There’s a special place in every designer’s heart for 3D animation. Nostalgic memories of Toy Story and Finding Nemo might rush through your mind, along with the endless possibilities you could do with 3D animation software.
But along with the excitement comes serious challenges. A few seconds of 3D animation takes hours and hours of work, not to mention expert knowledge about different models, compositions, and creative communication skills.
On top of that? You’ll need a nice, intuitive UI, and efficient character creation. Sounds pricey, right? Not always, especially if you’re a student! And with the help of some design books and UX education, you can use 3D animation programs to give life to your biggest creative visions. Looking for a 3D anime movie maker? Or perhaps software for your latest video game? Keep reading.
We’ll cover the latest, most popular computer programs used in 3D animation and explore prices, features, reviews, and more. Keep that animation film fresh in your minds — you’ll get to bring it to life soon!
First, we’ll start with the basics.
How to Use 3D Animation Software
No 3D animation software works exactly the same. Even experienced designers face a learning curve jumping into a new animation tech stack.
Generally, though, the process starts with creating objects with 3D models. Sometimes, 3D animation software has preset models to get you started. Otherwise, you’ll need to make them yourself. You might scan an object to a computer to create these models.
Then, you can use the software’s tools to manipulate each object with texture, lines, colors, and movement. We know what you’re thinking: how’s that different from 2D animation?
3D animation offers more depth, along with movement along the third z-axis. On the other hand, 2D animation only moves past x and y axes.
Now that we’ve settled that, here are four steps to using 3D animation software:
- Modeling: Polygons with faces generated either by the software or an external scan.
- Animation: Manipulating models creates animation. Once you create a skeleton, you can add animation variables (Avars) — points in your characters' bodies able to move. Next comes keyframing (not to be confused with wireframing), where you can move your animated characters through a set.
- Layout: Here, you decide how much space there is between each object.
- Rendering: This is where you put everything together. Your characters and objects are posed, colored, and lit for action, and your animation sequence commences.
Now, most 3D animation software handles all these steps. But the best 3D animation software frees up your mind to focus on your creative genius and handles all the details you need to put your vision into action.
Best 3D Animation Software
A common animation challenge is making characters look as realistic as possible, despite it being animation. Autodesk’s Maya 3D animation software rises to the task with its non-linear, video-based editor. The result? Animations that mimic real life to the ‘t.
Plus, it's easy to import and export SVG files for later use.
Animator reviews praise Maya’s smooth transitions, 3D modeling, texturing, and helpful updates; however, many comment on the platform’s high price tag and frequent crashes.
Features: Windows 7 or later, macOS
- Regular updates with new tools
- Motion graphics
- Pipeline integration
- Accurate cloth simulation
- 3D Modeling
OS: Windows 7 and up; macOS
Another gem from Autodesk, MotionBuilder is a top 3D animation program for video game animators. Designers can create characters in real-time with motion capture and keyframe animation.
And if you’re a perfectionist? Motionbuilder has you covered with endless tools to tweak the smallest details with ease. Plus, its cutting features are seamless and smooth, giving you natural transitions with every movement.
It’s a bit on the pricier side at $1,950 per year. However, many animators praise the software’s high quality and functionalities, making it worth it.
- Real-time animation
- Motion capture data
- Keyframe animation
- Cutting and stitching
- Smooth transitions
Price: $1.950 /year
OS: Windows 10; Linux Red Hat; Linux Centros
Looking for free 3D animation software? Blender is a great choice, and open-source. We love how accessible it is to animators and enthusiasts of all experience levels, showcasing a visually appealing, highly user-friendly interface. You’ll have access to Cycles, a path tracer engine that helps you achieve more realistic rendering, even with VR. Motion capture even extends to facial motion capture.
Of course, Blender still has a strong arsenal of sculpting and 3D painting tools. While some animators complain about its limitations in effects, it supports Python to offer more customizability if you have enough experience to implement it.
- Scripting language (Python)
- Raster graphics
- Rigging and skinning
- Video editing
- Architectural visualizations
- Fluid and smoke simulations
- Default path tracer engine
- Cycles for more realism
- Sculpting tools
- 3D painting tools
OS: Linux, macOS, Windows
4. Daz Studio
Some critics might call this 3D animating program slightly cookie-cutter with its preset, ready-made models. But consider Daz Studio’s preset model a saved step in the process to support your workflow. Preset models make things simple for the animator in a rush, casual designer, and extremely detailed artist. In addition, preset props from multiple genres help you customize your characters, along with clothing, facial features, poses, and visual attributes.
Need support? The Studio’s extensive tutorials cover lighting, texturing, rigging, rendering, downloading, and every other possible action you might want to take in your animation journey.
Daz Studio is also a fabulous resource for work, as its 3D marketplace helps you buy and sell animated characters around the world. Some animators lament the software’s slow speeds, but recent upgrades have rectified the issues for the most part.
All in all, it’s one of the best free 3D animation software for efficient, business-savvy animators.
- Multi-genre prop library
- Puppeteer tool
- Preset models
- Prop library
- 3D marketplace to sell work
- Webinars and resources for extra cost
OS: macOS; Windows
Cinema 4D is a fabulous choice for the highly professional animator. Working with high-end or demanding clients? Please them every step of the way with preview renders and frequent updates. The platform’s scene manager also helps you keep your projects organized. As for your workflow? You can simplify the process even more by integrating live film into a 3D animation sequence.
Now, movement capture is superb in Cinema 4D. You can record your mouse cursor movements to reflect your characters’ positions. Endless tools help you customize that movement further, like parametrics and a unique muscle system. Pair all that with an intuitive interface, and Cinema 4D is a competitive software on our list.
If you’re working with car animations, Cinema 4D’s unique car rig helps you bring them to life. Same with the toon rig — give characters dramatic features comparable to Looney Toons!
- Scene reconstruction
- Bullet dynamics
- Car rig, toon rig
- Facial and body movement capture
- Asset browser
- Procedural modeling
- Motion graphics
OS: Windows 10; macOS or higher; Linux
If you’re looking for a one-stop shop for every aspect of animation you could think of — Adobe is your best bet. The full suite covers:
- Adobe Animate
- Adobe Character Animator
- Adobe Illustrator
- Adobe Illustrator Draw
- Adobe Photoshop Sketch
Adobe Animate covers everything about depth. You can create space, depth, and custom spatial placement with its features. On top of that, it allows you to combine multiple pieces of artwork to create a fulsome 3D drawing.
Take things to the next level with the dedicated Character Animator, to give more texture and unique designs to each creation. We especially love the easy exporting to Facebook Live and YouTube, and easy sharing to online libraries. If you’re looking for all the animation-related apps, you’ll need to purchase Adobe’s Creative Cloud package at $54.99 a month. Our opinion? That’s significantly cheaper than many others on this list. However, be prepared for a sharp learning curve.
- Vector animations
- Motion graphics and composites
- Scalable and adaptable graphics
- Audio syncing
- Export format
- Onion skinning
- Easy transitions
- Color corrections
Price: $54.99/month for multiple 3D animation apps
OS: Windows 10
People might not always think of realism as a top priority for animation. After all, a cartoon might be capable of more extraordinary movements than a Hollywood celebrity, right? But if you crave animation with realistic movement, Cascadeur is a top contender.
The software uses AI tools inspired by physics laws to dictate character movements. Timing and trajectories are automatically sorted to mimic ultra-realism while you get back to creating.
Animators applaud Cascadeur’s user-friendly interface and easy rigging system. However, the graphics don’t come out as clearly as other software. All in all? A great beginner 3D animation software for a junior animator, but not for the next Pixar star.
- Physics-law AI tools
- Customizable rigs
- Humanoid and non-humanoid tools
OS: Windows 7 and higher; Ubuntu
Are you a beginner animator? Perhaps you’re fresh into a design course or considering a career switch. If so, K-3D is a commitment-free, cost-free 3D animation software you have to try.
The platform is simple yet intuitive, with a user-friendly interface any beginner can grasp easily. K-3D features a node-based visualization pipeline. Considering its basic structure, K-3D’s modeling is particularly fulsome with its mirrored views and real-time combinations.
Early in your career, you’re likely to make mistakes. K-3D alleviates the pressure with an advanced undo/redo function. This makes it easy to try out different scenarios and overcome mistakes quickly.
- Node-based visualization
- Customizable workflows
- Flexible undo/redo
- Native RenderMan™ support
OS: Windows; macOS
Does your animation vision feature dynamic human forms, dancing, running, and jumping in varied sequences? Poser is a 3D character animation software specializing in human forms.
If you want classic software, Poser is a strong match. Launched in 1995, the platform has a full library of content and accessories. You can pick from an entire ecosystem of 3D human figures, lighting, clothing, accessories, and other features helping you craft a story in fantasy, realistic, historical, or modern times.
The only downsides are the bugs and slow load times. Plus, some users complain the interface is unintuitive and complex.
- Ecosystem of endless figures
- Carefully crafted themed models, from historical to sci-fi
- Varied human expressions
- Comics, print, games, story-boarding
Price: $149.95, with additional “bundles” for different figures, models, and styles
OS: Windows; macOS
Are you a macOS kind of person? Cheetah3D was made especially for macOS — a 3D modeling software with juicy features like a powerful UV editor, raytracing, and easy import/export features.
- 3D modeling
- Character rigging
- Joint-based character animation
- Global illumination renderer
- Node-based material system
- UV unwrapping
- Texture painting
The best 3D animation software depends on your unique design tendencies, budget, and experience level. Are you looking for
Many 3D animation software programs offer free trials. We highly recommend you try a few out to get an idea about how it’d look with your workflow. Also, be sure to reach out to each software company for onboarding documents. They might even offer an account manager or point of contact for further training if necessary.
But if you’re not ready to jump in just yet, you have plenty of motion design resources to study first.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Which Software is Best for Making 3D Animation?
The best 3D animation software works well with your budget and creative goals. But one important aspect is the level of control you have on your animation. If you’re looking for a high-class animation software with a wide range of features, MotionBuilder is a popular tool amongst higher experience animators.
2. What Software Do 3D Animators Use?
3D animators use a wide range of tools, ranging from basic free tools like Cascadeur or high-end software like Autodesk Maya or MotionBuilder.
3. What is the Best 3D Animation Software for Beginners?
Cascadeur and Daz Studio are fabulous beginner tools for user-friendly interfaces and preset models.
4. Is There Any Free Animation Software?
Yes. Cascadeur and Daz Studio are free animation software with thousands of users.