Lightwave 7.5 and 3ds max 5.1 test

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Lightwave 7.5 & 3ds max 5.1

With CGI playing a major role in films across the board, from low-budget shorts to multi-million dollar productions, we thought it time to consider the tools available to the home professional

It's been quite a few years now since the Windows PC finally became a serious contender for broadcast 3D animation, taking its place alongside Unix workstations. There's now a considerable choice of applications available that are capable of state-of-the-art animation and ultra-realistic output. Two of the first apps to bring this kind of power were NewTek's LightWave and 3D Studio MAX - the latter now branded 3ds max by current owner Discreet. Both apps have recently been refreshed, and here's how they stack up against each-other.

LightWave has had a chequered history. It started life as the 3D app bundled with NewTek's original analogue video-mixing program, Video Toaster, but was spun off as a package in its own right, and became much bigger than Toaster. It was ported from the Amiga to Windows seven years ago, and has built a solid reputation since then. However, until relatively recently, it was best loved for creating non-character elements such as space scenery and starships. 3ds max, on the other hand, has an even longer PC history. It was developed especially for Windows after LightWave was ported, but from the older heritage of the famous 3D Studio DOS app. While it's the most high-end 3D app for Windows not originating on another platform, it originally was most popular with games designers, and still finds greatest favour in that market.

We installed both apps on a dual-Athlon MP 2400+ system with a PNY Quadro 4 OpenGL graphics accelerator. To try to prevent piracy, LightWave uses a USB dongle attachment and requires registration within 14 days, after which it switches to demo mode, which doesn't allow the saving of files. However, both Mac and PC versions are included in the box, and the dongle is cross-compatible, so it's possible to switch platforms if needed. 3ds max doesn't use a dongle, and requires registration in 28 days for continued use, but is Windows-only.

Intelligent Entities
Since version 6, LightWave has become a lot more attractive for mainstream 3D, with many more features for character animation. Foremost amongst these is a rewritten model format called IntelligEntities, which includes motion characteristics as well as geometry. LightWave had already offered a taster of this in earlier versions with the Morph Mixer plug-in, which takes a channel-based approach to deforming objects. For example, a basic face can be reworked into various facial expressions - smiling, for instance, or speaking various vowel sounds - and these separate objects can then be imported as invisible objects and used as morph targets. The Morph Mixer collects all the morph targets together, and a slider then controls how much the basic object is morphed into each one, with keyframing possible. This makes animating facial expressions much easier. LightWave 6's IntelligEntities model format stores all these morph targets in one file, so a character animation essentially comes supplied with its own personality - all its facial expressions and gestures can be found in one place.

Max headroom
3ds max's games development popularity has moved from strength to strength. It was used to develop hit PC game Unreal Tournament 2003, for example, amongst many other mainstream titles. But it also has found considerable success in the film and television industry. Matt Merkovich created effects for Dr Doolittle 2, Black Hawk Down, and Minority Report with 3ds max. With version 5.1 of the software, Discreet hopes to further strengthen the software's across-the-board appeal. Tight integration with Discreet's high-end studio production tools such as Combustion, Flame and Inferno has helped its film industry attraction - MAXscript can export camera information to other Discreet products, for example, and the RPF file format allows 3D to be rendered to separate channels for later compositing, which we'll discuss more in our review of Combustion. In this version of 3ds max, Discreet has added tools and tweaks to speed up production, rather than getting involved in any major changes to the underlying engine.

Light or max?
Although LightWave made its name in professional circles primarily as the software for creating really cool, realistic space scenery, it has clearly grown up since then. In certain key areas, the competition offers more control or faster rendering. But for sheer value and general usage, LightWave is virtually unbeatable. Now that the price has gone back down to under £1,000 ex VAT - £1,174 inc VAT - the software makes a great all-round choice, particularly as its rendered output is easily as good as anything else on the market.

3ds max, on the other hand, remains an expensive proposition, unlike its stable mate Combustion. However, features like Character Studio, Reactor and the new daylight system make animating with 3ds max a lot more streamlined in key areas, especially for more corporate applications, such as architectural visualisation, or where a speedy simulation is required. Overall, 3ds max is one of the easiest 3D apps to get to grips with, although of course no 3D app worth using could ever be called easy. However, the expense means it's purely for the professional arena. The seamless integration with Combustion makes 3ds max very tempting for film and TV work, too, but LightWave remains the best value all-round professional 3D animation application.

Read the full review in May 2003's Computer Video magazine.


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