A new funding cycle has enabled the imminent Blender 4.0 to pile on more valuable features while remaining resolutely open source. Rakesh Malik sifts through the latest version’s highlights.
Since receiving millions of dollars in funding from companies like Epic, Microsoft, Ubisoft, and Bethesda, the Blender Foundation has built up a roster of full-time software developers dedicated to improving Blender. While rebuilding the foundation of the software and the user interface, the feature development was a little slow. Still, since releasing 3.0, the pace has been intense, with point releases bringing impressive suites of new features.
Most important, however, is that the Blender Foundation remains closely engaged with the user community to get feedback on features in development, one of the most significant benefits of the open-source development model.
Given the magnitude of the updates in the 3.x point releases, the upcoming 4.0 release sets some pretty high expectations. The full suite of changes is too large for one article, so here are some highlights.
Rigging and Animation
Bone groups are being replaced with Bone Collections, which are more flexible and easier to manage. They are not limited to fixed numbers of bones and can be named individually. Bone colors can also be configured by armature, pose bones, and so on. A new pose library is built upon the asset shelf feature introduced in the Blender 3 cycle.
The Graph Editor has a lot of updates. There are interactive sliders to help sculpt animation curves and a new Butterworth filter for smoothing curves. It's also quite a bit faster and can handle large quantities of animation data much more efficiently in Blender 4. There are also user interface updates to make the Graph Editor more user-friendly.
There are a host of updates and enhancements to improve performance and usability throughout the animation toolset. For a detailed (and lengthy) description of what's coming, see Ton Roosendal's presentation on the subject below.
One of the most exciting updates in Blender 4 is Node-Based Tools, making it possible for Blender users to create new tools using geometry nodes. Now, instead of needing to learn how to program, users can build full-fledged tools with nodes and use them as operators in the viewport. There is a 3D Cursor node to gain access to the location and orientation of the 3D cursor from the viewport and nodes for accessing and modifying the selection mode and face sets in sculpts. Tools can be shared via the Asset Library by marking them as assets. There are new nodes, improvements to nodes, and a debug utility node. It's now also possible to bake simulations in parts.
Here’s a demo video of the Node Tools in Blender 4.0.
Shading and Rendering
There's a lot of exciting new stuff here, starting with a pretty major revamp to the Principled BSDF node. Sheen has been updated to use a microfiber shading model initially developed for simulating fuzzy cloth textures, but it can now also simulate dust on materials. Coat is now above emission to enable things like simulating an emissive screen behind a glass coat.
Cycles now has light and shadow linking, making it very easy to control which lights affect particular objects in a scene. One example is to give a particular character a rim light that affects nothing else in the scene and use shadow linking to prevent any other objects from obstructing the rim light. Cinematographers everywhere would love to be able to do this sort of thing, but on film sets, we have to obey the laws of physics, unlike in 3D software. All light sources now have Light UV support.
Blender 4 has a new Principled Hair BSDF shader that supports elliptical cross-sections which can be twisted, increasing the realism of the virtual hairs, reduces noise, and improves reflections.
Cycles now supports GPU rendering using AMD RDNA 2 and 3 GPUs and hardware raytracing on M3 Macs.
Though scheduled for 4.1 rather than 4, Eevee Next is currently in alpha. It's a major update to Blender's vaunted real-time renderer that adds greatly improved lighting and real-time displacement maps.
Blender has a video editing application built-in called the Video Sequencer. While it has far from the format support or breadth of features that the likes of Resolve or even Hiero have, it is a reasonable editor. The most significant feature addition in v4 on the Sequencing side of things is interactive retiming, including features like smooth transitions between speeds.
The GPU-accelerated viewport compositor got a lot of attention when it was announced. One of the most interesting aspects of the viewport compositor is that the input options include the usual image, movie clip, value, color options, and the active camera in a scene.
In Blender 4, composite nodes are getting per-node previews, and several new nodes are becoming available, including keying and inpainting, providing a toolset chroma keying and wire removal. The real-time compositor on its own is enticing new users to try out Blender as it's unique to the software. Clarisse from Isotropix, for example, had a blazing fast rendering engine and sophisticated compositing tools, but no modeling or simulation tools. Houdini has incredibly powerful modeling and simulation tools and extremely capable rendering options, including its built-in renderers. Still, the compositing tools are more limited, primarily aimed at slap comps rather than final. While the Blender real-time compositor is yet to be a full-fledged production compositor, that is where it's going.
And lots more...
There are updates for usability and performance throughout Blender as well. The USD support is improving, as is the color management, which now includes HDR support on OSX systems with HDR displays. Since OpenGL development has effectively come to a halt in favor of Vulkan, there is also a Vulkan back end in the works for Blender. It's currently in alpha and not yet feature complete or optimized, but it is available as an experimental feature so that users can start trying it out and testing it. At the same time, the development team continues its work.
More 3D artists are adopting Blender into their toolkits, especially independent artists. As we reported here earlier, it's even become the tool of choice for some big films like the Bollywood blockbuster RRR, showing that even professionals are adopting it. It won't be long until the bigger VFX shops start adding Blender to their in-house workflows, even though it will take some time to stop using their existing tools.
We've all seen this movie before. The color grading industry imploded when Blackmagic brought a free version of Resolve to the market. If the 3D vendors drop the ball, the Blender Foundation will eat their lunch.
Tags: Post & VFX