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Helge Maus on the State of Blender and How to Learn It

Helge Maus, Senior 3D & VFX Trainer, talked about the main strengths of Blender and why it's not that important whether or not it becomes an industry standard.

Could you give us a little intro? How did you start your career?

My name is Helge Maus and I'm a Senior 3D & VFX trainer with a focus on teaching Blender for Production and Game Workflows with Godot and Unity. I have been in the industry since 1999 and in that time I’ve worked a lot with different clients, first mostly in Germany, central Europe and meanwhile worldwide.

When I started, I wanted to make something with film. But if you grew up in Germany at this time, the only film industry was in big cities like Munich or even abroad. I had no chance to do that. So I went on a more technical education path first and then I switched to education. But in the back of my head, I wanted to do something with 3D, VFX, and film. As a child, I started with my Commodore 64, and there I found a simple 3D application. Then a PC and I started playing around with different tools like POVRAY.

Later, my day job was on one side, and at night, I was making computer graphics and Flash animations. Then 1999 was for me the pivot point, I wanted to do something else. I had the big luck of being hired by Adobe as a demo artist for Web & Motion. I met many artists from the creative industry, people and companies from the 3d and VFX sectors, and even got my hands on professional high-end software such as Alias Maya Unlimited and Softimage.

And from then on, I trained a lot. I trained Maya, Houdini, Unity, and Nuke, and I was a Maxon Lead Instructor for many years. I saw many companies and studios from the inside. I was lucky to jump in, stayed some while and then I left for something new. I'm a really curious person, so I learned a lot from the artists I trained and from the projects they worked on.

For many years, I had a lifestyle like that: Every week in a different city. Airports, waiting, hotels, new teams, new topics. Over the years I felt more and more burnt out. And I had the feeling that the creative industry was becoming more and more of a big machine. So I decided, I needed to change my life again.

And so, we decided as a family that we had to take a break. We moved away from Austria where we lived at that time and we moved to Italy for a test. And suddenly, COVID came.

The big chance with that was, that suddenly all my international corporate clients who before had big problems with remote training or workshops because of NDAs and security, suddenly were okay to let me work remotely. And the acceptance of this kind of remote teaching and the involved communication styles and tools was now there.

For me, this was so liberating and even much more effective, that I never stopped with that since then. Meanwhile, I deliver most of my training exactly like this. I specialized in remote training, mentoring, and workshops for my clients all over the world now.

Also, I came back to my roots. If you want to work in 3D, VFX, or games most artists feel the need, that they have to be part of the big machinery. Which means they have to go where the big companies are. They have to leave their countries, be flexible, and live like a nomad. And that’s a tough decision, right? They don't have job security, always running for the next gig.

Don’t get me wrong, working on these projects is also rewarding, working in companies with industry veterans, a team with different levels of industry experience, and so on. But it takes its toll and meanwhile, it’s not the entry step anymore into a steady “staff position” as it was many years ago. The tendency is that it will stay a contract project-based position, even for experienced artists. I think that is not a good environment for the creative processes and the artists themselves.

I felt that an alternative route was missing: an environment of smaller, flexible but more creative studios, indie productions, and even fully remote companies in other areas all over the world, where artists can live a real life and also create at the same time. Maybe also with a more culturally driven and individual touch. But for this, we need an affordable and reachable software infrastructure that is flexible enough to work in this really different creative environment. 

I decided that I wanted to go back to my roots with Blender, to use open and free software which is available, scalable, and easy to manage for these people, as their main application for their production.

The View Conference for me is all about helping aspiring artists with hands-on workshops, presentations, and explanations of how Blender can be used in their production. But also talking with folks from studios, who are thinking about adding Blender to their pipeline. Meanwhile, Blender comes more and more out of the corner of indie productions into bigger productions, in games or 2D animation. People are more curious now than some years ago.

You mentioned that with COVID, you kind of opened up new opportunities for yourself and coming back to education and teaching. And at the same time, I think during that period, Blender's popularity blew up. At least on our end, we saw Blender being used more often and people asking questions about it. One, do you think it's the pandemic that pushed people towards using Blender, or are there some other factors that influenced the popularity of the software?

Some years ago I trained a lot of Houdini for game studios. Mostly procedural asset building and also for companies who were looking for alternatives for Maya and Softimage. The first questions about Blender came up when Blender 2.8 was released. The user interface was revised and the tools were suddenly approachable. Also, EEVEE as a real-time renderer was fascinating, the viewport looked amazing. So first studios started to adapt Blender as a fast direct modeling tool and for generalist workflows. In the first years, I trained Houdini and Blender often as a combination in the same companies. 

For example, Blender was used on one side for direct modeling. Or even for making hair and grooming. In Blender, they made the hair, styled it, and they had through EEVEE in the viewport the realistic rendered look in real-time. Then, they exported the final hair curves and brought them over to Houdini. There they finished it, made it dynamic, etc. So, my typical clients for Blender were mainly game studios and a little bit of animation studios. This was the first wave of Blender's popularity.

The next wave came with Blender’s Grease Pencil. Suddenly, a whole world of 2D animation possibilities directly in a 3D environment was there.

Thanks to Spider-Verse, and the following titles at that time with different levels of stylization, the idea of NPR rendering came to the masses. 2D Animation also got a boost at that time. Not only for the indies who had done this a long time before or the Asian market with its animes who also adapted Blender quite early. 

Blender with its unique and powerful Grease Pencil, the production-proven animation system, node-based shading, built-in compositor, and EEVEE as a real-time render engine is an excellent choice for making these kinds of projects. Many studios wanted to do 2D looks, hybrid looks, 2D/3D mixed, or even solely 2D with the help of Grease Pencil. This was the second spark.

Meanwhile, I see many studios that use Blender for 2D animation, and others dip their toes into it. Also, some studios use Blender as an animatic and pre-production tool because of the fast feedback and turnaround. There are many areas where Blender is used today.

You spoke a little bit about Blender and Houdini. Do those two pieces of software complement each other or do they fight? How do they coexist?

I think both applications are pressing hard against the market of, let's put it in quotation marks, "We are the standard software". Houdini came from one side and became a standard with its excellent procedural workflows, the big VFX toolset, and now with Solaris and USD. Blender, on the other hand, is growing and gaining popularity as a generalist application for modeling, animation, and 2D animation as stated before.

Meanwhile, Blender and Houdini are a little bit competitors, but Blender doesn't spend money on marketing and trying to convince people to buy it, because it's free. So there's no money in it. But I think both applications are now growing a lot in their areas and they have some areas where they compete. For example, when it comes to procedural mesh generation with Geometry Nodes, I think SideFX sees exactly what Blender is doing. 

But to be honest, the fields both software work in are quite different. Maybe it would be better to see how much these two applications benefit from each other in production.

Tell me a little bit about how teaching Blender has changed. Has it become more approachable? Is it easier to jump into now?

Absolutely, more than ever before. Blender had some problems years ago. I made my first Blender publication when it was Blender 2.5. This was the first time the Blender interface was revised, and it was much better than before. It was really difficult before, and the whole development cycle was driven only by some heads. For one reason or another, suddenly a part of the development stopped, a sub-project died or functions were changed in a way that it was not compatible anymore to existing scenes. It was a rapidly changing and unsteady development. 

But over time, Blender's development has changed a lot. Meanwhile, it's really well organized. The development is streamlined. They have a great organization and they are really at the point where they are making a community product work professionally. Still a community-driven product, but with a clear vision and a reliable development and release cycle. Teaching and consulting for Blender is much easier through that.

If you go into the video game market, the majority of studios, especially the big AAA studios, rely heavily on Maya and 3ds Max, mostly Maya, and use plugins for that. So, it's sort of like Maya is the main thing, but then they build the whole architecture around it. So, they cannot switch, or can they? Tell me, what's going on with Blender in the commercial market?

The first thing I want to point out is that I don't have any interest in evangelizing anyone to switch to Blender, and also the Blender developers have no intention to do so. Yes, there are Blender heads who want to push Blender into every conversation, but that’s fandom. As you see it in many other areas like DCCs, game engines, or render engines.

A more serious approach to Blender in the industry was given by Ton Roosendaal at the last Blender Conference. The use of DCCs in studios is like a pyramid. There are some very large studios out there at the top, who need their special kind of commercial software. They also have the money the software companies are after. But that’s only the tip of the pyramid.

But then there is the big base of creatives, who want to do amazing projects. Blender focuses on them, it’s the tool for everyone. 

But funny enough also these studios in the upper range of the pyramid start looking into the open-source software Blender and say, “Ah, interesting, I want to play with this." So, the question is, why do they do that if the big players are making such great commercial software targeting them? There seem to be reasons and a need for that.

The second idea I want to give is that I always hear the term "standard software". The word "standard software" for me is always the last marketing slogan of a product if they don’t have enough arguments against something else. But standard software has always changed and will also change in the future. As a trainer that’s my ongoing challenge but also my pleasure.

Take for example the history of 3ds Max versus Maya. Years ago, 3ds Max was the standard software for game modeling, and suddenly Autodesk had no interest in having the game modeling departments sitting on 3ds Max anymore. I don't know why. So, they changed their marketing wording, and suddenly Maya became the standard software for game assets. And most 3ds Max users said, "Why?" So, I would be careful with the use of “Standard software”.

Yes, if you plan to start in a company you should learn the tools they use. But be aware it will change over time and sometimes, the needs and wishes of many artists change the direction of the company. I know that many companies meanwhile also give artists the choice if they want to model their game models in Maya or Blender. And companies also are thinking of getting rid of expensive licenses, if they have enough artists who are able to work in Blender. So knowing Blender is a plus and an investment in the future of a junior artist.

But, as said before, I don't think that it's important for the Blender community to compete.

From my experience as a Blender trainer, I see many game studios asking me to teach them Blender for artists coming from Maya and 3ds Max. Blender has a solid polygon modeling toolset with modifiers, curves, and geometry Nodes. Also for HardSurface modeling, we use add-ons like Hard Ops, BoxCutter, MeshMachine, KitOps, Fluent, ZenUV, etc. It’s a full production environment, but it’s extremely powerful, fast, flexible, and inexpensive. These add-ons are cheap, sometimes free but very well maintained and they release in parallel with Blenders releases. These add-ons are written in Python, so you can fix if something is broken instantly. And for TDs the source code of Blender is open-source, so in-house solutions are easy to approach and future-proof.

I think we see this trend as well. And a lot of people that we talked with when we just launched 80 Level years ago, are now going into Blender and they're trying to get into their biggest challenge right now, that they're using their Maya hotkeys and doing the same in Blender. Kind of like trying to import. 

As a trainer, I can tell you it's the worst idea ever. Spend some time learning the paradigms of the software first and also the default handling. Even without an add-on at the beginning. If you understand the paradigms, learn how the Blender interface is intended. It's made for muscle memory, a little bit like Maya’s hotbox. But I think Blender is excellent in muscle memory and consistency. That means in every editor, the same way of using keyboard shortcuts and gestures. 

If you instantly change only one part for convenience's sake to mimic another software, for example, the keyboard shortcuts, you will see that you fail in other areas because then it doesn't seem consistent anymore. I experience that a lot in training and I often have attendees who even switch languages, and menu structures and install add-ons with functions that mimic other software packages.

If you're a beginner, try first to use it as Blender “vanilla” in English, if possible. I know the Asian market is different, but if possible use it in English first. Also use it with left-click select like every other software, and how Blender is configured as default at the moment.

And try to learn how Blender uses quick tools on the left side toolbar, but also the keyboard-driven tools which are quite different from the tools on the toolbar. You will see that if you practice some time, for one or two weeks, I don't think that anyone wants to go back to the behavior of any other software.

How would you recommend starting to learn Blender? 

As a trainer I deliver with my company, pixeltrain|3D|VFX|animation, a whole range of learning paths for Blender: remote corporate training, artist mentoring and live online academies for different levels of previous knowledge. These academies run for six weeks with one live remote session per week in a small learning group. You can learn more here.

Additionally, I have published an extensive 25+ hours and still growing "pixeltrain Blender Fundamentals" publication. You find it on Blender Market and Gumroad.

And I publish free tutorials on my YouTube channel. If you are not sure what and how to learn, reach out to me. Let’s talk!

Besides that, Blender has a really strong community.  So there are many, many resources to learn Blender. 

But if you want to do it on your own, don't fall into the pitfall of getting too “tutorialized”. There are millions of tutorials out there, but the problem with them is that they are mostly project-based, which means they don't go very deep and only show one solution for a given problem. That’s good if the author is experienced and you want to improve your already existing knowledge in a specific area. With some basic knowledge, you can understand the shown techniques and workflows and adapt, what fits you best. But you need enough knowledge first to see if the approach shown is a good one. That's one problem. 

Also, tutorials are quite time-consuming to watch and follow. Much stuff is redundant in project work and you only learn a small amount of new things. In the beginning, you need to learn first “the greater picture before zooming into a small detail”.

Tutorials are good for motivation and inspiration. Try not to follow the tutorial too closely, always try to make something on your own. If you are stuck, search for a tutorial, which helps you around that obstacle.

If you are coming from another 3D application, you will see that Blender is not so much different. In my training experience people coming from Maya or so, if they want to learn modeling, for example, give them two days or maybe a week with a structured introduction and they are productive again.

Do you feel like Blender is going to become the next standard? I know you don't like this word, but like it is free, right? So, yeah, the barrier of entry is kind of like zero. You just need to invest your time. Do you think this is going to influence it?

I think for becoming “a standard”, there's a much more important point than being “free”. Zero cost is great for Indies and small companies, who expand on a project basis. But also for a company, there's a much bigger advantage. Being free means not just the price. Blender is an open-source software!

If, for example, the Blender headquarters now decides to pull the plug and say, "We now have a holiday for the next 20 years," they can't change the license. You can take the source code today and make your in-house tool out of that. I know some studios that build on top of it and they can be safe so that no one can pull the plug.

If you take a look at what happened in the last weeks of the industry, you can see that a “cost-free” product is not a safe thing. If the owner company can change the license today, because they see a need for that, you are screwed. This is something with Blender that cannot happen. 

So, Blender is an investment into the future if you will. You can add your in-house tools to it, but you are sure that no update is forced on you. You can stay forever on your own version as an in-house tool and get the bug fixes if you need them. Or even develop it in another direction than the official master. So, they are much more flexible.

Where can we get more information about you and your training?

You can find my remote corporate training, academies, and links to my publications on my website. You also can reach out to me on LinkedIn and follow me on Mastodon. I’m always happy to chat about Blender and other 3D and VFX topics. Have fun!

Helge Maus, Senior 3D & VFX Trainer

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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