Price When Reviewed: £1,395 plus VAT
Cinema 4D XL has gone from strength to strength over the last few years. It used to be a midrange package that had fast raytracing but weak modelling options, but release 6.0 fixed that. The modelling is now as good, if not better, than the competition, so the new release addresses other areas of the program – most notably the rendering.
XL 7 has a number of interesting new features that increase image quality, the first being improved antialiasing. The new antialiasing has adaptive oversampling that, so Maxon claims, improves image quality without taking any longer than in version 6. It may even render more quickly in some situations.
Antialiasing a go-go
A test using a simple scene with the default Geometry mode antialiasing activated shows this to indeed be the case. Edges of objects are crisp and sharp without a hint of fuzziness or aliasing when using the Still image antialiasing filter. You can switch to the Animation filter for a slightly softer output that’s more suited to animations and, using Blend mode, create a custom filter that’s a blend of the two types. There are also Sync, Area, Cone, Catmul, and PAL/NTSC filters which all produce different degrees of softness for different looks.
Geometry antialiasing works on geometry edges, but not in reflections or behind transparencies. For this, you need to activate Best mode antialiasing, which works on the contrast between pixels rather than geometry edges. A threshold controls the effect and can be set with a minimum value of 1-x-1 and a Max value of up to 16-x-16. The new controls produce better results – especially for animations. A test render we created showed no flickering due to fine object details and high image quality. The new Render tag can be used to set antialiasing levels individually on objects, so if there is a problem object in the render, it can be set to a higher antialiasing level than the rest.
XL might have lost the race with competitor LightWave to be the first to add radiosity and caustics but XL 7 seems has the edge in terms of features. The new radiosity rendering is a bit of a stunner – thanks largely to its speed. Radiosity rendering can be optimized with a special algorithm developed by Maxon that greatly reduces the time it takes to produce a radiosity render.
A prepass can be calculated, showing you where XL takes shading sample points (white dots on the render) based on the settings you supply. If the settings are wrong, you can see it without waiting for the whole render to complete. The algorithm samples more densely near to object intersections and more sparsely in open areas where radiosity effects are less obvious. Radiosity solutions can be saved to disc and reused to make subsequent rendering even faster. You can even get away with making small changes to the scene without the need for full recalculation.
Caustics and effects
Caustics are also implemented in XL7 with two types available – surface and volume. Surface caustics are produced by light either bouncing off or passing through one object and striking another. Volume caustics do not need to strike another object to be visible – they can illuminate volumetric light instead. Caustics are optimized so they render quickly, though volume caustics are very time-intensive anyway. Both radiosity and caustics are excellent in XL 7 and offer a huge increase in image realism without the usual drawback of massive render times.
A recent trend is the use of multipass rendering, a process by which a final render is split up into different rendered files for use in compositing packages. XL 7 adds this feature but has given it a new twist. Not only can you render out multiple passes into a single layered Photoshop (or BodyPaint) file, you can also render separate light passes. For each light that’s activated for multipass rendering, a folder will be created in the layered image file that contains only the illumination for that light. This lets you alter lighting after you’ve rendered. A light pass can contain shadows, specularity and diffuse illumination as separate layers, so you can control each of these independently for each light.
The bulk of the new features concern rendering, but there are some other important improvements too. XL’s Materials is one of its weakest areas, so Maxon has bundled the BhudiNUT Smells Like Almonds shader pack with the new version, which greatly enhances the package.
Aside from new shaders, there are new blurry reflections and transparency for material channels. There’s also an impressive new specular highlight control with no less than four sliders to control every nuance of surface highlights. In the new Illumination channel, there are two new shading modes – Blinn and Oren-Nayar – and also a diffuse fall-off control (that used to be available only for lights).
Though modelling hasn’t been changed, there are two new additions that will help scene construction – a Polygon Reduction plug-in, which was much needed and performs well, and a ExplosionFX plug-in. This explodes objects using adjustable forces and dynamic properties. Unlike the standard Explosion device, you can make the fragments become extruded as the object is exploded so that it looks more solid and less like a polygon mesh. The effect is applied continuously to an object – so you can do cool things such as move the Explosion centre and watch the object disintegrate and reform in real time as the effect is passed through it.
On the surface, the feature list may seem a little sparse, but when you actually come to use the program you realize how much Maxon has improved workflow and quality in Cinema 4D XL. All of the features are worthy and there’s no chaff to bulk out the feature list. XL 7 represents excellent value for money and should be on every 3D artists shopping list for a top-quality 3D animation program.