Strata 3D CX full review

Way back in the dark, pre-PowerPC days of the early 1990s, Strata Studio Pro was considered one of the most powerful 3D design packages on the Macintosh. Its straightforward interface brought 3D to the masses with relatively few growing pains, and it even boasted advanced (for the time) features such as the Shatter and Explode plug-ins, as well as true radiosity – that’s if you were prepared to sit and tap your fingers for a week or so while Strata’s rendering engine did its thing.

Somehow, however, this adaptable package seemed to lose the plot. Initial PowerPC releases were buggy and the program’s feature set came a poor second to those offered by new-kid-on-the-block competitors such as NewTek LightWave and Maxon Cinema 4D. During the latter part of the 1990s, Strata seemed to drift into the background as the range of 3D tools available to Mac users broadened and high-end programs such as Maya forced their way into the
market. You could almost have been forgiven for thinking that Strata had been consigned to the 3D software graveyard. With the release of Strata 3D CX, however, the program’s developers are proving that they aren’t yet willing to give up the ghost.

Strata 3D CX (‘Create, Extend’) is the company’s latest attempt to regain a little ground in the 3D arena. The release retains all of the program’s traditionally strengths and adds a few new tricks of its own: targeted, it would seem, partially at Photoshop and Illustrator users wishing to make the jump into 3D.

Long-time users of Strata will probably have difficulty spotting the differences between the latest release and previous versions. While there are certainly new tools present, the interface is essentially the same as it ever was. Some may claim that this aspect of the package is in dire need of an overhaul; many, however, will be relieved that Strata 3D CX has retained a look and feel that is both familiar and powerful.

They will argue that if it ain’t broke, don’t tweak it. What both parties will be pleased with, however, is the range of enhancements that the program offers.

These include HDRI support: the ability to render using high-definition images so that natural-looking lighting and shadows are cast onto 3D creations (although this is a feature now commonplace in many 3D packages); a realistic lightdome renderer that places the scene in a virtual sphere that can be mapped with an image of your choice; the Meld tool, which can combine polygon meshes of any shape to form metasurfaces that can then be treated in a similar way to metaballs, pushing, pulling and kneading to create new shapes; and, probably more significantly, full support for Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop CS. Users can now create paths in native Illustrator format that can be extruded, lathed and skinned.

Clearly better
Even more useful is the ability to import native Photoshop files containing transparency effects – these are even updated live in Strata 3D CX as changes are made to the original Photoshop file. In fact, texturing is an area in which Strata has always excelled; these enhancements only continue to make the program one of the most attractive packages in its price range. Equally attractive is the range of materials and objects. These include hundreds of basic materials ready to be placed onto models or used as the basis for new textures, as well as a huge range of shapes – pre-modelled objects that can be dragged into a scene to be rendered. Add to the mix updated polysplines tools, faster radiosity and support for the popular FBX file format (for importing MotionBuilder files), and you have what appears to be a potent 3D package for both the novice and intermediate user.

But is all this enough to bring Strata 3D CX back to the forefront of the 3D arena? The answer to this question is probably no – and yes. For while Strata certainly compares favourably to similar priced competitors such as Amapi, Carrara Studio, it isn’t yet ready to rival any of the 3D big boys.

What you have instead is a 3D package that can guide beginners through a territory that is so often clouded by unnecessary complexity. If you know how to drag out a bézier curve in Illustrator or Photoshop, chances are that you will feel perfectly at home in Strata’s 3D universe. And while the interface may have a slight antique feel to it, you will certainly be capable of producing high-quality rendered images as good as almost anything you can get on the market.

Likewise, if animation is your business, you will find Strata capable of producing perfectly acceptable logo animations or short movies. If you’re aiming to recreate Lord of the Rings, however, you would do better to look elsewhere.

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