Blender 2.8 is coming

Unbiased rendering? Check. Realtime rendering? Check. Unified shader model? Check. Class-leading user interface. Check. Free, open source, small? Check. Blender 2.8 offers everything you want in a 3d package and nothing you don’t (dongles, copy protection, ridiculous prices, massive hardware requirements).

There aren’t many pieces of open source software that have been under continuous active development that haven’t gone through a single “major version change” in twenty years. When I started using Blender 2.8 in the early 2000s, it was version 2.3-something. In the last year it’s been progressing from 2.79 to 2.8 (I think technically the current “release” version is 2.79b, b as in the third 2.79 release not beta).

What brought me to blender was a programming contract for an updated application which, in my opinion, needed an icon. I modeled a forklift for the icon in Silo 3D (which introduced me to “box-modeling”) but needed a renderer, and none of my very expensive 3d software (I owned licenses for 3ds max, ElectricImage, and Strata StudioPro among other thins) on my then current hardware. Blender’s renderer even supported motion blur (kind of).

The blender I started using had a capable renderer that was comparatively slow and hard to configure, deep but incomprehensible functionality, and a user interface that was so bad I ended up ranting about it on the blender forums and got so much hatred in response that I gave up being part of the community. I’ve also blogged pretty extensively about my issues with blender’s user interface over the years. Below is a sampling…

Blender now features not one, not two, but three renderers. (And it supports the addition of more renderers via a plugin architecture.) The original renderer (a ray-tracing engine now referred to as Workbench) is still there, somewhat refined, but it is now accompanied by a real-time game-engine style shader based renderer (Eevee) and a GPU-accelerated unbiased (physically-based) renderer (Cycles). All three are fully integrated into the editor view, meaning you can see the effects of lighting and procedural material changes interactively.

The PBR revolution has slowly brought us to a reasonably uniform conceptualization of what a 3d “shader” should look like. Blender manages to encapsulate all of this into one, extremely versatile shader (although it may not be the most efficient option, especially for realtime applications).

Eevee and Cycles also share the same shader architecture (Workbench does not) meaning that you can use the exact same shaders for both realtime purposes (such as games) and “hero renders”.

Blender 2.8 takes blender from — as of say Blender 2.4 — having one of the worst user interfaces of any general-purpose 3D suite, to having arguably the best.

The most obvious changes in Blender 2.8 are in the user-interface. The simplification, reorganization, and decluttering that has been underway for the last five or so years has culminated in a user interface that is bordering on elegant — e.g. providing a collection of reasonable simple views that are task-focused but yet not modal — while still having the ability to instantly find any tool by searching (now command-F for find instead of space by default; I kind of miss space). Left-click to select is now the default and is a first class citizen in the user interface (complaining about Blender’s right-click to select, left click to move the “cursor” and screw yourself is this literally got me chased off Blender’s forums in 2005).

Blender still uses custom file-requesters that are simply worse in every possible way than the ones the host OS provides. Similarly, but less annoyingly, Blender uses a custom-in-window-menubar that means it’s simply wasting a lot of screen real estate when not used in full screen mode.

OK so the “globe” means “world” and the other “globe” means “shader”…

Blender relies a lot on icons to reduce the space required for the — still — enormous numbers of tabs and options, and it’s pretty hard to figure out what is supposed to mean what (e.g. the “globe with a couple of dots” icon refers to scene settings while the nearly identical “globe” icon refers to materials — um, what?). The instant search tool is great but doesn’t have any support for obvious synonyms, so you need to know that it’s a “sphere” and not a “ball” and a “cube” and not a “box” but while you “snap” the cursor you “align” objects and cameras.

Finally, Blender can still be cluttered and confusing. Some parts of the UI are visually unstable (i.e. things disappear or appear based on settings picked elsewhere, and it may not be obvious why). Some of the tools have funky workflows (e.g. several common tools only spawn a helpful floating dialog AFTER you’ve done something with the mouse that you probably didn’t want to do) and a lot of keyboard shortcuts seem to be designed for Linux users (ctrl used where command would make more sense).

The blender 2.8 documentation is pretty good but also incomplete. E.g. I couldn’t find any documentation of particle systems in the new 2.8 documentation. There’s plenty of websites with documentation or tutorials on blender’s particle systems but which variant of the user interface they’ll pertain to is pretty much luck-of-the-draw (and blender’s UI is in constant evolution).

Expecting a 3D program with 20 years of development history and a ludicrously wide-and-deep set of functionality to be learnable by clicking around is pretty unreasonable. That said, blender 2.8 comes close, generally having excellent tooltips everywhere. “Find” will quickly find you the tool you want — most of the time — and tell you its keyboard shortcut — if any — but won’t tell you where to find it in the UI. I am pretty unreasonable, but even compared to Cheetah 3D, Silo, or 3ds max (the most usable 3D programs I have previously used) I now think Blender more than holds its own in terms of learnability and ease-of-use relative to functionality.

Performance-wise, Cycles produces pretty snappy previews despite, at least for the moment, not being able to utilize the Nvidia GPU on my MBP. If you use Cycles in previews expect your laptop to run pretty damn hot. (I can’t remember which if any versions of Blender did, and I haven’t tried it out on either the 2013 Mac Pro/D500 or the 2012 Mac Pro/1070 we have lying around the house because that would involve sitting at a desk…)

Cranked up, Eevee is able to render well-beyond the requirements for broadcast animated TV shows. This frame was rendered on my laptop at 1080p in about 15s. Literally no effort has been made to make the scene efficient (there’s a big box of volumetric fog containing the whole scene with a spotlight illuminating a bunch of high polygon models with subsurface scattering and screenspace reflections.

Perhaps the most delightful feature of blender 2.8 though is Eevee, the new OpenGL-based renderer, which spans the gamut from nearly-fast-enough-for-games to definitely-good-enough-for-Netflix TV show rendering, all in either real time or near realtime. Not only does it use the same shader model as Cycles (the PBR renderer) but, to my eye, for most purposes it produces nicer results and it does so much, much faster than Cycles does.

Blender 2.8, now in late beta, is a masterpiece. If you have any interest in 3d software, even or especially if you’ve tried blender in the past and hated it, you owe it to yourself to give it another chance. Blender has somehow gone from having a user interface that only someone with Stockholm Syndrome could love to an arguably class-leading user interface. The fact that it’s an open source project, largely built by volunteers, and competing in a field of competitors with, generally, poor or at best quirky user interfaces, makes this something of a software miracle.

Making Blender Usable

Blender 2.69 in actionOne of the biggest changes in Blender over the last two years has been major changes and reorganization of its user interface. The goal was to address Blender’s glaring usability issues, and indeed many of them have been addressed. Yet Blender remains a dauntingly difficult program to use, and — worse — a difficult program to remember how to use. I’d say that to me (and I am hardly an expert user of any) Blender is now still somewhat harder to use and more disorganized than, say, Modo (I have Modo 601) or Cinema 4D (I have v11 XL) but that’s not saying much.

All serious 3D applications, and Blender unquestionably qualifies as a serious 3D application, are plagued by the intrinsic complexity of what they’re trying to do, combined with a lack of agreement on the “right way to do things”, and the fact that real technical improvements are constantly being made in 3D graphics, leading to proliferation of overlapping tools and terminology (consider that there are multiple implementations of subdivision surfaces — such as Catmull-Clarke and Stam-Loop — and it’s important for a 3D program to support as many as possible if it’s to be compatible with other 3D programs. Similarly, there are many different tools for modeling organic objects and curved surfaces, including NURBS, subdivision surfaces, deformation lattices, and multiple approaches to sculpting (including voxels and displacement).

The “Right Way” isn’t obvious

Wordperfect 5.1 for DOS (image from wikimedia.org). Note the F3 for help (F1 was more of a "standard"). While it has an Edit menu, "cut and paste" weren't supported (it had block and move functions instead). And bold was F6 rather than ctrl-B.
Wordperfect 5.1 for DOS (image from wikimedia.org). Note the F3 for help (F1 was more of a “standard”). While it has an Edit menu, “cut and paste” weren’t supported (it had block and move functions instead). And bold was F6 rather than ctrl-B.

If you go back to the era of DOS word-processors there was a similar lack of agreement — Word Perfect, for example, had a completely different paradigm for editing and formatting text than did Microsoft Word, and on the Mac side MacWrite and FullWrite used a “ruler” formatting paradigm while WriteNow and Microsoft Word used “styles” (but each wrapped them in a unique user interface and terminology). Pages and Microsoft Word, by comparison, are virtually identical in how they solve most problems, the differences coming down to nuances. The Mac toolbox (along with excellent free software such as MacPaint and MacWrite, and — eventually — written Human Interface Guidelines) standardized basic text editing operations (selection, inserting the caret, clipboard operations, and undo) but it took close to ten years for the world to settle on the next level of convention — word and paragraph styles with “spot” overrides. (And indeed, Windows still hasn’t quite settled on clipboard or text edit field behavior standards.)

And then let’s return for a moment to the point that — unlike with word-processing — almost every aspect of 3D technology is constantly churning. With word-processors and even page layout programs there have been some technical improvements to be sure (e.g. typefaces have become more sophisticated with things like multiple master fonts and automatic ligatures, there’s Unicode of course, and compositing has improved markedly) but these have been relatively simple changes conceptually, and in general they have just made things easier (e.g. instead of having to render a drop shadow in Photoshop, export it as EPS, and then embed a reference to it in Quark XPress, you can now perform the entire operation in a click or two in your page layout program or word-processor). Contrast this with the world of 3D which has seen  major new technologies emerge in pretty much every piece of core functionality from modeling to rigging to texture-mapping to lighting to rendering — and all these different technologies have to live side-by-side, inter-operate, and somehow fit into a single user interface.

As you’ll discover if you visit Blender’s website right now, Blender is now 20 years old, and that means it has 20 years worth of functionality clogging up its user interface. It supports NURBS and subdivision surfaces and multi-resolution displacement sculpting. Similarly it has support for rigging using bone envelopes, vertex-painting, and heat-mapping. It has three built-in renderers. It has two different node-based shader architectures (or is it three?). I’m sure you’re getting the picture.

Left-Click to Select

Blender remains unusually bad at a fundamental level because it refuses to adhere to such cross-application conventions as do exist. The most hilarious example is left-click to select. It’s almost impossible to find another application anywhere that uses left-click for something other than selection (unless there is no concept of selection at all). It’s simply bizarre. What’s worse, left click is used to position the 3d “cursor” object — which is actually a very clever concept — except that it’s a far less common operation than simple selection, and doing it by accident is really annoying.

(If you consider the behavior of a text cursor, clicking somewhere in a body of text positions the cursor rather than selecting anything. The cursor position determines where stuff you type will appear. This is the exact behavior of the Blender cursor. But it’s not the behavior of any 2D or 3D graphics program I’ve ever seen. But to select text you left-click and drag or double-click — this is definitely not how Blender works, so justifying Blender’s weirdness by analogy to text doesn’t get you very far.)

Now I need to note that Blender does allow you to make left-click into select as a preference, but the program really doesn’t work properly in this mode (and you need to reset the preference when you upgrade Blender) so that’s not a satisfying solution. Just to give you one example: there’s a shortcut in Blender to allow you to “lasso select” using ctrl+left-mouse (why left-mouse when selection is normally with the right mouse?) — this becomes ctrl+right-mouse if you’ve set left-click to select. What I want is to select stuff with the left mouse button. Not flip a ridiculous set of defaults and create a different ridiculous set of defaults. On the whole, I end up sticking with right-mouse to select simply because it means not having to reverse engineer every tutorial I find.

If it were up to me, selecting something (with the left mouse button) would also, by default, position the cursor at the selected object’s local origin (sometimes referred to as its “pivot”). You could explicitly position the cursor with the right mouse button (or perhaps setting the cursor could be a mode or tool), and there would also be an option to lock the cursor (many 3d programs effectively have a “cursor” locked at the origin). This would actually maximize the conceptual mapping between the 3d cursor and the text cursor — left clicking sets your insertion point – and not compromise users’ familiarity with programs other than Blender.

More Annoyances

There's a small + widget for disclosing the Tool Shelf and Properties panels in the 3D viewport.
There’s a small + widget for disclosing the Tool Shelf and Properties panels in the 3D viewport.

Once you've toggled a panel on, there's no widget to make it go away.
Once you’ve toggled a panel on, there’s no widget to make it go away.

So you either need to size the panel down to zero or learn the keyboard shortcuts (you won't learn the keyboard shortcut by hovering over the original widget though).
So you either need to size the panel down to zero or learn the keyboard shortcuts (you won’t learn the keyboard shortcut by hovering over the original widget though).

Blender’s improved user interface — and it is definitely improved! — has two more major annoyances from my point of view. First, contextual tool panes have been added to the 3D view (which is great) but the process of showing them and hiding them is asymmetric. To disclose them you click on a little + widget — which then disappears. To hide them you either need to learn the keyboard shortcut, or use the mouse to scale them down to nothing (which causes the little + widget to reappear).

Screen Shot 2014-01-05 at 12.59.55 PM
To switch the viewport mode to a rendered preview, first you need to switch renderers.

 

Then you'll need to change the viewport shading mode to Rendered.
Then you’ll need to change the viewport shading mode to Rendered.

The render preview looks terrific but no UI affordances show up except for the damn cursor.
The render preview looks terrific but no UI affordances show up except for the damn cursor.

Second, with the advent of the new Cycles renderer, to get a live-rendered viewport you need to switch to the Cycles renderer (one step) and then in a completely different place you need to set the viewport mode to Rendered. For your trouble you are rewarded with a wonderful live-rendered view that gives you no UI affordances (e.g. you can’t tell what’s selected) but remains live for editing purposes. Ugh. So to make this workable, you then need to create a new viewport and tweak its settings.

And unlike every other place in Blender, the render settings are at the top while preview is at the bottom (this is the subdivision modifier settings)
And unlike every other place in Blender, the render settings are at the top while preview is at the bottom (this is the subdivision modifier settings)

To alter the render preview quality you'll need to dive deep into the render tab to Sampling (which is not only near the bottom, but collapsed by default).
To alter the render preview quality you’ll need to dive deep into the render tab to Sampling (which is not only near the bottom, but collapsed by default).

Finally, to modify the quality of Cycles renders — and spent quite a bit of time googling to figure this out — you need to delve deep into the rendering panel and — slightly hilarious — the place where you determine how many samples to obtain for a render is the only place I know of in Blender’s interface where the preview settings are at the bottom and the final render settings are at the top. If you’re used to Blender’s “conventions” everywhere else (e.g. subdivision settings) it’s always the other way around.

New functionality is being added to Blender with a much higher standard of usability than the older stuff.
New functionality is being added to Blender with a much higher standard of usability than the older stuff.

These are most of the first order problems in Blender today (as of 2.69). Clutter and ambiguity are also first order problems — I’d suggest that a lot of that could be improved simply be making a decision as to which slabs of functionality to hide by default. I hope we can some day get to second order issues, but on the positive side most of the new stuff getting added to Blender seems to have a much higher standard of usability than older features. E.g. to do a physics simulation you simply click on the Dynamics tab, select your objects, assign them some properties (e.g. passive rigidbody) and then click the play button in the timeline panel and it just works. More of that please! Similarly, the node-based material system associated with Cycles is very easy to work with (indeed, you don’t really need to use the nodes at all) although right now it’s missing a lot of functionality.

Blender 2.5 alpha 0

Sintel early render from Project Durian
Sintel early render from Project Durian

Blender 2.5 Alpha 0 is out and ready for download. The servers seem to be pretty much hammered right now. While the “Alpha 0” part may not inspire a huge amount of confidence, Blender in general is a pretty solid piece of software, so it seems reasonable to expect it not to blow up in your face.

New Features

This is an example of the property browser which is now context-sensitive and sanely organized
This is an example of the property browser which is now context-sensitive and sanely organized

  • Much better UI organization (and appearance). Properties are logically and consistently presented. Lots of context-sensitive controls and functionality.
  • Easy to customize UI on-the-fly (e.g. add commonly used features as buttons to the main tool palette) — although I haven’t figured out the keyboard shortcut customization (or maybe it’s buggy)
  • The spacebar menu now lets you quickly search for commands.
    The spacebar menu now lets you quickly search for commands.

    Much easier to find commands (the “spacebar” menu now lets you search for commands — so you can get to any command by hitting space and then typing the first few letters of its name).

  • Tool buttons have tooltips showing you the tools keyboard shortcut and Python equivalent (unfortunately it looks like it’s the Python equivalent that’s used for mapping keyboard shortcuts, which makes sense from an engineering point of view, but isn’t very user-friendly).
  • Fullscreen mode on Mac
  • Multiple window (and hence monitor) support
  • According to the release notes, there’s also cloth and smoke simulation and improved particles (I’d never used Blender’s particles before and it’s a testament to how much things have improved that I was able to get particles up and running in a few moments without looking at any documentation or tutorials).

My experience of Blender 2.5 thus far (pre-alpha) is that it’s quite stable and a lot more usable. The new version includes a 64-bit OS X version (yay!).