The atmosphere is more than a little rarefied in the high-end 3D market on the Mac. In the broadcast and film work arena, only LightWave, form•Z and Electric Image are true contenders. In particular, form•Z has gained a reputation as the Mac’s most capable modelling system over the last few years.
The new version builds on the incremental releases of the past 18 months, but offers new features of such significance that it seems worthy of more than just a dot release classification. The developments include the addition of basic animation, object personalities and a fully customizable interface.
The interface is far more flexible than in previous versions, though it still looks a bit dated. Interface options allow the tool bars to be displayed in black-&-white, grey or full colour. The problem is, the main palette still looks a little too flat. Interface design is a personal thing, but I feel that the current look and feel of the application does not reflect the high standard of the application’s functionality.
Toolbars can be pulled out to form floating palettes, giving you instant access to the tools you use the most, while keyboard shortcuts can be assigned to any function. An Options palette has been added that displays options for any tool selected. While this takes up a fair bit of screen space, it does allow you to change settings on the fly. Tool dialogues are still available, however, if you decide you want to claim back any of that lost screen space.
The alignment and distribution controls now work in any orientation. The new justification and distribution options, combined with a new preview dialogue, encourage experimentation – the possibilities are endless. All objects can be optionally displayed with centroids, centres of gravity, origins or local co-ordinate systems for selection, manipulation or snapping. Line editing operations have been extended for both 2D and 3D entities. Tools for the direct insertion of points and segments are now included.
Parametric primitives are initially generated as analytic primitives – meaning they can be transformed into polygon, nurbz, patch or metaformz (Autodessys has a thing for the letter Z). This new functionality greatly increases the flexibility of the application when modelling. Autodessys calls the attributes ‘personalities’, as the same base primitives can be transformed and used in a variety of different ways in a scene, behaving differently when edited.
Once a primitive has been placed, the drop tool or edit controls can be used to assign a personality to the object. The parametric functionality has been extended further, to include derivative objects. Objects such as helixes and screws are stored with the parameters that generated them, providing a simple means to edit the overall object at any stage. Edit Controls and Edit Surface are new tools allowing manipulation of parametric objects, reshaping them via controls or direct surface manipulation.
Pure NURBS modelling has finally made an appearance in the application, supplementing the hybrid NURBS produced by controlled meshes. Called nurbz in form•Z, they’re created from control lines, skins, and sweeps, or by converting analytic primitives. More complex, organic shapes can be produced thanks to the improved spline drawing tools. These now offer freehand sketch curves as well as b-splines and both quadratic and cubic bézier tools. The skinning is now much more straight-forward and forgiving, as you don’t have to specify whether a tolerance needs to be used, nor whether an unequal number of vertices exist in the sources.
Drafting and modelling tools have been improved across the board, with a reworking of both the 2D and 3D tool sets. form•Z has long been a popular visualization tool for architects because of its excellent 2D CAD features, and the addition of a staircase generation tool will ensure it remains so. Any path – straight or curved – can be used to generate any shaped staircase, rather than just a spiral as was the case in previous releases. Multiple flights and rails can be created with a preview window, to see what you’ll get before you commit yourself.
As well as the improvements in modelling functionality, version 3.0 adds basic animation to the package. Animation is restricted to walkthroughs and fly-bys using user-defined cameras. Camera controls are robust, if a little basic. The animation tools will suit architects or industrial designers, who form a large part of the form•Z user base. If you’re more demanding, or you wish to produce material for broadcast, you’ll still need to go elsewhere and will probably end up with ElectricImage as a companion application. Autodessys is clear it wants to produce a market leading modelling and rendering package, and is leaving high-end animation to others. This is a shame, as form•Z outstrips other packages like 3D Studio Max and Cinema4D when it comes to modelling complex geometry, but doesn’t offer the level of animation functionality that many high-end users are looking for.
Rendering in both RenderZone and RadioZity now feature the ability to capture rendered surfaces as textures. This is very useful for capturing radiosity rendering and multi-layer texturing, and the technique can be used when exporting to VR applications, or for creating materials for game production. Accurate light intensities can now be created in RenderZone as well as RadioZity, helping to create far more realistic interior-rendered images. Hybrid radiocity/raytracing images can be created to maximize image quality while reducing overall rendering time.
One aspect to bear in mind when using the RadioZity options is that the rendering is very slow. Calculating the radiosity values in a scene is computationally complex and you should really go down this route only if you have a fast machine (G3 300MHz or above), and lots of RAM. If you don’t increase the memory partition of the application after you’ve installed it, you can’t use RadioZity. Your machine will also be locked up while form•Z performs its calculations, as it won’t run in the background – which can be a pain.
All things considered, version 3.0 of form•Z performed well. A few bugs remained in the version we reviewed, but a patch to 3.0.2 should be available by the time you read this. While rendering remains a little sluggish, if you want to model on the Macintosh and don’t need animation, you won’t find a more comprehensive application anywhere.