As a general rule, you have two choices when you’re choosing a 3-D–modeling and –rendering program: a rich set of features or a pauper’s price (less than $400). But at $399, version 5.0 of Pixels Digital’s Pixels 3D breaks that rule. Similar to low-end 3-D programs such as Eovia’s
; November 2002), Pixels 3D has a user-friendly interface that gives you easy access to tools and features. Its system of pop-up menus functions in a way that’s very similar to the pop-up Hot Box menus in Alias’s
; January 2003), which are for object selection modes.
Like most do-everything 3-D packages, Pixels 3D offers modeling in a variety of styles, surfacing with bitmapped and procedural textures, a range of dynamic effects such as smoke and fire, and a high-quality ray-trace renderer. But it doesn’t offer many of the features found in high-end programs — radiosity rendering, for example. And the level of control offered in areas such as texture mapping and particles is not nearly as deep as in higher-end programs. So Pixels 3D is appropriate for print, Web, and multimedia artists, and for some broadcast environments, but it won’t meet the needs of sophisticated studios and advertising agencies.
One thing you won’t find in most low-priced 3-D packages is NURBS modeling. Nonuniform rational B-splines, also known as b-splines, are great for modeling smoothly blended, curved shapes, such as the compound curves in the panels of car bodies. And with advanced capabilities including tangency controls and stitching, NURBS are also well suited to creating realistic organic forms such as animals and humans.
Unfortunately, the NURBS in Pixels 3D lack these capabilities, so they’re better for making objects out of individual patches joined by hard seams, rather than out of multiple patches that blend together smoothly. For entry-level 3-D artists, this distinction can be academic. But for character work — in particular, modeling faces, which have many smoothly blended surfaces — or for scenes that will be viewed or printed at a high resolution, it’s a significant limitation. On the other hand, the program’s polygon-modeling tools are useful for creating surfaces with points you want to easily manipulate. These tools also come in handy when you need to use Boolean operations to cut holes and quickly join surfaces. However, being able to split and weld them more easily would be very useful. Ultimately, Pixels 3D would benefit most from an easy-to-use subdivision surface modeler, which would be far more accurate and more user friendly than NURBS.
While it would be difficult to create very realistic character models in Pixels 3D, it’s a great place to do simpler character modeling where parts of a face, such as the ears, nose, and eyes, are glued on. It’s also a great place to begin exploring character animation. Version 5.0 offers a new automatic character-rigging system that makes it easy to set up both biped and quadruped characters for animation, using a skeleton linked with inverse kinematic (IK) controls. And these controls, in turn, simplify the task of getting your character to move.
Another area where Pixels 3D is lacking is in facial animation. It’s more than adequate for creating cartoon-style expressions, where eyebrows float in front of the face, instead of bending and deforming along with the adjacent forehead skin, for example. But the program simply doesn’t have the depth of control necessary for the shaping, tweaking, and blending that very emotive facial expressions require.
Into the Atmosphere
Pixel 3D’s rendering quality is quite impressive, considering the program’s cost. The renderer does ray tracing and includes Skydome, an approximation of global illumination (a rendering technique that simulates the light from a natural sky). Version 5.0 adds atmospheric rendering effects, such as volumetric fog, so you can create much richer, moodier lighting and renderings. The set of particle effects adds to the renderer’s potential with the ability to create convincing smoke, clouds, and other dynamic effects. And the particle systems are fast to set up and preview (however, we’d appreciate the ability to render particles in OpenGL hardware, which would be significantly faster than software-only rendering).
The shading system, which lets you use both bitmapped textures and procedural (mathematically described) surfaces, is remarkably flexible. And it lets you create almost any type of surface quality you can dream up. For example, you can easily layer multiple textures by using the color and luminance values of several image maps to affect the rendering qualities, such as specularity, bumpiness, reflectivity, and transparency. You can also combine these with procedural shaders, such as fractals and noise, for relatively painless creation of complex surfaces such as riveted, painted metal with corroded, dented, and rusted areas.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
Pixels 3D 5.0 doesn’t provide the ultimate tool set for creating 3-D animations and still images. But at $399, it’s certainly an excellent choice for beginners. And it may be a reasonable option for professional artists who don’t need the elaborate features of high-end, and more expensive, 3-D tools.