LightWave has long been one of the top packages for 3D animation and design. Its pedigree is already well-proven in post-production houses worldwide. Now, with version 6.5, NewTek wants to take more users away from Maya and 3DS Max.
The package is made up of two completely separate programs: Modeller – in which you design and build all your 3D objects, and Layout – in which you assemble, light, and animate your scene.
The general look-&-feel of both programs is still quite a long way from that of a normal Windows package. All the usual commands, menu structures, dialogs, and mouse operations have been thrown over in favour of LightWave’s own systems, and while this has its advantages, it does leave the new user disoriented. Added to this, the Undo function isn’t all that great, especially in Layout – and this is quite a handicap as trial and error plays a large part in any design process.
That said, the layout in LightWave is well thought, out and completely customizable, and version 6.5 streamlines it further.
The modelling portion of version 6.5 offers several new features, notably a bézier curve modelling tool, a content manager for collecting all the elements of your LightWave projects into a single folder, and a halftone shader to help in cartoon rendering. Also, you can now import 3DS files along with their textures, UV map co-ordinates, layers and basic material properties.
Once you’ve created an object, you’ll want to produce textures and surfaces for it. LightWave 6.5 gives you a vast amount of control over the qualities of your materials – including two different cartoon style shaders, and a range of other controls. There are also several libraries of presets that you can adapt to your own needs. Although there are quite a number of real looking materials here, the choices are sometimes a little odd – there are eight or nine different surfaces suitable for meteorites, and none for wood, fabric, or concrete. That’s not to say you can’t create any surface you like – with LightWave’s range of procedural textures, as well as the photographic textures that come with the package (a few hundred are included, covering most types of surface), you can quickly put together your own materials and store them in your own libraries.
Touchy, feely textures
The new UV texture atlas function will save a lot of time for 3D professionals wanting to texture complex shapes. Put simply, you can take any 3D object you like, no matter how complex its shape, and LightWave will unwrap it onto a single sheet. You can then use this as a map on which to paint your textures. The UV Atlas tool will intelligently split the object into a selection of maps so you can easily create seamless textures.
Significant changes have also been made to the Layout side of the package. Particle systems have been added to the basic package (before, they came as a third-party plug-in). These are flexible, and easy to use. Dynamics have also been added. In other words, objects in a 3D scene can now be acted on by gravity and other forces. Realistic collisions and other real-world events can also be simulated – making animations faster and more authentic. With the addition of soft-body dynamics, the stretching and wobbling of materials such as cloth can be simulated.
Smoke and fire in LightWave 6.5 is probably better implemented than in any other 3D package. Unlike in most systems, smoke is fully 3D, so you can fly the camera around and even through it without the effect becoming unrealistic. The only down side to this is that rendering times can become quite horrific (several hours for a single frame when passing through a cloud of smoke).
The rendering engine itself is one of the best around. It’s 196-bit, so for film work, it will retain the full range of colour. Radiosity (light bouncing from one object to another) and caustics (dappling caused by light refracted through transparent objects) are standard, and well implemented, so rendering has a highly realistic edge.
For extra realism when compositing real-world and computer-generated images, you can use HDRI (High Dynamic Range Imaging). The idea here is that instead of lighting your scene, you create a panoramic photograph – complete with f-stop information – of the environment your CG object is being placed into. LightWave then lights the scene based on the lighting of your original set. This not only enables you to mimic the original lighting setup accurately, it also creates a much more subtle lighting environment than you could hope to achieve by placing virtual lights.
Also new is the ability to ‘bake’ radiosity, caustics, lighting, procedural textures and texture images onto a surface. If you’re doing a complex lighting job on an animated scene that’s going to take ages to render, you effectively only need to do the time-consuming work for one frame. The results can be baked onto your objects. This leaves your lighting effects as image textures wrapped onto your objects, so as long as you don’t need to change the lighting during your animation, the whole scene will render much faster.
Add to this an improved 3D IK system, as well as a pretty decent set of animation controllers, and the result is a tool which ought to consolidate its place in the broadcast and film marketplace.
All in all, NewTek LightWave 6.5 adds some interesting and useful features to what is already a very strong package. Its main problem is not a lack of functions, but a lack of information. There’s no help menu, no tooltips, few right-click menus, and no indicators to tell you how long processor intensive tasks (like rendering) are likely to take. That said, the Modeller is relatively quick to pick up, the animation is flexible and extendable, and the rendering is quite superb.