The price of admission for becoming a legitimate 3D visualization professional is high enough to turn away even the most determined young pupils. It starts early with the art supplies. 4 US dollars for a marker? What ever happened to Mr. Sketch?? The sticker shock doesn’t end there. In fact, it gets much worse as you begin shopping for the full design suite of modeling, rendering, postproduction, and movie editing programs that threaten to put you in the poor house before your first client walks through the door. And don’t you dare tell me “that’s what credit cards are for.”
Sure, there will be a time in your 3D visualization career when you’ll want to shell out for the best products your meager salary can provide. However, if you’re just starting to get your feet wet in the industry, or perhaps you’re not even sure if this is the career path destiny has in store for you, there are plenty of great software options that require nothing more than an internet connection to start using.
Let’s take a look at modeling software first. The big hitters Rhino, Maya, 3DS Max and the like will cost you in the thousands (yes, thousands) for a single professional license. These programs are expensive for a reason. The offer the best results and the most robust libraries or options, templates, and commands that allow offices like Pixar to do unearthly things with a computer. However, for those of us not looking to craft a photo-realistic depiction of the love between two post-apocalyptic robots, we might not quite be ready to take the Ferrari out of the garage yet.
Here are the best 3D modeling programs that are completely free to use.
Of all the software on this list, Blender is probably the most well-known. It’s long been a relevant and completely viable alternative to paid modeling programs, and has an impressive backlog of improvements, patches, and added features. It is an open source creation suite, and has the power to not only model, but render, animate, and compose visualizations in a streamlined, optimized platform that is even easier to use than something like Maya. The level of polish rubbed into Blender would be astonishing for a paid license, let alone an open source program anyone download.
On top of all that, a robust and active community of artists, teachers, and enthusiast have attached themselves to the Blender project, making it the place any entry level professional should start cutting their teeth. If you enjoy learning Blender 3D, there’s a good chance you’ll have chosen the right calling, and you can then start thinking about upgrading to more expensive software endeavors.
Formerly distributed under the nomicre AutoDesk 123D (why would they ever change that awesome name? *sarcasm), TinkerCAD gives the everyman a full suite of design and modeling tools to...well...tinker around with. Think of TinkerCAD as the children's toy chest of the 3D modeling world. I’m not saying that to take anything away from its usefulness, just to properly categorize it in a market saturated with wildly different walks of modeling software. Essentially, you pull from a diverse library of pre-modeled shapes and use them to start building something cool.
TinkerCAD is about as entry-level as it gets. However, the tools are so easy and intuitive to use, even seasoned design professionals can find value in keeping it on the hard drive. Or, if you’re just looking to give you 12 year old something to do other than watching The Vampire Diaries or burning plastic, TinkerCAD is a great option.
I’ve written about SketchUp at length here at Easy Render, because I truly believe in its merit as a 3D modeling and design tool. What started as a mad scientist’s experiment in the basement of two University of Colorado architecture students has blossomed over a decade into the most widely-used modeling program on the planet. Many professionals scoff at the idea of using SketchUp for anything other than a concept sketch, but the progres it’s made as a full-fledged design suite is starting to upend that long-standing stigma.
SketchUp is easy. It’s fast. It has a few simple modeling tools that let you push, pull, warp, and shape your way into the 3D modeling world. With a wealth of impressive rendering plugins available, you can go from idea to photorealism in a snap. SketchUp has something to offer to anyone with a computer and a brain, and is quickly becoming a completely viable tool for even the most disgruntled 3D visualization professional.
Open SCAD is not for the feint of heart, or for anyone who doesn’t have a firm grasp on the fundamentals of computer coding and scripting. It’s a modeling program that focuses on the technical aspects of computer aided design rather than the artistic ones. Think: SketchUp for Walter White (minus the meth and the murdering). Users build their model through a series of text-based commands, coordinates, and algorithms, then ‘run’ the script to output the 3D model, which can then be used to render or otherwise manipulate in other programs.
If I lost you at ‘coding and scripting,’ I don’t blame you. I’d only consider using Open SCAD if you’re more ‘numbers and figures’ than a ‘circles and squares.’ If you are the former, however, you’ll be right at home with an open-source program that is tailor made for your big, big brain.
Primarily used as an advanced animation studio, 3D Crafter is much easier to use than you might initially think. It’s one of those ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ pieces of software that is built upon the principle of dragging and dropping basic 3D shapes into your model, then manipulating those shapes to create complex 3D models. Also, 3D Crafter has a robust 3D printing interface, making this program perfect for architecture studios looking to quickly build concept models, develop details, or construct their clients as tiny scale figures.
Any LEGO buffs out there? Believe it or not, there is a growing collection of children trapped in adult bodies that have dedicated their life to the art of the LEGO. For them LeoCAD is an invaluable tool that lets them test ideas and creations before dumping a sack full of mismatched pieces on the floor in hopes of divine inspiration.
But, even if you aren’t a pseudo-LEGO professional, LeoCAD can provide countless hours of fun and entertainment for those of us not quite ready to let go of our childhood obsession. With an astonishingly large library of pieces, you can quickly build your monstrosities without running the risk of accidentally aspirating one of those tiny, round, translucent pieces that find their way into every last corner of your studio apartment. Or does that only happen to me?
VUE Pioneer is a 3D modeling tool for the terrain builders among us. While it carries with it an interface and toolset that might be a bit advanced for the average user, there are few programs that allow you to shape, mold, and create realistic terrain models that interface seamlessly with an on-board rendering engine. Most 3D modeling programs have trouble with land modeling, so having VUE pioneer in your back pocket for such occasions will give you a huge let up. And...it’s free!
As you can see, free doesn’t necessarily mean bad. You could use the programs on this list, be a completely competent 3D modeler or visualization artist, and have enough pocket change leftover to call mom on the weekend.