Why we use Blender
Tools of the trade. We all have them. From builders with their hammers to accountants and their spreadsheets. We learn how they work. We then learn how they work well. We hone our crafts and become better at using these tools, resulting in better work. I’ve been a motion graphic designer for about 8 years now and the main tool of my trade is often unexpected, often overlooked and mostly underestimated. I’m talking about Blender.
If you’ve never heard of it before, Blender is a 3D graphics application. You can create 3D models, animate, composite, edit footage, sculpt meshes, paint, run physics simulations. Practically everything you’d ever need to create CG art. I use it mostly for Motion Graphics and, more recently, character animation. What’s interesting about Blender, it’s ‘superpower’ if you will, is that it’s open source. Completely free. Sound good? Head over to blender.org to download a copy.
Here are my top 5 reasons why Blender is often our best tool for the job.
1. Open Licence
With Blender being open source, you can install it on any computer you like. This may not seem like a big plus to artists who always work on the same computer. One of the most time consuming parts of creating CG art is render time. The best way around this is to throw as many computers at the job as possible. This means that every computer we have at our disposal can be used for rendering out an animation. No need to worry about licence limitations, just install and hit go. This can mean an animation will render in hours rather than days. This is especially useful when pushing up against a deadline. I first found this very useful in my final year of University. This was when I was just getting into Blender and we were creating an animated documentary (Yes, not knowing a tool and jumping straight into an animation is quite adventurous). I’d calculated that rendering the whole project on one computer would take about a year. As we only had a week until our deadline, we had to get our thinking caps on. After considering paid render farms, reducing quality and other compromises, we simply opened our eyes and realised there were hundreds of computers sitting around us. Doing mostly nothing. I asked the IT department if they could help and soon enough, we had the whole IT suite rendering out our animation in the evening. One year turned into several hours. This would have been impossible using commercial licensed software.
2. Unmatched Support
No software is perfect. Whenever you update your smart phone, a lot of the changes are bug fixes. Correcting what didn’t quite work properly before. Blender is no different. A couple of times, I’ve been working on a project and something goes wrong. Something that stops me from finishing the job, Blender crashes or something doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. Big problem. Whenever this happens, I submit a bug report to the Blender development team. Most of the time, the bug is fixed within a matter of days. I can download an updated version of Blender and carry on with the work. The first time this happened, I was floored. With most commercial software, you can submit a bug report, it’ll no doubt get fixed eventually. You’ll never have direct contact with the developers fixing this problem. You’ll also never have a downloadable fix within a matter of days. We had a big problem with Premiere on a project not too long ago. It was related to using a multicam clip, the audio would simply cut out, making it impossible to edit. Absolutely no chance of a fix before the deadline. We simply had to bite the bullet and start the project again, manually syncing the cameras and audio.
3. Great Features
I can think of no other CG software package that does as much as Blender. We have the old adage “Jack of all trades, master of none”. Yes, this is true to a certain extent with Blender. Is sculpting in Blender as good as Zbrush? No. Is compositing in Blender as good as Nuke? No. Is editing in Blender as good as Premiere? No. The point I’m trying to make is, Blender often does a good enough job to get the job done. If you need more advanced features, you can’t beat an application that is a master of that one thing. Saying that though, some of Blenders features are tough to beat. I absolutely love the graph editor, so slick. UV’s too, Blender is one of the best applications out there for unwrapping your mesh. Mesh modelling works insanely well. The biggest advantage of having all of these features in one application is speed. No need to export from one application to another. For example, Blender’s compositor can work with renders before they’re exported. You can paint textures inside of Blender and link them to a mesh without leaving the application. This is all set to get even more exciting with version 2.8 and ‘Nodes Everywhere’. Imagine an animated texture driving a particle system, a displacement modifier and the colour of a material for an object. This is going to be a huge deal for the motion graphics designers out there.
4. Plays Nicely With Others
As I mentioned in the previous point, Blender tends to do most things you’ll need to do. When you need it to do more, it’s often quite easy to export to another application. Want to composite your 3D animation in Nuke? No problem, export an OpenEXR sequence. How about After Effects? Same as Nuke and you can also export camera movements and simple geometry. Want to sculpt in ZBrush? No problem at all. You can export, sculpt in ZBrush and bring the sculpt back into Blender to finish. How about adding your graphics to an edit in Premiere? I can’t count the number of times I’ve exported a png sequence for this very purpose.
5. It’s Free
This is last on the list because it’s both the least and most important point for me (a bit of a mix of “save the best till last” and typical ranking systems where first is best). Tackling the least important reason first, we’d be using Blender if it was free or not. It’s great software. You use the best tool for the job and a lot of the time, for me, that’s Blender. The most important reason is that free software helps democratise CG animation. I’m using exactly the same tools as any other Blender else around the world. The quality of work comes down to the time I put in and my talent. Money doesn’t factor into the equation, meaning an artist just starting out won’t have financial barriers to creating what they want to create. I like the idea that I’m good at what I do because I’ve honed my craft. I don’t like the idea that I’m good at what I do because I can afford the tools.
To finish up, here are a couple of films made by the Blender Foundation. The Blender Foundation pays artists to work on open film projects, while also paying developers to develop new features that are needed for the production. This results in a film that everyone can enjoy and shiny new features that all Blender users can use. Goodness all around. So, sit back and wrap your eyes around these.