Blender Releases Version 2.40

And just in time for Christmas. I’ve been fooling around with it a little bit, but I’m tied up with work so I don’t have time to do any real benchmarks or tests. Still, I can say that it feels much, much better, and there are a lot of new features, which are kind of a mixed bag. The fluid dynamics module looks absolutely fantastic. The particle strand hair tool looks abominable. The character tools are getting better, but the radiosity is still pretty crummy. Basically, I’m of two minds about this package.

It’s getting to the point where it’s usable. It can import and export all the main file formats, offer generally acceptable animation and modeling tools, and is on its way to developing a decent renderer (although you might be better off using an external engine). And I like how it’s free. I generally like free things. However, I think that, paradoxically, Blender’s greatest strengths and it’s greatest weaknesses are due to its open source status.

Don’t get me wrong, I love most open source software and the whole “open source” concept, as long as it’s not degenerating into anarchic idiocy or Marxist silliness. The other day I needed to update my cell phone’s contacts, and the free open-source solution worked much better than the buggy, bloated software that came from my provider. A distributed network of freelance programmers all updating the same program independently is great for some projects, like a reverse-engineered telephone tool, and not for others, like a professional animation program.

If I build my production pipeline around Blender, and run into a bug that holds my project up, there are no guarantees that I can get it fixed immediately since the programmers who created to problem aren’t on salary. On the other hand, I do have access to the source code, so I can hire my own guys to try to fix it, but who knows how well that’ll work? Now let’s say I wanted to integrate the rigid body system with that glorious fluid dynamics engine, which is a logical upgrade and something that most pro packages support. With Blender, those two libraries were created completely independently, and so making them talk to each other will be tough.

A few years ago I worked with a medium-small animation studio on a number of television programs, primarily using Newtek’s Lightwave. Newtek and the developers of the plug-ins we were using were always quick to solve any problems we might run into, sometimes getting us new upgrades overnight. That’s the kind of support you need during most productions. However well organized, open source doesn’t really offer that.

So, no matter how many cool toys get added to Blender, I don’t think we’re going to see it challenging Maya or Lightwave anytime soon on real projects. With that in mind, how wise is it to spend a lot of time mastering Blender? It’s free, but then so is Maya’s Personal Learning Edition, so that in and of itself doesn’t really make it a good first package (Lightwave used to have a free learning edition as well, named Discovery. It’s no longer available, but rumor has it that it might be on it’s way back). You can even learn Houdini for free.

It all boils down to what you want to do with it. If you want to be an animator of any type, go with a proper animation package. If you want to be a matter painter and you just need some 3D app to give some depth to you paintings, go with Blender. It takes a great deal of time to become a competent 3D artist, and, as immaterial as an artist’s tools are, you can’t really begin to make much headway until you’ve mastered the program you’re using. You might as well take the time to learn a program that’s proven itself on serious projects and will be a marketable skill.