Best 3D Animation Software
For professionals in animation, there are a multitude of options, and none of them are inherently better than others. In any of them, you’ll be using the stage to model and animate your 3D figures. If time and money are disposable, a good animator can pull off quality work in any of them. However, for many, the obvious first choices are Autodesk’s Maya or 3DS Max and Maxon’s Cinema 4D. Because 3DS Max is a Windows-only software, let’s focus on the other two.
The drawbacks here are both pretty huge. Perhaps Maya’s most glaring flaw, however, is it’s user-friendliness—or rather, its opaque interface that makes for a steep learning curve to understand its true potential.
Access can also be a barrier. The full version of Maya is nearly 1,500 USD per year. They offer their LT version (without the complete set of tools, which, as Autodesk notes, “fits an indie game maker’s budget”) but that still puts out 240 USD annually. Good news for students, however, because a three-year free “trial” is available, which means you don’t need to burn through a ton of money just to learn the software.
2. Maxon’s Cinema 4D
Maxon’s Cinema 4D, another popular choice, comes with a gentler learning curve. It operates sort of like a 3D version of After Effects’ “2.5D” animation, and thus knowing AE allows for a simple transition. Cinema 4D is also little faster than Maya for producing quick renders.
But partly because it’s not Maya, it falls short. Depending on your purposes, if you’re looking to work for a larger company in gaming or animation, it’s almost all in Maya. Cinema 4D, however, still has some use in advertisements, television, and other motion graphics because of its speed.
Yet Cinema 4D is also massively expensive, but without the free trial options. A full package can run as much as 3,700 USD. Plus, because it is not as widely used as Maya, there are fewer quality tutorials to learn the program.
Which brings us to Blender. Blender forgoes all monetary access barriers: it’s open-source, free to download and use. You model and animate in Blender as well. Because it’s free, you can trawl tutorials at your own pace without worrying about your trial ending like in Maya.
For animation, there are some differences could get in your way. The timeline in Blender, for example, is noticeably inferior to Maya’s, only letting you scrub through. But the only thing that’s going to really trip you up is that both the interface and the shortcuts carry big differences. Why does it matter that they’re different? Imagine spending ages learning the nuances of Blender only to find your new gig forces you to unlearn those reflexive shortcuts for something entirely new. It’s not a total loss, but breaking muscle memory habits can take a long time.
4. Dragon frame
The obvious choice here is Dragonframe. Not only is this what the big studios use (well, for stop-motion, Laika and Aardman are the only “big” studios in stop-motion), but it’s also an excellent choice for solo productions. At 295 USD (which comes with a shortcut controller so you can have access to everything you need right at your stage instead of jumping back and forth to your computer) and endless updates, it’s by no means cheap, but it’s not going to bust your animation budget like some of its cousins in 3D animation.
What makes Dragonframe so great? First, it does everything it must do quite well. It takes over your camera so you can make adjustments in the application without touching your camera and ruining your shot. It helps you see how much your current shot has moved, where it was previously, and makes it easy to walk through your images. It then organizes your digital frames by the shot you asked for.
But if it only did what it had to do, it wouldn’t be the overwhelming favorite. Want to draw hash marks to plan a shot in advance? Or maybe you want to plot your mouth movements for a character in advance and be sure you’ve got it right before your character is in action. Or maybe you’re just interested in excellent time-lapse software. Dragonframe can do all of this and (forgive the sales-pitch speak) a whole lot more. With regular, useful updates, there are few reasons to go with anything else unless it doesn’t support your super old digital camera.
5. Boinx’s iStopmotion
Another option to go for is Boinx’s iStopmotion. While significantly cheaper (at 50USD), it also does a lot less. The biggest drawback here is that it captures frames through a video feed instead of taking frames through your digital camera. So while you may be able to grab decent frames, it will have nothing of the depth that your DSLR can take directly. No amount of onion skinning and chroma keying (which Dragon frame does better in both) can make up for this deficit.
6. Frame By Frame (for Mac)
If you need a free, open source option to make sure stop-motion is for you, there are choices available. While there are plenty of bare-bones frame-grabbers out there, one that seemed popular, FrameByFrame, can help you test the waters in stop-motion. Unlike Blender, this one is not free because it’s been developed open-source, but rather it’s free because it’d be hard to charge for a program that does so little. Be prepared for noting more than software that grabs the frame and lets you play it back at your desired frame-rate. That’s it. But it could be enough to see if you have a knack for animating and want to try one of the less free options.