Review: NewTek LightWave 11
June 4, 2012

Review: NewTek LightWave 11

Any studio producing quality work knows that the last 10 percent of any production is actually 90 percent of the work. It’s in this phase of the production that the tertiary details and refinement take place, and the results can set the professional digital artist apart from the amateur.

Image by Amy Chen using GoZ and Shadow Catcher Material Node.

With the release of Version 10 last year, NewTek began showing a new level of refinement to many areas of LightWave, making it the most solid version in years. In just a year’s time since that release, a new update, LightWave 11, has hit the market with new tools and enhancements that continue to show the development team’s focus on refinement. I’d like to highlight some of the new tools and enhancements that have increased my productivity and ability to tackle challenges quickly while in production.

What’s new?

The LightWave interface continues to undergo enhancements that might go unnoticed at first glance but will quickly become apparent during production. It shows a new level of refinement to tools that we’ve grown to love. The Node Editor has received a healthy facelift that also includes new functionality, like the ability to search for a specific node using a variety of search options and the ability to add multiple nodes all at one time, instead of one at a time. Using the new node tree list is cleaner and easier to navigate, and the ability to connect and disconnect nodes when viewing the flow zoomed out is a big game changer when working with large flows within the node editor.

The workflow enhancements found within the Node Editor, like the new node tree list, speed up the texturing process.

The Graph Editor has been given some polish as well with a slicker look and the ability to zoom and pan in a more natural way. Interface changes can be found all throughout Layout that speed up workflow, like the inclusion of Morph Mixer under the Deform Tab instead of it being hidden in a drop-down menu. This was a nice find for me personally since all the character models I work with include sets of facial morphs. Render options have been moved to a single panel so that it isn’t necessary to bounce around to multiple panels to adjust settings that deal with rendering. It’s worth noting that the options can still be found in their original location as well for users who have grown accustomed to them being in a certain spot. Although these enhancements to the interface aren’t game changers, they have made an impact on my workflow that would be hard to live without.

The workflow for rendering multiple passes for compositing has been improved with the Compositing Buffer Export panel. This makes light work of breaking out multiple passes for saving and viewing and is sure to be a hit with render wranglers and compositors.

The Composing Buffer Export panel makes light work of rendering multiple passes in LightWave 11.

New Tools

Although LightWave 11 appears to have a focus on refining the existing tools, that doesn’t mean there is a lack of new tools. GoZ, the interchange tool that allows LightWave to send data to and from Pixologic’s ZBrush, is by far my favorite new feature of LightWave 11. I’ve been working on several projects recently that require me to bounce back and forth between the two apps, and I couldn’t be happier with workflow in LightWave 11.

Whether I start in LightWave and send a base mesh over to ZBrush for detailing, or I start in ZBrush and send a digital sculpt over to LightWave for animation and rendering, it’s all handled in seconds. The first time I sent a ZBrush sculpt over to Layout, I was shocked that all of the maps (Color, Displacement, etc.) were set up and ready to go.

GoZ has completely changed my workflow for the better and has allowed for a seamless integration of these two powerful programs. The fact that I can use ZBrush to create endomorphs for my characters has cut character setup in half.

LightWave’s UV tools haven’t seen any updates in years and are in dire need of unwrapping tools, so I have found that I can pop into ZBrush and use its UV Master tools, and within seconds be back over to LightWave with a fully UV’d character mesh ready for texturing. If I could change anything with the GoZ implementation I’d prefer that the color map coming from ZBrush be applied to the Node Editor versus the Texture Editor, but that might just be my personal preference.

I’m a big fan of having the tools I need to quickly get the job done. When I first heard that LightWave 11 was going to implement built-in instancing, I was somewhat apathetic about it since I have used third-party tools like HD Instance for years that “got the job done.” However, LightWave 11 exceeded my expectations with an easy-to-use instancing workflow that simply works as expected.

Instancing allows for mass duplication with very little overhead.

The instant feedback with VPR and the clean workflow should be a standard for all future features added to the software. In addition to instancing, LightWave 11 also includes Flocking, which can be used to generate realistic motions on crowds, such as fish, bats, insects, animal herds and more. I’ve yet to use flocking in production but look forward to adding that new level of detail to crowd animation that would otherwise be too taxing on a short production schedule.

Destroying this statue object took seconds in LightWave 11 using Fracture to pre-cut the object and Bullet Dynamics to collapse it.

Although LightWave has had a dynamics engine built in for more than 10 years now, LightWave 11 now includes Bullet Dynamics directly in Layout. This production-proven physics engine is extremely fast and easy to use. Combined with the new Fracture tool, which pre-fractures objects into multiple components, Bullet Dynamics allows for intricate animations of objects shattering, exploding and collapsing to be produced with little effort. Bullet was recently used on the production “Time Slice” by the students at the Digital Animation and Visual Effects School (DAVE) in Orlando, easily saving them weeks of work and allowing for a more accurate simulation of destruction. You can watch Fracture and Bullet in action in the short film online at:

Although I shy away from scripting, I’m excited that LightWave 11 now includes Python scripting. Python has quickly become “the” industry standard programming language in most studio pipelines. Now that it is included in Version 11, we should start to see more artists writing tools for LightWave.

LightWave 11 also has added more functionality in its Virtual Studio Tools, allowing more controller types and the ability to configure the controllers to control any aspect of LightWave that can be animated. I’m excited to try real-time puppeting inside of LightWave for my characters, after seeing Lino Grandi, NewTek quality assurance manager, 3D Development, and Rob Powers, NewTek vice president, head of 3D Development, demonstrate the Virtual Studio Tools at the VFX Minds event in Los Angeles. FiberFX also has seen enhancements, most notably in the rendering department with new volume rendering modes and faster render times. Styling the fibers also seems to be more interactive and more stable.

One of my favorite additions to LightWave 11 is the new Shadow Catcher material node. It’s a simple plug-and-play node that allows for any surface to render only shadows and reflections of other scene items while ignoring the model’s surface itself. This makes integrating CG elements into background plates extremely easy. Amy Chen, one of my students, used it on her “TaterMech” composite to marry her CG robot with a photograph in no time.

Many areas of LightWave 11 have been refined, such as the performance of IK evaluation. Scene loading speeds and multi-layers objects also are now faster to work with. VPR now allows users to select a surface by clicking on the object in the viewport, and lens flares are now supported in VPR. These are all small items when considered by themselves, but when grouped together, they help make the release feel solid.

It’s obvious that the LightWave development team has been working closer with its users than ever, listening to their requests. There are many enhancements to LightWave that can easily be traced back to user requests, and it feels like there is more communication between studios and the development team.

With that said, I would have liked to have seen Modeler get some attention in this release. It hasn’t seen any major enhancements or additions in more than a decade and is showing its age. The other packages have caught up to, and in some cases, surpassed, an area that LightWave dominated. I also look forward to rigging and animation enhancements, primarily for character animators. Animation layers would go a long way for increasing my workflow.

Overall, LightWave 11 is by far the most stable, solid version of my favorite software workhorse that I’ve experienced. The new tools and features are being implemented with tight integration and with the end user in mind. There is a new level of refinement that shines in the latest version, and I hope to see NewTek continue down this path.