Visual effects (VFX for short) are a huge part of what we see on the silver screen today. The term VFX includes both practical effects and computer-generated imagery (CGI), but these days most things are done using CGI through VFX software.
You might be surprised to learn that many of the tools of the professional filmmaking trade are available to the general public, usually at a price.
VFX software is used to achieve effects that might not otherwise be possible using physical props and methods. Not only that, VFX software can save a lot of money and time that would be spent making things like backdrops and is typically safer for actors and their stunt doubles.
Continue reading to discover more about what goes into making the best VFX software, as well as our top picks.
What is the Best Visual Effects Software?
Making top-of-the-line visual effects is no simple task, so having a great piece of software to help you along in the process is essential.
Hobbyist and professional filmmakers may have different needs though, so you shouldn’t use just any software you can get your hands on.
Don’t know where to start?
These are our top picks from the VFX software on the market today. We’ll discuss the top 4 in detail:
SideFX isn’t very well-known outside of the circle of people already in the VFX industry and Houdini is pretty much their only product. This procedural piece of software makes use of nodes to create breathtaking scenes and VFX.
If you’re looking for a titan in the VFX industry, look no further but be prepared to spend some serious time learning the ins and outs. Once you’re done, you’ll have one of the best tools you ask for.
Houdini Key Features:
- Node-based and procedural workflow for faster response to director/client feedback
- Intuitive tools for artists to get creative with
- Create and share custom node trees for improved teamwork capabilities
- Ability to open assets from other VFX or game engine applications like Cinema 4D or Unreal Engine 4
- Powerful particle and dynamic simulations for greater creative control
Houdini User Experience:
Using Houdini is like learning how to ride a bicycle – there is going to be some dedicated time and effort invested into the program before you can get going.
We found that things can get very technical quickly, but if you persevere you will be able to create complex VFX and simulations with ease thanks to the procedural nodes.
That being said, the user interface can be cluttered starting out and, although SideFX has made strides towards being more artist-friendly, there are better options out there for painting or sculpting
The more payment options, the merrier, right? That seems to be the case for SideFX when it comes to selling their product, Houdini. There are five different versions of the VFX software, each tailored to a specific demographic or user group.
Houdini Apprentice is the free version of the software but don’t be deceived, there are no limits when it comes to accessing the features of the full program.
Anything that you produce in this version will be limited to 720p HD resolution and will also contain a Houdini watermark – a small price to pay for software this powerful.
There are, of course, options for schools and students for education as well as floating licenses available to professional studios over a variety of time periods.
This is actually one of the best parts because SideFX provides subscriptions to their software-as-a-service (SaaS) from just 7 days up to a year.
Finally, indie developers get a discounted version and price and dedicated artists can expect a perpetual license after a one-time purchase.
What We Like/Dislike About Houdini:
- There are multiple solutions to a single VFX problem
- Procedural workflow is different but powerful and easy to adapt to
- Free option that has few limitations
- Plentiful plugins allow you to do more with less effort
- Overly complex graphical user interface that can only be partially cleaned up with preferences
- Steep learning curve can be deterring for many
- Finding issues within your network of nodes (like a single number being off) can be difficult to diagnose/find
Houdini is a great piece of software that finds dedicated users because of its simple but powerful node-based workflow at reasonable prices depending on the desired use. Houdini and SideFX earn our top spot with a 9 over 10 since there is always a little room for improvement.
2. Adobe After Effects
If you’ve ever heard of Adobe, you probably know about all of the different applications the company has to offer. After Effects is just one of these products and often goes hand-in-hand with other programs like Premiere Pro.
Despite issues with how the program is optimized, especially for large projects or renders, many people tend to stick with After Effects.
Most of these people like working with After Effects while a smaller proportion feel that there isn’t any competition in the same league as After Effects.
Whatever the reason a user needs to stay, Adobe provides software for innovative minds and those who may be a little artistically challenged thanks to presets.
After Effects Key Features:
- Hundreds of presets allow you to create faster without having to build your own assets
- Multiframe rendering to fully utilize your CPU and find areas that are especially computing-intensive
- 3D viewport for navigating and designing captivating media
- Tools for collaboration across a whole team with computerized content and digital asset management
After Effects User Experience:
Using After Effects when you have access to the full suite of creative apps in Adobe’s Creative Cloud is a dream. The simplicity of importing and exporting projects between software is painless.
However, the powerful software that Adobe has produced isn’t without its flaws. The program is deceptively easy to approach when it is actually difficult to use for beginners in VFX.
Another common complaint from users across the board is that the software is bulky and resource-intensive.
This means that even if you have the recommended amount of storage and random access memory (RAM or simply memory), you can still expect After Effects to be one of if not the only things running on your computer at any given time. Even then, the render time for VFX and other projects like motion graphics can be long.
After Effects Cost:
After Effects is a premier piece of software that Adobe is proud to be flaunting around at its price point. Just like with Houdini, Adobe offers multiple licenses all to the same piece of software based on your status.
Students, teachers, and teaching institutions, in general, can all enjoy a significant discount on After Effects (over 60% in fact), while businesses are charged a decent amount more than an individual license, even though you can still only have one license per user it seems.
There is a free 7-day trial that users can sign up for to get unlimited access to all of the software’s features. Just be sure to cancel your subscription before the 7 days are up unless you want the automatic renewal of $20.99 per month to go through.
What Adobe likes to push for with its customers is paying for the entire Creative Cloud of applications Adobe has developed.
Over 20 apps allow a wide range of needs to be met by creative individuals thanks to the inclusion of things like Photoshop but most of the other apps are likely to fall somewhere between the occasional use or no need to use categories.
If you think you might want more than just After Effects, it is well worth the $54.99 each month to have the array of Adobe apps at your fingertips.
What We Like/Dislike About After Effects:
- Seamless integration with the rest of Adobe’s products for a painless transition between project needs
- Learning one Adobe interface makes learning any other Adobe product easier
- A higher degree of control when creating templates for use in other projects
- Multiple price plans and, all things considered, not that expensive
- Poorly optimized software that is hungry for all of your computer’s resources and crashes frequently
- Deceptively high learning curve for beginners
- Opening compatible files from non-Adobe applications is difficult for some reason
After Effects Scoring:
Adobe has a pretty tight grasp on a lot of the most common creative applications and After Effects is no different.
Because they have such a big name and are so widely used, Adobe can mark up its prices a fair amount and nobody could complain since they think there aren’t any alternatives.
Luckily, there are (more stable) alternatives out there to take advantage of, so After Effects earns a 7.7 out of 10.
Nuke is a highly specialized tool used in the industry by equally skilled and competent composite artists. This means that it isn’t out there for everyone and it makes After Effects look like your one-stop shop for all of the VFX you could dream of.
Even though Nuke’s makers at Foundry like to throw around the term “Industry standard” a lot, some aspects of Nuke leave much to be desired, given how much they try to gouge the money out of your pocket.
If the price isn’t an issue for you, you may still want to look elsewhere for VFX software when you are working alone. Nuke was designed with teamwork and groups in mind so making and managing any VFX in Nuke may be too much for a single person to do.
Nuke Key Features:
- Toolset including 200+ nodes for anything you might need to do in the digital compositing step of filmmaking
- Train and use neural networks of artificial intelligence to automatically complete actions like removing motion blur from scenes
- Full support for high dynamic range imagery, allowing you to capture every color detail you want
- Vector generators for creating dynamic and clean shapes without any loss of resolution
Nuke User Experience:
The way Nuke is set up makes it an amazing resource for entirely live-action shots that just need VFX composited and applied to the footage afterward and the ability to do that with an entire team on the pipeline is something we thoroughly enjoyed.
That being said, if you are working with entirely CGI scenes, you may need to look elsewhere to get the tools you need or use most often.
The most frustrating aspect that we encountered with Nuke is in the Nuke Indie version that encrypts all your scripts and save files so that only the Nuke Indie program can open them.
This doesn’t make much sense when you might go on and upgrade to NukeStudio or NukeX and want to update old projects from Nuke Indie
Foundry doesn’t mess around when it comes to the price tag of its products which are going to be pretty difficult to justify or swallow for individuals and hobbyists. Luckily, Foundry doesn’t expect you to be able to foot the bill as their usual clients do.
Foundry Non-commercial is their solution to letting people learn the ins and outs of the software without going bankrupt trying to do so. To be clear, this isn’t a trial version of the software that you can only try for a week or month after signing up for recurring payments.
Parts of the Non-commercial license are limited in what you can do like your output resolution being restricted to 1080p HD which we imagine works for most people’s needs.
Python scripting, among other more technical aspects of the program, is also limited but creatives looking to learn the VFX software in their spare time probably aren’t coders as well.
If you’re looking for more, Foundry also offers Nuke Indie for more power than the Non-commercial license but at a cheaper price than the industry/studio license.
There is also a 30-day free trial you can sign up for to evaluate all of the features that the Nuke line of products has.
Otherwise, the minimum prices you’re looking at for industry-standard compositing are $5,518 as a one-time purchase or $1919 quarterly (every three months) to rent the software.
What We Like/Dislike About Nuke:
- Large Nuke community means others have probably done the heavy lifting before you and provided it to you at little to no cost in the form of plugins or scripts
- Superior rotoscope tools and color manipulation
- Non-commercial version is great for learning almost everything about the program before purchasing
- Node-based workflow is easier to understand for many people, including beginners
- Most expensive item on the list by a lot
- Rendering becomes slow quickly when a lot of compositing is involved
- Bugs and crashes are common and unacceptable for the cost
- Inability to work with some common file types like PNGs
There are some things we really like about Nuke like being provided with top-of-the-line software for free with some technical limitations but there are also things that we hate about those same limitations like the encryption of project files. A 7.1 out of 10 is the best we can do when considering the big picture of Nuke.
4. Cinema 4D
Cinema 4D goes beyond the scope of some VFX software and simply using easy preset shapes or sizes. Users can find toolsets needed for 3D modeling and sculpting for truly custom VFX even for beginner artists.
Starting with Cinema 4D can be a great way to learn the basics of VFX creation as well as what to look for in terms of tools, user interfaces, and other similarities in competing products. Take advantage of a free trial before looking further into Cinema 4D or any VFX software for that matter.
Cinema 4D Key Features:
- Powerful camera tracking tools let VFX artists insert 3D elements to existing environments or even go on to construct entirely new settings
- Rigid body, soft body, and cloth simulation dynamics allow users to get creative with their 3D digital assets for particularly believable VFX
- Award-winning motion graphics (MoGraph) toolset for quick creation of complex animations that can then be imported into scenes
Cinema 4D User Experience:
If you ask someone “what is the most user-friendly visual effects software?”, chances are that they’ll mention Cinema 4D.
Although the program can be used for a lot of other creative applications, VFX is an intuitive process with relatively easy onboarding for new users or beginners in general.
Personal configurations are possible and easy to do so that you can arrange the window of the software how you like it for optimizing your workflow and the program is generally stable even when rendering out and exporting files in any of the available formats.
Cinema 4D Cost:
The usual annual and monthly subscription plans come to Maxon for their Cinema 4D product. For a team, some minimums have to be met when purchasing the corresponding license and an annual payment of $949 is the only way to go about business.
Individuals have a little more flexibility with how they pay thanks to a monthly billing option ($94/month), but if you know you’re going to be using Cinema 4D for the long-term, annual plans will give you a better deal at $59.91 each month. Perpetual licenses or those that are a one-and-done kind of purchase are also available for $3,495 per license.
Schools and students can, once again, benefit from a reduced price and some plans will even give you access to all Maxon products. Bizarrely, there is a semiannual subscription plan for students but this option is missing from any other offer.
If you’re not interested in purchasing directly from Maxon’s online store, they kindly list some resellers where you can access the same products but there’s no guarantee from Maxon on the prices of those goods.
What We Like/Dislike About Cinema 4D:
- Beginner friendly and straightforward to learn
- Only crashes under the largest resource loads
- Can be used for more than just VFX
- Integrated rendering engine means you can stay in one app for viewing projects before going back for adjustments
- Distinct lack of guides or training materials on anything past the most basic tasks despite many years on the market
- Pretty pricey for even the most basic, limited licenses
Cinema 4D Scoring:
We want to like Cinema 4D more but we can’t justify a score any higher than 6.5 over 10. Plenty of reasons like the price and the fact that the software is somewhat basic for any slightly flashier VFX are to blame for lowering the score.
Best VFX Software FAQ
How long does it take to learn VFX software?
Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear-cut answer to this question because it depends a lot on personal motivation and dedication.
Some courses at art school or through other resources like Coursera may teach you the basics of VFX within a matter of months, and a degree from an art school in VFX could take years.
If you are passionate and are willing to put conscious, quality effort into your learning, you’ll find that these times are much shorter because you are driving yourself towards the success you want to see.
Can I Self-Learn VFX?
Like with any skill, it is entirely possible to teach yourself how to make and use VFX but it will take more time than if you had structured guidance on what to learn and a mentor to make sure you are doing things correctly and efficiently.
We’ve discussed free versions or trials that are available to the public so you can always try to learn VFX from those before making any bold financial decisions.
What are the system requirements for running VFX software?
The system requirements needed to run your VFX software on your computer can vary depending on what software you choose to use as well as some of your settings within the program.
These days you’ll need Windows 10, 16GB of RAM, 15 GB of storage, and a GPU with current drivers and 2 GB of VRAM.
Keep in mind that these are the bare minimum specifications so using VFX software while working with these resources can present challenges with load and render times, as well as the stability of the program.
Best VFX Software: Final Verdict
What did you think of the top four we discussed? If you’re still looking at other options, check out the others we mentioned at the start of the article in case there is something you like more about one of those.
Houdini steals the show from everything we picked though with its procedural capabilities and barrels of fine-tuning that can be done when creating and rendering VFX. The little time you take to learn this tool will last you a lifetime
If you’re just starting and thinking about a future in VFX, any option you choose is a great place to get started and, thanks to free trials, you can get real hands-on experience to help you decide what you want to use down the line.