Electric Image, the company that makes Electric Image Universe, is one of 3D’s pioneers. It was responsible for creating the first truly professional 3D animation system for the Mac and arguably the world’s fastest rendering engine. Formed back in 1987, the company was originally created as a production facility to create 3D animation and effects for motion pictures, and developed their own 3D software and rendering engine for that purpose. Electric Image the 3D suite was born, and since then the software has gone from strength to strength.
Electric Image version 3.0 – dubbed Universe – is the first version that will be available on platforms other than the Mac, so it marks a significant new chapter in the history of both the company and the product. Universe is available for Macintosh, Windows and Solaris – and to facilitate the cross-platform deployment, it has been substantially rewritten.
The last version of Electric Image, 2.9 shipped with a separate modelling application, EI Modeller – and so does Universe. This can slow work down – but integrating the two packages into a single unified environment was probably too complex since they’re based on very different geometry technologies. Universe Modeller uses a hybrid Surface/Solids modelling system based on ACIS from Spatial Corporation while Universe Animator is solely polygonal-based.
One of the main, practical features that Universe has gained is OpenGL display. Previously, Electric Image relied on a software-rendering display system that lagged behind other products. The new OpenGL system is much faster and feels comparable to competing systems such as LightWave and Cinema 4D XL. However the software display is still available and when its shading is set to Phong, it provides superb quality results with extremely accurate feedback of lighting and materials. This isn’t so good for animation tests but useful when creating lighting set-ups and materials.
Rendering is unchanged in its implementation – there’s a separate rendering application called Universe Camera which launches when you create a test render in Universe Animator (no test rendering is available in Modeller). When it comes time for the final render, this is the only application needed, so RAM requirements are minimized. Camera can also be distributed to different machines on a network and across platforms without the need for extra licences. Renderarma is the batch-processing utility used to schedule rendering jobs to all the Cameras on the network. It’s a well-designed system that makes distributed rendering a painless proposition.
Universe Camera differs from its previous incarnation in one major way. It fully supports raytracing for reflections and transparency, a feature that has been missing from the program since its creation. Not having raytracing is one of the reasons that Electric Image has been able to justify its claim of being the fastest renderer in the world. However the new Camera is just as fast as before, and when raytracing is enabled it can easily perform as well as any other speedy renderer – though of course it’s slower than when it is not raytracing. Raytracing is enabled selectively, both by the software and by the users. Only portions of the image that actually require raytracing receive it, so speeding the process. You can also select raytracing per object and per material, which is very handy.
In the Material editor there’s a switch for Occlusion in the raytrace reflection options. This feature uses raycasting to determine a more accurate reflection when using the built-in mirror and environment map reflection schemes and is a great way to get better-looking results without using full raytracing techniques. Refraction is an all or nothing type of effect but Universe’s raytraced transparency is still remarkably fast.
What hasn’t changed is the quality of the rendering. Electric Image has always produced top quality output and Universe is no exception. What’s more, unlike many 3D packages excellent quality rendering can be achieved with the most basic of settings. A little bit of work with the materials and lights produce some stunning renders.
Along with raytraced materials you can now raytrace shadows too. Hard shadows are possible with a flick of a switch where previously you had to use massive shadow buffers to get the same result. Universe also supports raytraced soft shadows, sometimes called area shadows. These produce very realistic shadow edges that vary their dispersion depending on their distance to the shadow-casting object.
Light types have not changed. Universe supports Radial, Spot, Parallel, Ambient and Tube lights, and though area shadows are supported for any light type area lights themselves are not. Master lights are a new feature that let you control any number of lights with a single interface. All lights linked to a master light take on its properties meaning that you can change all the lights in a single action.
Another of the program’s strengths is its Material system, which offers huge scope for all aspects of an object’s shading: including excellent specular control, a unique gloss option, diffuse, reflection and transparency edge attenuation, separate ambient and luminosity control, translucency, glow and glare and displacement. Aside from systems that use shader trees, this is one of the best material-editing systems around. Each channel can use bitmaps or shaders to control its effect, and Universe comes with a good selection.
Five new shaders include one for anisotropic and layered specularity, another for creating thin film effects, and three that introduce additional illumination models. Gooch adds the ability to create subtle non-photo-real shading, good for illustrations and technical renders, and Oren-Nayer offers a broader range of matte diffuse shading with the option of Phong-Blinn specularity. The third is Pearl, which lets you independently vary the reflected wavelengths of light from a surface in three different bands. Option noise modulation can be added to create very realistic pearlized surfaces.
An annoyance is that the sliders used to control the various fall off options have become very difficult to use. Their useful range seems to be concentrated within a tiny distance at the one end of the slider; the other 90 per cent of the slider’s travel causes very little change. In previous versions this was not so.
Electric Image has worked on the suite’s dubious character animation tools and produced a much better system in all ways. The new IK and skeleton system works more like other programs and features assignable IK handles and three different solvers; Pseudo, Two Bone and Minimizer. There are also pole vector controls to help with joint flipping and a Twist control too.
The pole vector and twist features are right out of Maya, but Universe is still way behind the pack in terms of character animation features. The good news is that it’s on the right track, and things can only get better. Although it’s version 3.0, technically it’s really a new product with associated glitches and rough patches.
The Universe Modeller, based on a hybrid surface/ solids technology, has undergone serious improvements too. Non-uniform scaling has at last been implemented, and there are multiple undos available in UberNURBS.
Aside from functional improvements, there are lots of interesting new features too. Space Warp and Lattice deformation has been added, and the NURBS toolset has been extended with many more tools for editing NURBS surfaces – including Add/Remove Isoparms, Surface Continuity including T-Stitching and corner continuity for stitching three surfaces at their corners.
Laws surfaces are a new addition. These are surfaces that can be created from mathematical formulae that you can enter, though there are a few presets supplied. Rounding has been improved with support for multi-radius rounds (oval rounds) and different radius rounds per edge.
Good features include the Body Offset tool for creating inside or outside ‘skins’ on objects and Local Face translations for extending objects. Along with undos, UberNURBS has a few more tools including Uncover Loop/ Cover Rim for creating holes and Merge Two Edges, which can be used to join two separate UberNURBS objects together.
The biggest problem, at least aesthetically, is the inequality between Animator and Modeller. The Modeller features a good interface with clear icons and menus, while Animator has a totally different interface, totally different icons and different key commands. They speak a different technological language so data transfer between them is necessarily complex – requiring the models in Modeller to be tessellated and exported to FACT format before they can be opened in Animator. Better integration between the two is needed, but at least the tessellation options in Modeller are comprehensive.
Some may argue that trying to compete with the likes of Cinema 4D, LightWave and Max in character animation is a waste of time, and if this type of work makes up a large portion of your 3D output you’d best look at the other options. The new character tools do make this sort of work less of a headache in Electric Image and for occasional use it’s fine. The new modeller is still out on its own in many areas. It’s not quite an all-weather system, and it’s probably wise to have other modelling apps to hand, but it’s capable of stunning results difficult to achieve elsewhere.
The bottom line is that Universe is a mixed bag. If render quality and speed are of the utmost concern then Universe is a great choice. For most animation tasks it also provides a deep toolset with plenty of nice little quirks to keep you out of trouble. It lacks the more sophisticated tools like dynamics, expressions and a proper particle system (although a basic one is included) found in competing systems. However, for real meat-and-potatoes 3D work, digital matte creation and scenes involving huge numbers of polygons, it scores very highly indeed.