Which Renderers to Use?

By: Kseniya Serebrennikova

Are you trying to decide which 3D render engine would be the right choice for you? Luckily, there are tons of options to choose from: built-in renderers you already have in your 3D software, standalone rendering applications, and even servers for cloud rendering. 

To choose the best option, you need to consider three major points: how crisp and hyperrealistic you want your renders to be, how much you are willing to spend on rendering software and how strong your PC is. 

Cloud rendering left aside (for a little while), all renderers can be split into two fundamental categories: CPU- and GPU-based. As usual, there’s not really a definitive “this one’s better”, since both have their pros and cons. The CPU vs. GPU dilemma comes down to the capabilities of your hardware. Do you have a high-end PC capable of handling massive streams of data like it’s nothing? Then a CPU-based renderer could be your best bet. Did you invest in an insanely expensive latest-generation GPU that can easily cope with the juiciest, heaviest graphics? A GPU-based render engine would make more sense. 

Another important parameter that splits all renderers into two huge groups is the rendering algorithm, which can be biased or unbiased. To put it (terribly) simply, biased renderers calculate the scenes faster because they don’t strive for the absolute physical accuracy. Unbiased renderers take longer to finalize the scenes because their goal is to calculate every tiny bit of lighting with utmost accuracy and deliver 100% physically plausible results. 

Unbiased renderer (Arnold)

Biased renderer (Redshift)

Naturally, the first thing that comes to mind in this case is “oh well, why even care about the biased renderers then?” While it might sound like unbiased renderers are the indisputable winners, some artists think there’s no such thing as a fully unbiased renderer. It would be impossible to actually have every micro chunk of illumination in every frame calculated this precisely in a reasonable amount of time. 

So to sum it up, both biased and unbiased renderers can give you astoundingly realistic results. Biased render engines make an approximation of the physics of lighting in your scene, speeding up the calculation process. Unbiased renderers take their time to trace the path of every portion of light without any inaccuracies. Both biased and unbiased render engines are used in TV and film production, but to be fair, the ones that are known for their crisp, hyperrealistic renders are the unbiased ones. 

If that’s not too much to process and you’re still following, let’s move on to the actual render engines.

Standalone renderers

1. Arnold

Arnold from Autodesk is an advanced unbiased Monte Carlo ray tracing renderer. It uses the power of your CPU to calculate illumination in the scenes by default. You can, however, switch between CPU and GPU rendering depending on your needs. 
Arnold is famous for its staggering hyperrealistic renders, which is why it’s perfect for creating cinematic shots. When you have a massive amount of fine detail in your scene, when you’re dealing with intricate textures, or when your lighting setup is complex, a precise renderer like Arnold will ensure that none of your hard work goes unnoticed. Think of the stunning visuals of Blade Runner 2049, Guardians of the Galaxy, or Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland – all three were rendered using Arnold. 
Arnold renderer offers subscription-based licensing where 1 month costs $50. The annual subscription costs $380 (or roughly $31.5/month), and a three-year plan is $1,085 ($30/month).
blade runner 2049 directed by Denis Villeneuve

2. OctaneRender

Octane was the very first unbiased GPU renderer to be introduced as a commercially available product for 3D rendering. Thanks to its GPU raytracing, it comes pretty close to real-time rendering, making it easy to tweak the settings in your scene on-the-go. As OTOY states, Octane can render final images up to 50x faster than a CPU-based, unbiased renderer. It has a set of features similar to those found in Arnold: toon shading, denoiser, volumetric rendering, and more. It’s widely used in animation, movie and TV production, and advertising. Octane is great both for stylized scenes and photorealistic shots.
OTOY’s OctaneRender is on the pricier side of the render spectrum: €699 ($710) for one year or €899 ($912) for two years. With the second payment scheme, Octane is going to cost you around $38 per month.

3. V-Ray

V-Ray is a rendering plugin that is compatible with the majority of industry-standard tools used in 3D production. You can render with V-Ray in Maya, Houdini, 3ds Max, Nuke, Unreal Engine, and other applications. Though V-Ray originally runs on CPU, you can choose V-Ray GPU for hybrid rendering. 
V-Ray is a biased renderer that uses path tracing for calculating lighting in the scenes. It is a perfect combination of fast and physically accurate, meaning it’s a great tool for both stylized projects and detailed photorealistic scenes. V-Ray has a versatile toolset that allows you to work on your geometry, textures, materials, lighting, and other elements. Depending on the app you’re planning to integrate V-Ray in, the number of features may vary, but for most of them, V-Ray is a true gem that has all you need in a renderer and more.
If you’re just getting started in 3D and your goal is to create personal projects for learning, you can get V-Ray Education for $149/year (about $12/month). Commercial plans start at $466.80/year ($38.90/month).

4. Redshift

Redshift is the world’s first fully GPU-accelerated, biased renderer in the words of Maxon, its developer. The renderer delivers high-quality results at impressive rendering speeds. Because it’s a biased renderer, you get more control over the rendering settings and have more freedom when adjusting the final scene. Since it’s a GPU-accelerated renderer, it is close to being a real-time render engine allowing you to see the results of the changes almost immediately. Just like the other engines, it renders both stylized and photorealistic scenes beautifully. You can integrate Redshift into your software of choice to make the creative process faster and easier. 
Redshift is one of the more budget-friendly render engines as it costs $264/year ($22/month), and for this price, you get all the integration plugins it offers.

5. RenderMan

This one probably does not even need an introduction because it’s a render engine from the masters of animation themselves, Pixar. Needless to say, Pixar’s RenderMan was designed with large-scale, top-quality, high-budget full feature film production in mind. And don’t get skeptical about this one – even though RenderMan was developed by an animation studio, it is a popular renderer of choice in movie production. 
RenderMan is brilliant when it comes to photorealism. Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, No Time to Die, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings are just a few movies from the past couple of years that used RenderMan for rendering. Pixar’s RenderMan uses physically based shading and lighting that allow you to get the most natural, true-to-life renders. 
Plus, because as a huge animation studio that is constantly working on top-quality movies, Pixar most certainly cares about rendering times. RenderMan is a biased XPU engine, meaning it uses both the CPU and the GPU for rapid and error-free calculations.
What makes it even more awesome is that you can use it for free as long as you are creating non-commercial projects with it.

Built-In Render Engines

As smart and flexible as standalone render engines can be, sometimes a built-in renderer is more than enough. If you are using, for instance, Blender or Houdini, you already have a native render engine that comes with the application. In fact, both Blender and Houdini offer more than just one renderer. 
In Blender, you can choose Eevee, a real-time GPU-based biased renderer, or Cycles, physically based path tracer that uses CPU power. Eevee is awesome for fast stylized renders, and Cycles is better for more accurate, photorealistic results.  
Houdini has Mantra, a CPU-based unbiased render engine, and Karma, an unbiased CPU/XPU renderer. Mantra has been around for quite some time, and it’s a solid render engine that can do everything you might need. It’s an advanced physically based renderer and the results you get with it are stunning. Mantra has a wider set of tools and features than Karma CPU or Karma XPU. However, the big disadvantage of this next-gen renderer is that it is significantly slower. Plus, unlike Mantra, Karma works with USD, which makes it way more adaptable. 
Overall, built-in renderers are a great start and they’re worth giving a try before you decide to splurge on an expensive standalone renderer. They have their limitations and normally can’t offer the same variety of features as standalone rendering applications. 

Cloud Rendering

You’ve probably heard about cloud render farms or cloud rendering services offered by major 3D software developers like Chaos. Cloud rendering is exactly what it sounds like – it allows you to take your rendering process online and perform it with the help of numerous machines connected to a particular server. 
This is a perfect solution if your computer is not capable of delivering high-quality renders without freezing, lagging, overheating, and eventually shutting down. Rendering is one of the most demanding operations in 3D production, so it takes a powerful PC to make all the calculations and convert a complex 3D scene into a ready-to-play 2D sequence. 
The biggest benefit of cloud rendering is that you don’t need to worry about upgrading your workstation to make it powerful enough for rendering. Upgrading your GPU, investing in a new CPU, or completely rebuilding your computer might be too expensive. Cloud rendering can be a temporary solution that does not require any major spendings. You just upload your file on a cloud render farm server and wait for it to render and get ready to download. 
One more undeniable perk is that when you take your project to a cloud renderer, your computer is not busy performing loads of complex calculations. This means you can continue working on your PC just as you normally would without having to wait for hours until rendering is complete. Rendering, whether it uses CPU or GPU as its primary source of computing power, is a great workload for your PC. This means when rendering is in progress, your computer might not be willing to let you perform other tasks while it’s doing the calculations. You can sure try… at the risk of a massive mid-render freeze. 
Cloud rendering can be a literal lifesaver when the deadline is alarmingly close and the project is way too heavy for local rendering. With cloud render farms, it is possible to reduce rendering times from several days to a few minutes. Many studios across the globe take their rendering online to save time and unload their PCs so they can work on something else while cloud renderers calculate their gigabytes of footage.
Depending on your budget and creative needs, you can find a cloud rendering plan that works best for you. They usually start at less than $1 per rendering hour and go up as you choose faster, more flexible options. You can check out Chaos Cloud from Chaos and OctaneRender Cloud from OTOY. Along with those, you can come across some other popular cloud rendering services like Fox Renderfarm or Ranch Computing

What Should I Choose?

Whether you are an independent creator or a studio artist, you will find pros and cons in every option. Most of the time, artists switch between these three depending on what their top priority is. If it’s speed, cloud rendering is the winner. If it’s impeccable image quality and full control over the final look of the shot, it’s a standalone renderer. And if it’s cost, a built-in renderer is your go-to choice. 
At the same time, you should take the biggest downsides of each rendering method into consideration. With cloud rendering, you have very little flexibility and can only make a few adjustments compared to local renderers. Both standalone renderers and built-in renderers take forever to calculate scenes as opposed to online render farms. On top of that, standalone render apps can be expensive. 
cgi by framestore
The smartest choice would be to start with what you have which is a built-in render engine. You won’t need to invest any more money into your creative process and you’ll get to see how long your PC takes to render. If you decide that your computer is way too slow you can always start using cloud rendering platforms. And if you realize the toolset is not versatile enough for you, there is a great variety of standalone rendering software to choose from.

Learn How to Create Photorealistic Renders

Have you ever dreamed of creating world-class cinematic visuals like a pro? If so check out Advanced Shading in Arnold. Our online course will teach you the essentials you need to know about rendering with Arnold and walk you through the advanced shading methods to help you achieve next-level renders. Check out the course page below, and when you’re ready you can sign up to get free lessons delivered to your inbox on the course page.

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