NewTek’s LightWave 3D 7b is a major development for Mac 3-D artists. By taking advantage of OS X’s OpenGL support and multithreading performance, the $2,495 do-everything 3-Danimation and effects system has made a quantum leap in performance and productivity.
Version 7b doesn’t have a lot of new features, but there are gems in this release. The foremost change in this edition is fast, reliable performance in OS X. Earlier versions of LightWave were plagued by bugs and inexplicable crashes in OS 9, and unfortunately, LightWave is still generally unreliable in OS 9.
Version 7b is one of the best examples we’ve seen of multiprocessor performance on a dual-processor Mac (our test system was a dual-800MHz G4 with 1GB of RAM). The result is the fastest high-quality ray tracing we’ve seen on the Mac platform. This version also sets the bar for OpenGL performance in OS X; manipulating a scene in the program’s preview mode is fast and fluid, as long is it’s a scene with fewer than 10,000 polygons. However, if LightWave for the Mac is going to match LightWave’s Windows performance levels, Apple needs to introduce true workstation OpenGL acceleration in its next professional desktop systems.
LightWave includes three applications. Modeler is where you build geometry and add texture to models. Layout is where you create environmental and particle effects, set lighting, and do all of your animation and rendering. Hub runs in the background, monitoring and controlling the flow of data between the two main modules. This split personality (necessary when RAM costs were higher) is outdated.
We’ve experienced a lot of problems with getting changes between modules to update properly. Moreover, there is a compelling case for tight integration of the modeling and animation modules. Maya, for example, allows an artist to create diverse relationships between any part of a scene, such as animating points on the control curves that define an object’s shape. This type of relationship isn’t possible in LightWave,though there are ways to work around Hub, such as frequently issuing a Save All Objects command.
LightWave’s modeler includes excellent polygonal tools and a subdivision modeler, called Subpatch Surfaces, which allows you to build complex organic forms by manipulating simple polygon cages. But it’s missing surface-continuity tools like those found in Universe and Maya; these tools are essential for building accurate representations of seamless surfaces such as a car’s or an airplane’s.
LightWave has several tools for creating animation, mechanical and skeletal motion with inverse and forward kinematics, a huge range of particle effects and dynamic simulations, and facial motions and expressions driven by target morphing. Its best new feature is a nonlinear motion mixer that lets you drag and drop animation segments on a familiar video-editorstyle timeline, to combine various actions into new sequences.
LightWave now offers a very good Shockwave 3D exporter. A new spreadsheet editor lets you rapidly modify an animation by entering numeric values at any keyframe. And similar to Maya, LightWave has an expressions editor that allows you to drive the action of one object with the parameters of another.
LightWave’s greatest asset is its rendering, which rivals Universe in versatility and sheer speed. The software offers ray tracing with radiosity and caustics, which realistically represent interobject illumination.
The Hypervoxels particle system creates amazing particle simulations, such as realistic ground fog, within geometric volumes. This version of LightWave also features a cloth simulator and Sasquatch Lite, a limited version of the very good $599 hair-, grass-, and fur-rendering plug-in from Worley Labs. The SkyTracer component, optimized for better performance in version 7b, realistically renders background skies and clouds of any type.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
LightWave 3D 7b is well suited to all kinds of 3-D work. Although its three-module design and Hub component are flawed, the software is overall a versatile and high-quality animation and rendering tool. Those who own an earlier version may want to upgrade for improved performance; but if you’re looking only for new features, the upgrade isn’t worthwhile.