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04 Dec

Blender: love it and/or hate it

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Phil Rhodes has strong personal opinions about this powerful but unintuitive software

I love Blender and I hate Blender.

Perhaps that's putting it a little baldly, so let me explain. Blender is a piece of open source software in the vein of 3ds Max or Lightwave which provides, if you look no deeper than the spec sheet, many of the same features as any piece of expensive commercial 3D modelling and rendering software.  There's all the usual stuff – the modeller, smoke and fluid, hair and fur, solid and soft-body physics, rigging and animation. There are several different renderers with Blender compatibility and it's possible to do high precision lighting simulation and advanced materials. Recently, a camera tracker was added and it is - and you will frequently be told this by its adherents - theoretically possible to do high-end, live action integration for feature film effects work in Blender.

As far as I know, nobody ever has.

Where's the finished work?

The actual finished work done in Blender, with the exception of a thousand and one YouTube videos of Jenga towers falling over, is pretty limited. The Blender Foundation itself has produced four short films heavily involving the software, three of which (Elephant's Dream, Big Buck Bunny and Sintel) were entirely computer animated, whereas the fourth, Tears of Steel, involved live action integration. A few other projects, mainly short films and commercials, have been completed, although I can find reference to only one fairly obscure Argentinian commercial animated feature which used Blender throughout.

At least some of this work has been of high quality. Certainly Big Buck Bunny apes Pixar's style quite successfully, and the motion tracking for Tears of Steel  is reasonably solid (though other aspects of the production struggle a little).

What's the problem?

So it's a 3D animation package that does a large amount of what expensive software like Maya does, and as with all open source, it's hard to beat the price. So what's the problem? Well, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to take a paragraph to talk about history, because Blender's troubles are so subtle and so powerful, so fundamental and so very deeply ingrained, that they go to the very core of what modern computing is all about.

Operating systems, as we discussed in the Linux article, exist to provide services to software. Often – in fact most frequently – these services are things that we don't see, like network access and disk control. The stuff we do see, though, is crucially important. Under Windows (and OSX, and most variants of Linux), a program exists in a rectilinear box with a menu bar at the top, and we interact with items using a mouse cursor and a keyboard. We select things by using the left mouse button; we duplicate things using the copy command, which is invariably mapped to the CTRL+C keyboard shortcut. I mention these trivia because they're examples of things that quickly become fundamental even to beginners. Experienced computer users will have all of these things in muscle memory, and even minor changes to them – as occasionally happens when we move between, say, a Mac and a Linux box, can be extremely disorienting.

I find myself struggling to adequately express how violently Blender often offends these sorts of conventions, so let's start off with a few examples. In Blender,

    −    right click is select (except when it isn't, which is about half the time).
    −    Every pane in the UI has its own menu, which is at the bottom (except if you've moved it to the top, or if the person who last saved the file had moved it to the top, or if it's a Thursday)
    −    save is CTRL+S, which is fine, but it causes a little confirm box to pop up under the mouse cursor, which vanishes when you move the mouse (so don't be moving the mouse when you hit CTRL+S)
    −    Things that would usually be in context menus appear at the side of the pane in response to hotkeys such as S and T.
    −    What appears to be (but isn't) a context menu appears under the mouse cursor when you press a shortcut key, listing several options, all of which appear to use the same shortcut key.
    −    There is a huge amount of duplication between all of the menu bars, popups, and other Blender-specific impedimenta.

I could go on all night.


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  • Even though I've been using Blender long before the C-Key license was scraped, I absolutely agree with you on all of the points. There's also an issue with the Open Source Software in general and that is mostly the lack of devotion from the programmer - True, you may have two or three developers working on it constantly, but most of them are usually students or some folks trying to do something interesting with their free time and that usually ends when they're getting the job that can pay the bills and support their families. I'm not entirely happy with how the development path looks like either, yes - Blender institute is adding new features which are great and can make Cinema4D user envy(How much you need to spend on C4D to get SSS, GI, Mograph etc?) ~- I'm using the C4D as an example here. I don't really see Blender getting the new additions 'polished' enough - and that for me is the man disadvantage of using Blender, for instance Bmesh took ages to introduce and the modeling tools are far from finished. Anyway, I would be more happy if Blender Institute would focus on improving the stuff that is already there at least for a year - They're ahead of the game anyway!

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  • It's interesting to read the comments about the shortfalls of Blender. Personally I find it absolutely remarkable and a greate tribute to the Blender that professionals working in the Film & Video industry are spending time evaluating it. Hats off to the development team!

    I'm sure that if any UI design specialist were to offer constructive input, the development team would be prepared to listen.

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  • I will agree with some points of your article but not about the finished work:
    this is on the blendernation today
    http://www.blendernation.com/2012/12/05/commercial-robot-eldi/
    the babioles mini show on canal plus was made with blender
    canal plus babioles

    Also blender is widely used in the Architectural Visualization area(yeah not as much as 3ds max is)

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  • UI complaints...reminds me of my first semester in college. Name one 3D program that literally doesn't "take a bit of getting used to" initially. Please tell me that's not how you evaluate an application's legitimacy.

    Blender should be exhausted from proving itself time and time again as a fully capable and efficient 3D package. If ILM was hypothetically restricted to using Blender for one of their vfx projects, they absolutely would be able to achieve the standard they've set and deliver on time. Because A) their artists are incredible, C) Blender's foundation is more than competent, and C) the techs would do exactly what they've always done with their chosen software: Tweak, develop, and tailor the mess out of it. I've used Maya, Max, and Blender professionally and will continue to preach that they are equally capable. It's the artist who makes a beautiful image regardless of software.

    Based on my dialogue with colleagues, most professional artists are blissfully ignorant in the "you get what you pay for" mentality. When comparing software that costs $1000s with a software that's free, the uneducated mind must initially conclude that the free software is less capable. We should all know by now that this is simply not true for Blender. But you have aspiring artists who see "the greats" stamping their images with "made in 3dsMax/Maya" and the dilemma becomes "which package should I buy?" Blender doesn't stand a chance in this situation.

    So Blender's uphill battle for mainstream usage is that as long as the pros continue to A) turn a blind eye to it entirely or B) use it for a week and abandon it when it doesn't behave exactly like their favorite package, Blender will always be overlooked. Which is a shame.

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  • I'm afraid, the article is lacking what we, journalists, call a research.

    A few other projects, mainly short films and commercials, have been completed, although I can find reference to only one fairly obscure Argentinian commercial animated feature which used Blender throughout.


    It's fairly easy to find references to many more commercials and shorts, both completed and in progress. And by that I don't mean having a bored look at the first page of Google results.

    The final part of the article left me puzzled. What was that about? For all I know, Blender team is one of the friendliest out there. They are also self-supporting through selling educational materials, such as video courses and books, which is how they manage to hire full-time programmers.

    So, RedSharkNews, what was that? An obscure joke?

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  • As I read this, I began to feel that it was a surly critique writing by the ancient curmudgeon Andy Rooney on "60 Minutes."
    "Y'know what I HATE? I mean, what I absolutely DETEST?
    It's that feeling, after you buy one of these fancy new computer machines the young generation are always having long conversations about... You go to the trouble of going to Gateway to buy one of these new computer things. And they aren't cheap, let me tell you! It's no small thing to pay over a thousand dollars, just for a black plastic box and one of those new skinny televisions they call a "monitor" now. The salesman promised me that I could do anything with this thing. It would even make waffles for me! I said that all I really wanted was a way to type faster and when I pressed the RETURN key it wouldn't go DING! so loud. Everytime I write one of these new editorials for my bit on "60 Mintues," and I get to the end of a sentence and hit the RETURN key, it always DING! SO LOUD!
    So I get this new thing home, unpack the box, and it turns out I have to PLUG IT IN! I never had to plug anything when I'm writing a "60 Minutes" editorial before.
    And after all the rigamarole of plugging this thing in, not only does it not make waffles for me, but my favorite old remote control I've always used for my TV for the past 30 years... well it just doesn't work to change the channel on this new thing! KIDS THESE DAYS!"

    That's what reading your "article" is like.
    You're a filmmaker? You have no clue what you're missing in Blender.
    RTFM.
    Then come back and show us the upcoming feature-length film you're making in Blender, since you've gone to the trouble of learning Blender and completely fallen in love with it. And I'll show you mine.

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  • Christopher,

    Phil's first words were "I love Blender".

    But on the other hand, I know what you mean. The thing is, we all get frustrated when we think that something good could easily have been great, if only a few things about it were changed.

    BTW - have you seen this? It sums up the whole thing nicely.

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  • I think I read your article from the first word down to the last dot. But I just don't get it. Perhaps this question will help me get it.

    What do you want the Blender Developers to do? What exactly?
    1) I want them to do bla bla bla
    2) And bla bla bla

    You just gave areas where perhaps Blender is lacking. I've been using Blender for over a year now and I love it, and trust me, its not because I can't purchase maya or max or whatever they call it. I don't use Blender because of its being Open-source or Open core. I use it basically because its got the potential and it delivers.

    Fine! It takes 30 seconds in Maya to create Tears of Steel and 3 months to create same in Blender!

    I'm just surprised! Ah Ah

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  • I don't think it's fair, though, for this article to say that Blender has no real world results. There are plenty of projects in the production house I work at being done with Blender; some for commercials, some for clients, some for personal work. They don't happen to be hugely commercial works, and even when they are being shown on television, they don't exactly advertise themselves as Blender projects because viewers don't really care.

    I honestly don't believe anything about Blender itself is keeping it from being integrated into professional workflows. It's about market saturation in both multimedia schools and in production houses. After Effects and Maya and Z Brush and tools like that are being pushed at schools and production houses, and until someone takes the time and effort to decide that an open source tool is worth learning, integrating, and supporting, then the status quo is going to be maintained.

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  • Good article, but I think that some information is missing! From 2.5 release on, the user interface of Blender has evolved and now is much easier to use. Morever, Blender may not seem intuitive at first glance, but when you know get to know the the basics (and that takes no more than half an hour or an hour maximum), you discover yourself wishing that other applications have the same interface.

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Phil Rhodes

Phil Rhodes is a Cinematographer, Technologist, Writer and above all Communicator. Never afraid to speak his mind, and always worth listening to, he's a frequent contributor to RedShark.

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