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Electric Image's 3D-animation software has been used to produce realistic 3D animation and special effects for countless films, television shows, and commercials during the past decade, and it's renowned for its rendering quality and speed. With Universe 5.0, Electric Image continues the trend for producing upgrades that offer two or three major new features accompanied by a suite of subtle refinements. In this case, the new features include Match Move and Radiosity, while multiprocessor support is the most visible and by far the most important of the latest version's refinements.
Universe 5.0's Match Move feature makes it easy to create an animation with camera angles and movements that match original footage shot with a real camera. For example, you can animate a car made in 3D so that it appears to drive down a street that was filmed with a video camera (see "All synced up", above).
Match Move allows you to easily import existing footage, calculate the camera's angle for every frame, and export this information as a standard animated camera into a Universe scene. In previous versions of the program, match moving required painstaking manipulation and careful note-taking while shooting footage for animators to match their virtual cameras to real-world scenes. Even without significant camera shake or erratic motion, the results usually required plenty of fine-tuning.
The match-moving functionality of Universe 5.0 resembles that of dedicated match-moving software such as RealViz's MatchMover Professional (www.realviz.com). But even though Universe's Match Move feature can duplicate camera-movement information for a locked-down, pivoting camera, the module works only for footage shot with a camera of known focal length on a fixed mount, and it doesn't handle shots where the camera is moving in space. For example, the module won't match background plates filmed from a moving vehicle or a handheld camera in motion. This is a serious limitation since these types of shots require automatic-match moving the most.
Radiosity is a much-lauded rendering feature in 3D applications, because it brings natural luminance to finished images. It works by calculating light reflecting between surfaces, as well as direct lighting. Electric Image's implementation of this feature adds great realism and warmth to still images and scenery. But for many animators, it will have limited utility: while you can use radiosity for rendering background plates and for scenes where only the camera is moving, a radiosity solution breaks down as soon as lights and geometry are animated.
Universe 5.0 is fully compliant with OS X, and this version supports multiple processors, including those on remote machines. The software includes a licence for unlimited rendering cameras, so you can populate a network with rendering slaves and use the included Renderama application to make every available processor contribute to a rendering job.
A single hardware key and installer also let you work on Mac or Windows systems interchangeably. We tested the multiprocessor Renderama on a couple of dual-processor G4s (800MHz and 450MHz models, each with 1GB of RAM), where it performed nearly three times faster than it did on a single-render camera. Our slave renderer was a slower G4 than the master.
Universe is not an all-in-one tool for most animators, and it has a few important flaws. Though its modeller is powerful and offers many excellent NURBS and solids-modelling features, we'd like to see substantial usability improvements to its UberNURBS subdivision-surface modeller. And while Universe's animation tools are great for hard surfaces and standard dynamic effects, the program offers no deep-level scripting or relational power, as Alias|Wavefront's Maya does. Also, Universe's plug-in particle and dynamic effects suffer from a lack of integrated soft- and hard-body simulations. Universe does not make it easy to simulate objects bouncing and colliding due to gravity and other laws of physics, smoke curling around objects, and other natural phenomena.
As in NewTek's LightWave 3D, the modeller and animator are separate modules that communicate poorly well in both directions. And though Universe's animation tools are great for skeletal characters, they lack the type of lattice deformations required for animating fine muscle and facial movement.
Electric Image's Universe 5.0 may not be the ultimate 3D tool, but it does provide an undeniably fast, efficient way for average users to do the type of 3D animation they do most often: propel ships through outer space, position animated buildings and vehicles on a real-world street, and make logos and graphics fly through commercials. If you're doing this type of work or are considering an upgrade from an older version, Universe 5.0 is a very good value.