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Best Tools to Learn as a VFX Artist

By: Kseniya Serebrennikova

If you are ready to start your FX career but don’t really know what VFX software to use, this article is for you!

Getting started as a VFX artist is pretty overwhelming mostly because there is a ton of software used in the industry, and each application is great in its own way. However, most applications are pricey (on top of that they normally require a high-end computer that can handle heavy graphics and hours of rendering as well), so when you decide which one to purchase, you need to have a really clear understanding of what you are planning to create as an artist and what type of software your brightest ideas might require.

The good news is that there’s no need to panic and overthink it because we got you! In this article, we will discuss the most popular VFX software used by industry professionals and explain what every tool is good for.

1. Houdini

Developer: SideFX
Great for: Simulations
Used in: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Avengers, Frozen
Available on: Windows, macOS, Linux

As a truly multifunctional and highly flexible node-based software application, Houdini is an industry-standard tool for creating visual effects ranging from smoke and fire to massive destructions and explosions. It is also great for 3D modeling, character rigging, lighting, and more. Houdini has been a part of some major movie industry projects from Industrial Light and Magic, Framestore, Double Negative, and Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Simply put, if you want to learn to create impressive VFX work like you see in your favorite films, you must learn Houdini.

Houdini is used to simulate just about anything. However, there can be a steep learning curve on the quest towards mastering the tool. So it’s not uncommon for a Houdini Artist to get trained up using online VFX training to refine their skills and learn from the best.

Just like Nuke, Houdini offers a free version of the software called Houdini Apprentice for learning purposes and personal projects. If you are a freelance artist who needs Houdini for commercial use, Houdini Indie is your best choice as it starts at $199.5 per year if you choose a 2-year license.

2. Nuke

Developer: Foundry
Great for: Compositing
Used in: Deadpool, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Blade Runner 2049
Available on: Windows, macOS, Linux

Nuke is a powerful node-based compositing application that quickly became one of the essential tools in the movie industry with such companies as Walt Disney Animation Studios, DreamWorks Animation, Double Negative, and Weta Digital using it for creating high-end visuals.

Nuke essentially allows artists to composite (aka combine) various elements together to create a beautiful CG scenes. You’ve probably seen a compositing reel before as most VFX breakdowns showcase the various ‘layers’ required to develop a realistic VFX shot. Whereas most of the apps on this list are used to create, Nuke is used to combine and that makes an essential tool for green screen, tracking, rotoscoping, and more.

Nuke offers multiple different plans depending on your needs, budget, and the size of your creative crew. If you are an independent solo artist and your primary goal is to learn and practice, Nuke Non-commercial would be your perfect choice since you get to explore the possibilities of Nuke, NukeX, and Nuke Studio for free. If you’re planning to dive into commercial projects right away, you might wanna check out Nuke Indie which starts at $499 per year.

All students inside our compositing courses including Compositing in Nuke and Advanced Compositing for VFX receive a student discount on the tool that can help you save big when you are learning VFX. In this video below, you’ll see how Nuke is used to composite CG elements together.

3. Maya

Developer: Autodesk
Great for: Modeling and Animation
Used in: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Game of Thrones
Available on: Windows, macOS, Linux

Maya is an incredibly versatile tool that has been used to create AAA games and award-winning movies and TV shows since the early 2000s. It allows you to model 3D objects, set up and render the scenes, animate, and more. If you are looking for a universal tool that can handle a great variety of creative tasks, Maya is an amazing choice.

With Maya, however, you only get 30 days of free use as it does not offer a no-cost non-commercial plan. After that, a monthly subscription will cost you $215, an annual subscription will be $1,700, and if you purchase a 3-year subscription it will cost $4,590. 

4. Photoshop

Developer: Adobe
Great for: Matte painting & Concept Art
Used in: At this point, pretty much everything
Available on: Window, macOS, iPadOS

Even if a person doesn’t know anything about digital art at all, they’ve definitely heard about Photoshop. This app has become a staple in both 2D and 3D art and many creators began their journey by learning the basics of Adobe Photoshop. It is used to create storyboards, concept art, logos and posters, illustrations, edit images, and more. VFX artists mostly use it to create matte paintings and hand-painted textures. If you are an independent artist, you can purchase Photoshop for $20.99 a month, and if you have a creative team, the license is going to cost $79.99 a month. There are also special payment plans for schools and universities.

5. Arnold Renderer

Developer: Autodesk
Great for: Rendering
Used in: Alice in Wonderland, The Avengers, The Mandalorian
Available on: Windows, macOS, Linux

Arnold is a tool that has become an essential part of the production pipeline for many VFX and film production studios. This Monte Carlo ray tracing renderer can is used to render hyperrealistic 3D scenes and help you create astoundingly beautiful shots. Arnold is a renderer of choice at Square Enix, Framestore, and DreamWorks Animation as the application was tailored to meet the needs of high-end production.

Just like with Maya, you get a 30-day free trial and after that, you can choose a monthly, annual, or 3-year subscription (for $45, $360, or $970 respectfully). 

6. ZBrush

Developer: Pixologic
Great for: High-Res Modeling
Used in: The Last of Us, Avatar, Iron Man
Available on: Windows, macOS

ZBrush is almost every character artist’s go-to software as it is great for creating both stylized and photorealistic models. With ZBrush, you can sculpt, paint, and texture 3D models, and its overwhelming variety of brushes will allow your creativity to run wild. This tool from Pixologic has become one of the major applications in the world of 3D and I’m sure at least one of your favorite movie or video game characters was created thanks to ZBrush. You can get a 30-day trial version of ZBrush 2021 for free. After that, you can either get a perpetual license for $716 or opt for a subscription that costs $32 for 1 month or $144 for 6 months*. There are also special licensing options for businesses and schools.

*limited time offer only available during the 2021 ZBrush Summit

7. Unreal Engine

Developer: Epic Games
Great for: creating 3D scenes
Used in: The Mandalorian, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Final Fantasy 7 Remake
Available on: Windows, macOS, Linux

When it comes to creating mesmerizing, crisp, high-resolution 3D scenes, this one is an absolute beast. Epic Games’ Unreal Engine is truly universal and it is rapidly becoming the artists’ favorite not only in the game industry but in movie and TV production as well. Fast real-time rendering makes Unreal Engine a perfect tool for creating ambitious large-scale projects where you need to track the working process non-stop.

The things you can create with Unreal Engine’s toolset are beyond all limits, plus Epic Games are constantly expanding it to make the app even more flexible (In-Camera VFX is one of the latest additions and it’s quite impressive). The best part is the licensing policy as you can use Unreal Engine for free and yes even for commercial projects. 

You can learn Unreal Engine here at Rebelway with our Realtime FX for Games and Cinematics Course and our Stylized FX for Games course.

8. Unity

Developer: Unity Technologies
Great for: Pre-Visualization and Realtime 3D Rendering
Used in: Alice in Wonderland, The Avengers, The Mandalorian
Available on: Windows, macOS, Linux

Though it is mostly used for developing games and VR/AR experiences, Unity is an amazing tool for cinematic production as well. Thanks to accelerated real-time rendering, you can make changes to your project quickly as you go, plus you can share your work with the team and they will see all the minor changes and updates in real time as well, and that saves an unimaginable amount of time. Unity is now widely used to simulate 3D environments on virtual productions like the Mandolrian.

If you are a game developer, this tool is a lifesaver as it gives you full creative freedom whether your goal is to make a mobile, PC, console, or VR game. No wonder why companies like Nintendo, Niantic, and Riot Games used it to create their biggest titles. The best thing about Unity for an aspiring solo 3D artist is its availability – if you are an independent creator or a small business with revenue under $100K a year, you can get Unity Personal for free. Subscription plans for bigger enterprises start at $399 annually.

9. Substance Painter

Developer: Adobe
Great for: Painting and Texturing
Used in: Spider-Man: Far From Home, Frozen 2, The Last Of Us Part II
Available on: Windows, macOS, Linux

Sure you can paint your 3D objects using the same apps you use to model them, and sure they have great textures you can choose from, but if you are going for a next-level design tool, Substance Painter is nearly unbeatable. It is used by fashion brands, game designers, tech product designers, animators, and the list goes on forever. Substance Painter is especially great for creating complex realistic textures like rust, wounds, dirt, and all sorts of wear and tear. An impressive number of brushes, Smart Materials and Masks allows for complete artistic freedom. Adobe offers a 30-day free trial, and after that, the subscription starts at US$19.99 a month for independent artists and $33.99 a month for a single app for businesses.

10. Mari

Developer: Foundry
Great for: Painting and Texturing
Used in: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, The Outpost, A Discovery of Witches
Available on: Windows, macOS, Linux

Mari is another gem from Foundry often used by lookdev artists to add breathtakingly gorgeous details to 3D objects. This application is a perfect tool for painting and working on textures as it can handle heavy topology and complex geometry. It also supports OCIO and industry-standard formats including OpenEXR and FBX. Mari can cope with extremely high-resolution textures which helps to preserve the crispiness of every detail even in close-up shots, and this is why the movie industry has a soft spot for this 3D painting app. Foundry offers a 30-day free trial, and afterward, you can either purchase a perpetual license for $2,280, rent Mari for $749 per quarter, or choose the Subscription plan for $65 per month or $659 per year.

Learn How to Create Awesome VFX

Have you ever dreamed of creating world-class VFX like a pro? If so check out Introduction to Houdini FX. Our online course will teach you the essentials you need to know to get started with Houdini, the most exciting VFX software in the world. 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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