3D Animation Production on a Budget – Time and Money saving Tips

Animation productions generally take a long time to do and cost a lot. What if you are on a budget? Here are some time and money saving tips.

Want to make your own 3D animated short movie on a budget? I wish to share some tips to help make it happen.  This is especially for those that are planning their first production.

First off to do a reality check.  Second see what happens if you don’t.  3rd thing I can give are these tips. I’ve touched on many of the following points before, but they are worth repeating.

The idea here is that time is money and while things like rendering can be speeded up with more computing power(=more money), you should first do everything you can to optimize your work – try make the project take less work and less render time.  There are some choises that can ease your way.  Having said that an animation production is always plenty of work – I’d lie if I said otherwise.

Story focus

If we take pointers from industry leaders, and we should, see how Pixar goes from success to success. They focus heavily on story. If you read interviews you know they really polish the story until it shines. Why not do the same?   Story, storyboards(and animatic) are by far the least expensive way to builda good a base for any movie.

Style choices

Second quite obvious Pixar-lesson is that even though their enviroments become ever more detailed and life-like, the characters stay cartoony. Why? Cartoon is highly expressive, gives all sorts of freedoms in anatomy and motion and allows using caricatyres. Also cartooony is design for sympathy and emotional impact. Set realistic character style against this and it loses big time.

Additionally we people know realistic humans, usually see many of them every day, and hence have an uncanny ability to notice if there is anything unreal about a realistic character on screen.  We can’t help but notice these things which brake the illusion and flow of the story, whereas cartoony figures don’t receive same scrutiny or critisism. And finally cartoony is easier and hence faster and cheaper to make.

Enviroments could have same stylistic approach or you could use photo-cutouts or paintings. Think about 2D-animations and how much they achieve with fairly static backgrounds and how much leeway these fictious works are given.  Almost anything goes because we don’t expect real world rules or logic apply to cartoons.

Modeling & Texturing choices

Again choosing cartoony helps here. Cartoony models don’t need much detail and you may not need to paint textures at all – you may not need to have 3D-painting or sculpting software at all.

Animation choices

Cartoony style gives leeway for animation too. It allow animations that are too fast to be real and that whisk from one dramatic pose. This is easier do than natural motion that can’t have as dynamic suddent starts and stops.

Also going very stylized characters, or having animated items for a characters such as Pixars Luxo Jr. lamp character, can reduce animation work.  Luxo-lamp there is no facial features or legs, it is like a body with a head jumping arond – less to animate.

If you choose to make a silent story(no dialog), you cut the workload.  No mouth is another way to save and so on it goes.  The animation however will not be any less effective -you will find the audience can sympathize with almost anything as long as it is well animated and has a good story. I’m not saying cut it all down to a simple shape – just keep in mind that you can simplify.

Filmography and Rendering choices

What do you need to show to tell the story? Taking cue from old masters of cinema, a horror not shown is often more effective than the one shown. Our brains are filling in the blanks all the time, anyway – you can tell stories with far less images than you may expect.

Real-world-ish lighting and rendering is easy to overdo or waste too much computing power on. You can achieve dramatic and functional lighting with just a few spotlights. Don’t go for GI(global illumination)-features straight away, for they mean longer rendering times, are more likely to cause flickering when rendered images are played together as a video.  And also GI does not replace hand-placed lights. Lighting specialist exist for a reason – lights are storytelling tools.

Render to series of images, not to video.  Rendering to image series’s make software crashes less troublesome and images give you far more options in post-production.  Also almost never render all things to one layer – instead render foreground, midground and background separately for futher editing and compositing possibilites.

If your images need enhancement or fixing, and they often do, push as much you can of that to post-processing(After Effects or similiar). Effects that often are toublesome to both setup and render may be a breeze to add as a post process.

You can check more tips for rendering here and some tips for modeling and animation here.

Hardware choices

As long as you optimize your work, the computer you work on doesn’t have to be an expensive beast.  With something like 1000 dollars you can have a fast enough computer. Just make sure you have a decent processor and enough work memory(ram). Graphics card can be anything middle range as middle range is, these days, very powerful already. You will need some storage space too, but that’s cheap and getting cheaper every day.

Software choices – some affordable options for animation production

This section is here to merely give ideas.  I know only some softwares and other and better combinations are possible. Also your selection of tools depends on what you need in addition to modeling and animation (sculpting, 3D-painting, post-processing or HD-video editing – or none of them). And of course  software features and pricing are subject to change, which is why I’m not trying to list any prices. Also note that I’m not listing 2D-image editing software here and don’t touch on music or sound at all – yet these are all important.

Goes from free to cheap and to affordable softwares

  1. Blender+some free video editing software(many available).  Blender does almost all, now even compositing I hear, and is free. Blender is also an invaluable addition to other combos for the excellent simulation (cloth, fluids, particles) and animation tools, and hence is included in every following combination.
  2. Wings 3D + Blender +Vegas Movie Studio HD Platinum. Wings is a fine polygon modeler and free. Vegas(this particular version) does a lot for reasonalbe price. In this combo you would still animate, do dynamics and effects and render in Blender. Vegas is used for video editing and basic compositing and effects.
  3. Wings 3D + 3D Coat + Blender + Vegas. 3D coat adds sculpting and 3D-painting.  In this combo too most will be in Blender unless 3D Coat now includes a timeline for animation rendering.
  4. Silo (+ 3D Coat) + Blender + Vegas. Silo has modeling and sculpting.
  5. Silo (+3D Coat) + Messiah + Blender + Vegas.  Messiah is for animation and for rendering.
  6. Modo + Messiah + Blender + Vegas.  Modo has modeling, 3D-painting, sculpting and rendering.
  7. Modo + Messiah + Zbrush + Blender + Vegas.  Zbrush offers advanced sculpting and fine 3D-painting.
  8. Modo + Messiah + Zbrush + Blender + After Effects/Vegas Pro. Now we have advanced tools for all.   After Effects brings a whole new post production dimension to the mix – makes getting a fine look easier and moves many effects from 3D to post process(2D).  Vegas Pro is the cheaper alternative, is great for video editing and does ok for basic compositing and effects.

So, that was some optimizing tips for making a 3D animation short on a budget.  I hope it will help someone out there going into their first productions.  Drop a comment below to let me know what you think.

5 replies on “3D Animation Production on a Budget – Time and Money saving Tips”

Hi Niko,

I am very new to the 3D scene and I had been perusing your blog after searching for information on low-poly 3D workflow for games.

First of all I would like to say your blog is amazingly helpful and I am sure I will be returning to read and re-read many of the informative posts you have.

I was wondering either through your blog or by means of a response to this comment whether you would be able to provide some tips on where to get started for 3D game development, mainly focusing on software tools.

Currently I am using Makehuman 1.0 alpha 5b, Blender 2.5x (2.49 for latent fucntionality, Shadermap Pro (limited functionality normal map generater), Photoshop (CS1), Intuos 4 Graphics tablet.

Could you make any suggestions on what might be good additions without getting too expensive.

The game I am currently working on is set-up in the opensource Ogre3d engine.

Any help or suggestions you can provide would be greatly appreciated.



Hi Adam,
and thank you very much for the sweet comment. I’ll get straight to your questions.

Your software selection seems fine to me, and budget friendly. Blender will take you a long way and in some ways beyond many commercial softwares, so if you have gotten familair with the odd interface, stick with it. As companions for it I can recommend Wings3D(free) for polygon modeling and 3DCoat for sculpting, painting, retopology – generally all high-poly work and map creation. 3D Coat is still affordable but rises slowly in price when features get added, and they come often – 3D Coat is probably one of the fastest developing graphic tools on the planet. It does demand a good computer, though, to run it.

You may want to look into nDo, a free normal map tool for Photoshop. Like Crazybumb it lets you convert images to normal maps with plenty of adjustements + you can paint additional details to your normal or paint all new normal maps with suprising ease in Photoshop.

About low-poly 3D: To make low-poly 3D with personal style, and remember that in low-poly realm style is the king, you have model it and paint it ‘by hand’. I can see the value in tools like Makehuman, but to really make good low-poly it needs handcrafting. Parametric tools make parametric models which, all the way back from early days of Poser, tend to also look parametric. I don’t know your situation – possibly you have a very small game team or are making the game yourself. Then of course you use whatever tools to get the actual game done and worry about the look later. But style is important and when done well makes your work stand out.

I hope that helped some. I wish you good luck with the game and perseverance!


Hi James,
can’t help you much there. I’ve done all my animation orders for a pre-agreed sum that more often than not does not cover the work I put into it. Always a learning experience.

Here is one animation budget plan that I found… which you have likely found as well (seeing as it ranks high in google on this subject like this blogpost does).

All the best to your production!

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