Which software should you learn for 3D animation?

Why starting out with the industry standard software might not be a good idea.

If you’ve spent any time at all searching for guidance on which software to use for 3D animation, you’ll doubtless have heard about Autodesk Maya. This is with good reason, it is the industry standard software used by the majority of the studios creating character animation for film, TV and games.

There are exceptions to this rule, most notably Pixar and DreamWorks who each use their own proprietary software, but if you intend to work in film, TV or games, sooner or later, you are likely to find yourself using Maya.

So, why would you not use the industry standard software right from the start? Well, there is one very big reason.

The problem with Maya

Maya is expensive, very expensive! Unless you are making a significant income through using the software, it is very hard for most people to justify the expense.

Animation students can gain access to a free, educational version of Maya but this is not the cheap alternative that it may seem to be. The educational licence is only available to those who are attending an accredited institution. Typically this is restricted to universities or online schools with high course fees which mean that you will already have made a big financial commitment by paying for the course.

Obviously, if you have your sights set on working for a studio which uses Maya but you can’t afford access to the software, this could be very demoralising, but when it comes to character animation, there’s one very important thing that you need to understand.

Your ability to use a specific piece of software is a tiny element in your overall skill or employability as an animator.

As an animator the crucial things to learn are animation principles, mechanics and performance. These skills can take many months to learn and many more years to fully master. Throughout this time, when you are learning how to animate, there is no need to use a specific piece of software, since the skills that you develop are fully transferable to any software.

Alternatives to Maya

If Maya is not an option for you, what should you use instead?

There are other 3D applications out there such as 3ds Max, Cinema 4d, or Modo. All of these will give you the tools you need to animate characters but none of them offer a truly affordable alternative. 3ds Max, for example, is just as expensive as Maya.

Instead, the tool that I recommend you start out with is Blender.

Why Blender?

Blender is open source software and is therefore free to use. Often free tools are limited in either their functionality or have awkward interfaces but neither is the case with Blender.

Blender has been in development for many years now. This means that the software has grown to become hugely powerful and it is increasingly being adopted for film, tv, and game work.

As someone who has animated with every major application, including many years using Maya, I can honestly say that I don’t feel restricted by Blender in any way.

Having access to a free but highly capable tool will enable you to learn to animate without restrictions and you can always learn additional tools in the future.

Trial Software

My final recommendation for someone who is planning to work in film, tv, or games, would be to make use of free trials to learn the software that you need for a specific job, after you have already learnt how to animate.

A 30 day free trial version of Maya is available, which is more than enough time to learn the animation specific elements of the software. In fact, if you’re already a competent animator, and you really need to, you can learn everything required in a weekend. This is exactly the approach that I took myself.

How I learnt Maya

When I first worked in animation, I used, now discontinued, animation software called Softimage XSI. When I started to take on freelance work, I received a call about a job which was starting the following Monday. The problem was, the studio used Maya and I didn’t! I promptly downloaded a trial of the software and, by the time I started work on the project I had learnt everything I needed to know.

Obviously, the more time you spend using the software, the more comfortable you will become, especially since the keyboard shortcuts are different and it takes a while to build muscle memory, but it is totally possible to get up and running quickly if you need to.

Final recommendations

So to summarise, if you have access to Maya, fantastic, get animating and don’t look back.

Alternatively, download Blender and enjoy learning animation. Once you’re applying to studios which use Maya, make use of a free trial to learn the animation related elements of the software so you’re able to hit the ground running.

Inbetweens by Into Animation

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