natFX 4 review

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  • Price When Reviewed: 620

  • Pros: Volumic mode cuts down polygons while retaining density. Offers simulated growth, seasonal changes, and trunk customization. Trees can be exported as 3DS Max skeletons.

  • Cons: Expensive, and the base plug-in offers limited potential.

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Bionatics natFX offers 3DS Max and Maya users the ability to create bespoke, highly realistic vegetation in 3D, albeit at a high price. Version 4 is currently for 3DS Max only. You can then buy additional libraries of plants and trees, which vary in price.

The process can turn out to be quite expensive, so if you are looking for a few shrubs for your rendered artwork or Web animation, you might want to check out Vue 5 Esprit or Daz Studio. If you’re after realistic, broadcast-quality plant life or rendered forests in your games though, natFX is ideal. There are cheaper alternatives for professional work too, such as Xfrog or the Onyx range, but none are as simple as natFX.

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Image by The Mill

Creating plant models is a case of opening the natFX interface in the Create tab, then either choosing a plant from the built-in thumbnail pane, or from the Nursery. That is assuming you’ve stocked the Nursery up by purchasing plants. The base product ships with ten ‘seeds’. Once you double click on a thumbnail it appears in the command panel and will sprout wherever you click in the viewport.

Once selected, a plant’s age and season can be specified in the Plant Morphology section of the natFX rollout. You can set up the scaleable level of detail separately for the organs (leaves and flowers) on the plant, and for the wood (trunk and branches). Each plant is unique, and can be modified after generation.

For the most part, natFX only creates geometry for the views of the tree that you see, using normal maps to turn parts of your tree into detailed geometry, and the rest into static ‘imposters’ or 2D textured billboards. This reduces the number of polygons.

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Four presets for trees are available in the Tuning section, to help optimize the number of polygons in a model. The new ‘volumic’ mode (above) offers a full 3D model for the trunk and main branches, while imposters are used for the foliage facing the camera. You can also modify the individual branches using the Sub Component Selection menu to further refine the poly count.

Another new feature is the ability to create a 3DS Max skeleton object within the selected plant, and control the depth of joints to correspond to the hierarchical structure of the plant. This makes it possible to animate the generated plant using normal 3DS Max procedures, while skeletons can be exported with the plant geometry and maps intact. This is ideal for game developers working on a generous budget.

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