Maxon goes native

When Apple ships Mac OS X on March 24, Maxon Computer plans to be one of the first out of the gate with a native version of Cinema 4D XL, its 3-D modeling, animation and rendering program. The company has already posted a patch installer that allows users to run the software under Mac OS X Public Beta, and Maxon's Paul Babb said it should work with the final OS X release as well. "We haven't seen anything that breaks it," he said.

As with several other professional-level 3-D graphics programs, Cinema 4D XL sits on a layer above the operating system, making ports relatively easy. Only 5 percent of the code is OS-dependent, Babb said. In some ways, he said, the program runs in its own OS, one of the secrets behind its legendary stability. Cinema 4D XL users, he said, are accustomed to going months or even years without a crash.

The program has a flexible interface, allowing users to choose among Mac OS 9, Mac OS X and Windows schemes in addition to the default look. In addition, he said, the interface is completely customizable: instructors of the program, for example, can remove commands that won't be used in a lesson, and you can easily switch among multiple languages. Babb has even done a Pig Latin version to show off the multilingual capability. (It's not the only example of playful tinkering at Maxon -- one engineer, showing off the granularity of Cinema 4D XL's rendering function, developed a version of the renderer that runs on Palm handhelds. It can render a sphere in one to two minutes, Babb said.)

Babb said the company added the new interface features in version 6 in response to negative feedback about version 5's look. When conducting market research, the company found that customers had widely varying ideas about what they wanted in an interface, so the developers tried to accommodate them by letting them create their own.

The software is optimized for multiprocessing under Mac OS 9 and OS X, and thanks in part to the program's OS-independent architecture, Babb said that dual-processor Macs are running it at 180 to 185 percent the speed of a single-processor system, an impressive number.

Along with Cinema 4D XL, Maxon is also promoting BodyPaint 3D, a sophisticated 3-D painting and texture-generating program that works in conjunction with Cinema 4D XL as well as programs from other vendors. For now, he said, most BodyPaint customers are Cinema 4D users, but eventually he expects that users of other programs will outnumber Cinema 4D customers in the installed base.

These are boom times for 3-D applications on the Mac, and like other vendors, Maxon is eyeing markets beyond its base among professional animators. Babb believes that with easier-to-use software, more of it is getting into the hands of artists as opposed to the technicians who tended to be early 3-D users. And he thinks this could have a big impact in Hollywood as individuals gain the ability to create professional-looking content without the intervention of directors or producers. He also thinks that 3-D programs will generate new art forms where people view animated content on large flat-panel displays. "There's nothing like 3-D software in the hands of someone who's an artist," he said.

However, Babb thinks that some 3-D vendors oversell the capabilities of their programs to novices, giving people the idea that they can produce Hollywood-style special effects with a few days of training. "3-D isn't easy," he said. "It's complex."

Maxon puts a lot of emphasis on the education market, offering an incredible deal considering the US$1,995 price tag: for $500, schools can obtain a 50-seat license, and any student certified by a teacher can buy a fully functioning version for $500. Students, he said, can pay for the program with a single freelance project, leading them on their way to professional careers -- with Cinema 4D in tow.

This story, "Maxon goes native" was originally published by PCWorld.

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