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Best Online 3D Training Subscriptions & CG Tutorial Sites

Online Training in 3D Modeling, Animation, Visual Effects, and Game Development

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Just a few years ago, it was a lot tougher to find quality training in 3D computer graphics. You either had to attend a college/university, buy DVDs from someone like Gnomon or Digital Tutors, or scour the internet hoping to find something worth reading (like the infamous Joan of Arc tutorial).

Thanks to a few forward thinking educators, web-based training subscriptions have become the norm, and as a result it's become easier than ever to learn 3D through the use of self-paced video tutorials.

Whether you're looking to improve your modeling skills, learn how to be a superstar animator, or find work at a game development studio, there are more opportunities than ever to learn from some of the industry's most talented artists. Some of the choices on this list might seem expensive, but compared to the price of admission at a brick and mortar school, forty or fifty bucks a month starts to look pretty darn reasonable.

Pair a training subscription with a few well chosen books, a good anatomy reference, and a whole lot of practice, and you should be well on your way to finding a job in CG.

1. The Gnomon Workshop


Pricing: $30-80 per tutorial or $499 annual subscription.
Strengths: Modeling & Sculpting for Film & Visual Effects, Entertainment Design
Link: The Gnomon Workshop

Founded by Alex Alvarez in 2000, Gnomon established themselves long ago as the gold standard in high-quality video training for computer graphics.

Even though they're no longer the "lone choice" in CG training like they once were, their library is still massive, and I don't think there's another site out there that strikes such a favorable balance between pre-production (design, ideation), production (modeling, texturing, lighting), and post-production (effects, compositing) techniques.

If you're just starting out in 3D, the most people agree that Digital tutors is probably better for beginners—Gnomon's training is often paced for intermediate artists. But if you're looking for the subscription that will help you get to the point where you're creating production level CG, Gnomon is the way to go.

2. Digital Tutors


Pricing: $45/month, $225/6 months, $399 annual
Strengths: Beginner training, Animation, Unity Engine, Variety
Link: Digital Tutors

Most of the sites on this list put out the same amount of content in a year that Digital Tutors releases on a monthly basis. Their library is absolutely huge, and like Gnomon their content covers the whole gamut from traditional design, to sculpting, modeling, animation, and more recently, mobile game development.

If you're a beginner who needs to learn a lot of new software quickly, there really isn't a better option than Digital Tutors. Having said that, they're noticeably biased toward Maya and Mental Ray—if you're a 3ds Max user, consider the next two options instead.

3. Eat 3D


Pricing: $60/tutorial, $345 annual subscription (other subscription options available).
Strengths: Game Development, 3ds Max, Unreal Engine
Link: Eat 3D

If you're a 3ds Max user and you're interested in game development, Eat3D might very well be the end of the discussion.

Honestly, I don't think anybody on this list was more spot on with their 2011 releases than these guys, and even if you're not into game development there are some absolute knock-outs in the Eat3D library (Portrait Production in Maya, Hard Surface Sculpting 1 & 2) that cater to CG Generalists.

Eat3D was one of the first sites to put out comprehensive training material for the Unreal Development Kit (UDK), and that's what really established them as a major player in online CG education. If the material they release in 2012 is as good as the content they published this past year, I'll seriously start thinking about moving them up to the top spot.

4. 3Dmotive


Pricing: $22/month, $114/6 months, $204 annual
Strengths: 3ds Max, Game Development, Texturing, UDK
Link: 3Dmotive

3Dmotive is right where Eat3D was a couple years ago, and it's only a matter of time before they're as well known and influential as their predecessor. Their content caters almost exclusively to the game development crowd, but they've been very smart about separating themselves from the competition by releasing highly demanded content like their most recent release—Creating Foliage in UDK.

3Dmotive is one of the most affordable subscriptions on this list, and because they're still relatively small you can probably get through most of what you want to see in two or three months. There's really no reason not to check them out.

5. FXPHD


Pricing: $359 per 12-week term (includes 4 courses)
Strengths: Visual Effects, Scripting, Compositing, Motion Graphics

OK, you might be thinking why would I choose FXPHD when their content is way more expensive? It's a valid question, and the answer is mentoring.

FXPHD courses are the closest thing to being enrolled in an actual school on this list, and they're taught in a format that includes private forums, support from an instructor, and a level of critique/collaboration among peers that you probably won't find at a place like Gnomon.

I don't personally have experience with the training from FXPHD, but I will say this: They have a stellar reputation around the CG community, and the material that their students have been showing around the forums is very impressive. If you're looking to specialize in visual effects or compositing and you're willing to pay the premium for a workshop style course arrangement, you should seriously consider FXPHD.

6. ZBrush Workshops


Pricing: $45/month, $398 annual subscription
Strengths: Digital Sculpting in ZBrush, Anatomy
Link: ZBrush Workshops

I'm a huge, huge, fan of Ryan Kingslien, who left a position at Gnomon to found ZBrush Workshops just last year. He's a talented sculptor and a gifted instructor—the way he presents material is entertaining, accessible, and crystal clear. He also has a sculpting style that lends itself to instruction because his brushstrokes are explicitly visible.

Obviously, ZBrush Workshops isn't the place to go for a generalist CG education, but if you're looking for 50+ hours of focused ZBrush training, this is probably your best bet.

7. CGSociety Online Workshops


Pricing: $269 - $649 per course
Link: CGSociety Workshops

CGSociety's workshops are 3 - 8 week courses taught by working professionals—more similar to FXPHD than a training subscription like Digital Tutors or Gnomon, with the chief difference being that CGS offers a more varied range of courses.

I've taken one CGWorkshop (Modern Game Art with Bioware's John Rush), and it was pretty excellent. Courses like this are a lot more expensive than most of the subscription sites, but the big advantage is that you're actually in direct communication with a working instructor and from what I could see John made a very valiant effort to comment/critique just about every work in progress image that a student posted in the private forums.

Oh, and some really talented people show up for these things—in my workshop, Magdalena Dadela, the artist that modeled Ezio (both in-game and cinematic) for Assassins Creed Revelations was enrolled. How cool is that?

8. 3DTotal Shop


Pricing: $4 (magazine back issues), $15 (ebooks), $250 (workshops)
Strengths: Digital Painting, Lighting, Character Creation
Link: 3DTotal Shop

Aside from the fantastic forums, 3DTotal's real strength lies in their extensive ebook library. 3DTotal isn't subscription based, so I like to think of their resources as a great way to supplement what you're learning at one of the other sites like Digital Tutors.

Their monthly e-zine, 3DCreative, is terrific, and they have some incredibly useful ebooks available (like Photoshop for 3D artists, and a few really good lighting tutorials). One of the nicest things about 3DTotal is that they usually release multiple versions of their training for different software combinations. They typically cover Maya + Mental Ray, Max + Mental Ray, and Max + Vray.

One other piece of really exciting news is that starting in January 2012 3DTotal will start running professionally mentored workshops just like what CGSociety does with their CGWorkshops. This format is really great for folks that are serious about getting to the next level, so the more sites offering this sort of training the better!

9. Lynda & CGTuts


Lynda Pricing: $25 - $37/month or $250 - $375 annual
CGTuts Pricing: Free - $19/month or $180 annual
Links: Lynda | CGTuts
Strengths: Both part of wider, more diverse training networks.

The reason I lumped CGTuts and Lynda together into one list entry is because I see them as very similar services. Their biggest advantage is that their subscriptions are pretty inexpensive, but give you access to a far wider range of training than anything else on this list.

Unlike the other sites we've mentioned here, Lynda and CGTuts are not exclusively focused on 3D computer graphics. A subscription to either will also give you access to training in fields like photography, web-design, audio & video production, and motion graphics.

Poke around before you throw down your credit card. In my opinion, there's definitely not a year's worth of solid CG training at either of these, but I could probably find enough material to warrant a month or two. Of course, if you're interested in some of the other topics they offer an annual subscription could easily become worth it.

10. Honorable Mentions


Here are a few others in case you don't find what you're looking for at any of the top sites we've mentioned.

There are a few gems in here, but for the most part these sites either don't have as much good content as the ones further up the list, or their training isn't as up to date.

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