At a Glance
Electric Image's Animation System has matured far beyond its former peers (notably MacroMind's MacroModel and RayDream's self-titled RayDream) and emerged as one of the fastest film-quality renderers on the market. Electric Image's latest release, the OS Xnative Universe 4, has improved its character-animation tools, and the program now includes Global Illumination light objects, among other enhancements. But as powerful as Universe is, it comes with poor documentation, and its interface is inconsistent, making it manageable for advanced 3-D artists but challenging for many beginning and intermediate users.
Three Apps for Three Processes
Universe 4 has three separate applications for modeling, animating, and rendering: Universe Modeler, Universe Animator, and Universe Camera. Modeler is built from the ACIS code library, which is entirely curve-based. Artists accustomed to polygonal modeling may find the terminology awkward at first, but Modeler includes familiar operations such as Booleans, sweeps, and revolves. Animator provides the world environment for texturing and animating imported models.
Camera is an independent ray-tracing renderer that generates the final output files of scenes created in Animator. That the rendering process is part of a separate application contributes to Universe's fast rendering speed.
One Interface for Two OSs
Universe 4 includes OS 9 and OS X versions. But Aqua fans will be disappointed--there's no visual difference between these two versions. Some 3-D users will prefer this for efficiency's sake, though, as Universe's custom window title bars take up less screen real estate than those of Mac OS's interface.
Modeler and Animator havesimilar interfaces, but there are usability inconsistencies between the two programs. For example, Modeler's keyboard shortcuts for viewport navigation and Move, Rotate, and Scale tool selection are different from Animator's--switching between the two can get confusing. And Modeler's lack of keyboard shortcuts for tools forces you to select them from the tool palette.
Characters Get Some Support
Universe 4's major improvements appear in the Animator application; they include cubic reflection maps, blur previews, and a real-time constraint system. The biggest addition is Animator's enhanced set of character-animation tools. The new, single-step process for binding models to bone hierarchies treats the binding as a dependency. A bone hierarchy can control multiple skins and no longer has to be a child of the model it's affecting.
Strength Maps now handle bone influence on vertices. You can create Strength Maps in two ways: by using an image's luminance value to set the weighting of bone influence or by using an interactive brush to paint strength values directly onto the skin within Animator. The new painting feature is very flexible: vertex positions are updated in real time within viewports as you paint. The program also lets you enable the painting mode in all viewports, giving you access to all sides of the model in the wireframe or shaded view.
Electric Image has enhanced rendering in Universe 4 by adding Global Illumination light objects, which let you create a random array of lights that point toward a single area, or stage, simulating natural light on objects. The rendering is on a par with that of LightWave 3D's radiosity with Global Illumination, but because Universe uses ray tracing to do this, it renders five to six times faster.
Caution When Modeling
Nearly a decade after Electric Image first developed a Mac application, it introduced Modeler, which has an assortment of features, some in need of fine-tuning. There are several tools for creating and editing NURBS curves and for generating solid or surface bodies from those curves. But as you use these tools in a project, they usually yield a cryptic ACIS-incompatibility warning message, which, frustratingly, forces you to replan your modeling strategy.
The surface-subdivision mode, UberNURBS, is great for creating smooth, organic shapes and has a broad selection of cage-editing and vertex-influence tools. Modeler also includes interactive rounding and beveling tools that rival those of Autodessys's FormZ--if only they worked as precisely. Modeler's rounding technique worked well on primitive shapes, but it didn't do so well on complex edges of extruded objects because Modeler had trouble with calculations.
All shapes created within Modeler are ACIS bodies, so you'll need to tessellate them into a polygonal model before importing them into Animator. But be prepared for the time-consuming, trial-and-error process of finding tessellation settings that balance broadcast smoothness with geometric size.
Because Universe's documentation is still inadequate, the program is frustrating to learn if you're a beginning or even an intermediate 3-D artist. Typos aside, the documentation doesn't mention that some features may not always perform as expected, so it's difficult to troubleshoot. Luckily, users have access to support from an online community at Postforum (www.postforum.com) and DVGarage (www.dvgarage.com), as well as from the mailing list at Toolfarm.com.
Macworld's Buying Advice
Universe 4 maintains Electric Image's commitment to fast, high-quality rendering, and its new character-animation tools broaden the program's abilities beyond animating architectural fly-throughs, flying logos, and space battles. 3-D artists will have to spend a lot of time ironing out the suite's idiosyncrasies; however, the improvements in Universe 4 make it comparable to competitors that cost more.
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