By George Maestri
While it is virtually unknown in the US, Expression Tools' Shade is one of the oldest 3D packages in existence. The software was released in 1986 in Japan, where it has become very popular. Many of Japan's top designers and illustrators use Shade, and the company claims it is the preferred tool of the Japanese auto industry. I spent some time following links from the Shade Web site to the sites of various artists in Japan who use the software, and found that some of the images created with Shade are im pressive. Shade was first translated to Eng lish last year with Version 4, and Version 5 quickly followed.
The software comes up with a fairly spartan four-pane interface. Most of the commands are contained in a couple of floating palettes, and are duplicated in a right-click contextual menu. It might be nice to bring some of the more common commands, such as translation and rotation, up to the top level of the interface to make it more efficient.
Modeling in Shade is unique: A surface consists of a collection of Bezier curves that are grouped into a hierarchy. All curves used to create an object are managed through a browser window, which allows you to maintain a full construction history of objects. All the component curves remain active, so you can tweak any curve, changing the resulting surface at any time. This method of modeling has power in its flexibility. Unfortunately, I found the learning curve pretty steep.
|Shade has a familiar four-pane interface with many of the commands contained on floating palettes.|
In addition to Bezier curve modeling, Shade supports metaballs and polygonal modeling, which has been enhanced with Version 5 to include subdivision surfaces. Another nice new modeling feature is magical sketch, which allows you to model objects somewhat as if you were drawing them. Drawing a simple line, for example, can produce an extruded 3D shape such as the tentacle of an octopus.
You can animate single objects in Shade or group them in hierarchies for more complex motions. For character animators, the software supports a joint system with inverse kinematics. In Shade, however, "joint" has multiple meanings. It can be used for skeletal animation, but joints can also be used to create sliders to animate other parameters, such as moving an object along a path.
For those using IK, Version 5 now sports a more robust IK system, with ball joints to simulate body parts such as shoulders. The new version also has enhanced skinning features, which allow for more complex weighting and skinning of character meshes to a skeleton. Finally, a new feature called forced balls allows for physical simulations.
Even though Version 5 has improved the animation tools, I still found the animation portion of the software difficult to use. For example, the time slider is fairly small and tucked away inside the motion window. Animators, myself included, tend to like a large and easily accessible time slider, as it speeds productivity.
Rendering is definitely Shade's strongest point. The sample images looked great, and I found that texturing objects was fairly straightforward. Rendering is accomplished through a series of floating menus, the center of which is the shader editor, where you can create materials.
The default shader allows you to refine the look of a surface through layering. Up to five textures or procedurals can be mixed to create complex looks. In addition, there are two separate highlight channels, which allow you to fine-tune the specularity of an object for creating multi-layered highlights, such as for the finish of an automobile. Similarly, the shader has both a glow parameter and a soft glow. By mixing these, you can get a wide array of effects.
For added realism, the software supports raytracing and radiosity. Caustics are included to allow for complex reflections and refractions, such as the shimmering reflections from the surface of water. The software supports point and spotlights, but not area lights.
Shade is extensible through a plug-in and Java-based scripting architecture. A number of plug-ins are provided with the package. Some of them, such as "Go to Next Frame" seem like they should be part of the core software.
I had mixed feelings about this software. Shade needs improvement in the area of animation. The Bezier curve modeler takes a while to learn, but once you get the hang of it, it's efficient and can produce excellent results. The new subdivision tools also offer a more familiar modeling method. Overall, the package could be a good fit for designers or illustrators who need to create high-quality still images.
George Maestri is a writer and animator living in Los Angeles.
Price: $1499, professional version. $499, personal version.
System Requirements: MacOS 8.6 to MacOS 9; Windows 98/ME/NT/2000; 64MB of RAM