What program should I use?


"What applications should I learn to become a motion designer?" I know a couple years back I asked this question and chances are you have too.

Saying "I'm a motion designer" is the same as saying, "I do business work." Each is a loosely defined career with many different flavors. You can specialize in market research, logistics, human resources, accounting, advising, operations. Well, you get the picture. This is actually the same in motion design. You can specialize in compositing, 2D animation, 3D animation, cel animation, particles, fluid simulations or character rigging.

From my own experience, I wanted to one day be a "motion designer." I didn't think once about specializing in anything. Or for that matter, considered the amount of programs available. So, what is the 'right' program for motion graphics?

Like a kaleidoscope motion graphic skills can be seen separate, blurred, shared or loosely related. It was only recently I realized that applications are too. I purchased an app called 3D-Coat on a whim about a month ago. This purchase changed how I look at motion design as a field and career.

Is 3D-Coat the 'right' program this post is about? Simple answer is no. However, 3D-Coat did make me realize I had limited myself to using a handful of applications. I had been stuck inside a "box" and never thought to look outside. A lot of that had to do with comfort. I had seen Zbrush demos that blew me away. In them, I saw sculpts I dreamed about making. So I'd open up Cinema 4D, switch to the Sculpting Suite and the sculpts I dreamed about would never appear.

A) I must not have the ability.
B) It's too hard and time consuming, forget it.
C)This program doesn't work right.
D) I just need to spend more time with it.
E) All the above.

I gave myself this mental quiz and answered 'E) All the above.' Next, I downloaded the free trial of Zbrush and went to work. Fast forward 2-hours and a couple YouTube videos later. I found myself exactly where I started.

So where does 3D-Coat come in? A couple months back I found a video on Vimeo that stopped me in my tracks. I was amazed with the technique and style in the video. As soon as the video stopped I realized I had to learn the "how."

Reading the comments I saw the artist, Kjartan Tysdal, comment that he typically used Zbrush, but went with Blender for the video. I had tried Blender in the past and, in my opinion, it felt like a free knockoff version of Cinema 4D. So I went with the 'real-deal' and opened up Cinema 4D to start sculpting.

The modeling wasn't the problem. After a couple hours of work I had a mirror image of the dead trunk in the video. The problems came when I went to hand-paint the trunk. BodyPaint 3D was creating horrible line breaks between polygons and the effect was ruined. Surprising myself, I didn't give up there.

I chalked the line breaks up to bad UV-mapping on my part. So over a couple more hours, I laid out a "perfect" UV map. Tried BodyPaint again. Then almost punched a hole through my monitor when the line breaks appeared again.

So I went with an alternative and exported the UV map as a .PSD and opened Photoshop. Using Photoshop got better results, but still nothing like Kjartan's work. I was stuck again.

The kaleidoscope of motion design. 

Kjartan used Blender and I used Cinema 4D and our models were almost identical. But for the painting portion I couldn't get anywhere close. Did it come to skill? Or the application? I tried the applications in my "box" and couldn't do it... so I guess that was it?

This is one of those frustrating moments in life that, for lack of better words, pissed me off. I didn't like Blender, Zbrush was too complicated, the Sculpting Suite wasn't working for me and Photoshop fell short. I felt so stuck that I literally searched for an "easy to use Zbrush" on Google. Finding a little-known application called 3D-Coat. Ninety-nice bucks later I had an Educational copy and was ready to go.

Right off the bat, the controls were similar to Cinema 4D so I immediately felt comfortable. Menus and tools reacted like Cinema 4D's Sculpting Suite, but better! I tried modeling the tree trunk again. Soon after I found myself mentally answering, 'E) All the above.' I couldn't figure out how to model the tree trunk in 3D-Coat.

Then I has the idea to just export my tree trunk from Cinema 4D as an .OBJ and import it into 3D-Coat. It worked perfect. So I started painting and got a half-decent result! This was what helped me realize a career in motion graphics is anything but defined. 

I realized that not every application will 'fit' you as a designer. because we all design differently. Kjartan is more talented at hand-painting 3D objects then I'll ever be. Sure, I can get a passable result, but will never be the specialist Kjartan is. At the same time, I might be better at animation and rigging then Kjartan (just an example).

Both our jobs are considered motion design or computer graphics. But as it turns out, motion design is not a one-dimensional field or career, pun intended. There was a clear separation of our skills, but also some crossover.

Now that I had a passable hand-painted effect I was ready for the next step. I wanted to render my model. I tried rending in 3D-Coat, but it felt weird and not what I was used to. Looking back it is funny to see how often I had that thought. So I ended up exporting back to Cinema 4D. 

I used the Unwrap-UV tool in 3D-Coat (auto UV mapping) to export the tree trunk, materials and UV map back to Cinema 4D for rendering. This worked perfect, the model and the materials looked great under some Area Lights!

By accident I clicked into BodyPaint and what I saw blew me away! A Mona Lisa of UV-Maps sat on my tree trunk model. 

A Mona Lisa of UV-Maps

Boom. Motion design makes more sense now. Earlier I spent roughly 2-hours creating a "perfect" UV map in Cinema 4D. In 3D-Coat I could click one button, for the most part, and get a way better result. Turned out there were phenomenal applications not in my "box."

To achieve an okay imitation of Kjartan's work I experimented for hours. And the workflow I got was nothing like Kjartans. I went from Cinema 4D, to 3D-Coat, back to Cinema 4D. I didn't touch Blender or Zbursh, like the Vimeo comments pointed to. Even odder, the portion I used 3D-Coat for is about 1% of what 3D-Coat can do. 

So what is the point of this post? 

When I realized, you don't have to learn an entire application to make use of it - a lot changed for me. Motion design is full of colors, shapes and forms. And like a kaleidoscope there is no 'right' answer and no 'right' application. Ever motion designer is different and that's what makes the field so fun.

I used to limit myself to using the applications I knew completely. Zbrush looked cool - but I thought I didn't have the time to learn the whole application. So I never used Zbrush. Looking at 3D-Coat, half the menus and icons still don't mean anything to me. I simply go in, click to the couple tools I know the basics of. Get what I need and move on. 

With how fast life moves and motion design evolves, I don't think there is time to sit and learn an application front-to-back. But if you spread out modules and portions of a new application into little snacks, integrating better tools into your workflow is easy.

If I have to make a UV-Map, now I open 3D-Coat. It is the 'right' application for me and my kaleidoscope.