By George Maestri
LightWave has been a stalwart of the animation industry for more than a decade, but as with most decade-old packages, it was beginning to show its age. The thoroughly overhauled LightWave 6 now competes more strongly with Alias|Wavefront's Maya, Avid's Softimage XSI, and Discreet's 3D Studio Max. Although LightWave is still not cutting edge in some places, it remains a solid workhorse that produces world-class images at an affordable price.
LightWave 6 still consists of two separate modules, Modeler for modeling and Layout for animation and rendering. But recognizing that switching between the modules takes time, NewTek has introduced a feature called the Hub, which al lows changes in a model's shape to be reflected automatically in Layout, without the need to save and reload the model.
|The Raydiosity feature allows for realistic lighting. The image at left was lit with one backlight and rendered normally. The righthand image was rendered with Raydiosity. Notice how the reflected light from the sky and ground softly illuminates the dark |
One of the best new interface tweaks is an OpenGL implementation that enables you to see shadows, textures, reflection, fog, and lens flares in real time as you work, rather than rendering them later or relying on test-renders. This feature requires a beefy OpenGL card for optimal results. I tested it using an Inter graph Wildcat 4105, and it worked great.
To help with organization, LightWave 6 features a new window called the Scene Editor. Much like the dope sheet in other applications, the Scene Editor enables you to view and edit the keyframes of multiple objects. Although this is a wonderful addition, it would be better if you could zoom in and out to get a better view of long animations, and if you could see the underlying animation curves as well.
LightWave is a polygonal package that supports subdivision surfaces. Modeling in LightWave has always been easy, and Version 6 adds some new tools to speed up the process. For instance, you can now weight points on a subdivision surface in order to affect the curvature of the surface, much like a NURBS patch.
In addition, the program's IntelligEntities enable you to create smart objects that understand animation. One IntelligEntity called Skelegons adds the skeletal structure directly in the model so that you can use the tools in Modeler to build and manipulate a character's skeleton. This is much easier than doing it in the animation and rendering module, Layout. It also means that the bone information is saved with the object, so if the model is revised, the skeletal information can be updated with the model.
For facial animation, Modeler now supports an IntelligEntity called Endomorphs, with which you can save morph data in the vertices of a single model rather than save each facial shape as a separate model, as you do in other packages. Animating Endomorphs is easy as well. A floating palette of sliders appears for the model, enabling you to interactively animate the shapes. This is much better than Morph Gizmo, Light Wave's previous facial animation tool, with which morphing occurred in a separate window and had to be saved to disk before showing up in Layout.
Other animation tools include an Expressions editor, which enables you to control the animation of objects using mathematical formulas. For instance, you can set up sliders to make the motion of one object control that of many objects. Although the Expressions editor works fine, it should have logical operators, such as if/then statements. I would also like to see support for a scripting language such as in Maya, Max, and Softimage XSI.
LightWave is known for its excellent rendering technology, and 6 adds new features that keep it close to the cutting edge. The most enticing is Raydiosity, which takes into account the scattering of light off a diffuse surface. A bright red curtain, for example, will reflect red light onto nearby objects. Although this secondary light adds an extra dimension of realism to a scene, most renderers don't take it into consideration because it is slow to calculate. LightWave now includes algorithms that allow for this to happen relatively quickly, though it's still a grind for even the fastest processors.
The other big rendering feature is the addition of caustics to the rendering engine. Caustics simulate the reflection and refraction of light off curved surfaces. The reflections off a pool of water are a good example of caustics in action.
Overall, LightWave 6 offers several much-needed improvements in the toolset and interface that keep it current with other professional-level 3D applications. The animation section still needs a bit of work, but the package really shines in the area of rendering, and Raydiosity, though time-consuming, produces world-class images. LightWave is a good all-around application for anyone producing 3D animation.
George Maestri is a writer and animator living in Los Angeles.
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