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& 3ds max 5.1
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.
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.
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.
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.
Reviewed in May's issue:
Odixion DigiPrinter Universal
Lightwave 7.5 & 3ds max 5.1
Discreet Combustion 2.1
In May's news:
Edition gains DVD authoring and
Final Cut Pro on a budget
Canopus pro DV/analogue converter
Video Forum 2003 roundup
Faster, quieter dual-G4 PowerMacs
Faster, fitter Cleaner XL
More burn for your bucks
AE 5.5 with Parhelia
TDK phone number