Blender

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[Note: this review was written by my friend Ala Diab from Amman, Jordran. Ala is primarily a musician but also does website design and has an avid interest in 3D graphics. He has performed his brand of computer-driven electronic music (and contemporary experimental Arabic/electronic music) in multiple venues across the Middle East and Europe. Blender is an all-in-one 3d modeling, animation and special effects package, sporting a plethora of features comparable to packages roughly 3,000 times more expensive.

It has a growing fan base estimated around 800,000 users (from download statistics). It has been used in the first full-feature 10 min 3d film made with free software featured here on Freewaregenius (Elephant’s Dream). Also, it has been used internally amongst the team working on Spiderman 2 as a pre-vis and cinematography aid tool. Not bad for a software package that is free!

Ok, here’s the thing: I kinda promised to review this for Samer (a.k.a the Freewaregenius) two scores and a fortnight ago (in any case a long time ago). I justified the delay as wanting to delve into the thing in order to “unearth the treasure trove of features”. Sometimes I entertain self-aggrandizing visions of being a 3d pro user, but having since realized my illusions, I decided to cover only my humble journey and leave the readers to check out the resources listed below for further investigation.

deski23blender_interface

First Things First: Blender is tiny. I downloaded the 8MB file and installed it. It’s also recommended to download and install the latest version of Python – the programming engine that blender runs on – to make use of some of the advanced plug-ins and built-in functions.

Breaking the ice: What I first noticed starting Blender was the interface. Coming from an engineering-style layout programs (four view ports corresponding to top, side, front, 3d) it was jarring, trying to find my way around the application. Three days and a couple of tutorials away, I learned that blender purports the UI philosophy of non-collapsing windows and vast customizability. Non of the panels are fixed or hard-wired into the interface. Almost everything can be combined with everything else according to functions and personal preferences. It’s also really fun once you get the hang of it.

Object/Editing Modes: Blender’s modeler is split into two areas: editing: which enables you to push your vertices, sides, faces into place, and add modifiers (operators that can change the shape of an object) – which are completely non-destructive and can be switched off or modified or animated as your desires. The second is object, which is a higher-level model manipulation under which many elements can be grouped.

In Action: Since I was squeamish about getting something out of Blender, I decided to follow one of the tutorials in BlendeArts electronic magazine (see link below), that teaches the basics of box modeling using a little robot as an example. You start with reference images – a crucial step if you are a nascent modeler – that you align with you port views. Then you add a few primitive objects depending on your source images, and that you manipulate the objects using the bread and butter tools extrusion, duplication scaling moving and rotating.

Rendering: Once you have everything in place you’d want to see what it looks like. Hit [F12] to render the scene. Blender’s internal rendering engine leaves much to be desired but it’s fast and works well. You could push the quality of your shots by introducing YAFRAY into your workflow, which is a free ray-tracer with Global Illumination capabilities. The implementation within Blender is impressive.

Scalability: Many of the new productivity functions and plug-ins that end up being part of the users arsenal are developed using Python, a language I know very little about but seems versatile and robust. Programmers who want to expand blender can write code for faster modeling, better integration with external rendering systems (a Renderman plug-in is in the works), and animation pipeline enhancements.

The future: Blender just keeps getting better and better with time. The people behind it listen to their users. They are very active in the open-source community (Google’s Summer of Code is a prime example, where programmers pitch ideas and bid for programming help from others). And there’s a version 2.5 in the works the will boost usability with a new UI. The future is very bright for this little monster.

Other recommended resources:

Version tested: 2.44 Compatibility: Windows 98, ME, 2000, XP or Vista; Mac OS X 10.2 and later; Linux 2.2.5 i386; Linux 2.3.2 PPC; FreeBSD 6.2 i386; Irix 6.5 mips3; Solaris 2.8 sparc. Minimum PC Requirements: 300 MHz CPU, 128 MB RAM, 20 MB free hard disk Space, 1024 x 768 px Display with 16 bit color, 3 Button Mouse , Open GL Graphics Card with 16 MB RAM. Go to the download page to get the latest version (approx 8 megs). Also visit the program home page.