Animating a 3D scene is very labor-intensive, and depending on the scene, your PC needs a render engine to calculate all the geometry, shaders, lighting and everything else making up the world. One of the best render engines on the market is the Arnold.
What is Arnold, and how does it work? Continue reading below to find out!
What is Arnold?
Arnold is a market-leading ray-tracing 3D renderer co-developed by Solid Angle and Sony Pictures Imageworks. The software is used by over 300 studios worldwide and is Sony Imageworks’ main renderer. It works as a standalone rendered or can be used with almost any 3D software package like Maya, 3ds Max, Houdini, Cinema 4D, and Katana. It also comes built into Maya and 3DS Max.
Arnold has been used in blockbuster hits like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, Alice in Wonderland, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and a slew of Marvel films. It is so widely used in the movie industry that it was recognized with a Scientific and Engineering Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
What is Arnold used for?
Arnold is used to rendering 3-dimensional computer-generated scenes using physically-based, unbiased Monte Carlo path tracing techniques for animation and VFX for film and TV. It is one of the most widely used render engines in the business.
Rendering is a standard process for creating computer-generated images. The software turns 3D data into exceptional and realistic images that can be shown on a screen.
Although Arnold is a fairly complex software, it’s more user-friendly than other render engines. The controls are very straightforward and organized, so a beginner won’t have too much trouble using the software. It can handle massive data sets with ease so PCs won’t crash while rendering.
How is Arnold built?
Arnold was developed in 1997 by Marcos Fajardo, the founder of Solid Angle, to build his own renderer. In the same year, he attended SIGGRAPH and took a liking for stochastic ray tracing. Initially, Arnold was named RenderAPI, but when Fajardo entered into a licensing and co-development agreement with Sony Pictures Imageworks, the software was renamed Arnold.
The agreement between Solid Angle and Sony resulted in different proprietary and commercial versions of Arnold. The commercial version of Arnold is a plugin type that integrates with various animation software programs like Softimage, Maya, Katana, Cinema4D, and Houdini. The commercial version is the core Arnold renderer.
In 2016, Solid Angle was purchased by Autodesk, and Arnold is now bundled with 3DS Max and Maya. In 2017, Fajardo was awarded the Scientific and Engineering Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for developing the Arnold renderer.
How Arnold Works
Arnold was written in C99, a C programming language standard, and then into C++, a general-purpose programming language. It runs natively on x86 CPUs, utilizing available threads and SIMD lanes for optimal parallelism. Arnold has a fully programmable API and comes with shaders written in C++ or Open Shading Language.
Since March 2019, Arnold supports Nvidia RTX-powered GPUs using the OptiX. The Monte Carlo ray-tracing technique works by sending billions of spatially incoherent rays at each pixel throughout a 3D scene to determine the “correct” final result.
The spatially incoherent rays are composed of geometric primitives such as polygons, hair splines, and volumes. This method is the most accurate of all in terms of calculating lighting in a scene. The renderer uses multiple diffuse and specular inter-reflection levels, so the light bounces off a wall or other objects to indirectly illuminate a character or object.
For complex scenes, the renderer utilizes geometry instancing that renders trillions of visible polygons while optimizing memory. Arnold could render massive numbers of high-resolution texture maps because it is integrated into the OpenImageIO library.
How much does Arnold cost?
Monthly Single-User Subscription: £45 / €50 / $45 Per Month
Annual Single-User Subscription: £350 / €395 / $360 Per Year
Annual Multi-User Subscription: £605 / €685 / $630 Per Year
Annual Multi-User Subscription Packs
5-Pack: £2,280 / €2,580 / $2,370 Per Year (25% discount)
25-Pack: £9,060 / €10,260 / $9,420 Per Year (40% discount)
100-Pack: £24,325 / €27,550 / $25,290 Per Year (60% discount)
If you buy the Arnold Core renderer, you will get the Arnold for Maya plugin for free.
Arnold vs. V-ray
Two of the most widely used renderers in the VFX and animation industry are Arnold and Vray; which one is better, and how are these renderers different from each other? Let’s compare!
Vray is a biased rendering software application developed by the Bulgarian Chaos Group. It’s a hybrid plugin render engine used for visualization and computer graphics in the media, entertainment, film and video game production, industrial design, product design, and architecture.
The software uses global illumination algorithms such as path tracing, photon mapping, irradiance maps, and directly computed global illumination for rendering images. It’s a workhorse, a fast one at that, and very versatile. It boasts a hybrid technology that renders on CPUs and GPUs simultaneously. Now here is a quick comparison between Arnold and V-ray:
Between V-Ray and the Arnold software, the former has a more straightforward, more organized interface. The tools and features can be accessed from toolbars to toolbars, which can be good or bad. The good thing about this is that the interface is not chaotic. But you’d have to search deep within the toolbars to find the rendering tools you’re looking for. You can always create shortcuts to simplify things.
Arnold is understandably more advanced, so the features are vast, which can be confusing at first. But the interface itself is straightforward and user-friendly. You can also toggle between CPU and GPU rendering with a single click of a button and never worry about tweaking the settings. For a rendering engine this advanced, Arnold is surprisingly beginner-friendly.
Rendering speed is one of the most important factors to consider when choosing the best render engine.
V-ray renders quickly in bias-mode, handling massive data without missing a beat. Because it comes with an arsenal of manual settings, the rendering speed is faster than some renderers. But, Arnold is just as fast and efficient.
Arnold boasts biased-based rendering, so you can focus on creating amazing visuals without tinkering too much with the settings. It’s quick, it’s efficient, and it’s dependable. Head on, V-ray trumps Arnold in rendering speed. But in terms of the lighting results, Arnold is just unbeatable with its path tracing. Path tracing provides the best lighting results, and the effects are replicated from render to render.
Both render engines provide real-time rendering updates so you can visualize how specific lighting or texture interacts in the final render without waiting around for hours to finish the rendering.
In 2019, Arnold introduced the ability to use GPU rendering. The software has an interactive preview area (IPR) that shows how your rendered scene looks in real-time. As you update the scene, the IPR updates the preview almost instantly.
V-ray has a viewport called V-ray RT that provides virtually real-time feedback on a modified scene. With V-Ray RT, you can adjust the lighting, objects, materials or move the camera, and the changes will be seen inside the viewport.
Arnold and V-ray have a lot of things in common, including their performance. Vray is user-oriented and is best for indie artists and beginners who are working on small projects. It’s easy to learn, and the results are definitely breathtaking.
Arnold is user-friendly and the experience is straightforward. But because it’s designed for medium to large VFX projects, it comes with a host of tools and features that could overwhelm a beginner.
The good news is, there is a wealth of resources for learning Arnold online, including ur technical workshop. As long as you’re familiar with some 3D animation software programs, you’ll get a grasp of Arnold in no time at all.
How do you use Arnold?
Now you know why the Arnold software is so essential to learn, here’s how to use Arnold.
Arnold render setup
Setting Up Arnold Render in Maya
If the Arnold renderer is not in Maya, you have to add it as a plug-in. To do that, go to Windows > Settings/Preferences > Plug-in Manager.
Search for the Single Angle plugins, tick the loaded and auto load boxes, and then click the close button. Arnold should appear at the top menu bar, above the StandIn and Lights options.
From the Rendering Menu, you can open the Render Settings menu, and you’re ready to use Arnold.
Arnold GPU works on NVIDIA GPUs of the Turing, Volta, Pascal, and Maxwell architectures. It supports:
- Linux 460.32.03 or higher
- Windows GeForce: 461.09 or higher
- Quadro: 461.09 or higher
Arnold does not support macOS.
Setting Up Arnold Render in 3DS Max
This setup requires 3ds Max 2019 or later. Download the MAXtoA installer from the downloads page.
Double-click the exe file to install. If the warning “Windows protects your PC” appears, just click “More Info” then “Run anyway.”
Keep the default installation options until the setup is complete, then “Finish.”
Start 3DS Max and open the Render setup window. Arnold should be listed on the available render engines and is ready to use.
Pre-populating the Cache
For the first render with GPU, the GPU renderer has to create a cache for the shaders and objects used, which might take some time. This is often done when installing a new Arnold version, updating to a new NVIDIA driver or when changing the system’s hardware configuration. Pre-populating the cache takes about 15 minutes or so.
To avoid delays, you can pre-populate the GPU caches before doing any renders. The Arnold software plugins have pre-populate GPU Cache menu commands. To switch between CPU and GPU, go to Render Settings > System section in the Arnold plugins.
Arnold Video Tutorials
Eye and Skin Shading in Arnold
Procedural Shading in Arnold and Maya
How to Light Creatively in Arnold
How to learn Arnold
Arnold has been in the business for decades, so there are loads of free resources to check out online. But if you’re starting fresh, none of these tutorials will make sense. You need a basic background in different VFX software programs to learn Arnold. And even if you have a basic idea of using Arnold, it will still take years of practice to maximize this render engine.
If you want a solid start on learning Arnold, we suggest signing up for an online course, like our Arnold for Maya technical workshop. This technical workshop covers everything you need to know about using Arnold in Maya. By taking this course, you will learn how to maximize every button, slider, and feature.
This technical course is conducted by our co-founder, Mike Tanzillo, who worked as a Lighting Artist for over a decade. Along with lighting, he has also received credits as a Compositing Artist and Sky Artist. His lighting credits include Ferdinand, Peanuts, The Rio Franchise, Epic, Ice Age: Continental Drift, Scrat’s Continental Crack-up, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, and Spies in Disguise (2019).
The Arnold for Maya technical course covers the following:
- Ray Sampling
- PreviewRay Depth
- Motion Blur
- Light Render Settings
- Texture Render Settings
- System Settings
- Common Settings
- Arnold Object Settings
- Exporting Data
- SSS Set Name
- Curve Settings
What’s great about our Arnold for Maya technical course is that it complements our other tech courses to hone your artistic and technical skills.
“I was a little hesitant about signing up because I wanted to make sure I was getting my money’s worth out of an online class. These courses are worth every penny and then some! The investment I have made in my career.”
– Anthony Ragusa, Senior Lighting Technical Director, Blue Sky Studios
“This course was so beneficial in my career because now I no longer doubt the decisions I make regarding my work.
Also, I didn’t have money to afford college, so I did not want to spend time just doing some boring tutorials I would just forget. I use what I learned from the Academy of Animated Art every day!”
– Anuar Figueroa, Lighting TD at Sony Imageworks
Over to you!
The Arnold software prides itself on producing photorealistic renders that are far above the results you get from other renderers. It’s a stable powerhouse renderer, able to process massive data without crashing. That’s why it’s so heavily used in the film and TV industries.
Hiring managers prioritize artists who are well-versed in industry-standard animation applications like Arnold renderer. That’s why it pays to get formal training to use Arnold to its fullest!