The program Blender has eclipsed almost every 3D software program available. The only one that can even be considered more advanced is Maya. If Maya is still ahead in terms of performance and capabilities it is by a slim margin. The argument “professionals use Maya and amateurs use Blender” is, as of right now (March 6, 2015 12:06pm CT), untrue.
Two things first: we do not like change and we do not like Blender. I do not like change because it is a hassle. I do not like upsetting a proven workflow that has been developed over a long period and is just now becoming turbulent free. BUT, I do like having a new set of tools in my bag after I have put in the hard work of mastering it.
Full disclosure: I do not like Blender. It has an alien interface that is totally different from any other 3D program. It is fairly easy for me to transition between C4D, 3DS Max, Maya, Modo, XSI, and Lightwave. Blender does not work like these at a very basic level so I end up rarely using it during production.
Blender is awkward and the learning curve is the steepest I have encountered, not because it is more complicated or has more features than other programs. It just operates completely different than any other program, counter-intuitively. For instance, I have never had to look up a tutorial for any other program on how to simply select an object. Selecting an object is the most basic thing a 3D program can do and yet Blender somehow makes it difficult. Blender relies on the user learning a vast library of hotkeys. If a user does not learn these then they can not really use the program effectively. This is a MAJOR flaw. Especially if the user needs to regularly capitalize on the various strengths of different programs on a daily basis.
This is not my opinion. Blender was designed this way from the beginning. There has been such a fuss made over the unorthodox UI that a Blender development team was put together to address the issue. People who use Blender are very enthusiastic about the program and will argue the Blender program is an easy, more natural one than Maya or 3DS or anything else. But this is like someone who speaks Spanish saying Spanish is easy to speak. When you ask them how long they have been using Blender it is always a lengthy amount of time and more telling it usually is the only 3D program the majority of Blender users have ever learned.
Despite this major, fundamental flaw Blender keeps developing features faster than any other program, surpassing all but a few. And the community is definitely the most supportive, generous, and fastest growing. It is growing so fast that it is now winning the 3D program race. I do not know when exactly this happened. Some would argue Blender’s status as champion could be seen in 2012 or earlier. This may have been the beginning of the end, but I would argue the end of 2014 was the period in which Blender began to categorically pull ahead of all others. Reasons for this:
1. Free – obviously this is what gives Blender the immediate and ever-growing edge. Blender being free brings in all kinds of curious users: professionals, amateurs, and noobs alike. So many that even when a lot abandon the program because of its steep learning curve and ridiculous UI it still has plenty of users. The community is absolutely vibrant and passionate about the program. Its growth has not plateaued but is increasing.
2. A Giving Community – being free it was inevitable that Blender would start gathering a dedicated community. This community has developed almost in reverse, from the ground up. Every other 3D program has developed from a top down, hierarchical thrust. The program developers would cater to professionals, then use the work of these professionals (big movies and games) to promote their software to keep selling licenses and gaining new users. Blender has done the opposite. It made itself available to all, most professionals turned their noses up to the free, open-source program. They dismissed it as a tool for hobbyists. The truth is Blender was inferior to other programs when it started out 20 years ago and for many years after that, but this has all changed. An example is Blend Swap, the 3D asset marketplace that allows users to upload and share 3D models and rigs for free. Since the Blender community is rooted in giving and not centered on only profit the marketplace is thriving. It draws amateurs and professional alike. It will probably begin to undermine other asset marketplaces like TurboSquid and Daz 3D.
3. Open Source Freedom – the pace at which Blender has improved is unparalleled and the improvements seem to be increasing exponentially. It is causing a sea-change that I am viewing in real time, no hindsight is needed, as everyone with a brain can see with 20/20 vision Blender is set to dominate the future of CGI.
The open source improvements are a direct result of the horizontal, open, democratic thrust of how the program is developed. It is absolutely free. Anyone can contribute to it, anyone can add code and features to it.
The idea that a computer science professor pursuing research; a talented graduate student working on a thesis; or a lone wolf genius, self-taught coder can all contribute to a project freely has helped Blender make so many breakthroughs. It was hard for a society organized and dominated by capitalism to believe open-source could work. It was hard for a society based on consumerism (and the immediate gratification that stems from consumerism) to grasp that just because an open-source program is lacking “now” (now being 20 years ago), it will always be that way. Blender proves that open-source is not merely a theoretically viable approach to software development; Blender proves open-source is working in the real world and has already changed everything.
4. It Has Everything – the writing is on the wall. Autodesk is changing their entire business model and canceling entire program lines as a direct result of Blender’s success. Their Smoke program seems to be an over-priced bust. If Dreamworks and Pixar and Disney and major animation studios are all developing their own in-house software where does that leave the industry giant? It leaves them facing an extremely worthy, free opponent with an extremely valuable set of all-encompassing tools. Blender has:
- Modeling – A Blender user does not need to use any other program. Modeling in Blender uses mesh modeling as well as sculpting as good as Mudbox or ZBrush. Texturing and UV unwrapping in Blender is as good as Mudbox or ZBrush too. This includes a fur and particle system that rivals anything available.
- Animating – the rigging and animation tools in Blender are maybe only second Maya. A user can create as complex a rig as can be, but more importantly Blender allows the creation of simple character rigs that just work. The inverse kinematics operate smoothly with no real popping or drifting of IK chains. So an animator can really concentrate on movement and the artistry of creating a performance in that movement.
- Rendering – Cycles… what can I say. It is awesome and works directly with Blender’s compositing mode. So all of an image’s data can be manipulated as it is rendered. A user can increase specularity in post or use the alpha channel of one object to say add a bloom or glow effect.
- Liquid/Smoke Simulation – the smoke and liquid simulation is absolutely excellent. Some professionals 3D artists and motion graphics designers use Blender for this aspect only.
- Compositing – Adobe After Effects teamed up with Maxon C4D offering a packaged deal with integrated functionality between the two. They work great together. But AE and its layers are outdated and limiting, so many professionals have migrated to Fusion Studio 7 (a better node-based program all around for compositing) and when the Mac version is available there will be another mass exodus. But Blender users might not even care, nor should they. Blender’s own internal compositor is node-based and awesome. Why care about Fusion’s intricate particle system when Blender’s particle system is already compatible with the Blender compositor. They yawn at C4D and AE’s integrated functionality because Blender already has the equivalent natively. Blenderers do not need to go ‘between’ programs because they have everything, and since everything is native all the different modes work together flawlessly. There is no need to leave the program, ever.
- Video Editing – Blender also has a great non-linear editor complete with motion tracking and camera matching. I don’t see many people using it or talking about it because Blender is progressing so fast that it is just being overlooked (and video editors are not necessarily aware of Blender as a non-linear editing option). But it is as good as Premiere Pro or Avid or FCP and offers so much more with all of the other features.
- Image Editing – Blender offers image editing too. I have not been able to really test it out yet so I can not speak about the image editor at length but from what I’ve seen it is as good as Photoshop and Gimp (another open-source program). Users can take advantage of any brush library they build up for the model sculpting features too which is really convenient.
- Game Engine – this is possibly the weakest link in Blender, but it is beginning to catch up to other game engines. Unity is probably the most comparable game engine to Blender. But that is all Unity is. Blender as you have seen offers SO much more. The big plus with Blender is it is a true open-source program. It is not just “free,” or “royalty free,” it is totally open, the source code is available to all. Game engine industry heavy weights are all beginning to re-arrange their business models, just like Autodesk has had to do. The Unreal game engine just this year has made itself available for free with only a 5% royalty on any shipped games. No one can convince me they did so out of kindness. Me thinks Blender is impacting everything.
- Word Processor – Blender’s word processor can literally write a novel all by itself and while the substance of that novel is about as inspiring as Twilight Blender’s AI is becoming better with every release. Expect Blender’s word processor to output a magnum opus equivalent to James Joyce’s Ulysses with the next few stable releases.*
5. 3rd Party Branches on the Blender Tree – not only has the core program of Blender but it has fostered a great community that is giving back in extremely generous ways. The amount of plugins available for Blender is staggering. Plugins that will create cityscapes, tree cages, and vines. Plugins that will let a Blender user import and export in almost every available format. Another open-source program, MakeHuman, has prioritized Blender and allows for a fully weight rigged, compatible version of their models to be imported into Blender.
Blender’s success should be celebrated by all 3D content creators, especially smaller studios and talented freelance artists. Blender will continue to assist the needs of creatives and their labor; and it will inevitably continue to undermine the creative industry’s dominant players.
*Joke: Blender does not have a word processor… yet.