render engine used by Cycles 4D for Cinema 4D, except it’s usually more up to date since Blender’s dev team actively develops the software.
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The Junk Shop by Alex Treviño
With Blender’s industry traction and unique toolset, it is a real contender, worth motion designers’ attention—whether for cel animation, real-time rendering, or 3D animation. Blender has tools useful for everyone as an entire 3D package, or as an assistive tool to your current pipeline.

Blender for 3D Artists

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Spring and Autumn by Andy Goralczyk, Nacho Conesa, and the rest of the Team at Blender
Blender’s most known feature is the Eevee render engine. Eevee is a rasterized real-time render engine built right into Blender. Eevee works seamlessly with Cycles, meaning that you can switch between render engines at any time. Since these applications are packaged into Blender, they’re built right into the workflow and viewport, with no need for external installs or windows to manage your renders. 
Tiger At the Top of the Hill by Daniel Bystedt
Eevee may not be as fully-featured as other applications—such as Unreal Engine—but it stands on its own and is able to deliver quality products that fit within a rasterized engine’s limitations.
Recently this studio used it to turn around an 8k resolution video for a Google project:
Although not as robust as C4D’s toon shader, Eevee is equipped with some great NPR-style tools. Check out this painterly short film from Lightning Boy Studios entirely rendered in Eevee:
Despite its real-time limitations, we’re seeing lots of realistic renders coming from talented artists. With support for transparency, render passes, and hair, Blender is becoming a viable render engine for final output. Most notably they recently added open VDB support so that now you can preview VDB information right in the viewport.
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Eevee serves as the material viewport mode when using ray trace rendering (Cycles). It gives you real-time accurate representations of your final output before rendering. This makes Blender a powerful tool for 3D artists, as it allows the user to have a better preview of their final product, making it easier to modify and develop your designs.

Sculpting Tools

Nessa by Pablo Dobarro
Blender recently hired a new developer to head the sculpting features of the application, and since then it’s been nothing short of amazing. New tools, masking improvements, new mesh system, voxel remeshing, and great viewport performance add up to a fully-featured sculpting application.
Recently added was the pose brush, a tool that simulates a temporary armature rig to allow you to pose pieces of your mesh:
If you’ve been anywhere on twitter in the motion design world, you’ve probably seen the cloth brush tool which simulates cloth wrinkles:
If you find yourself checking out Blender’s sculpting tools you might find yourself reconsidering whether magic is real or not!

Bendy Bones 

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Blender may not be as advanced as Maya when it comes to rigging—it lacks some layer organization (though add-ons fix this)—but it is a robust rigging package when compared to other 3D applications. It has all the traditional shape keys, links, drivers, and relations you could hope for. It also has its own solution for splines. Spline IK systems tend to be clunky, difficult to set up, and lag the viewport like you’re trying to render a crowd simulation. Bendy Bones fixes that! 
Bendy Bones are bones, divided into segments, operating similar to a Bezier Curve in After Effects. The creators' intent was to create a fun tool with which to animate, and I’d have to say they succeeded! You can see an example of me using it on my MoGraph Mentor character rig here:
You can also see a more advanced example of a simple face rig made all with Bendy Bones:
Video by Danny Mac, Rig by Daniel M. Lara
This tool makes Blender a great tool for 3D animators who may not have much rigging experience.

Key Mesh

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Design by Pablo Dobarro, Animation by Daniel M. Lara
Key mesh is a new tool for Blender, developed by the same people who made Bendy bones. It’s an amazing new tool that lets you sculpt animations frame by frame!
Check out this amazing facial animation starting from a sphere here:
Animated by Daniel M. Lara
This entire cat was animated without any bones!
Animated by Daniel M. Lara

Top Blender Features for 2D Artists

Grease Pencil

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The Tram Station by Dedouze
Blender is the perfect gateway drug for 2D artists looking to get hooked on 3D! The Grease Pencil tool is a fully-featured 2D cel animation tool built into Blender. However, it exists as a 3D object. So, think of it as a motion clip from Adobe Animate: you can animate inside your motion clip, then twirl out into 3D space and take advantage of the benefits of 3D.
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The Tram Station by Dedouze
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The Tram Station by Dedouze
You could animate forward with traditional 2D animation—and it’s a great tool for that—but being built into a 3D app opens so many possibilities.
Tutorial by Matias Mendiola
Of course, there is the immediate benefit of offsetting objects in 3D space to gain parallax.
There is also the benefit of mixing Grease {encil 2D objects into 3D scenes. You can fly through a 3D scene with your camera and animate your 2D character in the frame.
Blender takes it a step further than the obvious though. You can actually paint in 3D space. You can paint on 3D objects themselves and hide them, or you can move around in 3D space and paint at your own discretion. It can be a bit difficult to visualize, so take a look at how “I Lost my Body” utilized these features:
Art by Jééemy Clapin
It also allows you to rig and light your objects, opening up a lot of time-saving features for 2D artists.
Art by Maisam Hosaini
An example I made for The 3 Productions, using a mixture of 2D cel, motion capture reference, and 3D rigs for the shoes:
The Grease Pencil workflow unlocks so many possibilities for 2D animators. Adobe Illustrator SVG support is in development, allowing 2D artists to import their 2D illustrations automatically converting them to Grease Pencil materials. With a mixture of 2D and 3D the grease pencil provides a full suite of traditional tools for 2D artists and room to explore 3D, for artists looking to step into the next dimension. Being all in one application, it allows 2D and 3D artists to collaborate in the same software, simplifying the pipeline process.

Virtual Reality Comes to Blender

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VR has recently been added to Blender. Currently, it just lets you fly through the viewport to view your model, but more features are planned soon.
This feature, combined with Eevee’s real-time rendering, makes Blender a great tool for VR artists looking to preview their creations. With the upcoming features, it will also become a solid VR modeling creation platform for VR artists.
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The Tram Station by Andry Rasoahaingo
Currently VR is limited to just viewing in Blender. You can place bookmarks around and view your scene with the Eevee render engine. However, the Blender team has said this is just their first milestone, and they plan to add more VR-rich content in the future. Those details haven’t been discussed any further, but my expectations are that they will add modeling and Grease Pencil tools similar to other popular creative VR modeling apps.

Blender for VFX Artists and Editors

Video Editing and Compositing Suite

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Artwork by the team at Blender
Back in 2012, Blender released a short film titled “Tears of Steel.” This little project was produced to develop a full suite of VFX tools for Blender. Though not as robust as applications such as Nuke or Fusion, it offers a suite of tools great for entry-level VFX artists: object tracking, camera tracking, keying, masking, and more.
Tears of Steel by Blender
It likely won’t replace your VFX software if that’s your primary usage, however it has been used by studios on high-end projects such as “The Man in the High Castle.”
The Man in High Castle by Amazon Studios
The tracking features are great, fully-featured, and pair nicely with After Effects projects needing some 3D tracking work. Blender actually has an add-on allowing you to export your camera and objects into an AE comp, making it easy to track, render, and comp your projects. 
With everything being built into an application and Eevee’s real-time rendering, it makes for really easy previs work for VFX artists who may want to quickly get a simple result from A to B before moving on to final pipelines.
Goodnight Claire by Daniel Byestedt
A video editor is also included. Originally way too slow to use practically, Blender has been putting a lot of love into this feature these last few updates, and it’s improving all the time. With version 2.9 on the way, it’s safe to say that Blender could serve as a video editor capable of handling most motion design edits. It won’t be replacing Adobe Premiere anytime soon, but if you’re primarily a 3D artists and don’t have an Adobe subscription, it offers enough power to get you through any simple edit. Also, if you’re just starting out it’s a great way to learn.

The Future of Blender

Everything Nodes

Blender is currently developing a major new toolset for Blender called Everything Nodes. The idea is that you can control EVERYTHING with nodes (get it?). The goal is to create a Houdini-like toolset for Blender allowing you to program, mix, and move anything you want how you want. This has unlimited potential for motion designers as it gives you complete control over creating your own animation systems, simulations, or whatever motion your mind can dream up.
It can be used on more traditional motion design particle systems:
Images from Daniel Paul
However, given the level of control you have, you can go as far as procedural rigging.
Images from the LapisSea
The developer also developed animation nodes, so if you’re impatient you can hop in now and get started with animation nodes, which is a simpler version of the planned Everything Nodes update.

Fast Updates and Long-Term Support

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Blender’s development team moves so fast it can be difficult to keep up. They release daily builds and weekly dev updates; they’re always adding new features, and have more on the horizon. With all of their recent funding, they are anticipating a release of Blender 3.0 rather quickly. Currently Blender 2.9 is in feature development and will be out late 2020.
Although it may seem great to receive constant support, this can pose problems for studios who build their own tools and base their pipelines around a piece of software. To support these studios, Blender has introduced long term support versions (LTS). These versions will continue to be supported with bug fixes and compatibility for longer periods of time to assist studios or users who want to see a project through in one version of Blender. Though oftentimes new versions don’t break pipelines, this adds an extra level of security that you can maintain your projects till the end on a long term contract.

Is Blender Right for You?

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How Blender Benefits 2D Artists

As we all learned in elementary school, pros and cons list are the best way to make a decision! So let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of Blender, starting with its 2D toolset.

Pros

  • It’s free!
  • Grease Pencil is a fully featured cel animation tool with 3D attributes.
  • Sculpting drawings saves massive amounts of times on in-between keyframes. Sculpt your drawings around and avoid having to redraw or move a million anchor points.
  • You can light your 2D drawings in 3D and add a little extra depth to your scenes.
  • Drawing in 3D means you can add some dimension to your characters without having to learn how to model.

Cons

  • You don’t get to brag on how much you spent on it.
  • Although it’s being worked on, there is currently no illustrator support for grease pencil. Though an SVG importer is being developed for this very reason.
  • No rasterized brushes means you’re limited to a set of vector brushes.
  • Setting up multiple layers for compositing in After Effects can be a bit time consuming if you don’t want to use Blender’s compositor.
  • Learning to draw in a 3D perspective is certainly a new skill for many artists and this can be difficult to master.
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How Blender Benefits 3D Artists

What about for 3D artists. There are such a wide range of tools within the 3D realm it really depends on what realm of 3D you work in MoGraph, Simulations, Character, etc.
Pros
  • Blender has an amazing set of sculpting tools that are fast and easy to use
  • Eevee comes built in as a real time rendering engine working seamlessly with Cycles.
  • Cycles is a full featured ray tracing engine packaged with Blender for free. This is the same engine that Cycles 4D uses.
  • Bendy Bones are fun and easy ways to quickly rig your characters in Blender.
  • Key Mesh is an excellent way to avoid rigging some of your characters or objects at all!
  • Animation Nodes is a powerful upcoming tool well suited for mograph artists.
  • Did I mention it is free!?
Cons
  • Not the best nurbs or curve modeling solutions.
  • Simulations are good, not great. Cloth, water, and hair just got major improvements but it’s still a work in progress compared to Houdini or Maya.
  • Import/Export options are improving, but currently divided amongst several add ons. As opposed to C4D’s all in one merge object tool.
  • Text options are limited compared to C4D. Without manually retopologizing, it’s hard to get a clean text mesh in Blender.
  • Arch Viz is possible in Blender and improving, but C4D paired with Redshift is still better suited.
  • No mograph effectors, nothing competes with C4Ds easy to use amazing mograph tool set.
  • Still can’t brag….

So Should You Try Blender?

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Blender is a 3D Swiss Army Knife

Even if it may not be your primary application of use, it’s worth including in your toolset. Blender operates much like a Swiss Army Knife of 3D. It does a little bit of everything. It has 2D animation, excellent rigging, good UV tools, amazing sculpting tools, video editing, VFX compositing, tracking, and more. 
With its ongoing dev support, community interest, and recent funding, Blender is turning out to be a tool with a little something for everybody. Being open source, it has no barrier of entry for upcoming artists looking to learn. And with its ongoing list of upcoming features, I think it’s likely we’ll see current industry start using it as well. Blender isn’t here to take over or nullify existing software. We all know it’s not the tools that make the artist. But with its rich feature set, it’s certainly a tool every artist should consider.