What tools should I use to make VFX or CG Animation?
This can be a surprisingly complex answer to an honest and simple question that many starting out in CG ask.
There will be different opinions on this and that is good. Because it is different based on the individual and their goals.
So, I asked myself what tools would I learn and use today if I were going to create VFX and animation as a beginning independent(indie) VFX practitioner.
In the next couple of months I’ll be trying to pick up skills in certain areas to augment my existing VFX skills. I wanted to put myself in a beginner’s shoe and figure out what I would do by writing this article.
Why the beginner indie VFX practitioner?
Firstly, because there is a lot of interest in CG and VFX by beginners.
Secondly, I think it is a fantastic idea to be able to get paid for your skills early on. You may find that you will be able to get some paid work on websites like freelancer.com and upwork as you level up in your skills.
For those of you who are not aware, I am a strong advocate that students freelance while they are picking up the skills. That is really the best way to improve and test your skills in the real world. If John Knoll used to freelance as a Model Maker and Motion Camera Operator while studying at USC, I think you should too.
Thirdly, being a generalist is a great place to begin in VFX and CG. The ability to bring about all the components of a shot to final fruition is an invaluable skill that a CG artist can leverage upon to solve problems in a shot or project. So there is an assumption in this article, that the user will be at one point or another be attempting the different disciplines in VFX.
The thought process behind the recommendations
This is NOT a comprehensive guide to tools used. That means lots of tools will be left out of the discussion.
Where possible, I recommend tools that are industry standard. However, some tools are cost-prohibitive for the indie beginner.
If that is the case, I will make mention of the industry standard tools, so that the reader who is laser focused on getting an industry job(and not so much an affordable tool they can use to freelance with) can simply focus their learning on the free educational version of those tools.
I also mention tools that I am personally interested in as an alternative. These are generally tools that I would like to get more into and I have included them as the interesting alternative.
Finally, I try to limit the total number of softwares a beginner needs to use. Just so it makes sense from a cost point of view as well as having to learn brand new packages.
That also means, I won’t necessarily be doing a deep dive into each discipline and all the tools available.
Finally, a word about educational licenses.
There is almost always a free educational license with each CG tool. They are great for learning. However, sometimes there are restrictions on resolutions, export formats and watermarks which does not make it suitable for the beginning indie practitioner.
Some academic licenses allow freelance work as long as the user is an artist and is using their personal PC. I make a note of these as well.
However, if there are watermark or resolution restrictions, it is not as useful. I am convinced the only way to learn is to be able to work on projects with the tools as it trains your problem solving skills. After all, VFX and CG production is about solving problems.
Finally, not every CG student is enrolled in an institute of learning. Many students are learning on their own and so they won’t qualify for educational licenses. So I’ve also taken that into consideration and included freelance licenses into the discussion.
The Tools of CG
Modelling, Rigging and Animation
These 3 disciplines are very tightly integrated. Modelling and rigging are part of production asset development, while rigging’s tool of choice largely dictated by the tool animation uses. Hence for the independent beginner it is best that the modelling and rigging steps be done in the same platform as the one you choose to animate in.
- Industry standard tool for modelling, rigging and animation that is used by studios including ILM and Weta. You can model, rig and animate anything in Maya.
- Best-in-class tools for modelling, rigging and animation.
- You’ll also get Arnold(for rendering), XGen(for hair & fur), nCloth(for cloth simulation) and Bi-Frost(for FX) .
- Educational license requires you to prove you are a student in an eligible school and cannot be used for freelance student gigs unlike Adobe.
- The new Maya Indie pilot makes it available to freelancers for $249.97/year.
That makes it very affordable compared to the commercial monthly license of $205.
No one knows how long this pilot will last, but I think this is a good strategy on the part of Autodesk to make Maya more available to freelancers and hobbyists.
It’s hard to beat Maya as the tool to use and learn for Rigging and Animation. It has the best tools for animating and every professional 3D animator and Creature TD/Rigger uses Maya to animate and rig.
Modelling is much more flexible as to which tools you choose. Any geometry can be brought back into Maya for rigging as an OBJ, FBX or even Alembic. That said, Maya is a solid choice for production modelling. It is use for modelling on all of the biggest VFX, Animation and Games productions.
There has been a lot of interest in Blender over the years because it is FREE. Many productions are beginning to adopt the use of blender.
Netflix’s Next Gen animation and Amazon’s Man in the High Castle live-action TV series were produced with blender.
The increasing capability of blender has resulted in more freelancers, hobbyists and smaller productions moving from Maya over to Blender.
There are also many tutorials for Blender. I would begin with Andrew Price’s Blender Guru website for tutorials if I were starting to learn Blender.
While I don’t think that Maya is cost prohibitive with the indie license pilot, if it is still too much, check out Blender. It is still a great way to learn rigging and animation, while freelancing.
Just know that you will still want to know how to rig and animate in Maya, simply because most artists use Maya.
That said, it is not difficult to transition the same principles you learn from Blender to Maya.
After creating your models, you will need to texture(paint) them. It was not that long ago, where texturing a model meant going back and forth between Photoshop and your Maya. It was a rather unintuitive process. While you can still use maya and photoshop to texture your models, there are now tools that exist that make the process much more intuitive. Anytime, something is more intuitive, it makes the process much more creative. I would learn and use them myself as an indie beginner.
- Easy to use and learn. Definitely a plus for the beginner.
- Intuitive painting in 3D
- Non-destructive workflow
- Designer is a great way to generate procedural based textures like rocks.
- Source is a great material library, saving artists time in creating materials.
- One of two industry standard tools.
- Does not support as many advanced features for extremely high resolution textures.
- Academic License – FREE
Substance has previously said that students are allowed to freelance with their Academic License so long as it is used on a personal computer. I was not able to find that in their EULA. So as of this writing, I have contacted Adobe for clarification. I will update when I get an answer.
- Indie License – $19.90/mth or $219/year
Nonetheless, the indie license is not very expensive if you are going to use it for freelance.
Substance is definitely the tool to start your journey learning texturing and is more than capable for most freelance projects.
You get a lot for the price with designer and substance source
The substance website is a great place to begin learning substance as well.
If you find yourself eventually wanting to be a texture artist in the feature film industry, you will need to learn Mari.
Mari was developed by Weta studios as a 3D texture painting tool for high-end VFX productions.
I would not recommend starting in Mari.
Mari can be very confusing for someone just wanting to get a taste for texturing or is an indie VFX practitioner.
Mari is also $59/mth or $599/year at the moment of this writing.
Learn Mari once you find yourself out-growing Substance.
Mari is still unbeaten in its ability to handle multiple high resolution UDIMM textures efficiently, very granular control as well as integrate into a large scale VFX/Animation pipeline.
It is optimised with lots of features for high-end VFX and animation production and is the go to large scale VFX industry standard.
Still confused? Flipped Normals did a good comparison here.
FX, Creature FX & Crowds
In bigger studios, the job of an Creature FX artist is to simulate cloth and hair/fur. The Crowd TD will be performing crowd simulations, while the FX artist does everything else from explosions, smoke, magic, dust, liquids to rigid body dynamics(basically simulating the physics of hard surfaces that don’t bend or compress, such as rocks).
This is arguably one of the most challenging disciplines a beginner can embark in.
As an independent beginner VFX artist you are probably not going to need to work on crowds(If you do, find a way to shoot it and place it in comp as cards where possible). However, the ability to do particles, fluids and smoke/fire(volumetric) simulations is going to be important. Then throw in some cloth simulations and lastly some hair/fur grooming and simulation work.
That’s a lot. But don’t be intimated. I might talk about this in further content on how to tackle your learning step by step. But you really don’t have to know everything at the beginning. Start with particles.
- Industry standard FX software
- Particles, fluids, cloth, fire, smoke, destruction, hair/fur, crowds. You name it, they have a good production proven solution. No extra costs/plugins.
- A platform that you can scale and grow with. There is no limit to how much you can grow in your skills.
- Lots of tutorials and resources.
- Best-in-class procedural modelling tool.
- Houdini artists are in high demand in VFX, animation and games industries.
- A relatively steep learning curve for beginners. It is easy to get lost in it if you don’t know what to look at.
- It’s $269/year or $399/year for an Indie License.
I think Houdini is an all-in-one procedural modelling, creature FX, FX and crowd package that is what I would recommend anyone who wants to do work in FX to pick up.
SideFX is also an excellent software company that has been very responsive to their user base, pushing the quality of their toolsets constantly and offering solid daily builds that hardly break.
Those qualities make it a good software for me to bet my future on.
To be fair, I am a Houdini artist myself, so this review is probably not the most objective.
Nonetheless, this is what I would recommend myself to learn if I were starting as an indie beginner in VFX needing to creating FX and cloth work.
It’s very likely that most indie beginners will already have a copy of Maya.
While Maya’s set of FX and cloth simulation tools are pretty dated, the new bi-frost engine is a solid contender for Houdini’s throne as the reigning FX tool.
To be honest, this has been what Autodesk has been gunning for since they bought over Naiad and moved the XSI ICE team onto bi-frost. Which I am personally excited about.
Maya’s FX and procedural tools have been waning from lack of direction for a while now. And that has allowed Houdini to gain tremendous market space.
Bi-frost is really a copy of SideFX’s approach to FX and Proceduralism for Maya.
Bi-frost is also package independent and can be incorporated into 3ds Max, Houdini or any other 3D package.
While, there isn’t a lot of productions that have used bi-frost at the moment, it is perfectly capable for most freelance work.
Finally, it may be easier to stick to one package to light and render your final image if you choose maya as your lighting package.
What about Max?
Okay, I felt I need to address this. Full disclaimer, I am not a Max user, so I will be glad to hear from Max users if I have missed something out that would change my opinion.
While Max is certainly a very capable tool and has been used by many productions to create FX, below are the reasons why I personally would not recommend myself to learn Max as an indie beginner.
FX in Max consists of leveraging a host of other plugins. e.g. TyFlow(particles), Thinking Particles, Krakatoa(millions of particles), Pheonix FD(fire and water), Realflow(water), etc.
Each of these plugins can add up to the cost for a beginner to learn. Note that TyFlow is free.
Unfortunately, Max’s own tools for FX are dated, much like Maya’s.
Autodesk has not been interested in updating these old tools for a while now. Because they are focusing all their efforts on Bi-frost.
Which means, as bi-frost improves, Max will continue to incorporate the latest bi-frost technology.
Since that is the case, there is no compelling reason for me to recommend Max at the moment.
Shading, Lighting and Rendering
You’ll want to assign shaders to your models that tell the renderer how light should respond to the surface. That’s when you choose a renderer of choice.
A lot of beginners confuse the lighting software and the renderer.
Renderers are often lighting package agnostic. Which means that you can use renderers like Arnold, V-Ray, Renderman, Redshift in lighting packages like Maya or Houdini. In fact, most renderers support all the major 3D packages today.
A lighting package is simply the 3D software in which you are able to create and assign shaders as well as setup lights in your scene.
As a VFX artist, you will want to determine which renderer you would be using and what software package you want to light in.
Maya / Arnold
- Already comes with your Maya subscription.
- Arnold is very easy to use.
- Arnold is a production tested renderer that is very fast.
- When lighting and shading in Maya, you do not need to worry about exporting your geometry to a separate package.
- Integrating FX elements with holdouts may not match as well. If you are not using Arnold in Houdini as well or using Bi-Frost and Arnold within Maya.
- Maya can crash and not be performant on heavy scenes.
- It can be difficult to create lighting setups that are reused across multiple shots in Maya.
- Maya’s lighting tools have not received many updates over the years and can be buggy.
- It comes “free” with the cost of Maya.
- If you choose another other lighting package besides Maya, it costs $360/year.
All that said, Arnold is an excellent production renderer and is surprisingly easy to use for a beginner.
We used it in ILM for Pacific Rim and I have started teaching it this year.
It’s a physically based renderer that tends towards being unbiased. Which means, that it isn’t trying to over-optimise for performance, that the beginner can easily get unpredictable results when messing around with the shader attributes. I am probably over simplifying the explanation, but it is a simple enough explanation for the beginner.
The fact that it comes with Maya is excellent for the beginner and is a great place to start.
I have used Houdini and Maya as a lighting package. I tend to prefer Houdini because it is more stable and, like maya, supports most renderers.
Which means I am not worried about throwing any heavy scene at Houdini.
While the industry standard is Katana, it takes too much work to setup for an indie VFX artist and lends itself better for the bigger studio.
Houdini is node-based just like Katana and is very stable at handling large amounts of data and re-using lighting across shots.
Also, Houdini has excellent shading, lighting, hair and FX systems, which makes it easier to use it as a lighting tool as you can easily bring in the results of your simulations for rendering and hold outs as well.
Finally, with the announcement of Solaris and the Karma renderer, it is clear that massive improvements are on the roadmap for the Houdini lighting and rendering pipeline.
Houdini is the first package to include USD support as a first-class citizen which I believe is the industry standard moving forward.
Unfortunately, the free Mantra renderer that comes with Houdini is slow and the new Karma renderer that is blazing fast is still very much in beta.
Which means at this point, you could consider either Arnold or Redshift as renderers in Houdini. Both are very capable and I will personally try both. Redshift costs $500 for a permanent license. And another $250 every year for maintenance if you want to keep upgrading. Compared to Arnold it is more expensive at the beginning but you will come close to breaking even in the second year.
However, Redshift just might have the advantage for freelance work as it a a very fast GPU renderer and if you are going to be doing a lot of freelance rendering, a GPU renderer and 2 nvidia graphics card might just be what you need to get the job done(I’ll cover GPU cards when I talk about my upcoming workstation build).
In VFX and CG you will need to combine all the layers of renders and life-action plates together, perform green screen extractions, rotoscope things away from the plate and track markers to name a few. You’ll need a compositing software to help you do all this.
- Has a large user base with lots of good tutorials out there to learn from.
- Already comes “free” with your Adobe Creative Suite Subscription.
- Also the industry standard tool for motion design/motion graphics.
- It is a linear, non-nodal based compositing tool. This makes more complex shots very unwieldy.
Andrew Kramer of video copilot fame has a lot of popular resources for learning After Effects compositing. I remembered working on a VFX shot for a university course, where I was learning how to rotoscope and do green-screen extractions from a video copilot tutorial.
Adobe has good beginner tutorials too.
This is a hard one to recommend. Nuke costs almost $5000 for an individual license.
However, it is the industry standard and you will want to get familiar with it, but you will find that it is cost prohibitive to do any sort of freelance work with it.
Obtain the non-commercial version for free to learn. Just know that you cannot do freelance work with it.
While I have not personally used Fusion, it is a nodal based compositing tool that I have seen many freelance VFX artists use.
There isn’t as many learning resources for compositing in Fusion out there, so if you already know some amount of compositing, this may be a good option to jump into.
It’s FREE when it comes with Davinci Resolve.
However, to get the full stand alone compositing package, it is $299.
Still that is VERY inexpensive compared to Nuke.
This is certainly a piece of software I would be getting my hands wet on as it has been hard to find node-based compositing software that isn’t very expensive and is being production tested.
You will need to edit your videos by stitching shots together, adding transitions and music to tell a story. Whether it’s just your demo reel, getting your VFX short film together or making a youtube video. This is a good skill to know as a CG artist.
Adobe Premiere Pro
- This is the video editing software used by most editors and is probably the most popular software out there for video editing. This is a good industry standard to learn video editing.
- It already comes with your Creative Cloud Subscription, which you will need for Photoshop anyway to do any sort of image manipulation.
- Inexpensive. As of the time of this writing, the entire Creative Cloud suite is $19.90/mth for students and teachers for the first year and it goes back to $29.90/mth thereafter. Individuals can get it for $52.99/mth which is still very worth the price if you freelance.
- A little known fact about Adobe Education products, they can be used for commercial purposes.
Too good to be true? That’s what Adobe says.
Can I use Student and Teacher Edition products commercially?Adobe Education FAQ
Yes, Student and Teacher Edition products can be used commercially on your privately owned computer. They may not be resold.
- I would be knit-picking to think of any.
Again, I have heard a lot about Davinci Resolve. It is FREE, node-based and even include a compositing software called Fusion. Many freelance VFX artists use this tool. This will be something I would like to explore in the future and so I am placing this on the worthy mention.
This article got a lot longer than I originally anticipated.
I tried to introduce most of the tools of VFX here. However, I have also left out quite a few tools and even disciplines. For example, I deliberately left match moving and camera tracking out as there are quite a few tools out there and it depends on the shot. I may cover match moving in future posts or content as I delve into specific shots and projects.
Here’s what it boils down to.
Adobe Creative Cloud Suite – Photoshop, Premiere Pro and After Effects.
($19.99-$52.99/mth or $239.88-$635.88/year)
Check with your school if they already provide a free copy of Creative Cloud for students.
If it becomes cost-prohibitive, try using Krita and Davinci Resolve for your painting, video editing and compositing needs.
Maya/Arnold – Modelling, Rigging, Animation and Lighting
Substance Suite – Texturing
Houdini – FX, Cloth, Hair/Fur and Lighting(perhaps)
You could end up paying upwards of $1000 a year to get all the indie versions of the softwares. So I highly recommend utilising your education/academic/non-commercials licenses(if you are eligible) for as long as you can before jumping into indie versions if you start getting paid freelance work.
Begin with the monthly subscriptions for freelance work where available, so you aren’t paying for a year’s subscription when the freelance work is not consistent.
As an example, if you aren’t a texture artist, you probably can do with just renting substance for $19.90/month when you get freelance work and just utilising the free student license for learning and personal projects.
Be very strategic.
If you find yourself gravitating towards the back-end of the pipeline and disciplines that Houdini is good at, it may pay to add Houdini into your arsenal of tools. If not, sticking to Maya and learning to utilise bi-frost is actually a powerful combination too.
I have to say that while I started off the article not really being in favour of learning Blender or Davinci Resolve for the indie beginner, the costs of the different softwares does begin to stack up for the indie beginner.
Dipping your toes into these free softwares to begin with may not be such a bad idea. The concepts are the same and you will find that being able to transfer that knowledge to another tool can be a process of a couple of weeks rather than months.
Let me know if you found this article helpful or if I missed something.
If not, have you thought about the tools that you are learning and using in your arsenal. What tools are you learning at the moment or are you interested to learn next?
Write me in the comments below.
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