Here’s a concise list of the current toon options for 3D-to-2D comics at 2018, sorted by price.
* Free. Blender has a Freestyle toon module. Powerful but inevitably unfinished even after a decade, and Blender has a very steep learning curve. Apparently Freestyle is easier to obtain good results from if you already know how to model and texture in Blender. May be improved and changed in future.
* Free. Formerly from Google, Sketchup has a small range of impressive sketch render presets suitable for things like buildings and gadgets, and a simple sketch style-mixer so you can make your own. Widely known among visualizers in architecture and product design, quick to render and fairly easy to use. But it doesn’t play nicely with Poser, DAZ etc and is not very friendly to OBJs either.
* Free + modest $s for plugins and content/shader packs. Public videogame engines such as Unity and Unreal. Very steep learning curve, but well supported. Possibly the best choice if you also seriously want to get into making games and have $100 for the relevant plugins. Be aware that output from game-engines may not be print-res.
* $40. The free DAZ Studio has some native but rather fiddly cartoon capabilities, and the paid shader packs Manga Style Shaders and Visual Style Shaders packs ($40, together). But in my experience these are so fiendishly difficult to apply and control and combine, that I just can’t recommend them to anyone who has the easy real-time comics capabilities of Poser 11 (see below). Visual Style Shaders does however offer very nice bases for rendering colour flats of your character’s skin and hair, and these are relatively easy to apply. They would thus provide good bases for drawing ink lines on by hand, perhaps guided by a basic toon outline render. And Manga Style Shaders should still be considered and tested if you’re intent on serious comics production in the traditional ‘zip-toned b&w manga’ style. Note also that DAZ has a well-hidden shader-free ‘Cartoon Render’ setting, but it’s not impressive. There are also lineart rendering plugins such as pwToon and Lineart9000, but these are also said on the DAZ forums to be rather difficult and fiddly to set up and control.
* $80 up (when discounted). Smith Micro’s Poser 11 has an excellent Comic Book Mode (aka Comic Book Preview). This is very easily applied to a vast range of content, and is rendered out in WYSIWYG real-time using the Preview OpenGL renderer. Interesting additional line types are obtainable via pushing Sketch Designer output into just the Comic Book Mode ink lines. Poser also has the P.A.S.S. watercolour shaders [update: now available again, for free]; some good toon cel shader materials (if you dig around a bit, to find them); and the older toon lines mode and some helper scripts can help you to obtain even more toon lines. Professional studios should also note that the Pro version of Poser 11 has a mature PoserFusion plugin to easily send your Poser scene and textures over to Cinema 4D (up to R19). C4D has advanced ‘sketch and toon’ capabilities built in, but you’ll still need to spend a week developing your own custom presets and even then scenes take quite a while to render in C4D.
* $150. DAZ Carrara and either the older and limited $40 Toon!Pro plugin or the newer (2013) free YAToon 2.0. This seems to be the best option for DAZ Studio users, as Carrara handles most DAZ files nicely and can open (nearly) all Poser content and some of the early DAZ Genesis content. Note that 64-bit and multipass render-passes are ‘Pro version only’ in Carrara ($285).
* $200 upwards. Reallusion’s iClone 7 has a very limited Toon Effect filter, which was broken/wonky in iClone 6, but has now been fixed in iClone 7. Fixed as in “it was broken, and now works again”. Works in real-time, but then so does Poser’s Comic Book mode and Poser is by far the better and more fully-featured option. Cheaper too, if you can grab Poser on a discount.
* $400 upwards. The latest Vue 2016 has a fairly sophisticated toon-lines and paint module built in. I’ve spent a few hours with it and although it’s not ideal, it’s a welcome effort at this price point and could certainly be useful for those who overpaint their Vue renders, such as matte painters and concept illustrators. Vue can also elegantly import Poser scenes, with auto material conversion including skin.
* $Lots. There are strong toon capabilities in the “big guns” in 3D, such as Cinema 4D (‘sketch and toon’ is included in the Studio and Visualize versions only) and 3DS Max (toon as various plugins, last time I looked). The latest Lightwave 2018 has a basic cel shading functionality, which is new. I don’t know much about Maya, but I assume it has toon and cel-shading and plugins. 3DS Max always had good CAD lineart output, for the engineering crowd. Third-party plugin renderers can also often do a basic CAD-style lineart render.