04 Dec 2012

Blender: love it and/or hate it

  • Written by 
Blender Helicopter Blender Helicopter Martin Tsine


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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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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