The number and variety of 3D software packages on the market is staggering, but many of the top applications in use by commercial film, gaming, and effects studios cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.
It’s true that most commercial applications offer time-limited free trials or abbreviated learning editions for students and hobbyists. If you’re planning to work in the computer graphics industry one day, these are well worth exploring even if you can’t afford a full license, because your skills in the commercial packages are what will ultimately land you a job.
However, plenty of free 3D software suites are out there for hobbyists, independent filmmakers who don’t have the budget for expensive software, and budget-conscious freelance professionals who have found all the tools and power they need in cost-free solutions like Blender or SketchUp.
Just because the software is free doesn’t necessarily make it any less valuable. This list isn’t exhaustive. There are dozens of other free 3D tools available beyond those mentioned here. However, these are the strongest of the bunch.
Blender is easily the most versatile entry on this list, and in many regards, it compares favorably to top digital content creation tools like Cinema 4D, Maya, and 3Ds Max. To this day, it stands as one of the greatest open-source development projects ever conceived.
Blender is full-featured, offering a complete range of modeling, surfacing, sculpting, painting, animation, and rendering tools.
The software is good enough to have produced numerous impressive short films and is in use by several professional studios.
Blender was criticized early on for having a confusing interface, but don’t let outdated complaints steer you away. The software was given a thorough overhaul recently and emerged with a fresh interface and a feature set that aims for parity with the best.
While you don’t see Blender in any Hollywood effects pipelines where Autodesk and Houdini are deeply ingrained, Blender has steadily carved out a niche in motion graphics and visualization, similar to where Cinema 4D excels.
Sculptris is a digital sculpting application similar to ZBrush or Mudbox, but with an easier learning curve. Because Sculptris uses dynamic tessellation, it is essentially geometry-independent, meaning it is an ideal learning package for someone with few or no modeling skills who wants to try his hand at sculpting. Sculptris was originally developed independently by Tomas Pettersson, but is now owned and maintained by Pixologic as a free counterpart to ZBrush. Sculptris is aimed at beginners. The website offers video tutorials and an assurance that the skills you learn in Sculptris easily translate to ZBrush.
SketchUp is an intuitive and accessible modeler, originally developed by Google and now owned by Trimble. SketchUp excels at practical and architectural design and probably has more in common with a CAD package than traditional surface modelers like Maya and Max.
Like Blender, SketchUp has been amazingly well received and has gradually carved out a niche with professionals in the visualization field due to its ease of use and speed.
The software has little in the way of organic modeling tools, but if your primary interest is in architectural modeling, SketchUp is an excellent starting point. You begin by drawing lines and shapes and then stretch and copy them to make whatever you like. You don’t have to draw everything, though. SketchUp offers an enormous library of free 3D models to get you started — search the 3D Warehouse for what you need.
Wings is a straightforward open-source subdivision surface modeler, which means it has similar modeling capabilities to Maya and Max but none of their other functions.
Because Wings uses traditional (standard) polygon modeling techniques, everything you learn here is applicable in other content-creation packages, making this an ideal starting point for anyone looking to learn how to model for animation, film, and games.
Tinkercad is an impressive suite of free, lightweight 3D tools offered by Autodesk as an easy entry point into the world of 3D. Autodesk develops five different applications under the Tinkercad banner, including modeling and sculpting apps, an iPad based creature designer, and a tool to assist with fabrication and 3D printing.
In a way, Tinkercad is AutoDesk’s answer to Sculptris and Sketchup and is meant to interest beginners in 3D without the tremendous learning curve of their Autodesk’s flagship applications: CAD, Maya, Max, and Mudbox.
Daz Studio is an image creation tool that comes with a wealth of characters, props, creatures, and buildings that you can arrange and animate to create still images or short films. The software is primarily meant for users who want to create 3D images or films without the overhead of creating all their models and textures by hand.
The software’s animation and rendering toolset is fairly robust, and in the right hands, users can create impressive shots. However, without a full range of modeling, surfacing, or sculpting tools built in, your content can become limited unless you’re willing to buy 3D assets in the Daz marketplace or create them yourself with a third-party modeling package.
Still, it’s a great piece of software for people who just want to jump in and create a 3D image or film without a whole lot of overhead.
If you’re interested in fractals, Mandelbulb 3D should be right up your alley. The application certainly takes some getting used to, but the result is stellar once you know what you’re doing. The 3D fractal environment includes color, lighting, specularity, depth-of-field, and shadow and flow effects used to generate amazing fractal objects. If the concept of fractals is Greek to you, visit the featured artists’ section of the Mandelbulb website to see the types of things you can do with this software.
Autodesk Software (Free but Limited)
Autodesk offers virtually its entire software line free for non-commercial use to “students and community members.” However, you don’t have to be enrolled in a school to download them. If you want to work in the industry eventually, knowing Autodesk software is a valuable skill, so this is a highly recommended path. The only limitation is that you can’t use any of the software in commercial projects. Among the educational downloads are 3DS Max, Maya, Inventor Professional, and AutoCAD.