3D animation file formats

The animation industry is experiencing growth by leaps and bounds ever since it was introduced. However, recent years have brought noticeable popularity to the domain. It is now widely incorporated in digital marketing to create rich content that can visually impact the potential clients and customers. Similarly, the entertainment industry is also utilizing it to the fullest by creating animated movies or cartoons to provide an immersive experience to the viewers. However, the process of creating engaging animations is not an easy job. It generally requires years of dedication and practice to become a professional animator since you need to know everything starting from the development of low poly 3D meshes to the creation of large scale animated environments. Another thing that 3D animators need to take care of is the 3D modeling and animation file formats.

Usually, animators have to use a variety of software and file formats to get the desired outcome. All software comes with its native file format which can be opened and saved by it. However, the catch is you need to be very specific while using the formats since it can hugely affect the production efficiency. Each has its own strength, quality, features, and vary in terms of compatibility with a particular hardware or software. Therefore, it is highly essential to learn and understand the prime differences of these formats to choose the right one for achieving impeccable results.

In this article, you will learn everything you need to know about the best 3D file formats that have gained popularity in 2020. However, before we jump to that part, let us first understand what it is and why it became popular in the first place.

Understanding the 3D File Format

A 3D file format is a blueprint for printing the 3D objects. It usually stores the information of a three-dimensional model in the form of binary data or plain text. It can encode all sorts of data, be it scenes, animations, geometry, appearance, etc. The scene generally represents the position of cameras, peripheral objects, and light sources. The animation showcases the motion of a model. Geometry represents the shape, and finally, the appearance talks about the texture, color, and type of material used. However, note that not every file format can contain all the information in it. So, now let us discuss the most popular ones that are used today and is a go-to for the artists, be it a 3D designer, animator, or engineer.

Top File Formats of 3D Animation & Modeling Software

Several software packages are available for CGI animation to secure the desired outcomes. For instance, you can build a character model in any software program by enhancing the details like facial expressions and muscular flexes. However, the challenge is to import the file to a different rendering software during the process, and the chosen format has to be compatible with it.

Each format has its specific requirements and serves particular functions. So, for a given type of animation, you have to use a matching file format, and the problem with that is the inconsistency of the software. If the file lacks compatibility with the software, vital data may get lost during the transfer. There is also the risk of the file getting corrupted. To avoid this, let us take a look at the most popular 3D file formats that are used in the year 2020 and the different purposes they are suitable for.

  1. STL

    This stereolithography format is deployed for the transfer of files that are meant for 3D visualization and printing. It is typically helpful for animators who wish to store just the 3D model’s layout for visualization purposes or sending the models to a 3D printer. It can be also appropriate for rapid prototyping even though the models’ appearance and animation qualities are not represented through it. It can only support non-complex geometry and is specified in both ASCII and binary form of representations.


    • Faster 3D model creation
    • Ease of interchanging data between CAD or CAM systems
    • Prevents loss of details
    • Minimizes inaccuracy

    Industries it is used for: Computer Aided Manufacturing or CAM, Rapid prototyping, 3D printing

    Filename Extension: .stl

  2. STEP

    STEP was developed to provide animators with a platform for describing product-related data all along the lifecycle of the model. The best part of using it is you do not have to rely on a specific system. However, the drawback of this format is its complex nature and size of the original files. To overcome these shortcomings, STEP has been disintegrated into modular systems. The popularity of this exchange format is mainly because of its ability to store data that is related to complex geometry, material attributes, and topological features.


    • No licensing or patent issues
    • Self-documentation

    Industries it is used for: Construction, Aeronautics, Automobile

    Filename Extension: .stp

  3. 3DS

    This format enjoys the privilege of being compatible with all 3D packages available in the market. There is no hassle involved in exporting the file format to any 3D software. Along with less complication, attributes such as color, material, textural properties can be stored in it. It is a mesh file format that was initially used by AutoDesk 3D Studio in 1990. However, now it is evolved as 3D Studio MAX by the time it was involved with the works of 3D rendering, animation, and modeling. It is also one of the popular file formats and contains data for representing images and scenes.


    • Easy data import and export
    • Essential geometry retention
    • Complete loading and saving of scenes

    Industries it is used for: Engineering, Manufacturing, Architecture, Academics

    Filename Extension: .3ds

  4. OBJ

    It is generally used to define and store the 3D objects. Apart from that, it also supports forward and backward transmission of geometric data. It is open-source, neutral, and can be easily implemented by the vendors for any applications with 3D graphics. Since it was specifically developed for 3D designing, it is able to provide support for animation. However, the transformational and hierarchical modules are missing. Besides, color-related information is not stored by default and instead, a file with .MTL extension is used for storing the color information.


    • Versatile in encoding surface geometry
    • Maintains balance between the file size and quality

    Industries it is used for: 3D printing, 3D graphics

    Filename Extension: .obj

  5. FBX

    Originally, the FBX or Filmbox format was created by Kaydara but was then owned by Autodesk in the year 2006. The matrix offered in this file support is significant. Here, all files that are rich in complex geometry, textural shades, meshes, and good quality materials can be stored with ease. Files can also be transferred easily without causing any difficulty to the animators. The format is extensively used for storing gaming related materials and movie components. It is available in both ASCII and binary forms.


    • Easy data exchange
    • Efficient workflow
    • Simple interoperability
    • Pipeline customization
    • 2D and 3D tool support

    Industries it is used for: Gaming, Movies

    Filename Extension: .fbx

  6. IGES

    During the mid 70s, the US Air Force developed it for representing the surface geometry properly and maintaining the integrity of colors. The format is useful for storing information about animation and material attributes. The format does no longer undergo updates but is used still by CAE, CAD and CAM programs for transferring data. It is still popular among the amateurs as the pros use the STEP format. It involves ASCII coding and is capable of using wireframes, circuit diagrams, precise free-form surfaces or CSG.


    • Store geometry-related information
    • Store colors

    Industries it is used for: Defense,

    Filename Extension: .igs

  7. PLY

    PLY is also known as Stanford Triangle Format or Polygon File Format. It was mainly designed to store graphical objects from the 3D scanners. The main purpose of using this standard 3D model file format is that it can be used for a variety of model types. It is mainly described as a collection of polygons, i.e., vertices, faces, and other elements while possessing properties such as color, direction, etc. Various new properties that can be attached to it are texture coordinates, surface normals, transparency, data confidence values, etc.


    • Compact storage
    • Rapid saving
    • Faster loading

    Industries it is used for: Additive manufacturing

    Filename Extension: .ply


    It is a Digital Asset Exchange file format, which is primarily used to exchange data within the interactive 3D applications. All elements of a design can be included here, such as color, material attributes, geometrical complexities, textural designs, physics, animation, and kinematics. Collada format was initially designed for rendering the 3D file format standard. However, the format had failed to keep its pace with time but is still in use by many 3D software packages. It is a publicly available and is adopted by ISO.


    • Retains every information
    • Comprehensive visual scene encoding
    • XML database schema
    • Transportation of 3D assets between applications

    Industries it is used for: Film making, Video games

    Filename Extension: .dae

  9. VRML & X3D

    VRML is also known as Virtual Reality Modeling Language. It was initially developed for the World Wide Web to represent 3D interactive vector graphics but was superseded by X3D after 10 years. X3D is a royalty-free standard used to represent the 3D computer graphics. It supports both raster and vector graphics while including lighting effects, transparency, and various animation settings like fades, swings, rotations, etc. With X3D, you will have the advantage of encoding color information while printing the model on a 3D color printer.

    Features of X3D:

    • Real-time graphics
    • XML integrated
    • Bug-free implementation
    • Easy updating and preserving
    • Extended functionality

    Industries it is used for: Internet and the World Wide Web

    Filename Extension:

    For VRML- .wrl (plain), .wrz (compressed)

    For X3D- .x3d, .x3dv (plain), .x3dvz (compressed)

  10. 3MF

    3MF is an open-source format that was created and published by the 3MF consortium. It was developed to overcome the issues and limitations of STL so that it can work seamlessly with the latest 3D printers. It is mainly used for rendering 3D object models in a wide range of applications, printers, platforms, and servers. Even though it is relatively new, it is capable enough to describe a complete model while retaining its internal information, color, as well as other characteristics. It’s full form is 3D Manufacturing Format.


    • Simple
    • Extensible
    • Human readable
    • Unambiguous
    • Free of licensing, royalties, and patents

    Industries it is used for: Manufacturing, 3D printing

    Filename Extension: .3mf

Beginners in the animation and modeling domain will take time to get accustomed to these common 3D file formats. However, you do not need to use every format that you come across. It won’t be even feasible since there are hundreds of them. So, what you can do here is to learn about them and understand the specific purpose it can be utilized for. Once you know it, you can utilize its capability to produce optimum results for your needs.

The 3D modeling and animation file formats are developed over time with much care and attention so that it facilitates seamless creation of 3D animation and 3D modeling file types. Each accompanies a unique set of benefits that are suitable for a particular development environment. It implies that if a format is used for a wrong purpose, you might not get the results as expected. The purpose can be either related to the conversion of 3D model file types, compatibility with different software packages, creating a 3D animated model, and so on. Everything needs to be saved in a specific file format so that the data can be transmitted to the users without causing it to corrupt or lose information.