The 3D-graphics market is set for a shakedown. Alias|Wavefront has pulled
the rug from under the high-end market
by dropping the price of Maya Complete to a paltry £1,499. And, in the mid-range, LightWave has been reduced to a mere £1,095. Hanging on to the high-end is Side Effects with Houdini. This costs a galactic £14,500, but the company has also released a cut-down version for £1,999.
Side Effect’s 3D-animation system, Houdini, is legendary among pro 3D-graphics artists. If you’ve ever watched the film Contact (based on the book by astronomer Carl Sagan), you may remember the amazing first scene. It begins with the limb of the Earth in close up, then the camera gradually pulls back through the solar system, out through the inter-stellar media of our galaxy – lots of nebulae, dust and assorted space junk – out of the local
group of galaxies right to the edge of the universe. Not exactly a small job, but it was Houdini that was used to complete the lengthy effects sequence – thanks in no small part to its procedural make-up and phenomenal particle tools.
Select is the same as version 5 of Houdini,
the latest release of the software – except that it’s missing some of the more advanced features, such as integrated compositing, the character set-up tools, and, unfortunately, the particle system that the full version is so famous for.
What is included, though, makes up one of the most thoroughly thought-out pieces of software ever – and that goes for the full version, too. It has to be well planned, as Houdini Select is deep and powerful. Part of the problem with previous versions of the software has been this very feature. The program has always been considered inaccessible by most 3D artists, but Side Effects has deliberately tried to counter that in this new version, which focuses heavily on workflow improvements and ease of use.
The interface is exactly what you expect from
a pro-3D app. It’s functional, but at the same time looks daunting, strewn with buttons and cross-cut with different views. At least it is after you’ve been using it for a while. When Select is initially launched, it confronts you with the picture of simplicity: a single 3D view, and a solitary toolbar at the top of the window, and a timeline at the bottom. This is apparently how Select/Houdini can operate now. There’s no need to go poking around with nodes and expressions if you don’t want to, you can model and animate directly in the 3D views, more or less.
The tool bars can be opened or stowed by clicking a small bar at one end. When collapsed, they present themselves as a narrow bar running along the edge
of the interface they are attached to. Either way, they’re always there ready for action and take up little screen space. The main 3D view supports different layouts for the usual quad view etcetera, and the display is OpenGL driven. It’s fast and responsive, too, with various display modes on offer.
Select has the full set of modelling tools found
in Houdini 5. There are primitives, both polygonal and procedural, and NURBS surfaces can be created from curves you draw or extract from other surfaces. You can model in the 3D view much like other 3D programs.
It might look similar to the way other tool-
based programs operate, but that isn’t really what is going on beneath the surface. When you edit some geometry, for example extrude a face, you’re not merely using a tool to perform an action, but building a structure that represents that end-result. The structures in question are the nodes, or operators that link together in Select. A primitive cube, for example, consists of a file node that references an external data set describing the cube geometry. You select a face then add an Extrude Operator from the Filter menu – which you have quick access too at any time by tapping the Tab key – to extrude the face.
The parameters of the extrude node remain accessible at any point in the future, unless you remove it. There are around 125 individual modelling filters – the filter list changes depending in which module you’re in – which are categorized only in the pop-up menu in the actual interface. This makes it difficult to know which ones will actually work on the current selection when using the Tab hot key, which lists them alphabetically.
Everything in Select is animatable with keyframes, or expressions and functions. These can be typed directly into any numeric field. There’s a fully functional timeline, and a function curve editor that can be used to display keyframe interpolation and the output of different expressions or functions. Keyframes can be set to different interpolation modes – for example, linear, spline, bézier – on the same curve for precise animation control.
There are no character tools in Select, however, which is one of its biggest shortcomings. Bones, point capture, and weighting tools are reserved for the full version of Houdini 5, so proper smoothly deforming character animation is only possible if you also have access to the full version – Select can open its scene files and animate them though. That is fine if Select
is used in a production environment – along with a copy or two of Houdini – but as a standalone application, proper character animation is not really possible in Select.
Rendering is good though. Mantra 5 is Select’s default renderer, the same as in the full version. It features raytracing, and uses a hybrid rendering technique to minimize processing time – as do most modern renderers. The renderer is tightly integrated with the shader-based material system Select uses. The shaders uses a similar language to RenderMan – there is very tight integration of Houdini 5 with RenderMan. Though there are preset shaders, you may want to write or modify them to get specific results. There’s a full set of UV-editing tools, too, though they don’t seem to be as easy to use as in some competing systems.
All told, Select is more suited as a companion
to Houdini 5 than a standalone 3D-solution. It’s expensive, especially when compared with Maya Complete – which is a truly complete solution. It’s also still tricky to use, especially if you don’t need the power that its procedural workflow provides. If you’re looking for an all-round 3D-animation workhorse Select is not your best bet.