The best 3D animation software is a vital tool for animators working on films, TV series, visual effects and architectural visualizations, to name just a few applications.
It’s a fantastic skill to have in the modern world, with the demand for 3D artists and animators higher than ever before due to the ever-increasing amount of film and TV content. With 3D animation software you can create characters, landscapes, and entire worlds – the possibilities are endless. But how do you know which 3D animation software is best for you?
There are many factors to consider when choosing 3D animation software. The available features, usability, and applications differ depending on the software you choose, so it’s vital that you know your stuff. Of course, you also need to consider the price. Are you a professional looking for a high-quality paid 3D animation software, or are you a student or hobbyist looking for the best free 3D animation software?
In this article, we recommend the best software tools for you, including both the best paid software and the latest free 3D animation software. Whether you’re a beginner starting from scratch or an experienced pro, you can bet you’ll find the perfect software for you in this list.
But before we get which software is best for 3D animation, let’s take a closer look at just what 3D animation software is and how it works.
3D Animation Software Explained
3D animation brings objects to life using computer graphics. The process uses design software to make drawings, pictures and graphics look like they are moving in a three-dimensional space, and you can rotate and move objects just like in real life.
The process begins with creating a 3D model, a polygon mesh, whereby you use software to create a mathematical representation of a shape or object. The next step is texturing, where you add colors, designs, and textures to your model.
After that comes rigging, where the model is given an internal digital structure that can be used to control the mesh by weighting the vertices. Rigging is used to create movement. An alternative method is motion capture, where an actor’s live movements are recorded and digitally animated.
Once you’re done with this and apply lighting and camera settings, you can then render your model, where you add the finishing touches and output it. You then composite your animation by touching it up and adding effects and backgrounds, before adding music and sound effects and then exporting the final product.
There are many uses for 3D animation software – it can be used in presentations, architecture and design proposals, and modeling for prototype products. Of course, its best-known use is in films, TV series and video games, where it’s used to create characters, props and entire worlds.
3D animation is a skill that requires a lot of time and dedication to master, but if you do that, you’ve got an excellent skill which is in high demand in many sectors. However, in order to get to that level, you first need a good 3D animation software to work with.
The Best 3D Animation Software
Now you’ve got an understanding of the basics of 3D animation programs, let’s take a look at our top picks. We’ve reviewed each software in terms of its features, applications and price, so you can easily choose the best software for you.
Free 3D Animation Software
Blender – Best Free 3D Animation Software
There are many free 3D animation software out there, but it’s hard to look past Blender as the best. This open source 3D animation software can be used for every stage of the 3D pipeline, from modeling, rigging, animation, and simulation to rendering, compositing, motion tracking and video editing. It also supports 2D animation.
Blender can be used for a wide range of applications, including advertisements, animated feature films, TV series, video games, visual effects, architecture and art. For 3D animating it offers a number of high-quality tools, such as envelope, skeleton and automatic skilling, B-spline interpolated bones, custom bone shapes for fast inputs, unwrapping, texturing, fluid and smoke simulation, and sound synchronization.
Blender also offers excellent rigging tools that you can use to design a skeleton and then define and location and mobility of limbs and their relationship to one another when creating a framework for your 3D character. You can even define the influence each of the bones has on the limbs in this vicinity. You can do this manually or automatically with the help of commercial plugins.
This software is also a good choice for directly drawing in 2D and 3D, with excellent workflow freedom. You can combine 2D and 3D right in the viewpoint, while the software has full animation support with Onion Skinning and layers and colors for stroke and fill.
Blender also supports input from motion capturing software, and you can even use facial motion capture using markers painted onto actors’ faces. It offers excellent clothing simulation that can be manipulated by the armature for added realism. You can also combine live-action footage with animation seamlessly with this software.
With its flexible python-controlled interface, you can easily customize the interface layout and colors and create your own tools and addons. Blender may be a free 3D animation software, but it’s still one of the very best around and is a viable alternative to top paid software like Maya.
K-3D – Powerful Free Software with Advanced Visualization Pipeline
K-3D is another of the best 3D animation software for free. It’s a versatile and powerful tool that combines flexible plugins with a visualization pipeline architecture. It’s a good 3D animation software for beginners thanks to its user-friendly, intuitive interface, although it also has the tools required by professional 3D animators.
The node-based visualization pipeline means that K-3D offers great flexibility. It has an advanced undo/redo system that means you can always go back, while it also has an innovative undo tree feature that means you can always go forward even where other programs would not allow.
Complex workflows are made easy to create and understand, and you can work on one side of a model, show the other side mirrored, and see the end result welded together as a subdivision surface in real-time.
This is also a powerful software, with the node-based pipeline offering more possibilities than traditional modifier stacks or histories. While K-3D software may not quite match up to Blender or the top paid programs, it’s certainly a good choice if you’re looking for the best free 3D animation software for beginners.
Best Paid 3D Animation Software
Autodesk Maya – Overall Best
Autodesk’s Maya is widely regarded as the best 3D animation software, and with good reason. This software is widely used throughout Hollywood and has been used in blockbuster films such as Harry Potter and Transformers, TV series like Game of Thrones and South Park, and video games such as God of War and Halo, which gives you an idea of the exceptionally high quality this software offers.
This software does everything, allowing you to create complex characters, realistic effects and vast worlds. You can procedurally create dazzling effects using the Bitfrost feature, which allows you to build custom graphs or use ready-made ones for effects like explosions and weather.
For creating characters and scenery, the Arnold feature is an advanced renderer that allows you to switch seamlessly between CPU and GPU. There’s also an easy-to-use auto-rig tool that can process quadrupeds and winged models.
Other useful features of this 3D animation and movie making software include geodesic vortex binding for quickly producing production-ready characters, a native motion library plugin, and a range of automation tools for animation along curves and paths. It’s also great at modeling, texturing, lighting, and rendering, with a feature set including particles, hair and fluid simulations.
Like other professional 3D animation software, Maya comes with a sophisticated CG compositing program, MatchMover. This allows you to combine 3D rendered elements and motion data from film sequences recorded on set by tracking the camera’s movement.
With a highly customizable, user-friendly interface, Maya isn’t reserved for professional animators, although this extensive software does take some time to master. As you can probably imagine, Maya doesn’t come cheap, with a one-year subscription costing $2,479. However, as the best 3D animation software on the market, it’s well worth the price. There’s also a 30-day free trial version available.
Cinema 4D – Best 3D Animation Software for Beginners
Cinema 4D, developed by Maxon, is a very easy-to-use yet powerful 3D animation software. Its intuitive interface makes it ideal for both beginners and experienced animators alike, and it offers a wide range of tools to help you achieve quality results.
One of the best things about 4D Cinema is its easy learning curve. There are loads of tutorials to help you get to grips with things as well as a large, skilled community that can help first-time animators quickly develop their skills. There’s also a training site called Cineversity, which you get free membership to when you buy the software.
This easy 3D animation software is also renowned for its stability. All features and functions are thoroughly tested by the QA and Beta testers before being released, while regular free service packs further optimize the software and allow the developers to quickly respond to changes in operating systems.
With this software you can easily keyframe any object, material or tag parameter, and there’s also automatic keyframing to make things even simpler. You can also use the software’s effectors, tags and expressions to animate without keyframes, and you can create your own expressions in Cinema 4D’s node-based XPresso Editor.
The standalone 3D animation version of Cinema 4D costs $719 a year, while the full package with all Maxon products is $1,199.
Houdini – Powerful Professional Software with Free Version
Houdini is an industry-leading software that is popular for 3D animation, visual effects and game development. It is widely used by large VFX companies, including Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks and Sony Pictures, to create 3D imagery.
This software, developed by SideFX, is designed around a node-based workflow with a procedural modeling approach that allows you to generate almost everything from terrains to complex characters procedurally. This helps animators work freely, create multiple iterations and easily share workflows with colleagues.
Houdini has some brilliantly intuitive, artist-friendly tools. You can easily create biped and quadruped 3D characters with the auto-rig tool, while the procedurally generated fluids and particles add realism. You can also carry out complex crowd simulations and create highly accurate 3D animations with the software’s built-in muscle simulation pipeline. Overall, Houdini allows you to create incredibly high-quality animations with an unparalleled flexibility.
There are four plans for Houdini – FX, CORE, Indie, and Apprentice. The Apprentice version is free and is designed for hobbyists, while the Indie version is best for independent animators and costs $269 a year. The CORE and FX packages, designed for professional animators, cost $1,995 and $4,495 a year respectively.
Autodesk 3DS Max – Best 3D Animation Software for Windows
Another Autodesk product, 3DS Max is a popular 3D modeling and rendering software that’s used for animation, game development, visual effects and architectural visualization.
3DS Max boasts comprehensive 3D animation capabilities, including two separate character animation tools. The Character Studio is designed to create bipedal characters, while the CAT tool allows you to rig and animate non-human characters. These both provide ready-made yet customizable character rigs that can be skinned with the Physique or Skin modifiers and are compatible with motion capture file formats. There’s also Populate, a self-contained crowd simulation system.
Another useful tool is the 3DS Max Fluids, which allow you to create realistic liquid behaviors like water, oil and lava, and can also be used to replicate gravity and collision effects. Other animation tools include wire parameters that link any two object parameters in the viewpoint, a motion mixer that allows you to combine motion data for biped and non-biped objects, and linked hierarchies that can be used to animate a number of objects or bones at once.
This Windows 3D animation software will set you back $2,488 for a year-long subscription, and there’s a free trial if you want to try the software out before purchasing it.