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Thoughts on an intuituve array of unitasking 3D software

Posted: October 05, 2011
So I'm fairly new to 3D and needed some advice. But first a little background on who I am what I wish to do (if you prefer to skip forward to the actual question, which I've bolded below, I won't be hurt):

Professionally, I am an editor. I have done everything from features to episodic documentaries and all the smaller short form stuff in between. I use and teach Avid and FCP. Also, though not a master, I am competent enough with the Adobe suite to figure most things out (even if takes me longer than a true graphic artist...and perhaps doesn't look as slick). I'm not a graphic artist or an illustrator or a fine artist of any sort. I am a storyteller, though, and I found editing (and cinematography) to be my access point to visual storytelling based on the talents and skill sets I did possess. All that to say, I am comfortable with computers and technology, and use them on a daily basis to practice my art and craft.

Animation is a passion of mine. It's what got me into filmmaking to begin with. However, my lack of drawing talent quickly dissuaded me from pursuing traditional animation as a profession. Still, I didn't give it up entirely. My first film project while pursuing my MFA in film at USC was a computer animated short. It wasn't very good. It starred a beer can stuck on a fence post attempting to escape a drunken hillbilly firing squad before his turn came. Why a can? Because I could model and rig cylinder without any training and a week to complete the project. Like I said, not an award-winner. But I animated something and it was supremely fulfilling. For my second film, I put together some stop-motion visual effects sequences in a live action film. Also very rough around the edges, but still very fulfilling. While finishing up at USC, I was awarded a grant to produce a traditional 2D short. So, while I was not an animator and while the bulk of my education and training was in traditional narrative live action film, I used every opportunity I could find to somehow work animation into my world. It was, and still is, my favorite medium.

So here I sit, a dozen years later, having spent those years focused on perfecting the skills I did have (as an editor, cinematographer, and producer), and animation has long since dissipated as an active engagement. Now I wish to remedy the situation.

There is no doubt that Maya, 3DS, Blender, etc., are all very powerful packages...and are also very complex. I'm more of a hobbyist, obviously, and am looking to fulfill a specific need. I don't plan on getting a job with Pixar or ILM or a top video game company. As mentioned, this is more for personal fulfillment.

When I made that first CG can short, I used Animation:Master. Why? Because I could afford it. What I did appreciate about it, though, was it was fairly intuitive and what it did well, it really did well. I was able to complete a simple project in a limited amount of time. The operative word here is "complete." I read somewhere on a forum (this forum, I believe) about not taking for granted the benefits and value of simple and intuitive tools. While I could spend years mastering the UI and workflow of Maya or 3DS of Blender, and it would all be worthwhile and they would have oceans of depth and power, I could tackle a more stripped down or even unitasking package and be creating (for fun) right away. While I realize there are benefits to have all-in-one packages, I am also a believer in purpose built tools. So here's what I'm getting at:

What would it take to put together a comprehensive package possibly made up of purpose-built individual components readily accessible to a hobbyist such as myself with a relatively easily surmountable learning curve and a budget price?

For instance, based on my research, the following options seem to present themselves:

Cheetah3D ($99)
-strengths seem to be in modelling and high-quality and fast renders
-weaker in the CA department
-good support community, and a decent number of user-developed scripts to address things like physics, hair/fur, collisions, and other goodies

Silo ($159)
-a purpose-built and strong modeller (they market it as zen modelling)

Shade 12 ($349 for standard)
-powerful modeller and rendering
-also has animation tools, though probably not the strongest ones out there. I could be wrong.

Messiah (let's say $250)
-as far as I can tell, a pretty strong all-rounder

Animation:Master ($300)
-my old friend
-the main strengths seem to be in CA

Now, I could also mention Modo501 for modelling, as I could get an educator discount. That goes for pretty much any program. So price seems to be less the issue. If Modo was the hands-down program to go with for modelling, then I would go with it. If Messiah was all I needed in a one stop shop, I could end the search there, as long as each of its components was well designed and easy to get a handle on. The real issue is intuitive, easy to learn, and geared more towards creating right away vs. wrapping your head around a program for years to really know how to use it properly. Powerful, but FUN. Emphasis on FUN.

So, based on the above packages or any package that exists, what combination would you recommend and why to allow me to cover all my bases (modelling, rigging, CA, and rendering), but perhaps take advantage of purpose-built unitaskers (i.e. Silo) that may provide a quicker learning curve, and yet still provide the ability to have the software grow with me as my skills grow? In other words, as I learn more, there will still be enough depth and power in the software for me to continue to progress and not hit a wall.

Once again, I have no problem with modelling in one program, rigging in another, animating in another, rendering in another, and so on, if each step along the way enjoys the benefits of using a specific program's readily accessible interface and tools to keep it...everybody now... FUN!

And don't say Blender. I think Blender is incredible. I've downloaded it a number of times and have made some headway each time. It's a wonderful thing and gets better all the time. Huge potential for the experienced user. Just not for me. I think Houdini is amazing. I'm a fan of node-based procedural stuff. I was a Shake user before. But it is intimidating. Limitless potential, but not within the parameters of how much time I could devote to learning it. I edit full time, teach almost full time, and do a lot of freelance work on the side. I'm just not going to learn a UI and workflow like Maya or Blender or Houdini to be able to have enough ease with it to have FUN.

I hope that all makes sense.