Throughout its many incarnations, MetaCreations' Ray Dream Studio has been gaining in confidence as a genuinely useful tool for carrying out 3D work. Version 5.5 smooths out a lot of rough edges, and adds a few new features. This should help maintain its image as a "2D-designer-friendly" 3D package.
On opening the application, nothing appears to have changed. The screen is divided between main Workspace, Timeline, Properties and Browser windows. Before we go any further, one point must be made: whenever more than one model is open, Ray Dream Studio keeps the auxiliary windows of every model open. This leads to confusion, and difficulty in knowing which window belongs to which model.
Full model jacket
The Browser window is the key to Ray Dream Studio's success, since it's from here that the user can access an army of ready-mades: objects, deformers, shaders, behaviours – pre-defined for animation sequences – lights, cameras and render filters. Need a fully modelled and rendered motorbike? Drag it from your browser into your scene. Need it to buck up and down? Just drag a Jiggle behaviour onto it in the timeline.
This "kit-of-parts" approach is one of the reasons that Ray Dream Studio has been so popular with 2D artists experimenting in the 3D world. Taking this further, Ray Dream Studio 5.5 also ships with a content CD, containing 200 3DS (3D Studio Max) models and 100 DXF models. However, we couldn't get the 3DS models to import. Also included is a tutorial CD, showing how to model objects.
Another feature of the hand-holding approach is Scene Wizards. These set up basic parameters of a scene, such as lighting and general scene elements, according to categories – exterior, space and interior – from which more specific parameters can be chosen. It's all done within a graphical browser, that makes things easier. In fact, many operations are performed by modules that are external to the core program: Ray Dream Studio has a very healthy plug-ins industry. On the modelling front, the latest of these is the Metaballs plug-in, known by the cutesy title of 'Blubbles'. This brings up a separate workspace, in which Metaball primitives can be manipulated.
Ray Dream Studio implements a 'live' preview, so that the Blubbles' interaction updates in real time. The influence of the Metaball primitives on one another – and their strength – can be set from within the interface, which is controlled by a "ghost menu" that gives access to practically every function. It's reminiscent of Alias|Wavefront Maya's 'HotBox' and is a joy to use. Once Metaball models are composed they are dumped back into the main modelling area.
Another external module is the Four Seasons Terrain modeller. Terrains are created by editing a greyscale map, which is then converted to height information on a mesh. It's a useful addition in conjunction with the exterior Scene Wizards, and the built-in Environmental Shaders and realistic Water shader.
Another bundled application is Painter 3D. Although an SE version, it's very nearly complete, lacking only the plug-in brushes and Floaters – floating masks – of the full version. However, Painter 3D itself can be a little hit-and-miss, and needs plenty of power for the best results. That said, Ray Dream Studio contains a plug-in that allows it to exchange data with Painter 3D, importing all the texture maps, masks and projections natively, without the need to reapply them. Kai's Power Tools 3.0 is also bundled.
If you're not up to Painter 3D, you can avail yourself of Ray Dream Studio's excellent Shader tools. These allow you to compose custom-surfaces by combining and mixing shaders – ready-made mini-applets containing parameters for the description of surface features, such as bump, texture and highlight. Ray Dream Studio employs a very powerful Shader Tree concept, that allows shaders to be combined in very subtle ways. But be warned – the Shader Tree takes a bit of getting used to.
On the animation front, not much has changed. Ray Dream Studio 5.5 still employs the tried-and-tested keyframe/timeline approach to animation, that gives a good view of how a scene is put together. Motions can be hand-rolled by the user, using the Translate tools and setting keyframes, or the built-in Behaviours can be dragged and dropped onto the name of the object in the timeline. Although motion paths of objects are still signalled visually, it's a pity you can't yet manipulate them directly.
When you consider the price – £290 Ray Dream Studio is great value. The interface is a bit fiddly, and its proprietary preview rendering means that QuickDraw 3D, or OpenGL graphics acceleration won’t have an effect. But, Ray Dream Studio is an ideal introduction to 3D.