As 3D becomes an ever-more-essential part of design, the applications used are becoming more powerful and easier to use. Poser is virtually unique in the world of 3D graphics and animation in that it’s dedicated to the singular task of animating and rendering the human form. It does dogs, robots and veloceraptors too, but primarily it’s the human figure that takes centre-stage.
It’s easy to see why Poser has become such as successful 3D product. Recreating people in 3D is extremely difficult – so to have a dedicated tool for this very problem is a godsend for most of us.
Poser 5 is the latest version, and the first to arrive on Mac OS X. It’s been a long time coming; the Windows version has been available for some time now. But it has been worth the wait. Poser 5’s features list is one of the most impressive we’ve seen in an upgrade for some time, the two most important features being realistic hair and cloth simulation.
Hair and cloth are difficult to simulate in 3D. Only in recent times has technology been available commercially that can do a good enough job. One of the best hair-simulation systems currently available is that developed by Joe Alter, called Shave And A Haircut (or just plain Shave for short).
Joe used to work for Industrial Light and Magic, George Lucas’ effects company, but now is developing 3D software himself. Shave is so good that high-end 3D apps such as Softimage|XSI have adopted it as the default hair-simulation system, while it’s available as a plug-in for most of the others.
While we couldn’t confirm it, the new hair system looks suspiciously like it’s based on Shave, which is a very good thing indeed. The system allows you to style hair by combing it in a very natural manner. You can also cut and coiffure a character’s hair to create virtually any style you like. Hair can be grown as eyelashes, eyebrows and beards, too. The most important feature, though, is dynamics, which are built in. There’s no use having hair on a character if it’s stiff and looks like a hairy crash helmet when the character is animated. A system that’s too complex and requires advanced animation techniques to achieve hair movement isn’t much use, either.
Cloth is handled in another room. You can import a 3D object modelled in another package (a cloak for a character, say), assign it as cloth, define collision objects and dynamic forces such as wind and gravity, and let Poser turn it into a flowing piece of fabric. To fix cloth in place and prevent props simply flying away, you can constrain selected vertices on them so that they stay put. Calculation is usually faster than hair dynamics, but it still takes time.
Rendering has also been overhauled in version 5. Never particularly noteworthy, the old render was adequate but nothing special. The new FireFly renderer supports raytracing and micro-polygon rendering and displacement, so quality should be much better. Further refinements include depth-of-field effects, 3D motion-blur, and procedural shaders. In fact, there’s a whole new material room that uses shader trees just like you’d find in a high-end 3D program such as Maya or XSI. With shader trees, you can link material properties to special ‘nodes’ to create highly complex shading networks. The beauty of the system is that it’s graphical. To connect nodes, simply drag a line from one node’s output to another’s input.
Because of the new features, the interface has changed. Poser 5 is more complex than before, with tabs at the top of the interface for each of the seven rooms. Each of these contains palettes and view panels buttons and sliders that will be bewildering to the uninitiated. Poser 5 marks a big leap forward, so this extra complexity is to be expected – but you can’t help feeling that the interface could have been a little less in-your-face.
Other worthwhile features include rigid body-collision detection, Morph Putty and Photo-based Facial Mapping, a great feature that lets you use your own photos as face maps for characters. One of the best features is the Setup Room. This lets you create a Poser-animatable object from any imported model with bones and IK. Those who prefer to model unique characters elsewhere can now make use of Poser’s other features such as automatic walk-generation using custom models.
In use, Poser 5 feels a lot slower than before. All these new features take a lot of processing power and RAM, so if you want to get the best from the program make sure you have the best hardware you can afford to run it on. A new G5 with 1GB of RAM would be ideal, as our pitiful G4 450, being below the recommended system requirements, struggled momentously under the strain.
Poser 5 is a thunderous upgrade that adds just about all the much-needed features that users want. However, this release isn’t too stable, so expect an update patch from the developers. It’s also very demanding on hardware, so using anything less than a top-spec Mac isn’t recommended.