LightWave 8 review

  • Expert Rating: We rate this 9 out of 10We rate this 9 out of 10We rate this 9 out of 10We rate this 9 out of 10We rate this 9 out of 10 Best Buy We rate this 9 out of 10

  • Price When Reviewed: 945

  • Pros: New character animation tools including Bone editing and rigging enhancements, IK Booster and Bones Dynamics; new Rigid Body and enhanced Soft Body dynamics.

  • Cons: Some instability under pressure during dynamics simulation. Limited tutorial provision and dual-application workflow may deter new users.

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Like many recent releases of 3D applications in the mid- to high-end range, version 8 of LightWave 3D has concentrated mainly on enhancements to character animation and dynamics. Increased dependence on CG in feature films and TV programmes has prompted this move, as has the increased processing power of games consoles. The knock-on effect of all this is an added focus on studio workflow tools.

LightWave consists of two systems: Modeler, which fulfils the role of polygon modeller and surfacing tool; and Layout, which adds animation, lighting and rendering components to your project.

In between is the Hub – a background application that allows you to synchronize information between Modeler and Layout. Networked rendering is available thanks to the ScreamerNet distributed rendering application.

The enhancements are evident from the start, with cleaner, easier-to-use menus in both Layout and Modeler. New views, such as Textured Wireframe View in both Modeler and Layout, are now available. OpenGL performance is improved with new modes and options, and optimized speed, while light projection maps can now be previewed in OpenGL. A powerful rendering engine has long been a key selling point for LightWave and this version sees an increase in speed in this department.

By far the most fundamental changes to LightWave, however, are the improvements to Layout, especially in the field of animation.

The bare bones

IK gets a shot in the arm in version 8, with the introduction of the IK Booster to the Modify panel. Just by selecting a boned object in LightWave Layout and clicking the IK Boost Tool, you can apply IK to all the bones in the object and to all of the object’s children. The IK booster can be used along with LightWave’s base IK, or it can work independently.

In addition, with the IK Booster applied to an object you can gain access to Bone Dynamics and other new character tools. Bone Dynamics are applied and work in a similar fashion to the other dynamic tools in LightWave, but affect bones instead of geometry. The IKB Calculate option works out any resulting bone dynamics created by the IK booster effect, and generates keyframes based on those calculations. Data for each frame can thus be generated, and then used in a similar fashion to motion-capture data.

LightWave provides plug-ins to support the BioVision (BVH) motion-capture file format. One of these, the MoCap_BVH_Setup generic Layout plug-in, reads the file data, creates bones, and applies the motion-capture data to them.

Dynamics have been improved in general, bringing enhancements to Soft Body Dynamics for cloth, hair and other simulations as well as allowing Rigid Body systems such as collisions to be set up. However, Layout crashed a few times when calculating some complex rigid dynamics, even though it was tested on a powerful dual 2GHz G5 Mac. This was not a consistent problem though, and overall the application ran smoothly.

The dynamics toolset has improved controls, and has been given the capabilities of LightWave’s integrated particle system, Particle FX. You can create Partigon Emitters which are a way of automatically generating single point polygons as required, and you can apply surface attributes to them. There are other new particle tools, in particular the EditFX tab of the emitter properties. This allows real-time editing of particles on an individual (per node) basis, allowing you to smooth the movement of particles or delete individual particles from the emitter altogether.

Enhancements to Layout continue with the massive new selection of Bone-editing tools, which really improve character rigging. The new tools include Joint Move, which can reposition the tip of a parent bone and the base of a child bone in a joint, changing the relative length and the angles of the affected bones. Tip Move allows the user to edit the location of the tip of a bone, and adjusts child bones accordingly, while Bone Twist, Unparent Bone, Bone Split, Bone Connect, Bone Fuse, and Scale Hierarchy are among other new tools. Results are just as impressive as the multitude of tools, and NewTek has created a new .rig file format and Import/Export RIG functions to go with it, which gives you the ability to reuse and share rigs from object to object.

Animation can be carried out in the Motion Mixer, a non-linear system used to store, re-use, and adjust animated sequences (motions) for objects, cameras or entire character hierarchies. By adding motions to a timeline, you can extend, trim, move, and scale the animation of LightWave Actors in a scene. Transitions can be used to mix and blend different motions together, and a library of simple moves can be drawn upon to build up complex animations.

LightWave 8 adds more dedicated animation features such as Function Curve editors to the mix, giving access to a host of editable properties and separate animated channels that let you to manipulate character data in real-time. Another boon to animators is the DopeTrack, which gives much greater control over keyframes, changing their position on the timeline and in the scene, and allowing access to their properties. Markers can be placed to indicate when things should happen in the scene and you can ‘bake’ ranges of keys to make your animation more substantial.

All smiles

There are new additions to LightWave’s morphing tools for use in creating and controlling lifelike expressions or special transformation effects. The vertex map feature allows all morph targets (different poses or stages of a morph) to be bundled together as a single object, known as an endomorph.

This can be animated quickly by the use of a new displacement plug-in – the Morph Mixer – which can keyframe the endomorph poses. This gives a high level of control – you have the ability to organize morphs into groups and display morph information and controls in several ways, such as the hierarchical organization of morph targets. It works well and is bound to accelerate the animation process, especially in complex morph situations.

Modeler has not been forgotten in the upgrade. There is a whole new set of selection tools. New primitives are available in the Create tab, such as Star Sphere, which creates a cloud of one-point polygons and offers a variety of control options. The Multiply tab has new tools including Divide, Make Pole, and a general purpose edge-to-edge cutting tool, while the Modify tab gains the Translate Plus, Move Plus, Segment Scale and Point Normal Move options which operate on the normals of points and edges of the object. Similar enhancements appear in the Detail and Utility tabs.

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So what’s not to like in version 8.0? Well, for such a complex and demanding application, the lack of a manual was particularly frustrating. Registered users can download a PDF version from the site, and a new online help system is available, but there was a distinct lack of tutorials for new or upgrading users. It’s obvious who this release is aimed at – and it’s not newcomers to 3D. NewTek has built steadily on the success of the Amiga-based LightWave in producing effects for Babylon 5, and with this version has upped its stakes in the games, film and TV market, taking on a market that’s traditionally dominated by Discreet, Softimage, and Alias.
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