Status update

2017’s almost here. Ch-ch-changes are coming. Soon. For now.. Cue the cricket noises.

Jun 20

The Age Old Question

“Which app is the best?” By my rough estimate, I’ve probably seen this question asked a good 1,000+ times before. I kid you not. That’s not an exaggeration either. Some newbie or artist in transition asks this question at least once a week. Invariably, somebody answers that question one of two ways.

1. There is no best app because skill trumps all.
2. The best app is the one that’ll get you hired.

The first one is the easiest to address. At the end of the day, no program can turn you into the next Da Vinci. Whether it’s learned or innate, artistry is something that transcends tools. To a master sculptor, for example, the difference between ZBrush and a lump of clay is in the mess. Skill is transferrable and program agnostic. It should then also follow that a bad sculptor will be bad regardless of their chosen medium, clay or polys.

The counterpoint is that this is all fine and dandy when you’re a hobbyist or freelancer, but the rules change when you’re working in a studio. That’s a perfectly valid point too. You might be the best artist in the world, but if you’re using Blender and the studio requires you to use Maya then you’re out of luck.

Think of it this way. Your salary isn’t simply payment for services rendered. It’s also your employer’s investment in you. That’s why most studios will have you hit the ground running. They want their investment to pay off. That can’t happen if you’re spending more time learning and less producing. The studio isn’t going to change their expensive pipeline just for you. If you want that job then you’ve got to “get standard.”

Over the years, I’ve used a lot of apps. A LOT. POV-Ray. DesignCAD. trueSpace. Poser. Cinema4D. Maya. Blender. 3dsmax. Silo. MODO. Rhino. LightWave. Blah. Blah. Blah. You name it, I’ve probably used it at one point or another. That got me thinking. What if the standard is wrong? I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. Allow me to explain.

Take the game industry, for instance. Ask anybody in that arena what app is best and there’s a good chance that 99% of them will go with one of Autodesk’s two heavy hitters, Maya or 3dsmax. That’s not an unreasonable answer to give, to be honest. Maya and 3dsmax DO seem to be the industry standards. Is that because they’re the best or simply because they got there first?

Maya is a beast of an app. There is literally nothing that it can’t be used to create. That power comes at a price. To get the most out of Maya you have to be willing to get your hands dirty with MEL or custom add-ons. Maya can also be pretty stubborn and twitchy at times. You never know what’s going to set it off. Why don’t more studios just move to something else? It all comes down to the almighty dollar.

When Maya and 3dsmax came out, the playing field wasn’t nearly as crowded as it is today. If you were a pro then only a few select apps offered the power you needed. Every other app was amateur hour. Maya and 3dsmax’s ancestors may have cost tens of thousands, but they were worth every penny. They were worth buying fancy SGI workstations at the low cost of your soul. Unfortunately, if you were a hobbyist, well, you were kinda screwed. Your best options were pathetic $300 wannabes or lousy freeware.

Today, the playing field is infinitely larger and your free options aren’t nearly as lousy. A zero dollar program like Blender is now a viable alternative with functionality that often equals and, in some cases, far surpasses the pricey pro apps. It’s widely regarded enough that a number of recognized third party developers offer some level of Blender support. I wouldn’t have guessed even five years ago that Pixar Renderman would be an option for Blender users.

You’re not going to see many establsihed studios converting to Blender, however. There’s too much money at stake. You can do the math. Just as an employer would invest in you, they’ve already invested in a pipeline. It’s unlikely that they’d soon dump all of those custom plugins or scripts. It’s even less likely that they’d retrain their entire art team. If everybody’s learning a new app then nobody’s earning. A studio would sooner spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars if it meant earning them millions in return.

What of startup studios then? The sad truth is that the system is rigged. Blender is an awesome app with a large user base. The same can be said of Cinema4D and LightWave. The thing is, most schools don’t teach those apps. Most teach one of Autodesk’s (un)holy duo. The industry has a pre-existing demand that creates a supply that needs filling. In other words, because most studios use Maya or 3dsmax, most schools teach those two apps. Because most schools teach those apps, most studios don’t see the need to change apps and limit their talent pool.

This is one of the many reasons why an app like Cinema4D has carved out a little niche for itself in the motion graphics arena. Better to stay in a safe corner than to get eaten alive by the big dogs. It’s also why Blender, for all of its power and praise, is still so ignored. Nobody wants to leave their comfort zone. Maya may not provide the best experience out there anymore, but what other choice do you have?

That said, here’s my quick take on the most well known apps, many of which also offer student or indie versions.

  1. Maya: Powerful and ubiquitous, but also severely bloated. Plus, even with a recently update experience, Maya still feels old. Maya also relies too heavily on scripts and plugins to pick up the slack for even the most basic of operations. The lack of a perpetual license creates a “pay to play” situation that would most certainly leave hobbyists and cash conscious artists twisting in the wind.
  2. 3dsmax: Once the king, 3ds now lives in Maya’s shadow. Even its once unparalleled modeling tools have been matched or surpassed by other apps. There’s nothing inherently wrong with 3dsmax, but there’s also nothing that makes it stand out either.
  3. Cinema4D: Pretty and deceptively powerful. Unfortunately, its development has stagnated in recent years. The price to feature ratio has gone down by a fair margin. Plus, the jobs market is much smaller for C4D users. Certain legacy features like Pyrocluser and the material system need replacing too.
  4. LightWave: The failed CORE initiative really hurt LightWave. While things are seemingly back on track now, LW development stalled for years. Even with recent price cuts, it’s going to be hard to win new users when UI design remains fragmented and fundamentally unchanged since 1997.
  5. MODO: You can’t mention LightWave without bringing up MODO, right? A direct descendant of LW, Modo is a brilliantly designed app. It’s powerful and easy to use. It’s also, sadly, kinda buggy. There’s also a question of how Foundry polices the legitimacy of it user base.
  6. ZBrush: If any app fits the “think different” mentality, it’s ZBrush. Pixologic’s app has the least conventional UI out there, which also makes it harder to learn for newbies. Pair it with a separate program for animation and ZBrush quickly becomes a character artist’s best friend. For sculpting, ZBrush has no equal.
  7. Silo: Just…let…it…die already. Seriously. Silo was a great poly modeler once. A decade later and the big apps have finally caught up. Silo is buggy, has terrible support, and hasn’t been seriously updated in 5-10 years. Even so, thanks to Steam, some people still use it. Then again, some people still use flip phones. ^_^
  8. Blender: Pro level power. Actively developed, almost to a fault. Great community support. Flexible UI. A growing level of 3rd party support. Widely ignored by established studios, however. Did I mention that it was free? Maya who? Blender is just that good.
  9. Houdini: No app says “scary” in quite the same way as Houdini. It’s powerful, yet impenetrable. Only the most dedicated and patient Houdini artist will prosper. Still, if you’re keen on visual effects, you could do worse than Houdini.
  10. 3D-Coat: While 3DC might seem like a poor man’s ZBrush at first glance, it also has some other features that save the day. The UV tools are fast and simple to learn. The retopology tools are, by and large, reliable. Support is great. While not quite Substance Painter or Mari level, the paint tools are also quite powerful.

Which app is the best? Damned if I know. For my part, I can’t stand subscriptions though. Autodesk’s abandonment of perpetual licenses has really soured me on Maya. It may be the industry standard, but I’m not sure if it’s worth the price of admission anymore.

Autodesk has really hurt a huge swath of artists who might otherwise only upgrade every 4 or 5 years. This whole “pay to play or go away” mentality troubles me. Online activation was annoying enough, but companies like Autodesk no longer even care enough to maintain the illusion of ownership. They’re far too comfortable with moving from sales to rental. Milking a cash cow is one thing. Trying to squeeze blood from a stone is another. The cost of doing business should never infringe on the cost of living. That’s precisely what forced subscriptions do.

I can’t bring myself to use Cinema4D anymore either. Don’t get me wrong. I still love it. I wouldn’t trade my well worn copy of R11 for the world. Unfortunately, compared to when I started using it 15 years ago, Cinema4D is no longer developed at the same sort of rapid pace. When the developers try to pass off a new gear primitive as some sort of innovation then you know that there’s a problem. TBH, Cinema4D lost me the moment Maxon started to deemphasize its role as a character animation app by focusing on the motion graphics artists instead.

For now, my killer combo remains:

  • Blender as my core 3D suite
  • ZBrush for sculpting
  • Marvelous Designer for clothing
  • Substance Designer/Painter for texturing
  • Photoshop for any image editing and texture touch up

I’ve got a few more apps in the mix like Krita, XNormal, Marmoset, Premiere, & After Effects. However, these 6 other apps are where I do most of my work these days.

I still wish that I had an answer to that “which app is best” question though