Blender – free CG animation software to rival industry giants

December 24, 2011

Sophisticated computer animation programs such as Autodesk Maya, Softimage and 3ds Max can cost thousands but there is a free program called Blender that offers many of the same features. Some impressive animation has been produced with Blender including Lighthouse (2008), Kajimba Trailer (2009) and Sintel (2010).

Lighthouse (2008) animated with Blender.



Kajimba Trailer (2009) animated with Blender.

Sintel (210) animated with Blender.

The Blender software is available free from the blender.org website in versions for Windows, Linux or Mac. I installed the 64 bit version on my windows 7 system and started the program. The opening screen was packed with options. In some ways it was like being faced with an aircraft flight deck. A quick scan of the manual told me that this was a powerful program. However, it turned out that most buttons are on default settings and it is possible to get started by learning some basic controls. Your mouse is like a joystick and will fly you around the scene. You can also use the mouse to grab objects and manipulate them.

The Blender opening screen.

I decided the easiest way to get familiar with Blender was to view a few video tutorials. Fortunately there are lots of tutorials available on a number of websites. The blender.org website has links to many of them. There are some fast track to learning videos on the Blender Cookie website. I watched their Interface and Navigation tutorial and then decided to try some hands-on work with their Intro to Animation.

I moved the Blender window to the left of my screen and played the video on the right. By watching a bit of the video, then stopping it and following the instructions, I soon had a short animation of a cube moving around the screen. By creating a few key frames at intervals and letting the software do the in-between frames I got some smooth movement.

Another instruction video from Blender Cookie was called Creating a Simple Claymation Style Scene. It demonstrates how one model tree, one flower and one rock can be duplicated many times by the software. Add some green hills and a grazing cow to create a peaceful country scene. This gaves an idea of how the program could be used to make some delightful movies for young children. And maybe older children could use it to create their own entertainment.

Screen shot from 'Creating a Simple Claymation Style Scene'.

Blender also has a games engine. I watched a video on how to make a simple platform game. There is a lot to learn for game programming but if your interests lie in that direction the tools are there.

An interesting section on the Blender website is called ‘Blend Swap’. This is where anybody can deposit their Blender models for others to download and use. It is very inspirational just to browse the models on offer. One of the most downloaded models was an attractive female called Tetine Elfe. This impressive model shows what this software is capable of.

Elfe from the Blend Swap repository is a free 3D model.

You may be wondering why such a great piece of software is available free of charge. The software that was to become Blender was originally written for Ton Roosendaal, the co-founder of Dutch animation studio NeoGeo. In 1998, Ton launched Not a Number (NaN), to market Blender. Sadly, due to disappointing sales NaN decided to shut down all operations in 2002. Enthusiastic support from the user community couldn’t justify leaving Blender to disappear into oblivion so Ton started the non-profit Blender Foundation.

The Foundation’s first goal was to find a way to continue developing and promoting Blender as a community based open source project. The “Free Blender” campaign sought to raise 100,000 EUR so that the NaN investors would agree on open sourcing Blender. To everyone’s shock and surprise the campaign reached the 100,000 EUR goal in only seven weeks. Blender was released to the world under the terms of the GNU General Public License. Blender development continued since that day driven by a team of far-flung dedicated volunteers from around the world led by Blender’s original creator, Ton Roosendaal.

If you are interested in computer animation then I urge you to give Blender a try. As it is free you have nothing to loose and everything to gain. It is a powerful program but you don’t have to learn it all, just play to your strengths. If you are primarily an animator then animate with some of the ready made models. If you are primarily a model maker then use it to make models for the ‘Blend Swap’. There is an active Blender community so you may eventually be able to join forces with others to work on a joint project.

Below is a list of tutorials that will help the beginner. Please watch the 80 second video on installing the software as are choices to be made and the video gives you some useful tips. Then work your way through the other training videos and you will soon have an all round understanding of the software.

Recommended training videos:
Blender: Download and Install
Blender: Interface and Navigation
Blender: Intro to Modeling
Blender: Intro to Materials
Blender: Intro to Animation
Blender: Intro to Rendering
Blender: Intro to Lighting

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