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Most Popular 3D Rendering and Animation File Formats

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The animation industry is thriving like never before. Animated content has become a mainstay for visually rich digital content marketing. Animated movies and cartoons are captivating to watch, and over time are getting ever more realistic and engaging.

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Bring Your Boring Website to Life

These advancements are ample proof of the growth of animation industry. From making low poly 3D models to rendering impressive environments, this is no easy task. For this very reason, animators are so particular about the tiniest of details when it comes to their work.

Animations: Software and File Formats

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CGI Animation Process

Animators use various software to get the desired result. For example; an animator may make a model of a person in MAYA, however, to give it details such as defining muscle, he would transfer the file to Z-Brush. In order for him/her to transfer the file successfully, however, choosing the right file format is of high importance. Remember that each file format has its own needs and functions. That means you will need to use specific file formats for specific animation work.

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How Technology Has Changed Animation

If you pick an inappropriate file format, then important data can be lost during the transfer of files, or worse still, the file could even become corrupted. To avoid this, a basic understanding of file formats should help. Animators from wow-how.com usually use the following seven popular file formats: FBX,3DS, OBJ, STL, STEP, IGES, COLLADA. Let us discuss each file format’s uses and hopefully, this should help in choosing the right one.

FBX (Filmbox)

The FBX file format is used quite a lot in the architectural field due to its massive file support matrix. It can support any file containing high geometry, textures, mesh and even high-end materials. This file format makes transferring files simple and alleviates animators’ worries; hence it is used extensively. FBX is a part of game creation pipelines and is also widely used in the movie industry. Gaming and movies industries are where this file format is widely used.


Autodesk is renowned for its impact on the animation industry and rightfully so. Afterall, it gave us 3DS Max, a 3D modeling and rendering software used and loved by all. Although it is now used for creating low poly models, back in the day nothing could be compare to it. That doesn’t mean that it has lost its viability for animators. Probably the best thing about 3DS file format is that almost all 3D software programs can read it. That means that importing this type of file is extremely simple and doesn’t involve complications. 3DS can also store properties like texture, color, and material etc. It is used mostly in the architecture, engineering and education fields.


The OBJ file format is specific to 3D design and does not support animation, transformation or hierarchy. It also doesn’t store information about color by itself but rather stores this information in a separate file with the extension ‘.MTL’. However, its limitations don’t make it less useful because, within its scope, it is a great file format. Animators find it beneficial because it supports encoding of surface geometry in both its formats, i.e. approximate and precise encoding. The transfer of files with this format is seamless, which makes it very easy to use. OBJ is supported by software like Cinema 4D, MeshLab, Maya, Blender, XSI etc.

STL (stereolithography)

STL is used in transferring files that are particularly used for 3D visualization and 3D printing. If an animator wants to store only the layout of his 3D model for visualizing or 3D printing, then he would use this file format. It is predominantly used in the fields like 3D printing, rapid prototyping and the like. STL doesn’t take into account animation and appearance. Remember, this file format only supports simple geometry. The software programs that support STL include, SketchUp, Blender, SolidWorks, FreeCAD etc.

STEP Standard for the Exchange for Product Data

STEP is widely used in the engineering field. This file format is really great and was designed to support various aspects of the animation process chain. It stores data about geometric shapes, topology, materials etc., and this makes STEP a widely used file format in engineering, product design, and testing. A real advantage of saving a file in this format is how to saves the file i.e. saving separate types of data in the model. STEP is supported by CAD, CAE, and CAM software. Initially, the objective behind STEP was to provide animators a method to describe product data throughout the product lifecycle, without dependence on a specific system. However, STEP’s complexity and the standard’s original size have proved to be bottlenecks, because of which the format has now been broken into more modular specifications.


This format was initially developed by US Air Force in the mid-seventies. This file format is great for representing surface geometry, and can also easily store colors. However, when it comes to representing materials and animation, these formats are exactly useful. Although this file format is not developed anymore, although it is still widely used. The programs that still use it are CAD, CAM, and CAE, basically to transfer data. It is widely used in the defense and engineering fields. This file format is well suited for amateurs in the 3D field, while professionals prefer using STEP.


This COLLADA file format is widely used in gaming and movie industry because of its versatility in supporting various aspects of design. These include geometry, color, material, texture, animation and also kinematics and physics. The intent of developing this format was so that it could become the standard 3D file format. Even though it has not kept up with the times, it is still supported by almost all the important 3D software programs. These include 3DS Max, Maya, SketchUp, LightWave 3D, Blender etc. Apart from this, it is also well-suited with game engines like, Panda3d, Visual3D game engine and ShiVa.


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For a beginner, understanding these formats might take a while. However, to make things easy, the one thing you would need to remember is that not every file format may support what you are trying to do. Each format has its own requirements that need to be met to get the optimal results. The programs were essentially developed to ease the process of animation. Each program has its advantages and the file formats act as their support system. Therefore, if you get the wrong file format, the support system basically fails.

Additionally, file formats are important when you have to change 3D models from one format to another. That means, that if you wanted to add animation to a still model, choosing the right file format that would make this easy is important. Furthermore, there may be times you will need to share your designs with a client or friend and that person may not use the same field as you. File formats can help you send this data in a way that even they can see and make full use of it.

So you see? Although animation entails a lot of other things and is a painstakingly long process that you will enjoy only when you have the love for it, choosing the right file format is equally important.

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