Eovia Carrara 4 Standard / Pro review

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RECOMMENDED

Improved texture, character, terrain and environment handling, a new upgrade path and budget pricing make Carrara 4 a surprisingly powerful all-round 3D solution.

3D modeling is a complex and expensive field to get into and often seems completely impenetrable for anyone who isn’t already in the know. That’s where Carrara comes in, offering a solution aimed at those starting off in 3D design – as well as the vast majority of us who have to work without unlimited budgets.

Not that this means that Carrara is a cut-down, entry-level application. Carrara actually has a pedigree stretching right back to the beginning of PC-based 3D as the program was created from the merger of early pioneers Ray Dream Studio and Infini-D. The downside of this is an idiosyncratic interface built on separate rooms for assembling, modeling, animating, texturing and rendering. The plus side is an amazing amount of power that includes a wide range of primitives, hands-on vertex, spline and metaball-based modeling, tree-based shader handling, inverse kinematics (IK) based character animation, in-built dynamics and advanced photo-realistic and artistic rendering. Carrara even tackles the task that most other 3D modelers shy away from – the natural modeling of realistic scenes with dedicated handling of terrains, trees, clouds, environments and so on.

The modeling power is undeniable but there’s still plenty that could be done to make the modeling process more user-friendly. Carrara 4 takes two small but welcome steps in this direction with its new onscreen manipulators that help position, scale and rotate objects either freely or along a single axis, and the new ability to use nudge keys. Just as fundamental, and opening up whole new areas of final effects, is the new support for alpha handling in the Texture room enabling the creation of masked shaders and varying transparency. You can also now apply shaders to groups and quickly transform cylindrical, spherical and flat mapping shaders.

These shader transforms are particularly handy for animation and this is a major focus in this latest release. Improvements have been made both to the Timeline’s key frame editing and to motion path handling (these can now be moved as a whole). The biggest changes are to character animation where the new support for multiple morph targets per mesh lets you make your characters talk and emote, while an overhaul of the bones system, with new IK Chain Tool, IK Target Helper and Ball Socket constraint, help you bring your figures to realistic life. Alternatively Poser users can take advantage of the new TransPoser plug-in (£89 + VAT) to import their models and animations.

Much the biggest advances in Carrara 4 come from the greatly improved terrain and environment handling (not that version 3’s were bad). Terrains are handled as special objects based on an underlying bitmap which can now be up to 8192x8192 pixels in size. These can be imported, based on presets, created with generators and filters (much enhanced) or, most powerfully of all, painted directly complete with new realtime 3D feedback. What really makes the difference though is the new multi-layer Terrain shader that lets you control advanced texturing, such as the distribution of snow, based on factors such as altitude and slope. You can also create more realistic skies in which to set your landscapes thanks to greatly improved physical simulations of clouds, haze, fog and the sky itself which is more accurately coloured according to the position of the sun a setting which can now be based on time and position.

Carrara 4’s terrain handling has been seriously improved.

The results are impressive and verge on the photo-realistic scenes produced by dedicated natural modelers such as Vue and Bryce. But not quite. While the scenes are impressive, they feel generated (especially when it comes to vegetation) and so not totally believable. This is typical: with Carrara you do eventually hit a ceiling on what you can achieve. For the price that’s not surprising, but it’s important to recognize that while the program is great for producing an introduction to a corporate video, say, you’re not going to produce a Hollywood movie with it.

When you hit the ceiling with Carrara 4 Standard, Eovia has provided what looks like the obvious solution with its launch of Carrara 4 Pro. This offers a number of significant improvements starting with modeling. And its solution is to delegate. To begin with, Carrara Pro supports the import of 3D models in Lightwave LWO and trueSpace COB formats, CAD/ CAM designs in VRML, OIV, STL, IGES, STEP, VDAFS, SAT and OpenNURBS formats as well as animations in the increasingly popular BVH and FBX formats. Most popular will be the ability to import PZ3 models and animations produced with Poser. Eovia also includes a copy of Amapi Designer 7, its dedicated modeler which offers advanced features such as editable construction histories and cloning with symmetry, along with a plug-in to enable Carrara to use Amapi objects natively.

Otherwise the focus in Carrara Pro is on output. Eovia is clearly aware that its renderings can seem too clean and computerized so now offers blurry reflections, to more realistically simulate surfaces such as plastics and ceramics, and object and camera-based motion blurs. For the first time too you can now import sound into your scenes in WAV and AIFF formats, and include the resulting multi-channel audio track in your QuickTime renders so taking your work into completely new areas. And you can now split the rendering task across the computers in a network – absolutely crucial in a professional environment when deadlines are tight.

Carrara 4 Pro offers support for sound and can directly import Poser models.

Overall the new power is impressive, but it’s important to realise that, apart from the sound handling and render blurs, all the new power in Carrara 4 Pro is actually provided through the bundling of separate plug-ins and Amapi. This highlights Carrara Pro’s value (the additional combined price would be over £800) but many of the add-ons address niche requirements and their combination isn’t the equivalent of an all-round integrated professional solution designed from the ground up.

As such, new users should think hard whether they would be better off with the Standard version and buying in additional plug-ins if necessary. Or paying a little more to get a program like Maxon’s Cinema 4D 9 which can grow with them and never impose a ceiling. For existing Carrara users though there’s little doubt. Eovia has priced the upgrade to make it a no-brainer to go Pro.

Ease of Use
3
Features
5
Value for Money
5
Overall
5

ratings out of 6

System requirements: Pentium II, 128/256MB of RAM , 300MB of hard disk space, Windows 98, ME, NT 4 (SP3), 2000 or XP, SVGA display, CD-ROM.

Tom Arah

December 2004


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