In the ever-growing demand of clients wanting more creative options from you, their creative go-to person, you might want to seriously consider learning 3D modeling and animation. Today there are powerful and even FREE software packages out there for 3D modeling and animation, with even more free tutorials abound.
I remember in the early 1990’s when 3D software was young and basically reflected this: really cheesy looking and labor-intensive, or if it was nice looking, was extremely expensive, and reserved to exclusive users. And any which way you looked at it, it was extremely slow, unless you had a $50k SGI workstation. To that end, my limited 3D software choices included Specular Infini-D, Strata Studio Pro, and the short-lived Adobe Dimensions, Adobe’s first and only (feeble) attempt at a dedicated 3D application (which was then a short-lived plugin for Adobe Illustrator). In short, this was both frustrating and limiting. The good thing however, is that it taught me (i.e., forced me) essential basics for my future 3D foundation, to which I would later be grateful for.
Around 1996, I bought our first license of Newtek Lightwave 3D. Finally a 3D software package that was both affordable and powerful. For me, this allowed me, for the first time, to really model and animate in 3D with features and rendering options that I had only dreamed about before (oooh, soft shadows!). At this point, I could really offer my clients new creative options for their productions. I also added Electric Image Animation System (EIAS), which was (and is still available today) solely a 3D animation/rendering package (no modeling) but gave me a different approach to 3D animation than Lightwave, and was used accordingly, depending on the project. In short, the birth of affordable and functional 3D software was finally starting to bloom throughout the market place. These were exciting times!
The only problem in the mid-to-late nineties was the limited resources for learning 3D modeling and animation. You either had to enroll in a physical school that you had to attend (and they were few and far between), you had to rely on monthly trade magazines in hopes they’d cover something you could use, you could mail-order VHS instructional videos, or you had to buy a book on the topic (usually the best option at the time).
Fast-forward to the second decade of the twenty-first century and you literally have a plethora of informational resources on any 3D software package, on any topic, and at any proficiency level, whether it’s online training, YouTube videos, downloadable eBooks, or the traditional print media approach.
But the best part is, if you’re new to the 3D world, you can either try some software for free (either limited in features or limited in time), or you can perpetually use free 3D software, legally, like Blender 3D. Blender is an open source 3D software package (Linux, OSX, Windows) with a strong user-base, with enough online tutorials, videos, and forums to keep you learning until the polygon cows come home. This is a viable way to at least see if you like 3D and want to grow into it and offer it to your clients as a professional service.
For me personally, I still use Newtek Lightwave 3D after fifteen years as my software package of choice, whether a complex medical animation for FDA approval, or for a simple packaging animations for UPS. The excitement of starting a new project and producing something from scratch in a “3D world” is something that always keeps things fun. We also use Maxwell Renderer for some photo-realistic rendering and good old Poser 3D, which we find useful for storyboard production. And there are many other 3D packages abound; Maya, Cinema 4D, 3D Studio Max, SoftImage XSI, Houdini, Modo, and Strata 3D are but a few packages that can also cater to your needs. Also check out Bryce 3D for fun 3D landscape and terrain visualization.
And if you’re not big on 3D modeling, but you are interested in 3D animation, then you’re in luck. There are many 3D model resources out there where you can buy and download 3D models for free or for a price (like stock footage libraries). Price usually goes hand-in-hand with the kind of detail that’s involved with the 3D model. Our favorite 3D model library over the years has been Turbo Squid. In most cases, buying a pre-built 3D model is more efficient and economical. Why spend 3 days building a highly detailed model with full texture mapping when one has already been built for you? In reality, the cost is minimal in comparison.
A quick caveat: If you’re completely new to 3D, be prepared to undergo a new way of learning something. Working in 3D is nothing like the way you work in video editing, or even 2D motion graphics for that matter. Even the implementation of pseudo-3D features in compositing applications like Adobe After Effects is completely different than working in true 3D in any other dedicated 3D software suite. It’s a different mind-set and a different approach to the creative process.
But fear not; once you learn the basic foundations of 3D space, modeling, lighting, surfacing, animating and rendering, you’ll literally have a whole new world open to you that you never had before. I can attest that at least 90% of my fellow editor colleagues, and even motion graphics colleagues (and talented ones at that) do not use true 3D software packages as part of their personal creative toolset. This means more work for me, and can mean more work for you. Admittedly, it does seem to be somewhat of a rare breed for someone to truly envelope themselves in 3D production, but if you desire it and develop the skill set for it, the market is yours for the taking.
Remember, patience is your greatest ally when learning 3D. Before you know it, you’ll be working with fluid dynamics, inverse kinematics, global illumination, and everything else that will knock your clients’ socks off!