For many modern industries, 3D rendering has now become a staple in marketing, sales, and advertising. From architectural visualization and VFX animation to gaming to scientific research and development, 3D visuals are the best way to entice and encourage engagement with your product or service.
With most modern 3D software, all of these things and more are possible, but what does it take to reach that final result and which software products do it best? In this article, we will break down the aspects of 3D rendering from start to finish and find out which software solutions have the best workflow.
The 3D Model Production Pipeline
3D rendering itself is an extensive process, but much of the work lies in your workstation and the software you use. We have broken the production pipeline into the following steps that a designer typically takes when building an object or scene.
- Modeling & Staging
- Materials & Textures
- Test Render & Final Render
Modeling & Staging
The first step is manifesting your idea into a 3D model or scene. Modeling is the process of creating, shaping, and molding an object in a 3D space using polygon geometry. Workflows can vary from sculpted geometry to procedural geometry. Artists will take their time with this process, making sure aspects like mesh topology and polygon count are not detrimental to the final render.
Once the modeling is complete, the next step is staging. Staging is the determining of the location of your camera or cameras. Style, perspective, and positioning are all considered at this point. Staging is usually discussed and pre-planned during the ideation process. Once you have set your cameras, you would presumably have a single image or an animation that consists of several images in sequence when you are ready for the final step of rendering.
Best Software for Modeling & Staging
Regardless of your workflow, whether calculated and mathematically complex or freeform and artistic, there are many software products available to tackle this task.
Known to seasoned users as the industry standard for CG, Maya is Autodesk’s 3D software solution for film and animation. Though a deterrent for some due to its steep learning curve and steeper license price, it is equipped with an incredible set of tools that can help artists surmount any obstacle, from basic modeling to character animation. There is a reason why it is considered the very best for this task.
For those with big ideas, but limited budgets, the free open-source software Blender is a great way to get started with learning how to model and stage. With a vocal and robust community sharing tips, tutorials, and even model libraries, Blender is a strong contender in the CG world as well as an incredible tool for this task.
What Maya is for modeling, Houdini is for node-based procedural modeling. For those who really want a challenge, SideFX’s Houdini is an absolute must if you are seeking to make great procedural VFX like smoke, snow, or rain, as well as abstract designs. Also, like Maya, Houdini’s very complex, node-based workflow and hefty price tag will not be for everyone. But if you want the best and highest quality effects, Houdini is what you are looking for.
Materials & Textures
Once your model is complete, it is time to apply materials to the object (or objects). Depending on the style or aesthetic you are aiming for, an accurate representation of the materials is essential to achieving your visual. Artists have many tricks and tools up their sleeve to accomplish this. From using real-world textures to achieve a sense of photorealism, to augmenting pre-existing material settings to alter their appearance, giving them a non-photorealistic (NPR) flair.
3D modeling/rendering software will often have a dedicated material library that has seamless presets to mimic the properties of real-life materials, such as glass, plastic, cloth, and dirt or terrain.
Best Software for Materials & Textures
Once again, Blender shines in this department due to its productive and innovative user community. Blender’s node-based material workflow and plugin add-on structure make it very easy to download and create new materials to mix and match. You can access endless free material libraries available online that fit every aesthetic. Blender is free, user-friendly, and a great tool for this task.
Adobe’s Substance Painter is similar to Photoshop in its necessity. It is regularly used in the industry for everything from game and film production to fashion and product design. Its nondestructive process means that you can never lose your actions if you decide to change something, and you can modify all of your work midway without losing what you have made. Though you will need to purchase a license, it is a fantastic tool to help you make beautiful textures for your models.
For those familiar with the Megascans library, this is a must-have. Quixel’s Mixer confidently calls itself the one tool for all of your texturing needs. The workflow of Mixer is as easy as uploading your mesh and using Mixer’s fun and intuitive smart materials to mix and match textures seamlessly to create one-of-a-kind texture maps for your 3D work.
After adding materials and textures, it is time to create the illusion that your object exists in a real, or at least a believable, space. To achieve this, lighting is the key. Artists with knowledge of the physics of light, shadow, reflection, and refraction will understand just how important this step is. Regardless of which style you choose, the properties of light are essential when making your object seem to exist within the scene you build; photorealistic or otherwise. Objects can appear unnatural when not properly lit, and whether or not the eye can comprehend why, it won’t sit right when seen.
Best Software for Lighting
The best that CG software has to offer already has very impressive lighting tools when rendering engines can take the time to calculate them. It really comes down to the client’s taste and the artist’s dexterity as to how to use those tools.
If you are looking for a software that exclusively focuses on realistic light properties, Radiance is a free software suite that offers very comprehensive simulation and visualization of realistic lighting and shading effects.
Once the scene is staged and all of the heavy lifting of lighting and material assigning is complete, next comes the refinement phase. This means tweaking, touching up, and smoothing out any parts of the scene that need a bit of polish.
Some artists may even go back into the geometry and continue sculpting to get a more detailed and defined look depending on the object. Game and VFX artists specifically will go back into the geometry and increase or decrease polygon counts to enhance the quality or efficiency of their models in whatever rendering engine their project requires. The main goal is to bring a concept to its most presentable form before the final step.
Best Software for Refining
Most 3D software offer great solutions like surface subdivision and sculpting tools for refining and perfecting your meshes. The experience of the artist and the needs of the client will make refining a time-sensitive but potentially rewarding process.
Pixologic’s ZBrush is an all-in-one digital sculpting software that blends 3D modeling with clay sculpture. This is considered the best detail tool by CG artists around the world. If you are looking to make your models that much more intricate, this is the tool you will need for such a task.
Test Render & Final Render
The render is where all of the work is beautifully realized using a specific rendering algorithmic process or “engine” that calculates the data from the scene and graphically recreates them in a high-definition image or series of images if it is animated.
Test renders are usually done first, as critique from the client or the creative director is taken into consideration before the final render is produced. Artists discuss and communicate what works, what doesn’t and what could be improved upon. Once the alterations are made, the final render can be delivered to the client.
Best Software for Rendering
This is definitely a difficult task to take on, but as consumer technology continues to improve and stand head-to-head against even professional workstations, there is no one software that is best suited for this task.
There are so many render engines that offer their share of incredible features and options. If you are interested, please take a look at our article where we go into detail on what we think are the 5 best GPU-accelerated rendering engines currently available.
It is also important to consider that when you have a larger than average data packet or render queue, your best bet is to use a cloud-based render farm, like Render Pool, as opposed to a single, local workstation.
If you are ready to bring your next 3D project to life, Render Pool would like to help you make that dream a reality.