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Rendering software

The Rendering makingsoftware of 2012

Renderers: a guide for the perplexed

RenderMan or RenderMan-compliant? V-Ray or mental ray? Our guide to todays expanding rendering software market cuts through the confusion to help you find the renderer you really need
ew other parts of the 3D market offer quite the thrilling and often bemusing diversity as rendering software. While most artists are content to use the tools built into their primary application or one of a small number of specialist packages for modelling, texturing and animation, rendering solutions multiply like rabbits. In the preliminary research for this article, we counted over 40 currently in use and thats before you get to the CAD industry. Sometimes, you suspect that developers are writing them just for the fun of it So for anyone overwhelmed by the sheer range of systems available, weve put together this guide for the perplexed. But first, a few basic questions.

and Pixie offer many of the benefits without such heavy technical overheads, while McKay notes that mental ray is also worth considering. RenderMan is much more flexible and open, so its very fast when optimised. But mental ray is really solid for certain things like water and glass.

Do you need a physically based system?

Of all of the issues raised here, the pros and cons of physically based rendering have probably been responsible for the most flame wars over the past five years. While conventional renderers use mathematical shortcuts to approximate the behaviour of light, sacrificing absolute realism for speed and controllability, newer systems such as Maxwell Render, fryrender and Indigo Renderer use algorithms that closely replicate the real world. Such packages progressively refine the rendered result over time, resulting in a trade-off between speed and image quality. They offer potentially unparalleled results, but many artists find them agonisingly slow. So which is better? While most visualisation studios we spoke to used V-Ray for most of their work, physically based renderers also had staunch supporters; while some used both, either on a per-job basis, or employing a physically based renderer to get an idea of what overall lighting levels should be. This one really does come down to personal taste.

01 V-Ray
Many 3ds Max artists renderer of choice, and especially ubiquitous in visualisation > TYPE Biased/unbiased (depends on settings), non-RenderMan-compliant > PRIMARY USES VFX, visualisation > HOST APPLICATIONS Native support for: 3ds Max, Maya. Via third party: Blender, Cinema 4D, Rhino, SketchUp > PRICE $999 > DEVELOPER Chaos Group At times, the presence of V-Ray in the software used lists in online galleries seems so ubiquitous that youd be forgiven for thinking that it came built in to 3ds Max: just one measure of how much the speed and power of this Bulgarian-developed renderer have endeared it to artists, both for visualisation and personal work, and to a lesser extent, VFX. Although interviewees noted that recent updates to mental ray are encouraging some studios to switch back, V-Rays all-round strengths, good forum support and large pool of freelance artists make it difficult to dislodge from its position of dominance in the industry.


Do you need a third-party renderer?

The first question to ask when choosing a renderer is whether you actually need a third-party solution. For modo and Cinema 4D users, the answer is probably no. Artists we spoke to commented that Cinemas base engine is adequate for many jobs, although most professionals also use Maxons Advanced Render 3 module. Similarly, NewTek evangelist William Vaughan estimates that 90 per cent of LightWave users work with the built-in renderer. Over in the 3ds Max and Maya communities, things are rather different, with most mid-to-large VFX houses opting for a RenderMan-compliant system such as RenderMan, 3Delight or AIR; while most visualisation studios opt for one of the big three 3ds Max renderers, V-Ray, Brazil r/s and finalRender, for their GI capabilities and high raytracing speed. Houdinis built-in Mantra renderer offers a hybrid of the two approaches: its single biggest underestimated feature, according to Black Mountain VFXs Abdelkareem Abonamous.

Key technical terms used in this article

Biased rendering > Any rendering system that does not converge on the correct solution when many renders of the same scene are averaged. Bias often occurs when an algorithm ignores or misrepresents the contribution of a particular lighting effect for example, reflected or refracted light for the sake of computational speed. Many standard algorithms, including most radiosity methods and photon mapping, are biased. RenderMan-compliant renderer > A renderer that conforms to Pixars RenderMan Interface Specification protocol. Often known as RIB renderers after RenderMans native RIB file format. The Pixar software commonly known as RenderMan used to be more strictly known as PhotoRealistic RenderMan or PRMan, to distinguish it from this protocol. Unbiased rendering > Any rendering system that converges on the correct solution on average. The term is often used interchangeably with physically based rendering, although this is not actually accurate: a result that is physically correct is one that matches nature, whereas unbiased is purely a mathematical concept.

The right renderer for the job

Over the next six pages, you can find profiles of ten of the most important renderers currently on the market and what their users feel are their strengths and weaknesses. For reasons of space, we havent included renderers intended primarily for industrial design tools or SketchUp. Nor have we covered renderers still awaiting a 1.0 release, such as LuxRender or FurryBall; or those on which development has been discontinued, such as Gelato or BMRT. And, with the exception of mental ray, we felt that it was unnecessary to review the built-in render engines of the main 3D packages in detail, since most people are already familiar with them. The summary table at the end of the article lists other key third-party renderers and built-in render engines, and you can find a more information on our website, including an extended version of this article. But for now, happy render hunting! More information online:

Does VFX have to mean RenderMan?

In serious visual effects work, its easy to assume that there is only one renderer in town: Pixars RenderMan. But that isnt necessarily the case. RenderMan is great if you have enough of a team to support it, says VFX supervisor Allan McKay, a veteran of ILM, Blur Studio and Prime Focus. A lot of small and mid-sized studios just automatically assume their work is going to look as good as the big boys if they use it. Its like buying a Flame suite because you hear its good for compositing. For smaller studios, RenderMan-compliant systems like 3Delight, AIR or even the open-source Aqsis

Gus Capote, art director, Neoscape STRENGTHS Great speed-to-render-quality ratio Very stable on large scenes  Multiple calculation options, including brute force, irradiance maps and light cache WEAKNESSES Limited antialiasing on channel passes  Distributed rendering can create issues with 3ds Maxs Backburner system

An industry standard: four of the five previous winning entries in the Architectural 3D Awards, including this 2006 image by Gustavo Capote, list V-Ray as the renderer used


Text: Jim Thacker

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February 2010 |


Rendering software
Its origins may lie in VFX, but Brazil r/s also remains a workhorse of visualisation studios such as Utrechts 3idee Used in both VFX and visualisation, recent high-profile finalRender projects include these shots from Uncharted Territorys work on themovie 2012 While its first audience came from automotive visualisation, DCC studios are starting to realise the power and simplicity of HyperShot

Rendering software

05 FPrime

The interactive renderer that changed the way many people work with LightWave 3D > TYPE Biased, non-RenderMan-compliant > PRIMARY USES General > HOST APPLICATIONS LightWave 3D > PRICE $399 > DEVELOPER Worley Laboratories When Steve Worley first released FPrime back in 2004, some people jokingly suggested that he should put in an offer to buy LightWave itself, such was the developers standing in the host apps user community. While the market has caught up to some extent, with some interviewees reporting that they now use FPrime mainly for setting up lights and surfacing, its still remarkable how quickly this ultra-fast interactive renderer made itself indispensable in so many peoples workflows. Real-time previews make set-up more intuitive, while the progressive rendering engine allows users to stop and start renders without having to wait to the end to see results.

Images Columbia Pictures

Image Drive Design

Image 3idee


Creative director, Splashlight STRENGTHS  Ultra-fast rendering on complex scenes  Handles area lights and transparency without significant time penalty  Intuitive, efficient progressive render engine WEAKNESSES Lacks ability to use LightWaves volumetrics S  truggles with some new material nodes

02 Brazil r/s
A third-party renderer for 3ds Max that straddles the worlds of VFX and visualisation > TYPE Biased, non-RenderMan-compliant > PRIMARY USES VFX, visualisation > HOST APPLICATIONS Native support for: 3ds Max Via third party: Rhino > PRICE $995 (includes 10 render nodes) > DEVELOPER Caustic Graphics Of the three main third-party 3ds Max renderers, Brazil r/s has arguably the strongest pedigree in VFX. Scott Kirvan and Steve Blackmon, co-founders of original developer SplutterFish, both worked at Blur Studio in the 1990s: a background borne out by Brazils raytracing and antialiasing capabilities. While it has not achieved the same ubiquity in visualisation as V-Ray and lacks a physical sky system and GI cache for animations it maintains a dedicated user base, though announcements have slowed since Brazil was acquired by hardware rendering firm Caustic Graphics earlier this year. It will be interesting to see where Caustic takes this much-loved tool.

03 finalRender
A fast, versatile raytracing render engine that performs strongly on complex scenes > TYPE Biased, non-RenderMan compliant > PRIMARY USES VFX, visualisation > HOST APPLICATIONS 3ds Max, Cinema 4D, Maya > PRICE 6951,295 ($1,050-1,950: varies according to edition) > DEVELOPER cebas Visual Technology Speed and performance on complex scenes were the key features cited by our interviewees in choosing finalRender, one of the three big 3ds Max renderers: both selling points that seem to have been amplified in the recent R3 release. While a smaller user base makes it more difficult for studios to call upon a pool of freelancers while scaling up for projects than with V-Ray, the product maintains a strong following while its visibility in the world of visual effects has been recently raised by its use at Uncharted Territory, lead facility on Roland Emmerichs 2012. Native versions for Maya and Cinema 4D further widen finalRenders appeal.

04 HyperShot
A little renderer from the world of design visualisation thats starting to make it big in DCC > TYPE Biased, non-RenderMan-compliant > PRIMARY USES Visualisation > HOST APPLICATIONS Native support for: Pro/Engineer, Rhino, SketchUp, SolidWorks, SpaceClaim. Supports most DCC packages via 3DS, Collada, FBX and OBJ formats > PRICE $995 (HD edition: see website for others) > DEVELOPER Bunkspeed With a development team including technical Academy Award winner Henrik Wann Jensen, there was little doubt that HyperShot would turn out to be a bit special. Marketed as The first digital camera for your 3D data, ease of use was a priority from the outset, with the renderer quickly finding favour with industrial designers wanting to visualise their own models, but put off by the complexities of Maya or Showcase. Recently, however, DCC professionals have begun to realise the power concealed beneath HyperShots deceptively simple exterior. Its a little renderer but it can kick ass, says Escape Studios training development director Lee Danskin.

Michiel Quist, founder, 3idee STRENGTHS High stability Very fast raytracing and 3D motion blur Quality and speed of image sampling WEAKNESSES Small user base No SDK

EXPERT OPINION Ari SachterZeltzer, owner, Shadowplay Studio STRENGTHS Extensive, customisable feature set  Good render elements system, including option to include/exclude objects  Powerful new layered EXR exporter WEAKNESSES Hardcoded defaults not ideal for speed or quality Needs a proxy system

EXPERT OPINION Mark Pritchard,

design manager, Drive Design STRENGTHS  Extreme ease of use  Very rapid results  Deceptively flexible material system WEAKNESSES  Manipulation tools can be awkward

Image Splashlight

FPrime offers LightWave 3D users fast, intuitive interactive rendering on jobs such as this print ad from Splashlight February 2010 | |


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Rendering software
Main image: 7-t ( Image Glass Canvas Productions (

Rendering software
Inset image: Aketoshi Tada, ataKikaku co (info@atakikaku,com)

06 Maxwell Render
The application that introduced most artists to the idea of physically based rendering > TYPE Unbiased, non-RenderMan-compliant > PRIMARY USES VFX, visualisation > HOST APPLICATIONS Native support for: 3ds Max, ArchiCAD, form.Z, Cinema 4D, LightWave 3D, Maya, modo, Rhino, SketchUp, SolidWorks, Softimage Via third party: Allplan, Houdini, MicroStation, solidThinking > PRICE $995 > DEVELOPER Next Limit Technologies At the time of its original alpha release in 2004, physically based system Maxwell Render became one of the most talked-about products in the 3D industry. Five years on, it remains the de facto benchmark for other renderers of its type. Version 2.0, released in late 2009, boasts a greatly improved speed-to-noise ratio and greater processor scalability one interviewee reported it performs 4-15 times faster than 1.7, depending on the scene and while its core market remains visualisation, Maxwell is also being adopted for some visual effects tasks, including matte work on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Turtle bakes all the components needed for modern games such as Dragon Age: Origins, including normal maps, ambient occlusion and polynomial textures

A retail unit in Oxford Street, London rendered with 3ds Max and mental ray at Glass Canvas Productions

Image GMJ Design (

Image DreamWorks Pictures/Paramount Pictures. Courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic

RenderMan remains the tool of choice for large studios such as ILM and Digital Domain on projects such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Image The Third Floor

Tim Ellis, head of unbiased lighting and texturing, Cityscape Digital STRENGTHS Unparalleled render quality  Intuitive network rendering, including resume render  Powerful Multilight system WEAKNESSES  Render times can still be very long, particularly for larger scenes

Early users of GPU-accelerated rendering and compositing system MachStudio Pro include pre-viz house The Third Floor. Will VFX studios follow suit?

A shot rendered in 3ds Max and mental ray at GMJ Design. The renderer offers an attractive mix of power and accessibility

07 MachStudio Pro
Can this GPU-accelerated production renderer and compositing system live up to its early hype? > TYPE Biased, non-RenderMan-compliant > PRIMARY USES Animation, visualisation > HOST APPLICATIONS Native support for: ArchiCAD, 3ds Max, Maya, Rhino, SketchUp. Supports most DCC applications via FBX format > PRICE $3,995 > DEVELOPER StudioGPU With the advent of a new generation of tools that actively harness a workstations GPU to calculate results, the goal of production-quality renders in seconds rather than minutes or hours may finally be approaching. The first of this wave of applications to hit the market, GPU-accelerated rendering, compositing and grading system MachStudio Pro promises not merely dramatically reduced render times but the potential to open up entirely new production workflows. While its still too early to tell whether the software really lives up to the hype, sources tell us that major London VFX houses are in detailed discussions with developer StudioGPU.

08 mental ray
The first port of call for artists working in Max, Maya or Softimage, enjoying a resurgence in popularity > TYPE Biased, non-RenderMan-compliant > PRIMARY USES General > HOST APPLICATIONS 3ds Max, AutoCAD, Inventor, Maya, Revit, Softimage > PRICE Integrated into host application > DEVELOPER mental images Built into 3ds Max, Maya and Softimage, mental ray remains the first port of call for many smaller studios, both in VFX and visualisation, with interviewees reporting a return to the platform from third-party tools in recent years. As well as the price or lack of it users cite its wide range of physically accurate preset shaders and ease of set-up as key selling points. Jamie Cardoso, co-author of the book Realistic Architectural Visualization with 3ds Max and mental ray, notes the few drawbacks as the nature of its proxy system, and the fact that the new iray interactive rendering engine, while more powerful than alternatives, is not yet part of Max or Maya.

09 RenderMan
Pixars production workhorse retains its position as the big name in rendering for visual effects > TYPE Biased, RenderMan-compliant > PRIMARY USES VFX > HOST APPLICATIONS Native support for: Maya Via third party: Blender, Cinema 4D, Softimage > PRICE $3,500 (Pro Server edition) > DEVELOPER Pixar Animation Studios For large animation houses, RenderMan remains the renderer to beat. Developed and used by Pixar since the late 1980s, our interviewees noted that it requires a large technical support team to harness fully, and that reliance on third-party exporters to get files into its RIB format can be an issue for smaller studios, but that its reputation as a production workhorse remains unchallenged. As ILM VFX supervisor John Knoll notes: RenderMans widespread use among facilities whose reputation depends on creating consistently excellent imagery is telling. Its extreme flexibility, quality, robustness and scalability have made it the standard that it is today.

Images courtesy of BioWare

10 Turtle
Robust global illumination and advanced baking features make for an indispensable games tool > TYPE Biased, non-RenderMan-compliant > PRIMARY USES Games > HOST APPLICATIONS Maya > PRICE $1,499 > DEVELOPER Illuminate Labs Initially perceived as a more general-purpose global illumination renderer, Turtle quickly found its niche in games, where it developed a reputation as a fast, flexible system for baking lighting information. Employed on such distinctly different-looking recent productions as Dragon Age: Origins (pictured above), Killzone 2 and Mirrors Edge, users praise its feature set, the flexibility offered by Lua scripting, and the technical support offered by developer Illuminate Labs. There may be other ways to solve the problem of creating lighting assets for games, but for its power to enable a studio to quickly iterate the look and feel of a level, Turtle is largely unchallenged in this sector of the market at the minute.

Offering extreme realism, and now with an improved speedto-noise ratio, Maxwell remains a benchmark for unbiased renderers Chris Edwards, CEO, The Third Floor STRENGTHS Intuitive interactive workflow Empowers directors and cinematographers WEAKNESSES  Export process from Maya is time-consuming and not straightforward Artists require training in unique workflow


senior 3D visualiser and consultant STRENGTHS Free, and fully integrated into host packages Wide range of physically accurate preset shaders Rapid results on complex scenes WEAKNESSES  Proxy system does not enable retrieval of the original mesh as in V-Ray iray not yet part of host applications


VFX supervisor, Industrial Light & Magic STRENGTHS Extremely robust, production-proven renderer High-quality output Flexible and scalable WEAKNESSES M  ore costly than other RenderMan-compliant rendering solutions

Andreas Papathanasis, senior graphics programmer, BioWare STRENGTHS High-quality results Extensive render optimisation options Large range of map types and output formats WEAKNESSES  Difficult to integrate into baking pipeline if not using Maya for level editing unlike Turtles sister application, Beast


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February 2010 |


Rendering software

Rendering software

In brief  | Key renderers compared

Selected built-in render engines
Blender Cinema 4D Houdini Escape LightWave 3D modo

Selected third-party renderers

3Delight AIR Brazil r/s finalRender FPrime fryrender HyperShot Indigo Renderer Kerkythea MachStudio Pro Maxwell Render mental ray RenderMan Turtle V-Ray

Developer Current release Price Annual maintenance Other pricing notes RenderMan-compliant? Unbiased? Fully GPU-accelerated? Includes shader compiler? Key market sectors Applications supported 3ds Max Blender Cinema 4D Houdini Lightwave 3D Maya Softimage Other (selected applications only) Platforms Features 64-bit compatible SDK Network rendering Instances Proxy system Render layers/passes Interactive render preview Material system Layered materials Bump and normal mapping Micropoly displacement/MTD Subsurface scattering BRDF support Raytracing Global illumination Ambient occlusion Colour bleeding HDRI Caustics Camera controls Depth of field 3D motion blur f stop controls Bokeh effects Tonemapping Hair and fur Particle rendering Points Spheres Implicit surface/blobbies Baking tools Texture baking Vertex baking Point cloud baking Radiosity normal maps Physical sky Photometric lights EXR support Other key features

Blender Foundation

Maxon Computer

Side Effects Software



DnA Research

SiTex Graphics

Caustic Graphics

cebas Visual Tech.

Worley Laboratories



Glare Technologies

Ioannis Pantazopoulos


Next Limit Tech.

mental images

Pixar Anim. Studios

Illuminate Labs

Chaos Group

2.5 Free N/A

11.5 $3,695 N/A

Price for Studio bundle

10.0 $1,995 $800

Unlimited render nodes

9.6 $895 N/A

Unlimited render nodes

401 $995 N/A

Inc. 50 render nodes

9.0 $900 - $2,150 $190 - $450

First two threads free

9.0 $450 $150

Price for four threads

2.0 $995 N/A

Inc. 10 render nodes

3.0 (3ds Max ed.) $1,050 - 1,950* See website

*695 - 1,295

3.0 $399 N/A

Unlimited render nodes

1.0 795 ($1,190) N/A

Inc. 2 render nodes

1.9 $995 N/A

Price for HD edition

2.2 295 ($440) N/A

Inc. 2 render nodes

2008 Free N/A

1.2 $3,995 N/A

2.0 $995 N/A

3.8 As host app. N/A

Standalone: $745

15.0 $3,500 $700

Price for Pro Server ed.

5.0 $1,499 $899

1.5 $999 N/A

Inc. network rendering

Hybrid Python only Any N/A Any N/A Any N/A Any N/A Any N/A
Native Via third-party plug-in Via third-party plug-in Native Via third-party plug-in Via third-party plug-in Native Native Native Native Rhino Win/Mac/Linux Win/Mac Win/Mac/Linux Win/Mac Linux due in CORE Win/Mac Win/Mac/Linux Via third-party plug-in In progress Rhino Win/Linux Rhino Win Win Win/Mac Native Native Native Native modo, Rhino, SketchUp Win Rhino, SketchUp Win/Mac Native Native SketchUp Win/Mac/Linux SketchUp Win/Mac/Linux Native In development Rhino, SketchUp Win Native Native Native Native

Optional Optional In development




VFX, visualisation

VFX, visualisation



Visualisation Via OBJ, FBX



Any Via FBX

VFX, visualisation

VFX, visualisation

Animation, VFX


VFX, visualisation

Native Native Native

Native Native

In development


Native Supported Via third-party plug-in Via third-party plug-in Supported Native

Native Via third-party plug-in Via third-party plug-in

Native Via third-party plug-in Native Native Native modo, Rhino, SketchUp Win/Mac/Linux Win/Mac/Linux Native Native

Native Via third-party plug-in


Native In development Rhino, SketchUp




Windows only Not public In development Due in CORE

Lighting only

Lighting only

Via custom code

Via V-Ray RT

Bump only
In development

Via LightWave
In development


Via RSL In development Via LightWave Sources: All data was supplied directly by the relevant software developer, with the exception of FPrime

In development

Via other settings Hybrid 2D/3D Via LightWave Via image shaders In development Present In development Via extension Via extension Via extension Via plug-ins 3ds Max only Varies with ed.

Via custom shader Bent normals Via custom shader Via custom code
Built-in compositor Built-in video editor Audio playback/sync Built-in texture painting Unlimited render nodes True multi-threading Volume rendering Amazon cloud support Multi-segment blur Anim. radiosity cache Unlimited render nodes EXIF support Volumetric lights Anisotropic effects Fresnel effects Point-based GI Stereo rendering Procedural geometry Programmable shading Instancer shaders Quasi-Monte Carlo core Unlimited number of render presets Unlimited render elems. True hybrid scanline/ raytracing Image zoom support Supports multiple cameras/windows Turntable animation Render queue (Both Pro edition only) Shading language Full spectral rendering Camera aperture diffr. Instancing brush Easy clay/depth/mask render modes Stereoscopic rendering Real-time subpixel displacement Multi-light system 3,500+ free materials Native RealFlow support Progr. IBL rendering Fast blur rasterisation MetaSL language Deep shadows Point-based colour bleeding and SSS Optimised baking Scriptable via Lua Hardware vis. of results VRayFur VRayEnvironmentFog


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February 2010 |