LightWave 7 review

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LightWave has been one of the top three 3D animation packages for a long time now, and its credits include dozens of Hollywood films, TV series, and video games; an aggressive policy of updates has kept it at the forefront of its market. Now in release 7, the package includes a range of new and updated features. Many of these have been aimed at improving workflow and speeding up working and rendering. A non-linear editor has been introduced for editing animation cycles: this is a little daunting at first, but is actually an incredibly flexible way of creating complex animations from segments of motion. The idea is that you can cut, paste and loop sections of your animation, then introduce controllable transitions to blend between one animation and the next. For example, say you’ve produced a character and created a walk loop, a run loop, and a jumping animation. Calling up the non-linear editor presents you with a timeline on which your animations appear as blocks. You can then very easily drag these blocks around, duplicate them, and blend them together. Within minutes you can have the character running, walking, and jumping in any combination. With more sophisticated sets of animations, you should be able string together animation scenes with unprecedented speed. One of the beta testers for this function has been Foundation Imaging, who did the mass character animations on the animated series Starship Troopers. Workflow improvements A separate-but-related new window is the Spreadsheet editor. This gives you access to all the elements of your scene and lets you arrange and organize them in many ways. You can look at each animatable aspect of every object, and alter many of them either individually or en masse. For example, you can select all your lights, and change their strength globally. You can also see your keyframes, and drag them around – either one at a time, or as a whole. You can stretch or compress an animation, or move it around in time just by clicking-&-dragging. Workflow is also improved by the addition of the new Rove tool. It’s a simple improvement – a tool that lets you click-&-drag to move an object or point, or to rotate it in a single motion. If you want to move along one axis, just drag the appropriate axis. If you want to rotate, just drag on the rotation ring in the appropriate viewport. It’s as simple as that. You can even drag the centre of rotation around without leaving the viewport window, so motions that would usually take a lot of fiddling and mouse work become very easy. The Rove tool isn’t a headline-grabber, but it will make basic operation of LightWave a little smoother. That said, more work could still be done on the basic manipulation of objects, polygons, and points. A few more interactive controls for weighted selections, subdivision of polygons, and point reduction wouldn’t go amiss. Particularly individual Fur is now a standard part of LightWave following the inclusion of Sasquatch Lite (see Walkthrough). There are a few limitations – hair can only be of a single colour, for example. However, it’s still a powerful and flexible system. Hair renders surprisingly quickly even on relatively complex objects. It can be combed using splines so that complex hairstyles can be created, and it can be animated using dynamics so that it moves in a realistic way. Particle effects have been substantially updated. For a start, particles are now numbered, and you have access to them individually. This means that you can remove particles that happen to get in the way of other objects, or turn individual particles into particle emitters for complex firework type effects. This gives back some of the control animators sacrifice when using particle systems to automate behaviour. Automatic particle behaviour has also been made more sophisticated. Several new wind types including vortex, doughnut, path, sticky, and explosion combine with a new collision detection system, and the ability to force particles into a different Effects group after a collision. Simple fluid dynamics and crowd simulation have been added to particles. This isn’t the world’s most sophisticated system, but some rather nice effects can be created relatively easy. By instructing particles to remain a given distance apart then pouring them into an enclosed area, for example, a pretty good approximation to flowing and pouring liquid can be created. Particles can also be constrained to follow a path over uneven ground. Sky Tracer, LightWave’s cloud and sky environment generator has been significantly improved. You can create several different types of clouds, and vapour trails, which can be used as a panoramic backdrop for your scenes. These can be animated over time for a moving backdrop. You can even create fully 3D volumetric clouds. In addition, you can now key in a time, date and place, and Sky Tracer will automatically insert the sun in the right position. This may prove useful in architectural simulations, but other users may find it a little gimmicky. Earth, wind and fire LightWave’s acclaimed cloud- and flame-generation system has also been upgraded. Previous versions allowed you to create incredibly realistic volumetric effects including 3D clouds, which you could fly around – and through – without the ‘popping’ associated with other systems. However, render times – especially when you get very close to smoke and fire effects – could be horrendous. LightWave 7 allows you to ‘bake’ volumetric effects. In other words, you can freeze a cloud into a solid object, which can be rendered dozens of times faster. You get the same look as the traditional method – the only price you pay is that you can’t animate the smoke. You can also preview volumetric effects in viewport windows. A rough approximation to your smoke and fire effects can be drawn in real-time. This allows you to control attributes such as size and density of particles without wasting time on test renders. Other improvements in OpenGL rendering mean that you can now edit attributes of an animation while the motion is playing back in the viewports. And you can change animation curves and keyframes without interrupting playback. A couple of new rendering shaders have been added. The Gmill ray accumulation shader lets you simulate the effect of bounced light on a surface-by-surface basis. It isn’t as good as the real radiosity rendering available in LightWave, but it’s far faster to render. Anyone wanting to make realistic renders to quick deadlines will welcome it. The BESM (Big Eyes Small Mouth) shader offers cartoon-style rendering. Rendering of soft reflections and refractions has also been added. In other words, if you’ve an object standing on a slightly shiny surface, the reflection will become more diffused for objects further from the surface instead of being unrealistically sharp for objects, however they’re positioned. Character animation Improvements in character animation aren’t quite so marked. The bone deformation algorithm has been improved, however, so the often-difficult problem of creating realistic skin deformation as muscles bend is now a little easier. Also, the airbrush tool can now be used to paint morphs onto part of a mesh. In other words, if you have several morphs set up for the expressions of a character’s face, you can not only choose the strength of the morph between one expression and the next, but also the way the expression changes across the face. With all the excitement caused by the new 3D features Macromedia has added to Shockwave with Director 8.5, it isn’t surprising that LightWave now includes a Shockwave exporter in version 7. This doesn’t mean that LightWave is now a complete solution for creating Shockwave 3D content, however. Exporting a scene creates a file that can be loaded into Macromedia Director as a cast member, rather than a finished Shockwave file. From there, you can build your Shockwave application. The exporter does give you control over the elements of your scene that will affect the size and playback of your Shockwave files, and you can preview the output, but you will still need to experiment with settings to optimize your files. Optimization will doubtless improve as more users get involved in Web 3D. Overall, there are significant improvements in version 7. The ability to fake radiosity and freeze volumetric effects will increase rendering speed. Particle systems have been upgraded with simple fluid dynamics and the ability to manipulate individual particles. The non-linear editor and the Spreadsheet view help to give an overview of animation, and allow mass changes and animation sequences to be put together very quickly. However, they should probably eventually become just one window. Improvements have also been made to workflow and rendering within the viewports. The package still lacks basic undo and help functions, and workflow could be streamlined in some areas. However, LightWave remains a highly competitive product, and release 7 will keep it at the forefront of a fast-moving industry.


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