Software: 3d Animation Software Roundup

3d Animation Software Roundup

By Scott Jenkins

Animation has changed rapidly in the past 25 years, from being exclusively hand drawn to computer programs that can create three dimensional worlds almost indistinguishable from our own. In the late 80s you’d see a technical director working alongside an animator at a workstation that cost much more than the average house. The software was either custom coded, or a combination of Alias for modeling and Softimage for animation at a cost of $30,000 each per seat.

Flash forward to now and you’ll find a different landscape. The computers that you can buy at an office supply store are much more powerful than those old workstations and available for well under $1000, and you can spend anywhere from $8000 all the way down to free (!) to get software that will allow you to make anything from a commercial to a short to a feature film in the privacy of your own home.

The differences between the software packages are many, and your decision on which one to use will depend on much more than just budget.  Where one package may seem to have it all, your pipeline may require it to work with other packages. Also, you may not need all the bells and whistles of an animation package if your job mainly consists of motion graphics or architectural fly-throughs.

So use this guide as a springboard to your own research. Ask yourself what you really need, and look at the various packages to see which one will be the best fit.

Most of these programs have free versions of usually 30 days that you can download and “kick the tires” to see which works best for you, and links to the websites are provided.


Nowadays, any discussion of 3D software begins with the 900 pound gorilla, Autodesk.  Their original software 3D Studio, was a DOS companion to AutoCAD, built to bring architectural CAD drawings into the third dimension. Its advantage was that it could be run on PCs and was quickly adopted by the games market. Soon, those artists began hitting a wall on what they could do, and 3D Studio was given ground up re-write and released as 3DS Max.

Meanwhile, Alias, seeing there was money to be made on the PC (as opposed to Silicon Graphics workstations) released Maya, and a rivalry was begun. Late to the party was Softimage, which was owned for a time by Microsoft, and because of a rewrite that took way too long, never got the traction that Max and Maya had.

However, Autodesk decided to go on a buying spree and bought both Maya and Softimage, eliminating outside competition, and rebranded the packages for different markets. In recent releases, they are all built to work well together (and with other software) in various Entertainment Suite packages, which wind up being both expensive (up to $8000) and a bargain for the software you get.

3DS Max

3DS Max is great software for a small shop, as it’s “ready to go” for anything out of the box. Strong with its CAD roots, the Max and AutoCAD combination can take you from an architect’s drawings to realistic renders. But it doesn’t stop there: Max has one of the strongest modeling toolsets and a robust character animation system that makes it excellent for working on a range of projects and has been used in games, commercials,  animated television series, and feature films all around the world.

3DS Max has been described as “an Operating System for a very wide range of plug-ins,” and there is a staggering amount of plug-ins and scripts that extend its power, from Fluid Dynamics programs to rendering engines.

3DS Max Features page

3DS Max Demo Download – 30 Day free trial.



Maya would seem to be the “go to” software for animation, as it’s used by everyone from Pixar to Dreamworks uses Maya to do their feature animation. However, the strength of Maya is its ability to let you get “under the hood.” If Maya doesn’t let you do exactly what you want it to do, you can open it up and supercharge it, using either MEL or Python scripting, or the extensive Software Development Kit to create your own tools. Maya is great for medium to large shops that are working with a complicated pipeline, where the software needs to be flexible enough to do exactly what you want it to do, and you have the programmers who can handle the job. If you’re a small shop that’s fitting into another organizations pipeline, Maya is also your choice.

Maya, through its HumanIK  also has a strong integration with Motionbuilder (also an Autodesk product) which is the standard for working with motion capture files.  They are sold together in the Entertainment Suites and together make a powerful pair.

Maya also has strong animation tools and an interface built for speed. The available plug-ins aren’t as extensive as those for Max, but there are good ones to be found, especially in the rendering department, where Pixar’s Renderman, and ChaosGroup’s vRay are available for tight integration with Maya.

Maya Features Page

Maya Demo Download – 30 Day free trial.



Softimage seems to have been pushed aside, but as it turns out, is far too powerful a program to completely let go away, especially given two of its components, FaceRobot – an extremely robust facial animation system with soft-tissue dynamics, and controls for lip-synching and emotions; and ICE, a visual programming language that lets you do anything from particle systems to rigging.

As part of the Entertainment Suite, Softimage acts as a standalone plugin package for Maya and Max that is built to interact well with both. On its own, it is a strong modeling and animation package that interacts well with a host of other programs, including Pixologic’s  zBrush (see below).

Softimage Features Page

Softimage Demo Download – 30 Day free trial.


Lightwave 3D

Another of the old guard animation programs, Lightwave 3D began as part of the revolutionary Video Toaster system on the Amiga (!).  A very strong, yet relatively low cost piece of software, Lightwave 3D was widely used on television shows such as Babylon 5, the various Star Trek series, Battlestar Galactica (the new series), and feature films such as Star Wars, Sin City,  300 and Star Trek features.

Lightwave 3D is actually two programs, a separate modeling and animation program that can update in realtime through a Hub program. This maximizes resources for whatever task you have at hand, and once you get used to it, is an excellent way to work.

Lightwave has always had one of the best “out of the box” renderers, and the new version, 11.5 is no exception. It has excellent character animation tools and can easily provide feature quality animation for a reasonable price.

Lightwave 3D Features Page

Lightwave 3D Demo Reel

Lightwave Demo Download – 30 day free trial



Modo was built by a group of engineers who mutinied from Lightwave 3D and broke off and formed a new company. Said to be built “by artists, for artists”  it sports one of the industry’s strongest and fastest modelers, with the ability to see your model instantly in a photorealistic, realtime renderer.

Whereas programs such as Max and Maya have a scores of individual specialized tools, Modo has a smaller toolset that is customizable by the artist to create whatever tool is needed. Once you can wrap your head around this concept, it is possible to create top-quality work. ILM uses it as a concept development tool, proving its intuitive creative flow.

The animation tools are also strong, and Modo is used in feature films like John Carter, District 9, and television shows like CSI, Fringe and True Blood, as well as a host of games and commercials you’ve no doubt seen.

A robust Python scripting integration allows you to get even further under the hood, and a C++ Software Developer kit allows programmers to extend the program to meet your needs.

The renderer is gorgeous, CPU based, and takes full advantage of multiple core processors. The more hardware you throw at it, the faster it gets. However, it doesn’t yet have GPU rendering support – currently a good and bad thing – good in that you don’t need to spend thousands on multiple GPUs for single-box rendering as one GPU and a good processor will still give you realtime feedback; bad in that you need to use more workstations for rendering. It becomes a budget consideration that you have to balance, but it’s a solid piece of software.

Luxology Modo Demo Reel

Modo Demo Download – 15 Day Free Trial or $25 30 day trial


Cinema 4d

Cinema 4d scored a big hit with its tight integration with After Effects in the current Adobe suite of products. They have a great way of selling the product: you buy what you need. If you’re a motion graphics guy, you most likely don’t need all the character tools to do motion graphics, so Cinema 4d has a Prime Version that’s made for that. Adding on features such as render nodes, realtime rendering, advanced Character Tools, hair, and particles, etc. will take you all the way up to the Studio Version. And you can start off from one version and upgrade to the extra-featured versions as your needs expand.

Cinema 4D Demo Reel

Cinema 4D Demo Download – 42 Day Free Trial.



Houdini has  a great selection of modeling and animation tools, but it’s true power is that it has the most powerful effects and dynamics systems of any of the 3D packages. It’s used by everyone: Pixar, Weta, ILM, Sony, and others to create the explosions and effect that highlight blockbuster features.

Using a node-based, procedural workflow, Houdini makes complex interactions of objects and particles, easy, intuitive and repeatable. You can build a library of particle and dynamics systems that you can plug into your scenes, allowing you to quickly create magic and still stay within your deadlines and budgets.

Houdini 2012 Demo Reel

Houdini Demo Download – Watermarked Free Learning Edition and $99/year Non-Watermarked “Starving Artist” Learning Edition



Blender is insane. Completely. You get a full 3D software package that includes modeling, animation, rendering, compositing, video editing, and a game engine for free. That’s right. Free. Not a thin dime. Not a sausage.

Blender is Open Source software, overseen by the Blender Foundation in the Netherlands, and developed by a community of programmers and animators all over the world. Because of this, they work fast – features that take time to appear in other packages show up here quickly.

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that the implementation is necessarily good, or right for your situation. It doesn’t play well with others, in that importing animation from another package is tricky. It hasn’t been tested as much in production as any of the other software packages, so you might be taking a chance on getting your work out.

But. They have created their own productions –  ranging  from animations to games, to VFX demos –  to highlight their work, and heavily documented what and how they did it. And supplied all the files for those works, up to and including 4K (!) renders. And supplied the source code for the program itself, so anyone can go in and see how it was done, and if they can figure out a way to do it better, send it in for a later iteration of the program.

And on the other other hand (back to the first hand?) you get a killer piece of software. A modeling and animation system that works for everything from motion graphics to character animation. A killer renderer that’s blazing fast and runs on as many GPUs as you can throw at it. A particle system for your effects needs. And the ability to put it in front of your artists by clicking the link below.

Blender Demo Reel

Blender Open Movie – Sintel

Blender Download Full Program.


Scott Jenkins has been animating on the computer since 1988 and has worked as a freelancer  in games, television, and Location Based Entertainment. He has professionally used most of the software listed in this article and has used the rest in hobby work.

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