CG Pipeline: List Of The Most Popular CG Tools

The softwares involved in a CG production are key components of the project success. Which is why, to be able to evolve in this field…

4 years ago   •   5 min read

By Frank Rousseau

The softwares involved in a CG production are key components of the project success. Which is why, to be able to evolve in this field, you’d better know them. They are so important that software names has become part of the vocabulary in all the studios. Everyone expect you to understand what they mean when they mention Nuke or V-Ray.

On top of it all, there are more and more softwares. So if you want to set up a pipeline for your studio, it’s better to know which does what. So to start with our CG pipeline series we decided to list the main softwares available on the market.

Generalistic

Generalistic tools allow you to perform the main operations required to build a animation movie : modeling, texturing, rigging, animation and rendering. They are the root of the production and will structure all your work

  • Maya: It’s the default choice for the bigger studios. Many artists know how to work with it and its high customisability make it the first choice for complex pipelines.
  • 3DSMax: Lots of small shops love 3DS. Its feature list may be less attractive than Maya but it’s a simpler tool. Its plugins are numerous and make incredible work. This is the main reason why small teams are more productive with it.
  • Blender: It’s a Free and Open Source software. So, it means it doesn’t come with any license fee and is highly customisable. It works great, but the downside is that most artists are not familiar with it and it has less features than its proprietary competitors.
  • Houdini: Houdini is a complete suite but it attracts people mostly for its VFX capabilities. Through a nodal system, it allows to build more complex effects. For other aspects it performs well too. And because of the progress made at each version, it’s considered as a big challenger of Autodesk solutions.
  • Cinema 4D: It is one of the simplest tool. It’s great to start with 3D and it works better with very small productions.

Modeling

Even if most of the modeling is done inside generalistic tools, recently, we saw emerging tools specialized for precise tasks of the modeling process. Here is the list of the most popular of them.

  • ZBrush: This modeling software allows to build 3D models like you were a sculptor. Be aware that its user interface is particular.
  • Mudbox: It’s the Autodesk equivalent of ZBrush. It may be a little bit less powerful but it offers a better integration with Maya or 3DS Max.
  • Marvelous: It’s a tool focused on textile. Using tradition fashion design technics; it allows you to create various and realistic clothes.
  • 3DCoat: It’s a all-in-one tool box to bring your models to the next level through advanced shading and sculpting.

Texturing

  • Mari: It has a similar approach as ZBrush but with texturing. It allows to paint textures directly on the 3D model.
  • Substance: It allows you to build texture in many ways: 3D painting, materials generator and library, and procedural toolset.

Compositing

When the images are ready, the cheapest way to adjust and improve them is to work directly on the rendered shots. Another common usage is to include VFX or matte paintings in a traditional movie shot.

  • Nuke: Nuke propose a nodal approach of video compositing. It makes it harder to manage but also allows you to create very impressive shots. It is also non-destructive, the original movie is kept intact and can always be changed.
  • After Effects: After is the Photoshop of video compositing. It can deliver good results quickly but it comes with limitations when you have to deal with complex shots. Beware that his approach is destructive, you lose original information.
  • Fusion: Cheaper alternative to Nuke. It has a nodal system too and can provide great results too for modest productions.

2D

  • ToonBoom (Storyboard Pro and Harmony): It’s now the standard of the industry to manage story boards. Their animation tools do a great job too.
  • Photoshop: No need to introduce you one of the most used software in the digital art industry. In 3D productions, it mostly helps with texturing and matte painting.
  • Animate CC: It’s the Flash animation tool from Adobe, modernized and compatible with HTML5.
  • TVPaint: A wonderful tool to handle 2D animation. It’s better adapted for hand-drawn animations.
  • Krita: It’s the best open source tool for digital painting. Its popularity is growing fast among the studios.

Rendering

  • Arnold: It is considered the best render engine but also as the most expensive.
  • VRay: Fast and comes with many capabilities. The drawback is its complexity but fortunately, its large community provides a lot of tutorials.
  • Mental Ray: It’s not considered as the best render engine but it has the advantage of being free.
  • Renderman: This engine is made by Pixar. It provides great results but requires technical skills to be used at its full potential
  • Cycles: It’s the render engine from the Blender foundation. It provides good results while being free and open source.
  • Guerrilla: Great control over lightning, it is easily customization (lua or python scripting) and comes with a scene builder. Its performances are above the market too.

Lookdev / Scene Assembly

You may want to work on the artistic aspect of things before building your shots. Good news, there are tools dedicated to this job!

Render Farm Manager

Once your studio is getting bigger you will need to do more and more intensive rendering. For that a render farm will be mandatory. To manage it and follow the state of your rendering jobs, you will need a dedicated software. Here is the short list of the most reliable:

Production management

  • Shotgun: It’s the standard of the industry. It fits well with any kind of projects and make the joy of many development team. But this great set of features come with a complexity and need of customisation. It often leads to hiring a dedicated software engineer to integrate it in your pipeline.
  • Ftrack: It’s Shotgun’s biggest challenger. It comes with similar features with a more modern interface. It’s simpler but a little bit less flexible than Shotgun.
  • NIM Labs: NIM is more focused on the asset management part and the publishing / validation of files. It provides a ready to use scene opener and saver and a simple validation tool.
  • Producer: it’s dedicated to work with Harmony / Toonboom tool suite. It’s mainly aimed at 2D productions.
  • Kitsu: it’s the main tool we develop at CGWire. We focus on simplicity and ease of use. It makes production management accessible to anyone.

That’s it! This list gives you a quick glimpse of the softwares implied in CG production. If you start your next production from scratch and want to choose your own tools, be aware, than sometimes the best solution is not to take the best software for the task. Using a generalist software can make a smoother pipeline and provide you with a better overall quality. At the end of the day, It really depends of the people and the budget available to you!

We hope you enjoy that overview. If you think think that a software is missing, please mention it in the comments, we will gladly add it to the list.

NB: We also maintain a list of Free and Open Source software that you could use in your pipeline, feel free to contribute : https://github.com/cgwire/awesome-cg-pipeline/

Writing mainly about softwares and pipeline doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy looking at beautiful pictures too. If you would like broader topics and curated content about the CG industry in general, you can follow us on Twitter!

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