Price: $399; upgrade from 4.1, $199; upgrade from 3.5, $249
Company: Pixels Digital
Only a few months ago, we reviewed Pixels 3D 4.5. This new version comes hot on the heels of one of the biggest shake-ups in the product’s history, namely a complete re-write and interface overhaul, and a move to Mac OS X. Yes, Pixels 3D is that rarest of beasts: a Mac OS-only 3D application. The program is available as a download from the company’s Web site, and costs a very reasonable $399 (around £245). Your money doesn’t only buy you the core modelling and animation program, but also the powerful ShaderMaker Pro (a node-based system for building procedural shaders) and Tempest Massive, the renderer. This is a REYES-based renderer, and so shares a common heritage with Pixar’s RenderMan. In version 5.0, the resolution of output renders is now limited only by the amount of available RAM in your machine (hence ‘Massive’). There have been no significant interface changes between versions 4.5 and 5.0. You still get the well-laid-out, slightly Maya-esque look and feel, with the row of ‘Favourite’ commands that behave like OS X’s Dock. While Pixels 3D 5.0 supports different layouts for rendering, animating, modelling, building shaders, and so on, these Favourites don’t change with the different layouts, which seems odd. Two other interface oddities have hung over from version 4.5: the entire screen goes white when switching to Pixels 5.0 from another program and, even though the Open GL is fast and smooth, it still doesn’t support textures in the previews. Both these problems are going to be addressed in version 5.1 (which may be here sooner than you think). While many commands are now hidden in menus, Pixels 3D 5.0 does have special contextual menus that pop up in any of the viewports, allowing easy access to often-used commands. One nice interface touch concerns the view tools: these are represented by the usual pan, zoom, and tumble icons on each viewport. However, the mouse action ‘wraps around’: when the cursor moves to the edge of the screen, it reappears suddenly at the opposite edge, allowing a continuous action for these much-used tools. Users of LightWave Modeller will know how frustrating it can be when this ‘wrap-around’ isn’t present. Pixels 3D 5.0’s modelling is based primarily on NURBS, with metaball (‘blobbies’) primitives and, of course, polygons. The blobbies can now be rotated and scaled to give more control over the creation of organic objects. The NURBS implementation is also robust: you can join, blend, and fillet NURBS surfaces, but you’ll have to know your Us from your Vs, as most modelling operations require that you specify which of these surface dimensions will be affected by the subsequent modification. Main squeeze There’s also a Freeform tool that pinches and squeezes NURBS objects as if they were clay. The influence of this tool can be controlled by user-definable function curves, accessible from the Attributes Editor, the panel on the right of the interface that allows inspection and modification of the scene. These changes are all, of course, animatable. While the NURBS and polygon tools can rank among the best available on any platform, Pixels 3D 5.0 still lacks true Subdivision Surface modelling. You can smooth polygonal meshes, but it doesn’t have the immediacy that true Subdivision Surfaces (or SubDs) modelling can produce. SubDs are capable of producing, arguably, the finest organic modelling available. Let’s hope that Pixels gets them sooner rather than later – and with the new plug-in SDK, that may not be far off. Another new NURBS deformer is the Water modifier. This is a dynamic modifier that acts on NURBS surfaces at the vertex level. Simply move some vertices on a NURBS mesh, hit the play button, and ripple-like disturbances will propagate out in real-time in the open GL view. This can also be used for simple cloth simulation – flags blowing in the breeze, for example. Particle systems in Pixels 3D 5.0 have also been given a makeover, with the algorithms that control them being faster and more accurate. Interestingly, Pixels 5.0 uses real particles – they are physical objects in the scene, not some post-rendering effect. Of course, if you want to add realistic textures to your particles systems, you’re going to have to fall back on ShaderMaker. This builds up procedural shaders using a node-based network, similar to the high-end offerings from Pixar, Maya, and XSI. ShaderMaker can be confusing, but offers phenomenal control once you understand it. It has its own Layout that allows it to be accessed directly from within Pixels 3D 5.0 – all the more impressive, since it used to be a pricey standalone application in its own right. Among the new shader nodes is a Fresnel node that combines reflection and refraction for realistic glass. Rendering surfaces is handled by the standalone (but still bundled) Tempest rendering engine, which integrates perfectly with Pixels 3D. This has Global Illumination, and can make use of the Skydome feature to use image-maps as light sources. Character animation has been greatly simplified with the introduction of the new RigMaker rigs. These allow the construction of entire jointed character rigs in a few mouse clicks. As well as a biped rig, there is also a new quadruped rig for that special dinosaur project. Setting these up takes little more than choosing a menu command and filling in a dialog box. The Inverse Kinematic solvers have also been extensively rewritten to provide smoother, quicker skeletal motion. And one final note: even though they’re only available as a PDF download, Pixels 3D 5.0 seems at last to have the manuals that it’s always deserved.