Blender vs. the VFX Industry

Oct 3rd 2023

Featured image from Barnstorm VFX

Blender’s recent surge in popularity has not shown any signs of slowing. As artists pick it up for the first time and discover how powerful it is, they often wonder whether it's capable of being used to create their favorite movies, games, and shows.

Recently, Kent Trammell and Jason van Gumster, two of our Blender experts here at CG Cookie, sat down with the visual effects pros Henning Sanden and Morten Jaeger of FlippedNormals to talk about Blender’s place in the industry.

This post is from episode 7 of the Denoise podcast. Listen on iTunes, Spotify, GoogleAmazon, or wherever else you find your podcasts.

3D artists are often quite vocal about Blender. Some talk as if it's flawless and others tear it to shreds for its quirks, but most Blender users just enjoy discussing it because it’s the tool they use for pursuing their passion of art.

Conversations that involve both complexity and passion are bound to be heated every now and then, and the most opinionated views are always boosted by social media platforms. After seeing a few such discussions / debates blow up on Twitter, Kent wondered if there was a rift between Blender and many VFX industry professionals.

Why The Biggest Studios Won’t Switch to Blender

According to Morten, it’s not that there's any bad blood, but that Blender isn’t taken seriously at large VFX studios. Professionals in that field are constantly switching tools and there is no loyalty to any specific program. In fact, artists are moving away from Maya in droves - to Houdini. 

Most of the tools that VFX artists use, such as Mari, Arnold, and the late Clarisse, were built within the industry to solve very specific problems around handling massive amounts of data. Software packages are chosen less for their flashy features and more for their reliability under extreme pressure. Even Substance, which pioneered an amazing procedural texturing workflow in 2014, was disregarded by the large VFX houses for years because it could not handle UDIMs and high enough texture resolutions until it received a major rewrite in 2020.

Blender has received a steady stream of big performance updates in the last few years and is improving fast, but, according to many, it’s still not quite ready to handle the sheer complexity of rigs, materials, and library overrides that are needed at the biggest VFX studios. It definitely has the potential for those things, but it just hasn’t had the same level of development in those areas as the other tools.

Even if Blender could be just as good or slightly better than other software in those areas, there would still be little incentive for large studios to switch entirely to Blender. A studio using Maya will have years or decades of custom scripts and pipeline tools built on top of it to suit their specific needs. Migrating all of that to Blender would be a gargantuan task that would be far more expensive than simply continuing to pay Autodesk for the licenses.


Even though it's just software, says Henning, a large studio pipeline can be similar in cost and effort to a physical oil pipeline. 

Another important factor is the ability to find top talent quickly. Large studios often need to hire hundreds of artists in a very short amount of time. Since there are significantly more Maya and Houdini artists with professional VFX experience than Blender artists with similar resumes, it can actually be more cost effective to hire the former despite the licenses since spending too much time finding and vetting new artists can be quite expensive and cause delays.

If you want to work in film, it’s very worth it to learn Maya and/or Houdini. Henning mentions that you can make your reel with Blender or whatever you’d like in order to show off your artistic skill set, but as you go about applying to jobs, start living and breathing whatever tool the studio you’re applying for is already using.

Where Blender Fits Perfectly

Despite all of that, Blender is actually being used more and more in VFX - just not as the studio’s main 3D software. There’s a common misunderstanding or mis-expectation that it would entirely replace the previous app, but the reality is that it fits much better into existing pipelines for smaller or more specialized tasks.

For example, Blender is excellent for modeling, so artists might use Blender to create background assets and then export them to Mari for texturing and then over to Maya for animation. Blender is also extremely lightweight, so while it might not be used for building the main characters since it lacks things like proper muscle and hair simulation, the compositing artists later on in the process might use it to quickly render out smaller details like birds or trees to add to the composition.

In fact, Blender seems to be the best tool out there by far for fast modeling and rendering. While Blender might not be used to create the final hero assets of a VFX shot, it’s often being used earlier on in the process during the concepting stage where the fast iteration of shapes and colors is paramount.

It’s also worth noting that we’ve been exclusively talking about the biggest VFX studios which employ several hundred artists. The calculus for which software to use changes dramatically at smaller scales. For a single freelancer or a 20 person studio, Blender is often perfect to use as a main 3D software - just ask Barnstorm VFX. Henning and Morten mention that if they were on their own, they would use Blender (with a few add-ons like RetopoFlow) alongside ZBrush, Rizom UV, and Substance.


Man in the High Castle Blender breakdown from Barnstorm VFX

Game studios also have very different needs than VFX studios, and Blender is being adopted quite quickly for game asset creation because of its modeling speed (especially when using add-ons like MESHmachine and DECALmachine) and high-quality real-time interactive previews.

The Unique Nature of Open-Source Software

If a studio does start to use Blender, its relationship with it is a bit different than with a standard, closed-source application.

On one hand, there’s nobody they can contact at Blender for enterprise support (though they can hire Orange Turbine for that!). On the other hand, they can actually talk to Blender’s developers directly to get some bugs fixed shockingly quickly, become involved with the development itself, and have a real voice in the future of the software.

If a studio builds a custom feature on top of Blender, they could submit a patch and try to get it included in Blender itself. The more large studios that do that, the better Blender will be for large studios. Blender is built by its users for its users. 

One big advantage that Blender does have is longevity and the assurance that it will not disappear any time soon. Applications like Softimage or Clarisse have fully shut down, leaving long-time users royally hosed and scrambling to find alternatives. Applications like Substance and Sketchfab have been bought out by tech giants, leaving users uncertain about the future. The fact that Blender is GPL licensed means that it cannot be purchased or killed.

There’s more to 3D than M&E

The media and entertainment industry, as glamorous as it is, is only a tiny fraction of the 3D pie. There are so many other industries that also use 3D data and visualization, and Blender can (and often does) have a place in all of those too.

If it were to focus entirely on being accepted by the large VFX studios, it would come at the expense of development for the users in other industries. Ton, the CEO of Blender, made it clear in his 2022 Blender Conference keynote that he wants Blender to be for everyone and that he is not interested in chasing approval from Hollywood.

For those of you currently thinking about your careers, it’s also worth noting that, in 3D jobs outside of media and entertainment, you’ll likely be paid better, appreciated more, and might actually have a reasonable work-life balance.

Remember, It’s Just a Tool

Some folks like Blender because of the art it can help them produce, others are interested in it intellectually and like to tinker with the latest graphics technology, and still others are fans of the strong ideology behind its development. Many users are some combination of all three. Combine those passions with the real sense of ownership that comes with being a Blender user; it’s easy to see why people can feel strongly about a computer program.

However, when appreciation for a software turns into affection, things get a little weird.

When someone is really entrenched in a way of doing things, a different interface paradigm or methodology can seem fully wrong. In reality, 3D is an inherently complex art form that is full of nuance. Each app approaches some problems differently, leading to unique tradeoffs, strengths, and weaknesses.

There is no “best” 3D software - just better or worse choices for particular tasks. Sometimes the answer is Blender and sometimes it's not. 


Jonathan Lampel
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