Blender is the Swiss Army knife of 3D creation programs. It pretty much does everything, and it is free! It is open source software crafted lovingly by a coalition of programers worldwide, and is constantly being augmented and improved.
You can exchange most of the assets used by, or made in, virtually every other 3D program out there with Blender. Commercial programs with Blender’s capabilities sell for hundreds, often thousands, of dollars. There is an active user community sharing assets. Blend Swap is one example. If you want to start with a blank screen and build everything yourself, Blender is your program. You can see its power in these films created in Blender by groups of its supporters to demonstrate Blender’s amazing capabilities: BigBuck Bunny and Sintel.
If that isn’t enough, it comes with a full-fledged game creation engine, complete with simulation of real-world physics (i.e. objects react to gravity, are hard or soft, collide with each other, roll, slide etc. as you play the game). Check this out.
Blender can generate some great images (or renders) of its scenes on its own, and fairly quickly. It also comes with a plug-in called LuxBlend which, when activated, integrates fully with LuxRender, a free render engine which can generate photorealistic images of your Blender scenes. LuxRender usually takes quite a bit longer to render scenes than Blender’s standard engine, but the results are wonderful. All of the scenes created for my book are rendered in LuxRender. The latest version also comes with an amazing plug-in called Cycles. Rather than have me try to explain Cycles, take a look at this.
I intend to list free and low-cost training resources for each software package. This will come eventually, but if I wait until everything is complete, I’ll never go live with this blog.
In the meantime, please include your favorite training resources in your comments.