Enter the high-end

If you’ve exceeded the modelling capabilities or rendering quality of the tools we’ve looked at here, then perhaps it’s time to invest in a full 3D suite. You can either plump for a mid-rage tool such as Maxon Cinema 4D 10.5 (which starts at £549) or the €699 (around £555) NewTek LightWave 9.3 – or go all-out on a high-end 3D suite, which can cost many thousands of pounds for the full 3D feature set.

Cinema 4D provides a modular way to get into high-end 3D. The base version offers a wide range of modelling, animation and rendering tools – but if you want niche or truly high-end tools then you can purchase one of the eight extensions modules for either £259 or £329: Advanced Render, MoGraph for motion-graphics creation, MOCCA for character animation, HAIR, Thinking Particles, Dynamics, NET Render, and Sketch and Toon.

LightWave includes all of its tools for one price, and even render nodes for network rendering are free. NewTek will hopefully release the much-delayed LightWave Rendition plug-in for Photoshop soon, which will offer high-end modelling and rendering tools inside Adobe’s photo editing application.

High-end 3D suites used by high-end design and visual effects studios are highly versatile and have a price point to match. These tools offer not just cutting-edge modelling and texturing tools, but they also ship with film-quality rendering engines from the likes of mental ray. These tools are also highly extendable, offering in-built scripting languages that can customize every aspect of the production pipeline. Another feature that sets them apart from the artworking software is the ability to write custom shaders, which can create unique materials to apply to your models.

High-end suites include Autodesk’s Maya 2008, which costs from £1,449 for the Complete version and from £4,899 for the Unlimited version. The Complete version includes all of the core 3D tools, but the Unlimited version adds powerful functions such as Fluid Effects, Fur, Hair, nCloth for fabric simulations, and Live for tracking and compositing
live-action footage. Autodesk also develops the 3ds Max 2009 suite, which also offers a wealth of functions for its £2,600 – and is split into two versions: the standard one and Design,for architectural work.

Softimage|XSI 7 will be released soon for £1,250 for the Essentials version and £2,525 for the Advanced version. The upgrade adds the ICE node-based system for building complex effects without programming.

Side Effects Houdini 9 is a full-spec suite that’s found most appeal with large studios and costs £4,100.

Mid-range and high-end tools can be tricky for someone from a graphic design or illustration background to learn – especially as they use a very different vocabulary to 2D design and art applications. Luckily, most tools on the market are well-supplied with user guides, tutorial files and videos, and online forums are increasingly integrated with applications’ Help facilities. Many of the big application suites also provide learning editions, such as the free Maya PLE or Houdini Apprentice while others, like the tutorial-packed 3DS Max, offer full 30-day trials. If you want to go further, there are training DVDs and courses aplenty.

All prices mentioned here exclude VAT.