Panda3D is a free, open-sourced animation solution that can be used to create games, animated films or shorts and other things to bring your imagination to life. It has been used by famous game companies as well as even some tech savvy high school students, and is one of the best programs/engines of its type.
Those who read my column here at Freewaregenius or my personal blog on a regular basis will know that I have always had an interest in animation as a hobby.
From my early attempts with supremely simple programs like Movie Make to more recent innovations like Xtranormal, I have tried to keep up on what’s happening in animation from the standpoint of the average computer user.
Panda3D represents a bit of a step higher in the echelon than anything I have used before and while it is more complex than anything else I have used, it is also more powerful, and thankfully has great documentation and community support.
First of all, Panda3D is many things in one package. It is a 3D animation studio, a game engine and a development system that works specifically with Python and with C++ programming languages. Now, much of that might sound like Greek to a lot of us, but the basic notion is clear; Panda3D is an animation supertool that can be used to do nearly anything you want. So, while I was a bit daunted at how complex and powerful it is, I set forth to find out exactly what the average person might be able to get out of it.
First you will need to download the program and/or the open source SDK. The primary program package (say that eight times fast!) is a stand-alone program that doesn’t require anything else to work. The SDK package is what you’ll need to download if you want to integrate Panda3D with other programming or if you just want to fiddle with the source code for Panda3D itself. While the SDK package is beyond my skill level, I was able to get the primary Panda program downloaded and start playing with it immediately. It’s called the Panda3d Run Time For End Users, and you can find it on the downloads page of the main Panda site (see the bottom of this article for links). It takes less than a minute to download on a broadband connection and installation is a breeze as well. Note that Panda is available for a number of different operating systems, as well, including Windows and Mac OS among others.
Once installed, I noticed that there was no shortcut on my desktop or start menu so I went searching for it on my computer’s hard drive. I found the Panda3D folder on my main drive, in the Program Files (x86) folder and noted that there were two different applications as well as a host of dll files and an internet shortcut. Never being one to read instructions before jumping right in, I activated the Panda3d application (after sending it to the desktop as a shortcut, of course). The result was a DOS window that opened up and ran a bunch of code and then vanished with no apparent effect. Undaunted, I went searching on the Panda website to find out what I was doing wrong. I headed for the Manual on the Documentation tab and immediately discovered the following words: “Panda3D is not a Beginner’s Tool or Toy”
Well, that left me out of the race as far as just fiddling with it but I decided to do some more research to find out just who it is for and how it can be used. Essentially, you’ll need to be a skilled programmer to use Panda to any real effect. While this is not a drawback, it does mean that the audience and user base will be smaller and more targeted than something like Xtranormal. However, that being said, I did find out that CMU (the company that produced Panda3D) also has on offer a program called Alice, that is for beginners and students of animation so if you’re not ready to dive into Panda you may want to check that out (see link below) and see how far you can get with it. Additionally, Panda3D has a gallery on their home page that contains many demo programs and even complete game programs for your amusement, all downloadable for free and all created with Panda3D. If nothing else, it’s always nice to see what kind of cutting edge graphics are in the works and what kinds of things you can expect to be able to do yourself once you progress in your animation education.
For skilled programmers, Panda does offer a wealth of different tools and options, essentially acting as an API utility belt that will make you the Batman of 3D programming and rendering. Panda supports a lot of the newer shader techniques as well as high end pipeline compiling, so it is appropriate for use in many different ways from making children’s educational games to creating high quality animated entertainment from scratch. While my level of expertise is not there yet, what I was able to see of the demo programs and screenshots made me very excited to keep learning so I could begin to utilize the amazing tools available in Panda3D. Panda3D’s home page also has a huge list of learning resources for you, so even if you’re not an expert ready to use Panda yes, you can get your feet on the right path to that eventual end, starting at the Panda3d home page.
So, in conclusion, if you’re an experienced coder and programmer, Panda3D is for you. If you are just beginning, you might want to go with something like Xtranormal or Alice. I’ll be doing a review on Alice in the near future too, so look for that if you’re interested in ‘breaking’ into animation from the floor up. Until next time, my friends.
Get Panda3D here.