The 3D software market is in turmoil. Radical new technologies, coupled with plummeting prices and new entrants, mean this is one of the most dynamic times to get into 3D design or migrate from an existing package. Central to the mid-range market has been MetaCreations, offering top-notch tools such as Bryce 4 and Canoma, for what amounts to pocket-money prices.
Carrara essentially replaces MetaCreation’s long-in-the-tooth Infini-D and RayDream packages, adds a barrel-load of new features, nifty interface and intuitive workflow (called SmartFlow) into one seamless solution. Features such as Spline and Vertex modelling, Metaballs, real-world physics modifiers, complex shader-trees and particle emitters are usually found only in high-end packages – not one that weighs in at just £299.
This is, though, a clear version 1.0 release. It is buggy, has a tendency to crash when you start to get ambitious, and generates some of the oddest error messages this side of an ATM on an off day – ‘user defined error’ anyone?
The interface is a refined MetaCreations classic, with translucent buttons, subtle pop-up menus, excellent camera control panels and flip-out side bars for controlling libraries of objects, attributes, and animation information. The main work area sports a live 3D view of the scene as you construct it, plus options for a more standard four-window panel or any combination you want to create.
Carrara works using a room metaphor – with five distinct rooms for the assembly, modelling, storyboarding, texturing and rendering of the scene. All the rooms are linked, so objects created and textured in one will appear in others. Most of the action takes place in the Assembly room, where you place primitives and tweak the scene, with you dipping into other rooms as you refine each model. A handy preview of the overall scene appears in each of the rooms so you can keep track of how everything hangs together.
The Assembly room features a large creation workspace, with a row of buttons across the top of the work area for dropping in primitives (or more complex primitives from the library browser), adding lights and setting up cameras. Adding objects is a snip – choose a pop-up primitive, drop it into the scene, then use the pointer tool to adjust height and position. Carrara deploys projection planes, with the XY and Z wireframe walls hosting a ghosted outline of the model. It makes general positioning a breeze, and you can always fall back to more accurate numerical positioning if you wish.
There are three modelling methods aside from using primitives. The coolest is Metaball modelling, where lumps of virtual dough are dropped into the scene, and can have their attraction values adjusted. Objects then attract and merge with other Metaball objects according to these values, creating organic shapes with fluid curves and seamless joints. Neatly, Metaballs can have negative values, meaning an invisible Metaball can organically carve out a hollow in another object.
More practical if you want to model anything other than alien hands (as seems to be the de facto example given in every manual that features Metaballs, including Carrara) is Vextex modelling. This lets you adjust the actual vertices of the polygons that make up an object, much like NURBS. The full gamut is here: polylines, sweeps, extrudes, lathing, lofting, smoothing and creasing. This method is ideal for extremely detailed work, and also to cut down on polygon counts for online and 3D for games.
Spline-based modelling is everything you’d expect, letting you transform 2D bézier curves and lines into fully rounded 3D objects. A sweep path lets you model pipes, cables and monkey tails to your hearts content, and is probably more suited to mechanical 3D.
Two excellent features help lift Carrara – an in-depth a shader tree as you could wish for, and physics attributes. The shader tree lets you create a paint palette of textures, bump maps, glows, reflections and more, delving ever deeper to create a texture for even the most exacting scene. Shading happens in the Texture room, with the Shader Tree editor giving total control over textures. It works by showing a complex array of linked branches and parameters (bump, reflection, texture and so on) all of which can be adjusted and made to interact with each other.
Even better, Carrara deploys Shading Domains – logically applied textures to local areas of an object. For example, a stick of rock will have a plastic outer wrapper, candy-striped coating and the word ‘Brighton’ branded through the centre. You can apply different shaders to each Domain, giving some excellent control.
Real-world physics are the real gem, though. In a nutshell, they tell objects to adhere to Newton’s discovery and behave with gravity, force and motion attributes when animated. Balls can fall and bounce realistically, objects can have a force (such as wind) applied to them and they bob about in the breeze. This is especially important when tied in with the particles system, letting you create fountains of water or volcanic eruptions that behave as you would expect. Again, the level of control is superb – particles can regenerate, spawn new particles after a set time period, or be textured as a group or individually. It’s lucky MetaCreations decided to include a manual that would rival the Bible in its depth, because you’ll need it.
Rendering is well handled, and although it doesn’t support features such as Radiosity, it’s ray tracer-based engine is both quick and featured. A Test Render tool takes much of the grunt work out of rendering, with it able to select a portion of the scene to render on scene, and the result is almost immediate. Batch rendering is a handy addition for overnight work, and you can render animations out to AVI and Apple QuickTime.
If Carrara didn’t crash as much, or demand such high system requirements right from the off, this would be an A+ release. However, it is a memory and CPU hog (it won’t get out of bed for less than a 300MHz PIII or G3), and lower-end machines (I used a 300MHz G3) struggle. Yet it has everything you’ll probably ever need for £299. Make no mistake, when MetaCreations off-loads this product as part of its re-focus, the buyer is getting a bargain. And if you opt for it, so will you.