In response to changing trends in the 3D market, Strata has released two new versions of its 3D rendering and animation program, renamed simply Strata 3D and Strata 3Dpro. The base version is available for free to download it – a bold but obvious move on Strata’s part. If you like the program, then you’ll most likely upgrade to the pro version. Considering that previous versions of Strata Studio Pro used to cost around £1,000, the current price of about £500 seems a bargain.
While essentially the same as the free version, Strata 3Dpro comes with extra features, mainly in the form of plug-in extensions. The interfaces are identical, in fact the program looks and feels much like older versions of the program, although there are a few surprises. The working 3D view supports OpenGL shading with textures so a good 3D accelerator card can be used to speed the display of complex scenes. There are five other display types too, GL Flat, GL Hidden Line, GL Wireframe, GL Outline and GL PointCloud.
Primitives in 3Dpro are procedural so that you can edit their parameters, such as complexity, on the fly. This is done from the Object Properties panel and here we find the first of many of Strata 3Dpro’s oddities. In a 3D application it makes sense to be able to precisely define the resolution of objects numerically. For example, to enter precisely how many divisions a sphere or cylinder has in U and V directions. In 3Dpro, however, you get a single slider going from low res to high res. If you want to create an eight-sided cylinder, for example, you have to move the slider and hope you can hit the right spot. There’s no ability to have different resolutions in U and V on primitives in this way. Unfortunately this sort of dumbness seems to permeate the program.
Primitives can be converted to various other geometry types such as polygons or bézier mesh surfaces. Polygon meshes are always triangulated, which can make editing them tricky, but 3Dpro hasn’t any high-level polygon-editing tools so you will need to edit modes exported from 3Dpro in another program. You also can’t create or delete faces or points on polygon objects – you can just drag them using a magnet-like tool called Gravity. This may be useful for sculpting models, but the lack of a true polygon-editing toolset is very limiting.
Strata 3Dpro has bézier curves and tools for creating 3D objects from them such as Lathe, Extrude and Skin. Surfaces created in this way remain linked to the original curves that were used to create them and by entering Reshape mode you can change these source curves to fine tune the 3D shape. These shapes can be converted to Skinned Objects (a series of lofted profiles are created), bézier patch surfaces or polygons meshes, and these types can all be edited in Reshape mode, although you lose the source curves. Unfortunately, conversions cannot be undone, so if you convert an object make sure you first make a duplicate because there’s no way to return to the original.
Other modelling extensions include Booleans, Fillet, Mirror, Snap and Deform (FFD). Bézier meshes offer the best way to create free form organic surfaces though editing them is not the easiest of procedures since each vertex also has four bézier handles. Lots of control but also lots of hassle. There are also metaballs for creating blobby objects.
Where 3Dpro does excel is in rendering and materials. There’s Scanline (no shadows), Raytracing and also Radiosity rendering and comprehensive material-editing controls. Strata 3Dpro ships with a number of shaders such as Concrete, Corrosion and Blender (which lets you apply up to six separate shaders to an object cubically) as well as a basic material system that has 12 channels including Caustics. There’s also a clever Micro Polish option giving you precise control over the specular component of a material.
There are some good lighting tools such as exposure compensation, which prevents the over-lighting of scenes in order to maintain the maximum dynamic range in images. Realistic results are easily attainable, but shadows are raytraced only so there are no soft edges. For realistic soft shadows you have to use Radiosity.
Animation is good but nothing special. There’s no function curve editor – only simple keyframe interpolation for Ease-in/Ease-out – but you can display and edit motion paths.
Special effects such as render-only particles, glows, hair and pixiedust are available too, although these are quite simple effects – the particles for example are only visible during rendering and not in the work views.
Strata 3Dpro is a good, all-round 3D tool capable of delivering good-quality output for a fair price, though the technology seems a little dated these days. The problem is that Strata’s way feels like the hard way, especially when there are other 3D systems that are far more powerful and easier to use, albeit at a higher price point. Even so the rendering is excellent for the money and, if you can bear the quirky working methods and interface, it’s worth checking out.