What is Blender, and is it the Right Tool for Your 3D Project?
Blender is a popular, free, and open-source 3D creation suite. With its capacity to support a complete 3D pipeline, you can use Blender to do everything from modeling, rigging, and animation to simulation, rendering, compositing, and motion tracking.
In this article, we will look at everything you want to know about Blender, starting with a little background on how Blender came to be. Then we will look at the requirements to run Blender and details on getting a copy for your system. Finally, we will look at the features that draw users to Blender, Blender alternatives, and more.
The first version of Blender was developed in 1994 by Ton Roosendaal as an in-house tool for developers at NeoGeo, a 3D animation studio in the Netherlands. NeoGeo eventually closed its doors, and Not a Number released Blender with the freemium pricing strategy, where many features were free but more advanced features required a license.
In 2002, Not a Number also closed down. Since then, the Blender Foundation released Blender as free, open-source software — which it has remained since. Even in its early days as an in-house tool, Blender has always had a GNU General Public License. This is one of the most flexible licenses in the industry, as it gives you the rights to use Blender for any purpose you choose, distribute Blender, modify Blender, and release your own custom modified versions of Blender.
Last Updated August 2021
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The Blender development team releases daily builds and is constantly adding new features. Since the release of Blender 2.8, companies like Google, Ubisoft, and Unreal have donated to Blender because they see how important it has become in 3D development.
In the early days of Blender, many developers thought of it as a “free alternative” mainly for hobbyists and small studios that didn’t like the price tag of more advanced “premium” tools. But recent updates have added a lot more functionality to Blender, and in some areas, it can compete head to head with these other tools. Let’s see how you can get a copy yourself.
Blender system requirements
Blender is cross-platform, which means you can use Blender on Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux based machines. You can download a copy of Blender at the official Blender website. The minimum requirements are easy to meet for all the power it gives you over 3D. Here are the basics:
• 64-bit dual-core 2Ghz CPU with SSE2 support
• 4 GB RAM
• 1280×768 display
• Mouse, trackpad or pen+tablet
• Graphics card with 1 GB RAM, OpenGL 3.3
• Less than 10 years old
The optimal machine for Blender would have these features:
• 64-bit eight-core CPU
• 32 GB RAM
• Full HD displays
• Three-button mouse and pen+tablet
• Graphics card with +12 GB RAM
But you don’t need all of that to get started. Now that you know if Blender will work for your computer and where you can get a copy, let’s look at some things you can do with it.
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When you first open up Blender, it can be a little overwhelming. There are a lot of menus, panels, and tools. It can be a lot to take in.
All these tools have a purpose, but you will probably only use a few of them depending on what type of project you are working on. Let’s look at some things you can do with Blender.
It may seem strange to start with this feature, but Blender can do 2D too. In fact, it is the perfect tool for 2D artists who are thinking about getting into 3D. The Blender Grease Pencil tool allows you to draw in Blender 3D space. So you can do 2D animation in Blender that runs in the Blender 3D world.
With the Grease Pencil tool, you can do 2D animation, cut-out animation, motion graphics, create a storyboard, and much more. Blender support for Adobe Illustrator SVGs is in development, which will allow you to export 2D graphics from Illustrator and use them as 2D objects you can animate in Blender. The 2D tools in Blender make it the perfect collaboration tool between 2D and 3D artists.
Sculpting and modeling
If you are doing any type of 3D work, you will most likely be using the sculpting and modeling features of Blender. There is more than one way to build your model in Blender.
Mesh-based modeling is the common way to build models, and you can access this functionality from the Modeling view in Blender. Using this method, you can build up your model polygon by polygon. Blender also offers a curve-based method that Blender calls NURBS modeling. This method uses lines to build up your model. Based on these structural lines, a mesh will generate for your model.
The Sculpting view of Blender lets you build your model by, well, sculpting. Just like drawing software, Blender gives you a choice of sculpting brushes to modify the model, similar to how you would work with clay in real life.
UV unwrapping and texturing
3D models start as a shape with no colors or textures. What UV unwrapping does is give you the ability to flatten the mesh or skin of your model so that you can add textures or paint directly on your model. Once you have unwrapped your model, you can adjust opacity, diffusion, and lighting to perfect the look of your model.
Animation and VFX
Blender has a full suite of rigging and animation tools. Rigging tools give your model a skeleton so you can move it however you choose. But in Blender, you don’t have to use rigging for simple animation. You can animate by keying it into your animation timeline, essentially utilizing the stop-motion method, where you set a character’s location in space and time. For more advanced animation, you use rigging, and Blender will extrapolate the movements between your keyframes to make the job a lot easier.
Blender has been used by quite a few animation studios and in some feature films. One of the earliest movies created with Blender was a short animation film called Tears of Steel in 2012. Since then, the VFX features of Blender have evolved. NextGEN is a science fiction animated film produced by Tangent Animation that sold to Netflix for over 30 million dollars. Tangent Animation used Blender to make the movie.
Blender ships with the Eevee render engine. Eevee is a real-time render engine that works well with Cycles ray trace rendering, allowing you to change render engines whenever you choose. With this engine built into Blender, you don’t have to rely on external tools to handle renders. This makes Blender an excellent tool for animated film editing and pre-visualization work.
Blender recently added the ability to use virtual reality or VR. Currently, this feature is limited but allows you to inspect your scene in virtual reality. Blender uses OpenXR, so you can use this feature with any platform that supports it. You can activate the scene inspection ability with an add-on that ships with Blender, but the software deactivates this by default. We discuss how to activate add-ons like this below. This is also only available on Windows and Linux machines since there isn’t a Mac OSX platform that supports OpenXR.
Once activated, you can inspect your scene in VR but can’t interact with it. This limits its functionality but still makes it useful for film directors to review the scenes in an animated movie and give feedback to the 3D artists or as a visualization tool for 3D game developers.
Blender add-ons and Python scripting
While the General Public License (GNU) allows you to modify Blender itself, there is a much easier way to modify how Blender works. Blender’s open-source architecture supports scripting with Python and third-party add-ons. This means that if you know Python, you can write a script to extend the functionality of Blender.
But you don’t have to be a developer to benefit from the power of Blender add-ons because many developers release their add-ons for free, and you can add them to your own Blender installation. Some of these add-ons already come with Blender but will be deactivated by default. You can browse them by going to “Add-ons” in the Blender Preferences menu. You can activate any of them by checking the checkbox next to their names.
You can also find third-party plugins online for free or for a price, and install them through the same add-ons panel by clicking the “Install” button and choosing the location you downloaded the add-on file.
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Here are some popular add-ons for Blender:
• 3D-Print Toolbox: This add-on comes with Blender, but you will have to activate it manually. It is very useful if you are going to use Blender for 3D printing. This add-on adds tools to analyze a 3D model and export it for 3D printing. When you finish creating a 3D model, you can click “Check All,” and it will alert you about issues in your model that may make it fail during the printing process. When you are ready to export, it will export your model in an STL format you can use with a printer.
• VR Scene Inspection: This add-on also ships with Blender, but it disables it by default. We looked at it above in the VR features section.
• Amaranth: This is a popular free add-on you can read more about here. This plugin gives you shortcuts and extensions to speed up the workflow in Blender.
• Ragdoll Tools: Ragdoll Tools is also a favorite paid add-on used by 3D artists who want to add ragdoll physics to their characters or simulations.
• RetopoFlow: This is another paid plugin that allows 3D artists to generate a new mesh over their model on the fly.
There are dozens of add-ons just like these that will make Blender even more full-featured than it began. Or, if you know Python, you can write your own custom Blender features.
Blender is a full-featured 3D creation suite that you can customize with plugins, but you may want to compare competing tools. Tools similar to Blender include:
• Maya: You may have heard about this 3D software before. 3D artists use it for animation, modeling, visual effects, and rendering. It is part of AutoDesk and costs a monthly fee.
• Cinema 4D: Professionals in the film industry are the target audience for this software. Its focus is on high-end imagery and film production. It also is not free.
• SketchUp: You can get SketchUp in a free or paid version. It is great for CAD drawings, engineering projects, and interior design. The free version is basic and beginner-friendly.
There are quite a few options for 3D software that aren’t listed here. Many are more specialized than Blender and focus on specific tasks, but it is hard to beat Blender when it comes to a free, general-purpose 3D creation suite.
If you are just getting into 3D, you really can’t beat Blender. It is free. It lets you try just about everything you can do in 3D, including modeling, rigging, animation, simulation, rendering, video editing, 3D printing, motion tracking, and more. But Blender is not just for beginners. It is a powerful software that comes with many features, but there’s also room to extend them with scripting and add-ons.
Blender will keep evolving with new updates, new third-party add-ons, and ongoing support from big names in the technology industry. Because it can do everything from 2D animation to 3D game development to video editing and is free, it is worth learning and adding to your toolbox no matter what type of 3D you do.