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Top 10 Animation/VFX Tools of the Year

Visual FX and Tech

Top 10 Animation/VFX Tools of the Year

We left it up to our readers to pick their favorite animation and vfx tools/software packages of the year. Here are the terrific 10 items that earned the most votes, in alphabetical order:

3ds Max (3D Studio Max) ’09. Employed in many of the top Hollywood film productions, videogames and TV commercials, but also priced for the home studio, this full-featured 3D modeling, animation, rendering and effects solution has everything you need to create high-quality content. The latest version, 3ds Max 9, offers new rendering capabilities, improved interoperability with industry-standard products including Revit software, lighting simulation and analysis technology, and additional time-saving animation and mapping workflow tools. The software now comes in two distinct flavors to better meet the specific needs of entertainment and visualization customers. In addition, greater OBJ translation fidelity and more import/export options allow for more accurate data transfers between 3ds Max and digital modeling packages, including the new Autodesk Mudbox software. Suggested retail price is $3,495, with upgrades from 3ds Max 2008 going for approximately $895.

Adobe Creative Suite 4 Master Collection. Adobe has crammed a bunch of its popular software applications into this little box. This comprehensive, cross-media creative environment offers users a wide variety of options for designing print, interactive, web, film, video and mobile content. Integrating new versions of widely used Adobe software, the suite allows artists to design freely with images, vectors, video and sound, moving easily from page to screen. The Master Collection combines Adobe InDesign CS4, Photoshop CS4 Extended, Illustrator CS4, Acrobat 9 Pro, Flash CS4 Professional, Dreamweaver CS4, Fireworks CS4, Contribute CS4, After Effects CS4, Premiere Pro CS4, Soundbooth CS4, OnLocation CS4 and Encore CS4 with additional tools and services. You get all that for $2,499, or upgrade for $899.

Blender. Developed as an in-house application by Dutch animation studio NeoGeo and Not a Number Technologies (NaN), Blender is a free, open-source 3D content creation suite available for all major operating systems under the GNU General Public License. It may not have all the same bells and whistles of leading packages such as Max and Maya, but this software is a great value considering what it costs’nothing. Students, independents, hobbyists and even professionals can take advantage of Blender’s tools for modeling, rigging, animation, rendering, UV unwrapping, shading, physics and particles, imaging and compositing, and realtime 3D/game creation. Blender can be downloaded from, where visitors will find educational materials and support, as well as an online community of users.

DigiCel FlipBook. Many of our readers wrote in to tell us how easy it is to create 2D animation and line tests with this classic number. FlipBook allows animators to draw right on the computer using their mouse or tablets, or draw on paper, then shoot the rough sketches under a camera for speed, then scan the cleaned up drawings for quality. You can also paint the drawings quickly and add pans and zooms and then export the movies on the web. You can download the entry-level program for $79, the midrange version for $299 and the high-end professional program (1,500 frames and 99 foreground layers) for $699. As one of the software’s fans noted, ‘What I like about FlipBook that you feel like it was made with the animator in mind!’

e-on’s Vue 7 xStream. This product from e-on Software offers professional CG artists a complete toolset for creating rich and realistic natural environments and integrating them into any professional production pipeline, including 3ds Max, Maya, LightWave, CINEMA 4D and XSI. Possible applications for the 3D scenery program range from architectural visualization to broadcast and film. Vue offers full interaction with native elements, including two-way mutual shadow casting, reflection, refraction and lighting. The latest release is based on a totally redesigned integration approach. Among the new features is EcoSystem Generation III, featuring new Dynamic Population Technology for creating dense ecosystems that extend beyond the horizon without concern over the number of instances. There’s also a new way of viewing scenes from a graph-based point of view, MetaNodes for grouping several nodes or links into a single node, and full compatibility with mental ray technologies such as Sun & Sky, Photometric Lights and Distributed Bucket Rendering. Special offer pricing through is currently $1,235.

Luxology’s modo 302. It’s hard to believe that the first version of modo was introduced at the SIGGRAPH confab more than four years ago. Since then, the advanced polygon, subdivision surface, modeling, sculpting, 3D painting, animation and rendering package has made believers out of many in the community. This brilliant tool helps artist create realist objects quickly, while incorporating advanced features such as n-gons, 3D painting and edge weighting. The current version offers tool updates, more rendering and animation features, and a physical sky and sun model. Oh, and don’t forget that some of the artists working on this little indie movie called WALL’E used modo to deliver the goods this past summer!

Maya ’09. Once the crown jewel in Alias|Wavefront’s arsenal of digital creation tools, Maya is now a sibling of Autodesk’s 3ds Max. Maya ’09 launched just in time to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the popular 3D modeling, animation, rendering and effects solution. Highlights of the latest release include a new Maya Assets toolset and other new tools for managing the complexity and size of scenes, a new Render Proxy feature in mental ray, additional multi-threading work and algorithmic speedups, accelerated modeling workflow and collaborative, iterative projects and pipelines. The software has a new animation layering paradigm that provides animators with increased non-destructive flexibility, as well as an updated Render Pass toolset that offers precise control over render output and optimizes integration with Autodesk Toxik procedural compositing software. The suggested retail price is $1,995 for Maya Complete 2009 (standalone) and $4,995 for Maya Unlimited 2009 (standalone). The upgrade price from Maya Complete 2008 is $899, and the upgrade from Maya Unlimited 2008 is $1,249.

Pixologic’s ZBrush 3.1. It’s not surprising that many of today’s 3D artists, game developers and CG model supervisors have embraced this leading software application. The 3.1 version offers a new Brush Palette and features such as color mask and back-face masking, as well as poseable symmetry, user-assigned hotkeys, support of square alphas, refined user interface and higher subdivision levels. This slickly integrated modeling, texturing and illustration environment also offers instant feedback and real-time response’kind of like a friendly teacher (priced at $599) you can count on when you need to deliver a challenging digital sculpting assignment!

Toon Boom Software. Our readers had a hard time picking among the Montreal-based company’s family of various products, but one thing they all agreed on was that the Emmy-winning solutions have made 2D animation much easier and user-friendly. Whether they’re aimed at home users (Toon Boom Studio), boutique shops, freelancers and educators (Toon Boom Animate or Toon Boom Digital Pro) or traditional film/TV industry studios (Toon Boom Opus and Harmony), they’ve been hugely influential in the creation of modern animation projects in the past two decades. They even have a great model for beginners’Flip Boom, which is ideal for learning the basics. Keep in mind that some of the notable 2D animated features of recent years (The Triplets of Belleville, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie and Curious George) used Toon Boom software in their pipelines!

Wacom Cintiq 12WX. Aaaah, Wacom tablet, how do we love thee. It’s easy to admire the beautiful design, the 12.1′ TFT display and the way the 4.4 pound gizmo offers the advantages of a wide-format LCD monitor with Wacom’s pro pen technology. We could mention the point accuracy, the fast cursor control and the 1,000-plus levels of pressure-sensitivity on the pen tip and eraser, but once you take a look at the 12WX, the heart takes over the mind. Most important of all, you can take this small wonder home for only a grand.

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