8 best 3D tools of 2017 so far

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3D software developers know that 3D artists have a creatively fulfilling but deadline-filled job with long hours, so they’re constantly striving to find new ways to make your life easier.

In this post, we round up the 3D tools that have made the biggest strides forward so far in 2017. (So for instance, 3ds Max may be the industry standard, but version 2018 still didn’t make our list because the improvements weren’t exactly mindblowing.)

01. Unreal Engine 4.15

Unreal Games now supports the Nintendo Switch

February saw the arrival of version 4.15 of Epic Games’ popular game engine, Unreal Engine. The new release sports 79 improvements submitted by UE developers on GitHub.

The biggest attention grabber is support for the Nintendo Switch, albeit experimental for now. Version 4.15 also comes with the long-awaited addition of High Dynamic Range (HDR) display support, GPS Data accessibility in Android and iOS, and Playstation VR Aim Controller support. Elsewhere, compile times have been reduced by up to 50 per cent, there’s a new Blendspace editor, and animation blending is now possible in Sequencer.

You can read about all the new features in Unreal Engine 4.15 on the Epic Games site.

02. Modo 11.1

Modo now plays nicely with Unreal Engine

June saw the Foundry released Modo 11.1, the second of the three updates to its 3D modelling, rendering and texturing tool. And the feature everyone’s talking about the new Unreal Bridge, which allows you to work in an uninterrupted flow between Modo and Unreal Engine. You can work between the two tools either on the same computer or remotely across two or more computers on the same network.

There’s also a new Box Transform tool for moving and positioning UVs more fluidly, a UV coverage indicator for arranging UV Maps more efficiently, and support for object space normal map baking. 

You can discover the full range of new features and improvements in Modo 11.1 on the Foundry site.

03. Clarisse 3.5

Clarisse’s new scattering system is the headline feature of its latest version

In May, Isotropix unveiled version 3.5 of its image-centric 2D/3D rendering and animation software for VFX artists, upgraded from version 3.0. The new release includes a new scattering system, which allows you to scatter instanced objects, such as rocks or plant-life, by directly painting particles across a surface.

That’s along with collision detection to control the spacing of instances, improvements to groups and file referencing, new Standard PBR material inspired by AlSurface, and a free student edition.

You can learn more about the new features in Clarisse 3.5 on the Isotropix site

04. iClone 7

iClone 7 comes with a new facial rig and animation system

This time last year, real-time 3D animation and renderer Character Creator for iClone 6 hit, and back then we were most impressed with it. Towards the end of June, makers Reallusion launched version 7, with a ton of new features. 

Standouts among them were real-time Global Illumination and PBR rendering, new facial and morph animation tools, and camera settings that replicate the movements of real-world production cameras. iClone 7 also comes with a new pack of embedded content plus two new stock 3D characters. 

You can discover the full list of features in iClone 7 in the video below. 

05. Substance Designer 6

The new version of Substance Designer comes with 32-bit floating point compositing (Model by Christian Le Roux)

Allegorithmic’s material authoring and scan processing tool reached version 6 in March, with a flurry of new features since Substance Designer 5.5.

The feature that most caught our attention was the arrival of 32-bit floating point compositing. There are some cool new scan processing tools that let you create accurate, scanned materials from a set of pre-lit photos. Just take four to eight shots with a camera or even a smartphone, feed them in, and the software does the rest.

Version 6 also comes with 8K bakers, a proper text node and a new Curve node, which allows you to define a curve profile to remap colour data.

Read the full release notes for Substance Designer 6 on the Allegorithmic site.

06. Substance Painter 2017.1

Substance Source can now be accessed from within the Substance Painter interface

Allegorithmic has certainly been busy bees of late. In February, its 3D painting tool Substance Painter got an update to 2.5. This added opacity control and colour management to the mix since Substance Painter 2.3 and 2.4, and incorporated support for all the new nodes and features in Substance Designer 6.

Two months later came version 2.6, which saw an extension of the scripting API that allows you to update resources in an existing project via a new plugin.

Then in June, it released another new version, and the start of a new naming convention. Substance Painter 2017.1 is firmly focused on bringing Substance Source and Substance Painter closer together for a smoother workflow. So the latter is now integrated into the former’s UI and 300 new customisable alphas and patterns have been added to the Shelf, from Celtic symbols to geometric shapes, along with new fonts and new filters. 

You’ll find full details of the new features in Substance Painter 2017.1 on the Allegorithmic site

07. Arnold 5

Decreasing melanin content in Arnold’s new standard hair shader (Model courtesy of Zeno Pelgrims)

Global illumination ray-tracer Arnold got a big new release this April, with version 5. The biggest change is actually invisible to users, though, as maker Solid Angle has transitioned the software to a brand new architecture. This, it says, will allow it to make major improvements in future. 

That said, there are still plenty of new features to enjoy right now in Arnold 5. Both render startup and ray trace time have been speeded up considerably, with the company promising a 10x speed boost when pre-processing textures in Arnold’s .tx format. 

There are also several new shaders, including Standard Volume, a new physically based volumetric shader. And perhaps the biggest news for users is that support for Arnold 5 is also one of the key features of 3ds Max 2018. 

You’ll find full details on the new features in Arnold 5 in the video below. 

08. Project Felix 0.3

An abstract city of bottles created by Vladimir Petkovic using Project Felix

While it’s aimed at graphic designers rather than 3D artists, Adobe’s beta application – which we reviewed in March – is still a great tool for compositing 2D and 3D shots. 

You can use it to place, scale and rotate 3D objects, select and customise their materials, and alter the lighting, while a realtime render preview powered by V-Ray shows how the final image will come together, and you can export the result as a layered PSD file to composite in Photoshop.

First released for download in January, the most recent update to Project Felix includes the neural network-powered ability to realistically recreate lighting inside a 3D drawing. There’s also a more intuitive user interface, a bookmarking feature, and rendering has been speeded up.

You can learn more about Project Felix 0.3 in these release notes