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Choose the right 3D app for you

Tom Arah gets to grips with the full range of 3D applications - budget, mid-range and high-end.

These days 3D is increasingly moving into the design mainstream and even die-hard 2D artists and designers are looking to add 3D skills to their portfolio. The problem is that the gap between working in 2D and 3D is so wide that it’s difficult to know where to begin and which application to choose. And if you don’t make the right choice you could end up wasting a lot of time, effort and money. So here’s my guide to three very different options each representing the best of the budget, mid-range and high-end applications available (each also offers a free trial from their respective websites so that you can see them in action yourself).

Eovia Carrara Studio 3

Carrara Studio (£341 from www.eovia.com) isn’t one of the famous names of 3D, but as the direct descendant of Metacreations’ popular Ray Dream Studio it certainly deserves to be better known. The Metacreations legacy is still apparent in Carrara’s idiosyncratic interface and in particular in its unusual solution to the first major hurdle that 2D designers stepping up to 3D have to come to terms with: just how you go about arranging and controlling 3D objects on a 2D screen. Carrara ’s answer is its Working Box grid which makes it feel as if you are designing within a stage set. The big advantage this provides is that the bounding boxes of selected objects are projected onto the sides of the Working Box rather like shadows so that you can immediately see, for example, that a table which looks correct in the current perspective is actually floating above the floor. Even better, the projected shadows are live so that you can use them to quickly drag the table back into position. It’s certainly handy for simple work, but as your scenes become more complicated, the grids and shadows actually end up adding to the complexity.

Carrara’s interface is best suited to simple scenes.

The same is true of Carrara’s other most notable interface feature, its use of separate “rooms” for handling each of the main stages of working in 3D. To arrange your composition you work in the Assemble Room, to change your objects’ shape you move to the Model Room, to change their appearance you move to the Texture room, to animate your scene you move to the Storyboard Room and to produce your final output you move to the Render Room. For simple jobs this is logical and transparent, but most 3D workflows aren’t so linear and involve a constant jumping between rooms which soon becomes tiring. And for advanced scenes, where you might well end up with dozens of open windows in the Model Room, the approach just ends up in confusion.

Enough on the working environment, what about the working power? Well there’s certainly plenty of it. In terms of modeling there are a host of preset primitives – spheres, cubes and so on - available alongside the three most important general-purpose modeling types: Spline ie 2D paths that are extruded, swept and manipulated to produce 3D objects; Vertex ie polygon-based meshes; and Metaball ie organic blobs and shapes that flow into each other. In addition there are dedicated options for handling text, mathematical formula-based objects, a host of natural objects such as terrains, clouds, fire and trees and a basic particle engine for creating effects like rain. Using the Bone tool you can even set up character skeletons with support for Inverse Kinematics (IK) to produce realistic movement.

Carrara offers advanced objects such as trees but these aren’t photo-realistic.

Once you’re happy with your models, you need to control their appearance. Using the Browser Tray you can quickly drag on one of hundreds of preset shaders to make your objects look like they are made of metal, rock, glass, fur, marble and so on. To fine-tune these materials, or create your own, the Texture room provides control over colour, highlight, shininess, bump ( ie surface texture), reflection, transparency, refraction and glow. It’s all very simple to get to grips with but you can also drill down to some considerable power, for example mixing multi-channel procedural textures. There’s even a UV Editor to enable you to control exactly how a loaded bitmap is mapped to an object’s surface.  

After lighting the scene ( Carrara provides a full complement of light types and effects including volumetric options where you see the light itself in the dust in the air), and optionally setting up your animation (as well as the simple storyboard there’s a keyframe-based Timeline), you’re ready to output your scene in the dedicated Render room. Again the control on offer here is very simple to get to grips with as all options are contained within a single panel of the Property Tray, but there’s plenty of power too including the ability to toggle shadows, reflection, refraction, bump and transparency and to control the level of anti-aliasing and the accuracy of shadows.

At the price you might think that this is all the rendering power you could expect, but Carrara also provides support for caustics (the patterns created when light is transmitted through transparent objects), radiosity (the indirect lighting effect of reflected light essential for rendering realistic indoor scenes) and sky light illumination (which uses the background sky dome to produce realistic outdoor scenes). And that’s not all. Carrara Studio 3 also supports the use of High Dynamic Range Images (HDRI) as light sources which can produce jaw-dropping end results and even Non- PhotoRealistic (NPR) rendering which recreates the scene’s 3D geometry as brush strokes to produce real works of art.

With such advanced power on tap the obvious question is why would you spend more on one of the applications below? It’s important to keep everything in perspective. Yes, Carrara ticks all the major boxes but while the range of functionality means that you can create complex scenes in which to place your models complete with hills, trees, clouds, falling rain, moving figures and so on, the depth isn’t there. In each case the underlying engine is competent but not comprehensive so the end results are clearly artificial – no one’s actually going to be taken in by them. For high-end work you’re going to hit a ceiling and, with no real third-party plug-ins to fill any gaps, there’s not a lot you can do about it.

Maxon Cinema 4D 8.5

This still means that Carrara Studio is up to most 3D tasks such as bringing a 2D logo to life, creating a high-impact introduction to a presentation and even producing impressive works of art - but ultimately it’s not up to producing truly realistic immersive worlds. From its name it’s clear that the second application I’m going to look at, the mid-range Cinema 4D 8.5 (£499 inc VAT from www.maxon.net), is designed to break through that limitation and its credentials are proved by starring cameos in major blockbusters such as Star Wars and Spiderman. This emphasis on absolute realism in its output is reflected in Maxon’s company slogan “3D for the Real World”, which also shows the importance placed on productivity and getting the job done.

This productivity comes firstly from Cinema 4D’s excellent interface. This is simplicity itself (well for a 3D application it is). Panning, rotating and zooming your scene, for example, which Carrara makes a huge song and dance about is efficiently handled with small icons at the top of the Viewport window. Moving and positioning your objects is also simpler than in Carrara – simply drag on the object’s x, y and z arrows when you need to constrain movement and toggle the four-pane view – top, left, right and perspective by default - when you need to arrange and align your scene. For absolute control meanwhile, the modeless Attributes Manager means that all properties can be changed precisely with the object updating in real-time.

The ease of use and extra power becomes even more apparent when it comes to modeling. In Cinema 4D all modeling, whether based on primitives, splines or polygons, happens in the main window. Polygon mesh editing is always central and with over thirty tools to choose from it could be intimidating but Cinema 4D makes it as simple as possible – right-click and select extrude, for example, then right click to scale, bevel and so on.

Features such as HyperNURBS make it simple to model advanced objects in Cinema 4D.

Even more powerful than its polygon handling is Cinema 4D’s ability to take 2D splines and instantly extrude, lathe, loft and sweep them into 3D objects based on NURBS (Non-Uniform Rational B- Splines are the 3D equivalent of 2D paths). This is particularly well handled as you simply add the effect as a NURBS object and then drag the spline or splines onto it in the hieararchical Objects Manager. You can then fine-tune the effect in the Attributes Manager and it updates in real time or temporarily switch it off to edit your spline(s). Other modifiers such as deformations and arrays can also be applied by similar drag-and-drop in the Objects manager but much the most impressive is the HyperNURBS option which converts your polygon-based models into smoothly curved objects (the level of smoothing can be controlled through weighting) while retaining the easy editability of the simple polygonal cage.

To then bring your models to life, Cinema 4D provides its Material Manager which lets you quickly set up your own shaders built from no less than a dozen layers: color, diffusion, luminance, transparency, reflection, environment, fog, bump, alpha, specular ( ie highlights), glow and real displacement. I particularly like the way that you can drag-and-drop bitmaps from the Browser as texture maps onto your material especially as these can be Photoshop PSD files. For more power Bhodinut’s “Smells Like Almonds” (don’t ask me what it means) range of procedural, ie programmatically created, shaders has been fully integrated enabling advanced effects such as translucency, realistic clouds, true volumetric materials that you can carve into and the ability to creatively combine existing materials say to add realistic rusting to the upward facing faces of a metal material.

Next you can animate your scene. Again Cinema 4D makes this as simple as possible – simply drag the Time Slider, reposition your objects and click record – but when you need more control it’s there on hand complete with auto-keying, a full Timeline and F-Curve editing (a visual view of your keyframes) to make the flow of your animations more naturalistic. There’s also XPresso, a node-based expressions editor which lets you set up relationships between objects, say using the rotation of one object to change the position of another, through simple drag and drop. And Cinema 4D also recognizes the importance of sound with the ability to load and play WAV files (essential for lipsynch) and its 3D sound rendering which enables you to attach sounds to objects so that they seem to move with the animation.

Now you’re ready to output your scene and Cinema 4D again shows its high-end credentials with the ability to render images up to 16,000 pixels square. Quality is also ensured with no less than 8 available anti-aliasing algorithms, up to 256 levels of oversampling, and the ability to control anti-aliasing on an object basis. Also invaluable is Cinema 4D’s integration with larger workflows. In particular you can output to Flash SWF format, to After Effects project files and to Photoshop PSD format complete with separate layers/channels for features such as individual lights, shadows, reflections, highlights and objects – ideal for efficient and creative post-processing.

Cinema 4D’s excellent material and rendering engines result in truly realistic output.

But hang on: what about those high-end rendering features such as support for radiosity, caustics and image-based lighting that the budget Carrara Studio provides? These are available (and with considerably more power and control) to Cinema 4D users but only if you purchase the separate Advanced Rendering module. While you’re at it you might well be interested in Maxon’s other modules: Thinking Particles a particle animation system; PyroCluster volumetric particle effects for producing realistic clouds, fire and smoke; MOCCA for realistic character animation including Soft IK; Net Render for sharing the processing burden of rendering across your network; Dynamics for setting up real world physical effects such as gravity, collisions and wind; the superb BodyPaint 3D 2 for controlling surface materials in real time by painting directly onto your 3D models; and the latest module, Sketch and Toon, for advanced artistic NPR rendering.

This modular approach is one of Cinema 4D’s biggest strength as it effectively lifts the ceiling on what you can do while ensuring that you only pay for the functionality that you need. On the other hand, some of the modules such as BodyPaint 3D cost as much as Cinema4D itself meaning that costs soon mount up. Maxon does offer discounted bundles, but if you go for the full power of the Studio suite which includes all modules apart from the latest Sketch and Toon you’re talking about an all-in price of £2160 inc VAT!

discreet 3ds max 6

Of course if money is no object then you can take your pick of any of the absolute top-end packages such as Maya, Lightwave and the granddaddy of them all 3ds max (£3261 www.discreet.com). 3ds max has a pedigree stretching right back to the pre-Windows days of 3D Studio which brings with it both major advantages and serious drawbacks. Of the drawbacks the biggest has to be the working environment which is intimidatingly technical and smacks of the program’s ancient DOS heritage overlaid with numerous interface features grafted on haphazardly over time (there are no less than 15 main menus to navigate!).

Compared to the logical and streamlined Cinema 4D, the learning curve is precipitous, but the underlying approach to modeling is broadly similar. From the Create menu or Create panel you choose from the wide range of provided 3D and 2D object presets, including in the latest version 6, a wide range of ready-to-use architectural objects such as walls, doors and staircases. You then non-destructively sculpt these objects into their final form primarily by using the commands in the Modify menu or Modify panel, say adding an extrusion or lathe effect to a 2D curve.

Modeling in 3ds max is based on comprehensive tools and modifiers.

The major difference is that 3ds max takes the non-destructive modifier approach to a completely different level. To begin with, with almost a hundred modifiers to choose from, just about every modeling need is catered for from squeezing and stretching to adding random distortions, ensuring symmetry, creating a shell and, crucially, directly editing the object with 3ds max’s exhaustive modeling tools. And there’s no limit to the number of modifiers that can be applied to the overall object and to local selections within the object. Of course advanced control like this is nowhere near as intuitive as Carrara’s hands-on editing or Cinema 4D’s simple object hierarchies but the power and control it unleashes is incredible as it means that all parameters of your object can be fine-tuned at any time right back to the original starting shape. It’s also ideal for animation ..

It’s a similar story when it comes to controlling the appearance of your models. In many ways the combination of Material Editor and Material/Map Browser is an excellent example of how not to design a transparent and user-friendly interface. Examples of complexity include the fact that certain materials are incompatible with different renderers and the difficulty involved in just repositioning an applied texture map. Again though the complexity leads to power: by targeting particular renderers it’s possible to achieve advanced effects such as translucency; while the need to apply a UVW Map modifier to control texture placement opens up advanced capabilities such as the ability to animate textures.

3ds max offers amazing control but at the cost of complexity.

And, while there’s nothing like the intuitive direct 3D painting or artistic rendering offered by Cinema 4D’s BodyPaint 3D and Sketch and Toon modules, 3ds max does offer some unique creative features of its own such as the recent addition of multi-layered vertex painting which enables effective real-time formatting for games developers. In addition 3ds max provides most of the other capabilities that Cinema 4D offers as extra modules already built-in with the newly incorporated market-leading Mental Ray taking care of advanced rendering; the Particle Flow system handling event-driven simulation of complex particle systems such as explosions; and the Reactor 2 dynamics engine letting you simulate complex physical phenomena such as how body joints, clothes and fluids move. And for even more advanced work, discreet offers character studio 4 (£841 inc VAT) for advanced non-linear character animation including crowd scenes, while combustion 3 makes a natural partner for advanced compositing.

More than this, where there are still gaps in the functionality that discreet offers, 3ds max’s longstanding position as the industry standard means that it’s almost certain that a third-party developer will have stepped in. For example to fill the artistic NPR rendering role there’s cebas Computer’s finalToon, while you can use Right Hemisphere’s Deep Paint 3D to take care of direct 3D painting or even BodyPaint 3D if you prefer as Maxon sensibly provides a plug-in to let it work with the industry leader. It’s not just add-ons. With its naturally full support for the most common exchange format, the old DOS-based 3D Studio’s 3DS mesh, you’ll also find plenty of ready-to-use content too (though otherwise file import/export options are surprisingly limited). And of course there’s also the benefits of a vast community of users to tap into too.

In many ways as the longest-standing, most powerful, most controllable, most extensible and most popular application, 3ds max fills the same industry standard role for 3D graphics as Photoshop does for 2D. However while the choice of Photoshop as the best application for bitmap editing is almost a no-brainer, 3ds max certainly isn’t the right choice for all users – or even most. For simple jobs and for those users for whom 3D is always going to be a sideline rather than their main business, Carrara Studio 3 is the best entry-level solution. Personally, for its smooth workflow and smooth modeling, its integration with other applications, its natural if expensive upgrade path and its amazing combination of creativity and productivity, I’m a hopeless fan of Cinema 4D.

Tom Arah

September 2004

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