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The best 3D modelling software in 2020

Best 3D modelling software
It's a great time to get on board with the best 3D modelling software (Image credit: Autodesk)

Master the best 3D modelling software, and you'll always be in demand in what is a rapidly growing industry. With more and more streaming services sinking more and more money into TV and movie content, the demand for 3D artists, animators and VFX artists has never been greater. Add that to the global shutdown of physical filming during the pandemic, and it's clearly that studios will be clamouring for CG content over the next couple of years. 

So whether you're starting from scratch, or want to build on existing skills, it's a great time to try out the best 3D modelling software. You might also try downloading some free textures or free 3D models to test them out on, and check out the best graphics cards to make sure you get the most out of your software. In this post, we bring you the best 3D modelling software, both paid-for and free, and help explain which tools are likely to fit your needs.

The best 3D modelling software: paid-for options

3D modelling software: Maya

Image: Autodesk

01. Maya

Industrial-strength 3D modelling software, with a price to match.

Cost: £234/month, £1,872/year | Pricing model: Subscription | OS: Windows 7 & 10; Apple macOS 10.11.x and above; Linux Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7.3 and 7.5; Linux CentOS 7.3 and 7.5

Incredibly powerful 
Comprehensive toolset
Expensive
Difficult to learn

Ask any 3D artist to name the best 3D modelling software, and most will choose Autodesk Maya. Largely seen as the industry standard for CG, Autodesk Maya boasts an unrivalled range of tools and features. This hugely extensible app isn't for the faint-hearted: its toolset is hugely complex and takes time to learn. However, if you’re aiming to get a job in the animation or VFX industries, you’d be wise to use the same software that the likes of ILM, Pixar, DNEG and Framestore use. 

Maya is great at modelling, texturing, lighting and rendering – its vast feature set includes particles, hair, solid body physics, cloth, fluid simulations and character animation. There’s a chance you may never touch some of its functionality, so you need to decide if it’s actually overkill for your specific needs.

This level of power also comes at a price – a subscription to Maya doesn't come cheap. But for those who have the time, skill and patience to master it, Maya has some of the best 3D tools around and is a sound investment. 

Want to get started with Maya? Our selection of mighty Maya tutorials will help you take a step in the right direction. 

The best 3D modelling software [Image: SideFX]

Image: SideFX

02. Houdini

3D modelling software used in today’s movie and TV VFX.

Cost: $4,495/yr (Houdini FX), $1,995/yr (Core), $269/yr (Indie), Free learning edition | Pricing model: Perpetual and rental | OS: Windows 7 SP1 and above; macOS 10.11 and above; Linux Ubuntu 14.04+; Linux Debian 8.0+; Linux CentOS 7+; Linux Open SUSE 13.2+; Linux mint 17.3+; Linux Fedora 21+

Industry-leading 
Incredible VFX simulations
Free version
Complex workflow

Coming in second place in our guide to the best 3D modelling software is Houdini by SideFX. Widely used in the VFX industry for creating a range of 3D imagery, Houdini's node-based procedural approach provides digital artists with an unprecedented level of power, flexibility and control. This nodal workflow isn’t to everyone’s liking, but Houdini also has more traditional tools for directly interacting with polygons on screen.

Like Maya, this level of power and non-standard workflow can be tricky to get to grips with. Fortunately, SideFX offers Houdini Apprentice, a free version of Houdini FX, which can be used by students, artists and hobbyists for personal non-commercial projects. The free version gives you access to virtually all of the features of the award-winning Houdini FX to develop your skills and for working on personal projects. The full-featured Houdini Indie also provides an affordable commercial option for small studios. 

The best 3D modelling software [Image: Maxon]

Image: Maxon

03. Cinema 4D

Brilliant 3D modelling software for beginners and pros alike.

Cost: £3,300 (perpetual licence) or £55.99-£119.99 per month | Pricing model: Perpetual and rental | OS: Windows 7 SP1 and above; macOS 10.11.6 or 10.12.4 and above

Shallow learning curve
Hugely extensible with plugins
Limited features in free version
Expensive

Maxon’s Cinema 4D has been around for many years and is highly regarded in the worlds of motion graphics, visualisation and illustration. It’s a professional, complex piece of software, known for its overall stability and for being the 3D modelling software with the easiest learning curve.

Cinema 4D enjoys a thriving community with a huge online library of tutorials and how-tos – not to mention training site Cineversity, to which you get free membership when you buy the app or pay for the annual Maxon service agreement (MSA). C4D’s parametric modelling toolset is generally very good, and you can add even more functionality with a range of inexpensive plugins. It also boasts volumetric modelling, which is perfect if you don't have the time or skillset to create smooth solid forms.

Perpetual licenses don’t come cheap, but you can always start with Prime and upgrade over time. Check out the trial version, which gives you 14 days to experiment for free, and the free education version for students and teachers.  

The best 3D modelling software [Image: Autodesk]

Image: Autodesk

04. Autodesk 3ds Max

The best 3D modelling software for Windows users.

Cost: £234/mo, £1,872/yr | Pricing model: Subscription | OS: Microsoft Windows 7 (SP1), Windows 8, Windows 8.1, and Windows 10 Professional operating system

Easier to learn than Maya
Substantial feature set
Windows only

3ds Max is Autodesk’s PC-only 3D computer graphics program, used for TV and feature film production and for architectural and product visualisation. Like its sister software Maya, 3ds Max boasts a very robust toolset for 3D modelling, not to mention fluid simulations, hair and fur, plus character rigging and animation.

It uses both direct manipulation and procedural modelling techniques, and a huge library of different modifiers makes the modelling process easier for new or intermediate 3D artists. 3ds Max offers a professional toolset and, unsurprisingly, comes with a professional price tag. However, students can get the software for free and a trial version is also available for 30 days.

The best 3D modelling software [Image: Modo]

Image: Foundry

05. Modo

3D modelling, texturing and rendering software.

Cost: $1,578 permanent license, $359/year | Pricing model: Perpetual and subscription | OS: macOS 10.12.x and above; Windows 7 and above; Linux RHEL and CentOS 7+

Excellent modeller
Impressive workflow
Some tools feel underdeveloped

Borne out of the development team behind LightWave 3D, Modo has grown from a basic subdivision surface modeller to the fully-featured digital content creation app we know today. Its tools have been well thought through and implemented, making it very user-friendly, and when you throw in a really solid rendering system, it’s easy to see why Modo has grown in popularity.

With modelling at its core, Modo is one of the best apps out there for the creation of polygonal forms, using both direct tools and procedural techniques. The addition of the best-in-breed MeshFusion Boolean system simply extends its modelling repertoire. Modo might lack the high-end dynamics and simulation tools you might find in a program like Maya, but it holds its own when it comes to creating stunning artwork, producing as good a 3D render as any other package currently available. 

The best 3D modelling software [Image: Lightwave]

Image: NewTek

06. Lightwave 3D

Fully-featured, production-proven 3D modelling software.

Cost: $995 | Pricing model: Perpetual | OS: Windows 7 and above; macOS 10.11 and above

Easy to get to grips with
Works as two separate apps
Better alternatives 

LightWave was once the go-to app for TV sci-fi shows, but after a failed attempt to produce a modernised version, NewTek’s app lay fallow for several years. However it’s recently enjoyed something of a renaissance, and an updated version was introduced at the start of 2020.

Lightwave operates as two apps, Modeler – for building assets – and Layout for texturing, lighting, animation and rendering. A lot of the underlying toolset is quite old (although it’s had a lot of new features added in the last few years) but that doesn’t stop it from being a solid digital content creation suite, with lots of features and a fast interactive PBR renderer.

So ignore LightWave’s reputation: it’s a great 3D modelling app for learning the basics. You can try it for yourself with the 30-day free trial, while students can pick up a copy for just $195.

The best 3D modelling software [Image: ZBrush]

Image: Pixologic

07. ZBrush

Market-leading sculpting software that’s ideal for 3D printing.

Cost: $895 for perpetual licence or $39.95 a month | Pricing model: Perpetual and subscription | OS: Windows Vista and above; macOS: 10.10 and above

Incredible sculpting toolset
Handles millions of polys with ease
Difficult to learn
Non-standard menus and UI
Needs a graphics tablet for best results

ZBrush is a standalone sculpting and modelling app that is best suited to the creation of organic forms – although recent updates have gradually improved its hard-surface abilities. It works in a non-standard fashion, with a workflow and user interface that’s initially very hard to learn, so you really need to use it every day to become proficient.

However, ZBrush isn’t only for sculpting and modelling: it can also be used to create UV maps and paint textures, enabling seasoned artists to craft entire figures, with clothing and props, ready for rendering. ZBrush is a popular choice among artists wanting to 3D print toys and action figures, too, with tools specifically aimed at 3D printing.

The best free 3D modelling software

A licence to use the best 3D modelling software currently on the market doesn't come cheap these days. Thankfully, there's a bunch of generous creatives around the world who like to share the tools they've created, as well as some canny companies offering free versions of paid-for tools.

To save you time and effort, we've rounded up the best free 3D modelling software around for you to download today. So if you're a 3D artist, bookmark this page now.

01. Blender

Best free 3D modelling software Blender

Image: Blender

If you're looking for free 3D modelling software, it doesn’t get any better than Blender, the free modelling, texturing, animation and rendering app. The open-source program has been around for a long time now, and subsequently has an army of artists, teachers and enthusiasts behind its continued development. It boasts a highly impressive 3D modelling and sculpting toolset, and is considered a completely viable alternative to paid modelling programs. Blender was once notorious for its non-standard way of working, but a lot of these issues have now been solved, and so it will feel more familiar if you're moving from an existing app.

Blender is a brilliant starting point to see if 3D graphics are for you, and we have a host of fantastic Blender tutorials to get started with elsewhere on the site. Despite the non-existent price tag, it’s capable of producing images and animation that are on a par with just about any other 3D modelling software.

02. Daz Studio

Best free 3D modelling software: Daz3D

(Image credit: Daz 3D)

Previously retailing at $249, 3D software Daz 3D is currently available to download completely free of charge. It’s a 3D figure customisation, posing and animation tool that enables artists of all skill levels to create digital art using virtual people, animals, props, vehicles, accessories and environments.

03. SketchUp

Best 3D modelling software: Sketchup

(Image credit: Sketchup)

SketchUp Free advertises itself as "the simplest free 3D modeling software on the web — no strings attached", and it's certainly very easy to use. Its core 3D modeller runs right in your web browser, and offers 10GB of storage, plus there are also user-generated and manufacturer-produced 3D models available for free to import into your projects. All this plus a free app to view your 3D models on mobile adds up to a great package at zero cost. Oh, and don't forget to check out our selection of the best SketchUp textures.

04. Hexagon

The best free 3D modelling software [Image: Hexagon]

Image: Hexagon

While you’re on Daz 3D’s site, you may as well download the free modelling app, Hexagon. Developed by Eovia back in around 2001, it was acquired by Daz in 2006 and has been – very sporadically – updated ever since. Hexagon is simple subdivision surface modeller, and while Daz promotes it as a way of building clothes and props for its figure, you can use Hexagon to make anything you like.

05. Fusion 360 (education version)

The best free 3D modelling software [Image: Fusion 360]

Image: Autodesk

Autodesk’s cloud-based modelling app is a professional piece of software for the CAD/CAM crowd, but can be used to create any solid form, from teapots to tanks. Ordinarily it cost £438 per year, but there’s a free education version for Windows and Mac that you can use for non-commercial projects. The app features all sorts of modelling techniques, including freeform sculpting, polygon manipulation and parametric modelling.

06. Houdini Apprentice

(Image credit: SideFX)

As we mentioned above, Houdini is a 3D animation and visual effects tool used widely throughout the media industry for film, broadcast, entertainment and visualisation. Its cheapest version costs just a little under $2,000, but its maker SideFX offers an ‘Apprentice’ version for free. With this you can access all of the features of the full version in order to develop your skills in the software and work on personal projects. The program is purely for non-commercial use and learning purposes.

07. Wings3D

The best free 3D modelling software [Image: Wings3D]

Image: Wings3D

A pure modelling app, Wings 3D is an open source project available for Windows, macOS and Linux, which has been in development since 2001. Like all subdivision modellers, it enables you build an underlying form made of polygons and then generate a smoothed shape by subdividing the mesh.

It’s pretty basic as modellers go, and the interface is a bit unusual, but it’s fairly user-friendly and an ideal way to get a feel for poly modelling, and to see if 3D might be something you could get into.

08. Rocket 3F

The best free 3D modelling software [Image: Rocket 3F]

Image: Rocket 3F

This Windows-only polygonal modeller promotes itself as fast, fun and friendly. The professional-looking interface is fully customisable and it boasts an extensive modelling toolset that wouldn’t look out of place in apps costing hundreds of pounds. Indeed, with sculpting, retopology tools and non-linear subdivision edge creasing, it’s a very well equipped program.

The free version doesn’t allow you to change the UI or assign your own hotkeys – for that you need to buy the €99 Pro version – but whether you’re making models for illustration, VFX or games, Rocket 3F is a class act.

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