Given the Mac's graphics superiority, it's surprising that 3-D production work on our platform of choice has until recently been a piecemeal process. One of the first fully integrated 3-D packages to migrate to the Mac from the Unix world was NewTek's LightWave, a powerful application for creating television and film effects. Now at version 6.5, LightWave's wealth of professional modeling and animation tools rivals those of programs such as Electric Image Universe and Maxon's Cinema 4D.
The Sum of the Parts
LightWave is actually a collection of separate applications: Modeler, for creating objects; Layout, for animating and rendering scenes; and Hub, which updates projects when you make changes in Modeler or Layout.
Modeler is polygon- and spline- based; it offers an efficient surface-subdivision mode in which you can create smooth organic forms similar to what you'd get with NURBS modeling. The program includes a collection of tools for patch modeling, along with "viewports" that you can use as UV mapping editors for precise placement of textures.
For creating bone hierarchies, Layout lets you set hybrid forward and inverse kinematics explicitly for each bone. The visual Graph Editor makes it easy to fine-tune smooth-keyframe interpolation using Bézier or TCB (tension, continuity, bias) curves. The unresponsive pan tool and time slider can be frustrating, however.
Some notable additions in version 6.5 are an integrated particle system, a soft-body dynamics engine, auto-
mated Atlas mapping tools, and a new Schematic view. Other welcome enhancements include a reorganized interface; a Bézier-curve tool in Modeler; and resizable viewports and front, left, and bottom views in Layout.
You'd think that documenting all these new features would be a high priority, but that doesn't appear to be the case. LightWave 6.5 ships with the printed manuals for ver-sion 6; the 6.5 addendum is
available only in PDF form. Equally disappointing is the lack of an index and the fact that the manuals assume you're using the Windows version.
Complex Made Easy
Several powerful procedural animation tools make complex motions easier to set up. An integrated particle generator--when used in conjunction with HyperVoxels, LightWave's volumetric-object generator--lets you simulate smoke, explosions, and fluids. Motion Designer can force objects to behave like cloth that can be influenced by any other element in the scene. And you can use animation expressions and modifiers to automatically move objects based on other objects' behavior.
But no matter how many impressive features a 3-D package offers, it all comes down to rendering--and in this area, LightWave excels. The ray-tracing engine can calculate realistic reflections, refraction, and caustics; the radiosity engine supports high-dynamic-range calculations of bounced light, allowing you to illuminate a scene using only photographs saved in the HDRI format. LightWave also supports distributed rendering, either on one multiprocessor machine or over a TCP/IP network.
Macworld's Buying Advice
If you want a complete 3-Dproduction package for character animation, product design, or visual effects, LightWave 6.5 is a great value--especially when you consider that many of its standard features, such as particles and dynamics, are available only as expensive plug-ins in other packages.Hats Off to Mapping: LightWave's Atlas function automatically "unwraps" models.