What’s Blender been doing these days?

Blender has been right on the verge of its V3 release and guess what happened. It released 2.93, which has been pretty much according to plan. As the company says Blender 2.93 LTS marks the end of a series “twenty years in the making.” It’s a big release but the developers say it’s solid. Therefore, the Blender 2.93 release is an LTS, long-term support, release in accordance with the wishes of customers involved in long-term projects who need stable software through their content creation process. As Blender is increasingly being used in professional settings, it’s getting funding from some of the large companies in the field including AWS, Unity, Epic, AMD, Nvidia, and Facebook, which are listed as patron-level donors. There are plenty more. As an LTS version, Blender 2.93 is big enough and stable enough to serve its professional customers through years-long projects. It’s the culmination of a long development cycle rather than the end of anything.

As a result, the Blender development team has crammed in all the niggly little things that needed improvement and tied up a lot of the ongoing projects. It’s a huge release with a lot of enhancements. The Blender team has highlighted a few but there’s a video of new features here and the release notes are here.

What’s new

Blender’s rendering tool EEVEE has gotten some attention with improvements to depth of field controls for increased accuracy, allowing it to better handle fall off and close-ups. Ambient occlusion and volumetrics were also improved.

Blender’s procedural tool Geometry Nodes was expanded to build on the attribute system—texture sampling, support volume data, and usability were all upgraded. They’ve added 22 nodes in all. Geometry Nodes now has its own default workspace. A range of primitives can be added without leaving Geometry Nodes. Many new nodes were added, including proximity, sample texture, remove, convert, clamp, and more. The Blender devs have added a spreadsheet editor to Geometry Nodes, which provides a spreadsheet view of the geometry attributes.

In Grease Pencil, Blender’s accidental 2D animation tool, the line art modifier was added to create stylized lines. The fill tool has been improved—it’s faster and multi-frame and it now has multi-frame filling and other tweaks. Grease paint was originally added to Blender as an annotation tool, or to add a quick sketch to aid modeling, etc. As devs and users have played with it, it has become a powerful 2D animation tool that can be used in the context of 3D space. The new export tool looks powerful as well. It enables users to export content as an SVG or PDF for use in other programs. The following video demonstrates the export tool being used with PDF, Illustrator, and Photoshop.

Modeling updates included new taper modes, leading to enhanced control. Subdivision surface options introduced more UV smoothing possibilities.

Blender’s video editing tool, Video Sequence Editor (VSE),  now automatically generates proxies, while Cycles has again become faster—plus other developments, like less blurry normals. Lighting now includes the option to add a honeycomb or grid in front of an area light. Sculpting, animation, and rigging also received updates.

And, as they say, much much more as the Blender team wraps up the 2.x generation and clears the decks for 3.0, which is planned for the end of summer. There are plenty of videos already available and they’re steadily filling in the blanks on the release notes. Thanks to the LTS version, the developers feel comfortable promising a lot of new features for 3.0 and they’re talking about making LTS versions a once a year thing. Planning has also called for a more efficient schedule for major releases. The proposal is for incremental releases for about two years between major releases.

The decision to cap off the 2.x generation with an LTS version points to a shift in the way the Blender organization is changing. It’s been growing all along, and they want to keep their freedom to explore and innovate so the 3.x line of Blender gives the developers a little room to try out and evolve new features as LTS provides a stable base for users.

Blender Next

Blender 2.93 also comes at what the whole world hopes in the end of the long pandemic lockdown. For the Blender community, the timing means that organization can resume its gatherings which are a critical part of the company’s development practice. It’s one of the big scoops the organization uses to gather ideas, hear about interests and trends, and concerns as it lays out priorities and schedules.

Blender has also released its Blender Annual Report in which Blender Chairman and CEO Ton Roosendaal lays out a vision forward for the organization. The big Blender get togethers will continue after a year off. Roosendaal writes, “there are lots of good reasons why we want to be together in real life: it’s why the Blender Institute was established in the first place. Many scheduled activities in our headquarters did not happen. In that respect, 2020 has become a bit of a gap year.” He says that the time off has made space for reflection and he has been able to take a more objective view of the future and to think about the organization’s core values, mission, and strategy. Along those lines he has outlined a structure for the organization going forward. Central to all his thinking is the commitment to the open source philosophy.

He says his views have been cemented by the success the Blender organization has seen even during the year of lockdown. Donations are going up and in addition to the support they are getting from professional content companies they are also getting technical and material support, which he sees as a very positive indicator for open-source approaches. He says, “this is going to be the decade of open source.”

What do we think?

Read the report and check out the positive responses to it throughout the industry. It’s been a difficult year, but I think for many of us it’s also been a positive year.

For the most part, companies selling tools to creatives are saying they’re seeing an explosion in creativity. The BBC is promising an explosion of creativity, Adobe claims to have seen a burst of content coming through its portals like Behance and its Adobe Live channels for training.

For Blender, maybe there’s been an acceleration but honestly, the organization has been blossoming over the last five years. The team themselves says Blender 2.8, which arrived in the summer of 2019, marked a turning point for the organization. Blender got a new interface, significant innovative features including the EEVEE realtime renderer, options for sculptors, and the introduction of Mantaflow, which enabled a fully functioning 2D animation workspace and opened the door to 2D/3D workflows.

This release is impressive, with updates on every front, but we’re looking forward to what comes next. So far the Blender organization has hit on a working recipe that fosters creativity and keeps the ball moving forward.