Monday, September 10, 2012

Blender review

So before I get on with the Blender rant, I just want to let you folks know that the piggy bank animation thing hasn't been completely abandoned. Just decided to postpone it's production until there is a meaningful story for the already interesting premise- a tiny girl on a desk! :D So there is already a lot of rough animation there, but I decided that it just doesnt hold up well as a story with what I've got-
When I did it at the time, it served as nothing but an excuse to do some animation for my university module. I am open for suggestions. Anything you can imagine with the rigs that I have. If I like it and make it, your name will be right there above mine, next to "a Story by..." My email is at the contacts page.
You might also notice I haven't worked on it for over a year. :D

Ok, now on to Blender.
 "But Todor, why spend time to learn Blender, when obviously- Autodesk is the KING of the hill - people with jobs use Autodesk products!!"

siggraph 2011- Autodesk thinks people shouldn't blend in..

While I love Maya for animation and rigging, Modelling and texturing  in it seems to take much more time and effort than does in blender. Certainly it has way more features than Blender. But does that make it a good choice for everything?

This is what I discovered that Blender does with less complexity, effort and need to buy proprietary plugins or combine with other software. It's artist friendly!

 Better underlying design.

Navigation:  You pan and navigate without the need to hold alt key. Going to views can be done by holding alt to snap to them, rather than selecting them from the spacebar menu (maya).
This ultimately makes it better suited for use with a digital tablet! It's very similar to how zbrush does it.

Selecting In maya you will keep selecting verts that are on the other side of your model- constantly, even when you disable that. Blender has a number of selection modes that are fast to switch between without the need to click on icons.

Mouse design
Blender's mouse interaction has been designed from ground up to reduce repetitive strain injury oh the hand.
Reducing the time you use the same finger to click. There are some very clever gui design choices in there..When you manipulate things with grab rotate and scale, you dont have to click and hold - again less stress for your hand, less work

Moving objects in maya is a pain. You need to use the widgets and switch between modes constantly. You click and hold to move things.
 In blender you can just hit G and the object will move with your mouse until you left click to apply the transform operation you made. It might seem like a small thing, but when you pose a character or rotate things, it makes it way easier on your hand and patience. I don't need to grab any tiny manipulator handles getting in the way any more. They are still optional though - useful for hard surface modeling.

Real time action adaptation
You have snapping,falloff, you can still type coordinates or isolate axis if you want- the best part is that all of it happens while you are moving,scaling or rotating and you see the exact effect before applying it by left clicking. You set your options while you operate, not before.
This approach to design is applied through out many of the other features too.

Access to comands: Markup menus and shelf icons in my opinion are slower than using shortcuts in blender. The problem of having to learn the shortcuts has been eliminated by the inclusion of the spacebar find command.That same feature can be used as an equivalent to maya's repeat command operator, as it always remembers your last action.

3D cursor- Blender has a unique global pivot control manipulator that can be used on any object in any  mode. In maya you need to manually change the pivot of the object itself or do some tricky stuff  to somehow get that effect in its edit modes.

Editing - Maya doesnt use a modifier stack (blender and 3ds max) . Instead everything is stored in nodes that you need to clean up from your history when you model or disable history altogether. This adds more power to maya, as these nodes are scriptable/animateable. But it also adds more risk of complications and potential glitches. Having to constantly freeze transformations and delete history  slows you down early on in the pipeline.

Sculpting- Blender has vastly superior sculpting and painting tools. Maya doesnt even have a grab/move brush. So you cant really use it to tweak the proportions of your model. You end up going back to manually selecting verts, adjusting fall off and moving- that is a slow way to work.

Later this year, Nicholas Bishop will hopefully merge his code for
dynTopo  to trunk- It's blender's equivalent to sculpris' unlimited clay. What it does is dynamically subdivide your model only where detail is needed. It figures that out depending on you brush setting and the distance of the viewport  camera to the surface of the model. As a result you dont need to worry about topology getting in the way of the shape you want to achieve. No need to subdivide the whole model to a billion polygons to give your character a more rounded nose.
This is the first time such a feature is part of a full modelling and animation package! I will write more about it in later posts. Until then here is a demonstration of it's use by Max Maurel. Add to that resymetrize and remesh and you have a light free version of zbrush. :)

A quick test run of an early dyntopo blender build left me rather impressed! If you look at the name of the object you'll see what I started with. If you look at the top of the head- that area is still blocky as my brush was no longer interested in adding detail to it. This makes the geometry much more manageable to manipulate.

zspheres like tool  ( skin modifier ) in blender lets you quickly generate organic shapes with clean topology, ready for modeling/sculpting. The only way to get that in maya is via an unofficial mel script, and thats not even as good.

I started doing this dragon model for fun and to test the skin modifier. It took about 20 minutes to get it this far.
If you look closely, you will find that It's made out of nothing but bare edges. The skin modifier dynamically creates topology around these construction edges , based on the thickness you apply to their verts. Some times the geometry has collapsing that can be cured by adding/extruding an extra vert.
The weird topology near the middle of the x axis clears up when you apply the mirror modifier. In fact, if you use mirror with skin and multires modifiers, my advice is to apply mirror first, even though it's not on the top of the stack.

The beauty of the skin modifier is that it can also generate a bone structure based on your verts. The big circle over the hip of the dragon is the marked vert of the ROOT joint of the armature that will be generated. So no need to place joints, only to remove some joints and re-orient others.

Bsurfaces makes retopology and generation of character outfits easy. It's very close to what specialised retopology apps do.
The artist can use freehand strokes to generate new geometry in 3d with the grease pencil.
The ability to combine that with modifiers can be quite empowering.

The Grease pencil in blender lets you write notes and scribble over your model before it has been textured. It even picks up the pressure sensitivity of your tablet.This is very useful when you want to experiment with your characters, write/get feedback or make tutorials for others. It works everywhere- letting you write notes in your x-sheet, your compositor, everywhere.

UV-ing and texturing- When you mark your seams and click "unwrap" blender just gives you a much better result, that is uniform and has little to no stretching. Getting that effect in maya takes more time, more steps and is more complex. Live unwrap is a feature that updates your UV as you add new seams, without the need to re-unwrap constantly. There are other impressive improvements coming too!

I can just go on and on. Maya is not a good tool for character concepting / modelling. You can tell me to go and use Mudbox instead, but to be honest, I still see Blender as a better option. I dont have to jump between software to do simple things. Mudbox doesnt have dynamic topology, retopology or a skin modifier.

autodesk has never really intended to provide these tools- companies buy maya for the animation and special effects.

Leaving all these things aside, it would be good to end my rant with Ton's words:

My plan for now is to learn to do one thing well in maya. The things before animation in the pipeline, I rather be a generilst in with Blender.
This is a great FREELANCE alternative. Let's be honest, who in their right mind would spend 7^ k on a software package license ? Only a big house company would.

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