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June 26, 2014updated 22 Sep 2016 1:26pm

Beginner’s guide to 3D animation software

Tools to suit any budget or hardware.

By Jimmy Nicholls

If you fancy yourself as the next Pixar hotshot, it can be hard to know where to start. Software packages can set you back more than a grand, and the array of options can be overwhelming. In that vein we present you with an overview of what is out there, helping you get started in 3D animation.

1. Maya


Price: Free for students or £2,170
Platform: Windows and Mac

Touted as the industry standard for 3D animation, Maya is an excellent tool for anybody with an interest in animating professionally. Maya boasts an extensive range of features for modelling and animating, including many filters and effects for the enthusiast to master. If you have seen it done before, chances are Maya can do it.

2. Lightwave


Price: Educational version £120 or full version £880
Platform: Windows and Mac

Though weak at character animation, Lightwave is a strong contender when it comes to visual effects, and the price is friendlier than many others on this list, especially if you are buying as a school. It is also well integrated with other tools, in particular ZBrush, and allows you to use motion sensor devices in your animation.

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3. Houdini


Price: Educational version free, professional versions £1,175 or £2,650
Platform: Windows, Mac and Linux

Houdini is a professional package that aims to ease the prototyping process, making it particularly useful in certain animation houses. Those skilled at using this software may not find it easy to transfer that talent to other packages, but it is still useful for drawing assets together from a number of sources. It is also very extendable through a large library of plugins.

4. Modo


Price: £999
Platform: Windows, Mac and Linux

Modo sports a smaller toolset than its rivals, but in some ways it is the more powerful for it. Not only is it able to run on weaker systems, but beginners are less likely to be overwhelmed by what is on offer. The minimal approach extends to the software’s habit of reducing polygon counts without significant loss of detail, making for a leaner programme all round.


5. Cinema 4D

Cinema 4D

Price: Educational version free, otherwise £600 to £2,600
Platform: Windows and Mac

Cinema 4D is a more accessible alternative to some of the professional suites out there. With four different versions available for a range of abilities and budgets, it lets you cut away a lot of the chaff associated with large software packages. Recommended for the newcomer.

6. Blender


Price: Free
Platform: Windows, Mac and Linux

An even cheaper option than Cinema4D, Blender is free, open source, and available for all three major operating systems. The community driven nature of the project means that it has more features than many of its rivals, but like a lot of open source programmes it lacks the sheen of a professional product. If you can stomach the oddities you will find much to love.


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