3D space: Strata 3D Pro
Posted Jun 1, 2004

This month, we continue our examination of 3D modeling programs with Strata 3D Pro. Strata's online manual is one of the best for providing basic knowledge without being condescending, especially if you're new to 3D. On the other hand, it's about average when it comes to helping you learn the program (and, in this columnist's opinion, the "average" computer manual is far from perfect on this score). However, clicking the Strata logo on the 3D Pro menu takes you to www.strata.com, where you'll find a host of free resources, including free tutorials and new product information, as well as no-cost downloadable textures and models.

Modeling
In Strata 3D Pro's Modeling window you create and modify objects. Select your view from a pop-up menu: Front, Back, Right, Left, Top, Bottom, or Isometric. Use Split View to access more than one view at the same time. Then choose your "camera lens" from Orthographic (no perspective), Normal, or Wide Angle Perspective.

In Strata 3D you model from either Regular Objects or Shapes. Shapes conserve memory. They are "named parent" objects (and groups of named objects). Change any property of the original (parent) shape, and all referenced shapes change automatically. You can keep notes on individual "children," generate a list of children, and print the list.

Create objects or shapes quickly from the Primitives on the Tool palette. They can be shaped and reshaped, use minimal memory, render quickly, and make good building blocks. You can easily convert from one object type to another (including Splines, Polygons, Lathing, Skinning, Metaballs, Extruding, Booleans, Sweeps, and more). Strata 3D Pro can import models from other 3D modeling packages and most illustration applications. When we imported 3ds files, the objects came in looking even crisper than they did in the program from which we created them, but they lost all their original textures (apparently each program has its own "flavor" of this feature, and not all flavors are interchangeable). Applying new textures was as painless as in any of the programs we've reviewed, but it did take needless time.

The Lathe function revolves 2D objects through space to create 3D objects such as vases, glasses, and columns. The Sweep function of the Lathe tool creates coiled objects, like a wire or a snake.

Similarly, the Extrude tool uses 2D objects to create shapes with one or more flat surfaces, such as walls, panels, and tabletops. You can animate both the Lathe and Extrude functions.

The Bezier Pen tool can draw Bezier curves, lines, or regions. As you draw, a temporary grid line appears to help you position the next anchor point. Bezier regions can be filled or can become animation paths.

To create three-dimensional text, choose an Extrusion Bevel and a Path (on which to align the text) and the program extracts your characters in the shape of the selected font.

The Backdrop feature lets you use an image or movie as a backdrop in your Modeling window, to help you scale or position objects. Although the Backdrop itself does not render, reflective backgrounds reflect in your rendered objects.

Lay of the Landscape
Import a two-dimensional image to create three-dimensional geometry, say for a landscape—the lighter a color, the greater its rendered elevation. "Import As 3-D Mesh" lets you control the density of the mesh by adjusting the number of grid divisions, specify the overall size, and adjust the height (elevation). Choose either a Bezier mesh or a Trimesh (a polygonal mesh in which all of the polygons are triangles). Reshape mode can modify the geometry of an object.

Reshape works with the vertices (control points) of objects. You can push and pull points on any axis to mold an object into any configuration. "Hinged vertices" allow you to crease the surface, as you would fold paper to make a model airplane or "fold" a flat landscape to make a gully. You can reshape both 2D and 3D objects and change the shape over time to create animation.

Great Panes
Besides the Modeling window, you have a Project window to control timelines and attributes; a Camera window to set the type, angle, view, and movement of the camera; a Spotlight window to control the area that your spotlight illuminates; a Shape window to create shapes, store them, and then insert them into your models by reference; or a Group window to edit members of a grouped set.

Strata 3D Pro's "real-world textures" render well. You can layer textures for sophisticated effects, adjust such controls as Ambient, Bump, Caustics, Diffuse, Glow, Opacity, and Reflectivity.

Lighting controls include Global, Ambient, Point (shines in all directions from a single point), and Spotlight (shines in one direction, from a single point, and follows the movements of its "target"). Use them in any combination to capture the warmth of the sun, the cool glow of a lamp, or the intensity of spotlights. Adjust fall-off, brightness, color, size, glow, flare, and radiosity effects, like object glow and light reflection. Use gels to simulate light passing through something, such as a window (clear or stained glass).

The Aura effect adds a glow around your object. Lens Flares have Glare (the bright spot right over the light source) and Flash (the rings, rainbows, and halos that appear with a Lens Flare). You can also add effects like depth-of-field and motion blur.

Atmospheric effects can be global, like fog or mist, or Volumetric, which are confined to the space occupied by the single-sided objects to which they are applied.

Forces like gravity and wind control Strata 3D's particle effects. For example, Fountain can make a metaball fountain, in which the individual spheres merge when they cross paths. You can set the color, emission velocity, acceleration, life span, and spread. Particles will either bounce from any texture or gather on any surface, depending on the amount of energy you give the particles.

Picturing It Perfect
Camera types include Normal, Stereo (for generating stereoscopic images and movies), and Panoramic (produces a 360-degree rendering, which can then be converted to a Panorama QuickTime VR movie, that lets viewers "move around" your object from a Web browser).

Drag the Look At point onto an object, and the camera tracks that object as it moves. The Range field determines the total distance in front of and behind the Look At point where objects will remain relatively focused.

Motion blur simulates what occurs in real life when objects move while the camera's shutter is open. You can control the softness of the blur behind an object and you can name and save a particular camera view.

Rendering
Rendering methods include PointCloud, Outline, WireFrame, HiddenLine, Flat, Shaded, and Toon. Choose your method, level of anti-aliasing, frames to be rendered, and image size and resolution. Like most programs reviewed here, Strata 3D can, blissfully, render in the background.

Finally, save your work in high resolution for print, digital video formats for animations, JPEG for Web images, or VRML for virtual reality on the Web. Strata 3D Pro also exports to Macromedia Flash (SWF), the XML-based vector format (SVG), or to EPS, Sequential EPS, and AI file formats for Adobe Illustrator.

Although we liked the program, we found that the lack of a comprehensive and readily accessible object list often makes it hard to manipulate any particular object.

We found the program generally well-behaved and easy to work with. Our most serious complaint is that the program has only one level of Undo, which makes it dangerous to experiment with any technique that requires more than one step. We very much liked the quality of the rendered drawings.

As EMedia went to press, Strata announced a new version of the software, Strata 3D CX. Key new features include the ability to read Photoshop and Illustrator files in their native format, and a Polyspline modeler, a modeling tool that uses subdivision surface technology to extend the range of objects that users of the software can mold. 3D CX also boasts image-based lighting, which allows users to use images from "actual real-world environments," according to pre-release press materials, to illuminate scenes they develop in the program. Strata 3D CX has been scheduled for a June release.