LightWave 3D 7b

If you want to do professional broadcast, or even movie animation and effects, there are only a handful of Mac 3D-applications that are up to the job. LightWave is one of them, and, for the first time, the Mac version is equal to the PC version in every way. Version 7b has crammed even more functionality into the already bulging capabilities of LightWave. In an attempt to make these functions more accessible, most are now shown in the screen interface. Many of the quirks of previous LightWave versions have been addressed. For example, making a basic bevelled box is now simplicity itself, with radius and segment settings in the Box Tool. Previously, it required much fiddling and a lot of polygons. It also now supports TrueType fonts properly. Real-time preview OpenGL support is much improved, so now many of the previews happen in real time rather than having a delayed update. This helps when modelling using the weight feature, which enables you to build curved surfaces by eye. One of the new features is the helix tool, which provides an easy way of making helix objects such as springs. There is another tool called spline guide, that gives you a new way of working with curved objects. This lets you manipulate an object by drawing a spline along an axis, which can be curved to reshape the model. It doesn’t offer any new abilities as such, but is a new way of modelling complex shapes. There are over 150 new tools like these, and many of them are instantly accessible. The animation functions have also been improved. A new feature called the Motion Mixer offers a non-linear editor for motions. For example, if you created a character walk, you could extend the walk using the Motion Mixer and then add other gestures – a wink, for example – while the character walks. The movements can be imported from Poser Pro too. You can add as many tracks as you like, and the model will smoothly mix between movements. This is a powerful tool that greatly improves the functionality of LightWave as a character-animation tool. This has been a weakness of LightWave in the past, but NewTek is doing a lot of work to make character animation easier. Particle pool
Particles and fluid dynamics have always been good in LightWave, but for the first time, you can model liquid as a volume rather than a particle emitter. Previously, fountains and waterfalls could be made using particle emitters, but the liquid wouldn’t pool. Now you can create liquid that can be poured from one glass to another. A favourite plug-in, Sasquatch from Worley Labs, now has a light version included in LightWave. Sasquatch is a plug-in hair and fur modeller – the full version gives amazing results. SasLight – the version included – is less adaptable, but still lets you create impressive fur and hair. Digital Confusion is the name of a feature that fakes depth-of-field effects. Depth is used by photographers to direct attention to a particular point. It creates a sharply focussed point at the object, while the rest of the image is out of focus. You can create this effect using LightWave’s normal camera-setting, but adjusting the camera’s focal length is pretty complicated. Digital Confusion lets you decide which object to focus on and automatically creates a depth-of-field effect – so you can ignore LightWave’s camera settings. Better still, you can attach the focus to a null object (an invisible placeholder) and animate the depth of field. This is simple to do, and extremely effective. Rendering refresh
Rendering features more options than ever. There is a new radiosity algorithm, based on Monte Carlo methods. Radiosity is a type of rendering beyond simple ray-tracing. It also reflects the colour of objects – so a white box next to a red wall will have a red singe from the reflected light of the wall. For the non-mathematicians among you, Monte Carlo methods use random numbers to approximate an answer to a problem. In rendering terms it means that soft shadows and motion-blur quality is improved. However, that improvement is in quality, certainly not speed. Radiosity is only for the patient. One way to speed the process is using gMIL to assign radiosity rendering on a surface-by-surface basis. This avoids the need to render a huge scene using radiosity when it’s needed in only one place. When radiosity is used with the HDRI environmental-lighting information, LightWave can create some incredibly realistic scenes. An HDRI or High Dynamic Range Imaging file is like a high-resolution QuickTime VR file. A scene is captured photographically at various f-stop (aperture) settings, and compiled into one file. This HDRI file contains all the light information of a scene, which can then be used to create naturally lit objects. This is especially good for adding graphics to a live scene without looking conspicuous. The scripting features have been improved, using a new version of LScript commander. This allows repetitive jobs to be automated, though this is a feature aimed at a select few experts in animation. Most things don’t require the user to know about scripting, which is something of a relief for me. There are more features than I have room to mention here, and few people will get to grips with them all. The main problem with LightWave isn’t its capabilities though, it’s the usability. Version 6.5 changes a lot of shortcut keys, and will likely annoy long-time users. This wouldn’t have been so bad, but the tutorials were written for 6.0, and required the keys to be remapped to the old settings to work. This made life rather difficult for novices. Now, version 7 doesn’t even have a tutorial – although it does have an excellent manual. Despite being a huge tome written in a way that beginners can understand, it doesn’t address the needs of first-time users. This could be disastrous for NewTek, because, even with a big manual, it’ll be difficult to figure-out LightWave.


Despite the price difference, LightWave’s main competition is Alias|Wavefront’s £6,360 Maya. Both are necessarily large and complex applications, and neither are easy to get to grips with. However, there are more resources to help you learn Maya. NewTek needs to address the absent-tutorial problem – even a basic one would be better than none. Until then, NewTek is in danger of putting off new users. If you’re already using LightWave and have got to grips with the new keyboard shortcuts of 6.5, then you’re in for a treat. This is a significant and very powerful upgrade that will speed work.

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