Softimage|3D is the granddaddy of 3D-animation software. It’s been available
for around 15 years, and has been the tool of choice for some of the big-effects films in recent times. It is a system that shows its age, however – especially if you’re familiar with other modern 3D systems such as XSI, Maya or 3DS Max. With the new pricing for Softimage|3D 4.0, it’s placed in the bear pit of the 3D market where it will have to fight it out with LightWave, Cinema 4D XL and Maya Complete. It’s a smart move by Softimage. By reducing the price of Softimage|3D 4.0 and keeping XSI’s price as it was, they are able to enter the price war with Alias without compromising their high-end status, image or revenue stream.
That said, Maya Complete and Softimage|3D 4 offer different levels of performance. Taken on a straight usability level, Maya Complete would beat Soft 4 without too much of a battle. But you have to get beneath the clunky surface of Soft to reveal its true potential, and if you’re willing to take on Soft’s slightly techy workflow and rigid interface paradigms, you’ll be richly rewarded.
There are still two versions of version 4: the
base version named simply Softimage|3D, and Softimage|3D Extreme. The former is now being offered for the Maya-matching sum of just over a grand, and gets you full NURBS and Polygon modelling, loads of plug-ins, sophisticated IK and skinning, and powerful animation tools. The latter adds the impressive Mental Ray 2.1 rendering
system and costs half a grand more. With Mental Ray, you get niceties such as Caustics and Global Illumination (GL) – though set-up for these rendering effects are more involved than in competing systems.
In order to enable GI for example, you need to assign groups – one for objects, the other for lights – and place into these the objects and lights you wish to take part in the GI calculation. This does allow for a lot of flexibility, as well as the ability to exclude some objects and lights from GI calculation, or to set custom settings for certain objects in the scene.
The Global Illumination is fast and the results good looking almost right away, without tweaking. Mental Ray’s Final Gathering mode is also available for faster render times with minimal detriment to image detail. Rendering to Mental Ray is simple too. All you need to do is switch from the built-in Softimage renderer to Mental Ray in the render options, then when rendering your scene is converted to a .mi file and passed to the standalone Mental Ray app for rendering, then displayed in a window in Softimage when completed. Speed is good, quality is excellent, and custom shaders provided by Softimage for Mental Ray put it ahead of other Mental Ray implementations.
Plug-in away at 3D
The interface may feel behind the times, but it has plenty in its favour, too. This is a suite that’s seen 15 years development at the cutting edge of high-end 3D animation, so you’re going to benefit from that heritage and R&D in the long term. Little things – such as middle-clicking on a menu button that takes you to the last item in the menu, and opens the dialog and executes the command – make life easier. Middle-clicking in one of the TRS value fields highlights the current value, ready for you to enter a new one. Plus there’s a huge keystroke library, making for a smooth workflow, once you’re up to speed.
One bugbear to consider is the fact that many
of the features are, in fact, plug-ins. Strip away these to leave the bare shell, and you’ll find a decent core toolset that is well integrated and easy to use and understand. Not so with many of the plug-ins. These are simply staked onto the core set of features and are called from menus, some of which are lengthy.
Each plug-in will tend to have its own,
modal interface, which we often found difficult to understand. Help is on hand with built-in instructions that you can call up from within the plug-in interface, but really playing with the settings and test rendering is the only way to get to grips with things. From the outset, and unlike more modern alternatives, predictability is low.
Arguably the worst designed part of the program is the materials and shading section. The way you assign materials to control channels is very different to what has become industry-standard practice. You can do great texturing with Soft, but it’s far harder
to learn and master than the competition, such as LightWave or Cinema 4D XL.
Other things, such as the way TRS operations occur from the centre of the object not the centre of the selection when modelling and editing a tagged group of points: this is particularly annoying when you need to rotate a group of points that may be at the extremities of your object and who’s pivot point is many units away from the section of model you are attending to. This is bad where sculpting is concerned.
The new features in version 4 are not earth shattering, but worthwhile. Most useful is the
ability to assign multiple, different UV Coordinates to multiple image maps on a mesh. There is a new tool that allows you to manipulate surface Normals on Polygon objects; you can scale, rotate and move normals and even animate them. The GC Polyreduction standalone now has the ability to batch process selected models in scene files, while in the animation section the Dope Sheet can be used to manipulate animations in plug-ins or Mental Ray shaders.
The real downside is the learning curve and
the fact that the program is no longer really going anywhere, despite regular updates. However, for shops who have, or are considering getting XSI, it is a cheap way to have a few extra support seats using Softimage|3D for building models.
Softimage|3D 4 stacks up very nicely against
the competition despite there being no subdivision-surfaces modelling – neither is there in Maya Complete – softbody dynamics or integrated particles, and its rather dated interface. Nevertheless, it has a good set of tools, and the animation control offered, like the image quality, is exceptional. Despite this,
if this is to be your only 3D purchase, you might be better off looking at more modern alternatives.