There's this awesome program called nuke / nuke fx and I completely forgot to mention it earlier. I don't know if you've used it before or not, but it's a part of my essentials, I mostly use it for cinematics, it can do wonders on anything that you don't have to render in real time. Sometimes if I'm working on a particularly special project, concept art, or other similar project I'll use it for a high polish finish which can really sell the idea sometimes. It had a bit of a learning curve to it though that I found frustrating. I managed to get right into it easy enough, but trying to do the more advanced features took a long time to really start understanding and start comprehensively using to achieve my goals. The main problem I'd say wasn't with the program itself as lack of documentation and examples / samples. I had a hard time finding info, so I was mostly learning by experimentation. That's not to say the material doesn't exist, just that there's not much of it in terms of high quality and relatively easy to find.
If you're doing any 3d animations, I can't recommend it enough.