Price: $399; upgrade from 4.x, $199
Company: Pixels Digital
A Mac-only high-end 3D program may seem like a strange proposition, but that’s exactly what Pixels 3D is. While the company can’t spend huge amounts on marketing and advertising, it is constantly busy refining one of the unsung heroes of the 3D community. Version 4.0 marked a large departure in terms of interface and workflow, and version 4.1 saw the program go Mac OS X-native, with a concomitant increase in speed and stability. Version 4.5 has added several major features that push it even closer to the big boys such as Alias|Wavefront Maya and Softimage|XSI. The interface is reminiscent of Maya, with a four-pane view, and the Attributes manager running down the right-hand side. Look closer, and you find that all tool buttons have disappeared, except for a row of ‘Favourites’ across the top. Many commands are now hidden in menus, although they can be assigned to the Favourites bar. Various layouts (standard and user-definable) are supported for modelling, animation, general, and ShaderMaker, but the Favourites don’t change to reflect the different needs of various layouts. Many features can now be accessed from the View Contextual menu from anywhere within the four-view (think Maya’s ‘Marking Menus’). Modelling is based on polygons, Metaballs, and a robust implementation of NURBS, with the ability to join, split and fillet surfaces. Objects derived from NURBS curves remain fully editable, and the influence of the free-form deformation is infinitely controllable via a function curve-type editor. A variety of deformers shapes objects: lattices are available, as are spline deformers. These can deform an object along any freehand spline drawn in Pixels, or imported from an illustration program. There’s even an option that lets you use one object as a virtual ‘last’ around which you can wrap another. While there’s still no true MetaNURBS/Subdivision Surface implementation, there is the ability to subdivide polygonal meshes to get smoother results. For bread-&-butter work, there’s the new LogoMaker, which can import vector artwork from Macromedia FreeHand or Adobe Illustrator with a fair degree of control over the appearance of the resulting 3D text. Surfaces are handled by the incredible ShaderMaker. This builds up procedural shaders using a node-based network, similar to the high-end offerings from Pixar, Maya, and XSI. It can be confusing at first, but offers phenomenal control once you understand the principle. Rendering surfaces is handled by the standalone Tempest rendering engine, which integrates perfectly with Pixels. This has added Global Illumination, and can make use of the Skydome feature to use image-maps as light sources. Photon Mapping will appear soon. A lot of the tools are centred around character animation. The program sports speedy IK implementation, and RigMaker has been introduced. This simplifies the sometimes-arduous task of setting up character skeletons (see walkthrough). Although some areas are a little unfinished (the Open GL display, while fast, doesn’t yet support textures), Pixels really is a taste of the high end: Champagne at beer prices.