It’s true that Eovia’s Carrara Studio 2 lacks the advanced modeling tools and scriptable animation that high-end 3-D animation systems such as Alias|Wavefront’s Maya, NewTek’s LightWave 3D, and Electric Image’s Universe have. Nor does it provide a similar maniacal level of control over every detail. But the latest version of Carrara does offer beginning animators–and even professional designers–engaged in Web, print, and video graphics a reasonably rich feature set and ease of use, at a low price: $399.
The Sum of Its Parts
Carrara’s interface and features clearly show its MetaCreations Ray Dream Studio and Infini-D ancestry. Unlike a software tool that was built from the ground up, or that evolved naturally in response to user requests, Carrara is something of a Frankenstein monster: the parts work, but they don’t go together as well as they could.
Carrara’s interface monopolizes the Mac’s screen, largely with empty space, and disables the Dock. Although this gives you an uncluttered screen to work on, we would much prefer access to our desktop, along with floating windows that put all of our tools in reach.
While Carrara is easy to use overall, its interface eschews some important usability conventions, such as transformation widgets that let you know which axis you’re moving or scaling an object on, and snaps for precisely editing and aligning components. Each time you use a tool, you’ll have to reset its options because Carrara reverts to default values after every operation. One new interface aspect we do like, however, is that control-clicking anywhere on the screen instantly brings up a palette of navigation tools.
When it’s time to actually build something, Carrara offers several types of modeling, each in a distinct module. The Spline Modeler is the default environment for creating 3-D objects. This tool lets you make a variety of swept or extruded shapes, using Bézier splines as both cross sections and extrusion paths. Although its interface is fairly easy to grasp with some practice, the modeler’s powers are limited to creating simple, single-surface extrusions and tubes.
Eovia bills Carrara’s Vertex Modeler as the “advanced” modeler, but in our experience it’s really the easiest to use for most types of 3-D work. This module lets you work with individual vertices, edges, and faces on any surface. And it lets you sculpt any shape–if you have enough patience. Hidden inside the Properties window of the Vertex Modeler is our favorite new feature in Carrara: the Smooth tool, a simple but effective subdivi-sion surfacer. It lets you create detailed organic surfaces–such as faces, hands, and animals-by smoothing relatively simple polygon cages.
Other types of modeling include Text, for creating 3-D type; Terrain, for creating landscapes and backdrops; and Metaballs, blob-like shapes that blend like mercurial clay, useful for quickly creating lumpy objects such as wax drips on the edges of a candle.
Carrara’s surfacing (or texture-mapping) features pack lots of power but take considerable time to learn. You can create any kind of realistic or fictional surface by combining and layering complex combinations of color and material properties. This ability is complemented by Carrara’s very good rendering quality. Another new feature in Carrara is Photon Mapping, which is a type of radiosity rendering. The results of this rendering algorithm are both wonderfully rich and agonizingly slow to render. The program also now includes an option for rendering caustics–the patterns created by light refracting through transparent surfaces.
Designers will also welcome Carrara’s lighting options, which include standard lights–such as point, spot, and directional–and unusual options such as Moon, which creates moonlight effects in conjunction with the atmosphere, and Anything Glows lights, which turn object geometry into light sources.
3-D with Character
Carrara’s animation is impressive for an application in its price range. You can animate objects and hierarchies with a good level of control, and you can access motion curves that let you fine-tune the timing of movements.
The program even offers an excellent introduction to character animation. Carrara Studio 2 introduces inverse kinematics and bones, which let you animate lifelike characters by attaching them to an underlying skeleton with realistic joints. On the performance front, the software is reasonably responsive, if not snappy, on a dual-450MHz Power Mac G4.
Carrara renders high-quality still images and image sequences in most of the standard file formats, and the program can render QuickTime movies at any resolution. We really like the batch renderer that lets us queue up a bunch of renderings and then go to lunch. Eovia has announced a plug-in, VectorStyle, that will render Flash files; while it was released too late for evaluation in this review, it should be available by the time you read this.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
While the program is a sometimes inelegant amalgam of Ray Dream Studio and Infini-D, Carrara Studio 2 is a good, low-cost, easy-to-use 3-D solution for creating a wide variety of graphics and fairly modest animations. Although its interface needs improvement, newcomers to the 3-D arena will find it a capable tool for creating all kinds of realistic 3-D artwork, and it offers enough special effects and animation capabilities to keep the creative juices flowing.