Universe is a 3D application featuring tools for modelling, animation, and rendering. Like NewTek LightWave, it comes as two separate programs: Modeller, for creating models; and Animator, for setting up the scenes, cameras, lighting, and motion to apply to them.
As with LightWave, this keeps tools in their place, and makes the package less cluttered than it otherwise might be. It does, however, throw up some inconsistencies – if you want to design a logo, any objects in the scene will be built in Modeller, but the lettering will be created in Animator. Particle effects are built in Animator, and so are materials.
One of the main reasons for splitting the two programs is that Modeller has its own style of object creation. Using the bizarrely named über-NURBS, you can create resolution-independent 3D models without ever thinking about polygons or vertices.
Modeller’s style makes it difficult to use in conjunction with other packages, but Animator accepts models in LightWave, 3DS, DXF, and Alias|Wavefront .obj formats – so there needn’t be too many problems. Both packages are easy to get around in, and all the tools are on slide-out panels, which are well labelled and organized.
Once you’ve produced your objects in Modeller, you’ll need to save them, load up Animator, and import them into a new project where they can be re-sized and placed into a scene. The screen is devoid of tools, but can be configured to show pretty much whatever you need for the part of the project you’re currently working on. A few preset screen layouts would have been helpful here.
Materials can be created from scratch, using a sophisticated but intuitive material editor, or picked from the stock library. It’s all standard stuff, but it’s well implemented, and won’t take too long to learn.
Animation is available for pretty much anything that can be altered, and there’s a decent bones system, with forward and inverse kinematics. These can work together in the same way that they do in Alias|Wavefront Maya, LightWave or Discreet 3DS Max, to produce strong character animation very quickly. Strength maps can be painted onto a character to define the way the bones affect it – providing a high degree of control over the way limbs bend and muscles move.
Morphing is good, too, with multiple morph targets supported. This means that you can create complex expressions from a few simple facial shapes. There’s also a lot of control over the way the system morphs between targets; this can avoid the sudden changes of direction often found in morphs. However, there’s no support for in-between-morphing (where, several morph targets are reached sequentially to create a motion). This means that a morph between, say, an open hand and a fist won’t deform the fingers properly. However, there is decent support for bringing in sound files, so lip syncing is relatively painless.
All animated functions can be altered with a function curve, so you can work on keyframes with subtlety – and this doesn’t get in the way of sketching out animations rapidly if you need to. There isn’t the range of automatic and secondary animation you get in competing products, however, and there’s no scripting language to write your own. In addition, particle systems remain rather basic.
I like to move it, move it
New in Universe 5 is Match Move – a method for tracking camera motion in video footage. It isn’t completely foolproof, but you can track pan, tilt, and roll for cameras on tripods, so you can set up effects to move with the shots they’re placed into. You can’t follow a freely moving camera (so that shot from the helicopter over the herd of brontosaurus is still out), but you can do a lot more than the standard 2D tracking found in most compositors, and you won’t
be shelling out the thousands of pounds true 3D trackers cost.
Following recent trends in other packages, Shockwave export has been added. There are some useful controls for adjusting the compression of scenes and textures, and in a neat addition, a log file is also created listing the names of objects in a scene. If you’ve ever tried programming animation in 3D worlds within Director, you’ll know how useful it is to be able to check your object names quickly.
A new program, Radiosity, is included with Universe 5. This offers the ability to have bounced light in your renders. It’s usable, but Electric Image don’t claim it’s a mature program, so don’t expect wonders. However, it’s reasonably fast, and sports controls in the material section, which set the light-bouncing levels for any material. It also allows you to do the calculation once, then use the result in multiple renders. In other words, the lighting only needs to be worked out once, and you can render an entire animation – the computer doesn’t have to re-do the work on every frame.
Network rendering is now more readily available, and useful – including the ability to split jobs on a single frame among multiple computers, meaning that even still images can be rendered faster.
Additionally, there are many little tweaks to the package aimed at making it easier to use without messing with the general look-&-feel. Time markers, for example, are available for flagging important moments on your timeline and jumping to them immediately. Certain types of object on any view can be turned on and off – so you can make bones vanish in the camera view, or suppress the lights to produce a less cluttered scene. Font options in Modeller are now a little stronger, with automatic creation of outlines, fills, and extrusions for text animations.
All in all, this isn’t a massive update. It does take Universe forward, although the only new feature that will draw users away from 3DS Max, Maya, or LightWave is probably the motion tracking. Particle systems are still a little limited, as are non-keyframe animations.
Having said that, Universe does have its own modelling style which has its advantages, and which doesn’t limit you when you come to use the Animator. A wide range of animation tools, combined with the new radiosity features, and a very strong basic renderer produce a package that makes for strong images, at a cost that’s less than its more popular competitors.