One of the toughest investments for any video or projection designer to make is the choice of a 3D modeling and animation software. Not only are they often prohibitively expensive in monetary terms, but they are “time‐expensive” as well. Each has its own unique interface and workflow, and—while some few features and tools are nearly universal—each comes with a truly unique perspective on the world of creating worlds. The choice to learn a 3D program represents a willingness to spend a good deal of time and money.
For a long time, I’ve been a fan of the Autodesk products—particularly 3D Studio Max. In part that’s because I am a professor and qualify for educational pricing and often have a lab full of networked render stations sitting around. It’s a good, fairly basic but robust modeler that is especially easy to learn for those with experience in AutoCAD. However, if you can’t get education pricing—or if you are exclusively a Mac user, since neither 3D Studio Max or AutoCAD has or probably will ever have a Mac version—it may not be the choice for you.
Among the cost effective options out there (of which Maya is not one), the cheapest and perhaps most user‐friendly is Carrara, now in version 7. A product of Daz 3D (the makers of Bryce), Carrara’s user interface is intuitive and the new multi‐pass render engine is fairly robust. I especially like the new 3D Paint option, which allows you to apply color and texture directly to an object in 3D, just like you were painting a real object in space.
The major issue with Carrara is one of texture—it’s hard to get renders to look dirty. Everything—at least with a intermediate user’s touch— looks like it belongs more in a videogame than on the screen or stage. But if you are looking for a 3D application to create structure and 3D motion and are willing to spend a little extra time tweaking texture, you probably can’t do better than Carrara’s $125 price tag ($275 for the Pro version).