Review: NewTek LightWave 3D 8
Posted Aug 4, 2004

Off the shelf, LightWave 3D is a complete and flexible software solution for 3D graphics and animation. Proven for years in television, film, and games, LightWave 3D also creates graphics for print, Web, industrial design, architecture, medical imaging, and other 3D needs. LightWave 3D ships with tools such as soft-body dynamics, particles, hair, and fur, plus unlimited render nodes; version 8 adds a new bone editing suite, improved character animation, and speed optimization via OpenGL support.

You might say that NewTek created desktop computer animation—on the Amiga, before Macs and PC had even discovered color. Some of your favorite TV series, like Star Trek and Babylon 5 (which won the FX Emmy for its pilot episode), came to life in LightWave. Film credits include Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, The Matrix Reloaded, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Black Hawk Down, Lost in Space, Titanic (Visual Effects Academy Award Winner), and The X-Files (Visual Effects Emmy Award Winner). And that's the short list.

As with most complex programs, we found parts of LightWave marvelously intuitive and other parts frustratingly elusive. However, our major complaint is that LightWave only runs with a hardware device called a dongle hogging one of your computer's USB ports. If you switch between your desktop and laptop, or take work home, you must bring the dongle with you. We didn't like dongles on the Amiga, and we like them less now. (At least most Amiga dongles had a pass-through, so that the device didn't tie up a port.) We understand the need to protect intellectual property against piracy, but prefer solutions that don't penalize the legitimate user.

Nevertheless, this is still a great program, with an abundant stock of Web tutorials, from the simple to the specific, to guide you up the learning curve. LightWave just released version 8, with several new features—such as improved character animation and optimized speed—which make the program more exciting than ever.

For Openers
To get started with LightWave, open your project in the Layout Window, but Quick Launch the Modeler window to build your animation's "assets." The default Modeler window shows four viewports—top, back, right, and perspective—but you can independently change the view or rendering style of any viewport.

Rendering choices include wireframe, shade, texture, flat shaded (shows all edges of all polygons), stretch (combines the wireframe and "flat shaded" views), wireframe stretch (overlays the wireframe lines with smooth shading), or smooth shade (does not show vertices, but allows you to set many surface settings). You also can set grids and assign backdrop images for each viewport. Layers are numbered and can be named.

You can load several objects into the Modeler at one time and switch between them from a pop-up menu. Multiple layers let you isolate and work on the individual components of your creation. Boolean functions (which place your base object in the active layer and use the geometry in the background as "cutting data") and "rail" extrusions, however, employ multiple layers. Modeling tools include Squash and Stretch, the Hybrid Inverse/Forward Kinematics engine, a flexible Inverse Kinematics system, Free-form and locked IK goals, and separate animated channels. Among the new modeling tools in LightWave 8 are improved soft body dynamics, rigid body dynamics, cloth dynamics, and bone dynamics. The Modeler also has new selection modes, including Select Loop, Select Poly, and Select Outline. New layer tools include Clone2 Layer, which improves on previous cloning tools by letting you place clones in multiple layers; insert layer, which lets you insert a new layer between two existing layers; delete layer, which deletes the selected layer and moves lower layers up; and Object Collapser, which condenses all selected layers into one.

You can use the layer buttons to work with layers in banks of 10. Multiple layers can be active. Layers can be in the foreground (active) or background (visible, but can't be edited).

"Vertex maps" let you control data for such aspects of your model as texture, weight, and morph. You can edit a model's points, the entire polygon, or any user-defined area. The selection information window shows how many points or polygons you have selected. Use the Viewport Navigation tools to move, zoom, or rotate around the object. Set the Alert Level to Beginner, Intermediate, or Expert to receive warnings for such things as "improper object vertices."

Layered Textures
LightWave allows any number of layers of texturing for an object or surface, and lets you control how the layers are combined in the final renders. Textures can be colors, images, or any of dozens of included procedural settings. Textures can be applied for color, bump, or displacement, using a projection or UV mapping.

Subdivision Surfaces let you convert between polygons and subdivision surfaces at any time, to change your model from a faceted rough to an organically smooth sculpture. "Intelligentities" offer Endomorphs (which allow morph data to be stored in the object file so changes can be made to the base model without disturbing targets), Skelegons (which allow creation and editing of bones within geometry), and MultiMeshes (which provide a layered object format with unlimited layers). Also, Atlas mapping provides automatically generated UV maps that reduce texture stretching.

In version 8, LightWave 3D adds an entire new suite of bone editing tools. These include Joint Move, Tip Move (which lets you pull the tip of a bone while LW adjusts child bones accordingly), Bone Connect (which connects any two bones), and Bone Edit.The new Morph Mixer offers more control for object morphing, including character animation.

LightWave also features gradient textures that allow texture values to be based on distance to objects, slope, bump height, camera/light incidence, and more.

Of course, as in comparable tools like 3ds max, you have animatable metaballs, metafaces and metaedges, with direct control over polygons, vertices, and patches. Color data can be painted, assigned, or "baked into" each point of the model file (Vertex Shading). The Symmetry tool helps you rapidly create characters. You can airbrush between morphs, flatten layers, and even save layers as objects.

Cel Shaders help you achieve the look of traditional animation. Super Cel Shader and the BESM ("Big Eyes Small Mouth"—as in Anime) feature help deliver smooth-shaded rendering with a "hand-painted" look.

The Aligner, Sizer, and Dangle modeling tools help with modeling to scale and relational modeling between multiple objects (particularly useful in industrial design). Rail Modeling tools allow interactive scaling, rotating, and stretching from the curve tool. High Dynamic Range Images (HDRIs), used with Radiosity, help produce lifelike environmental lighting by photorealistically casting light.

SkyTracer 2 offers real-world parameters for setting up atmospheric effects, including sun and cloud, light scattering, and absorption. Adjust the time and location settings to simulate the sun rising or setting—on this world or some other.

Sasquatch Lite creates grass, fur, hair, leaves, and more. You can fine tune the coarseness, frizziness, length, "fall" direction, color, shadows, and more. Create long-strand fiber objects, such as hair or grass skirts, using chains of two-point polygons. Then use Motion Designer to supply natural movement, complete with wind and gravity effects. Long hair can include knots, bows, or even braids.

As a true, real-time subdivision surface modeler, LightWave provides interactivity tools such as bevel, smooth shift, and more, to make modeling like sculpting with digital clay.

Motion Mixer is a non-linear animation system for blending curve tracks. Use it for blending motions, endomorphs, or any animatable parameter. Load and save Hierarchical Motion (HMOT) data (such as walking, running, jumping), containing all relevant components, motions, and channels for a character group. Use transitions to mix and blend motions together. Define them as "actors" and use a timeline to stretch, trim, move, and scale motions to produce the movement and timing you want. Animate once, customize endlessly.

LightWave's P.A.V.L.O.V.  (Parameterized Animated Values Linking Objects and Variables) capability can reference all animated items in a scene. Link them or let one drive another.

You can position and scale motions and groups of channels in the track view, and blend multiple motion tracks together into a user-definable curve. You have Absolute and Relative Offset motions settings and can select by Descendants, Hierarchy, Actor, or Motion.

LightWave integrates soft-body dynamics to create flowing movement for cloth, Jello, flesh, or hair. Select from materials such as cotton, silk, or rubber, and customize the characteristics of your materials. You can adjust settings to account for gravity, wind, and more.

The integrated ParticleFX Systems create explosions, fire and smoke, using wind, gravity and collision effectors, or simulates fluid dynamics and crowd simulation with inter-particle collision calculations. Particle spawning from a "parent" allows a single particle to become a complex emitter. Effects Grouping allows you to isolate particular wind, gravity, or collisions and allows emitters to affect or disregard each other. Particles retain such properties as size, weight, resistance, lifetime, vibration, and adherence to the motion of the parent item. Add HyperVoxels to create volumetric effects, such as liquids, fire, smoke, dust, ash, gelatin, rusted materials, or clouds.

The Spreadsheet Editor makes mass scene changes quickly on a track-view timeline. Edit sections include Bone Properties (Influence and Effect), Light Properties (Basic, Flags, Type Specific, and Shadows), Object Properties (Geometry, Morphing, Displacement, Render Options, Render Flags, Edges), Motions Options (IK, Controllers, and Limits HPB), Names and Statistics, Tags, and Channel Values. You can define a range of frames for Dopesheet editing. Version 8, unlike previous iterations of LightWave, offers full Spreadsheet and Dopesheet views, with selection set support and new audio import and clean-up capabilities.

The Function Curve Editor's OpenGL interface allows quick editing of hundreds of curves and thousands of keyframes in real time. Handle data-rich curves such as Match Footprint, Time Slice, Key Reduction, Curve Filtering, and Key Bins. Work with multiple curve types, including Linear, Bezier, Stepped, Hermite Spline, TCB, with multi-select and editing of heterogeneous curve types, including a key roll option, interactive key copy, and more.

Rendering
LightWave's list of rendering features almost defies listing. They include the Sasquatch rendering engine (for hair, fur, grass and foliage); SkyTracer (that even boasts SunSpot control); Digital Confusion (to add depth-of-field effects, including rendering of hidden geometry for accurate background blurring and optional iris shapes, which match various camera styles); HyperVoxel texture effects (including Dissolve and Expand, and Velocity Translate to create realistic smoke and fire); Sprite mode (for volumetric lights—reduces render times up to 500%); soft reflection/refraction; and the "baking" of color, illumination, shaders, radiosity, caustics, and diffusion into UV-defined image maps or point maps. You can render up to 16,000x16,000 pixels, with stepped, vector-based, and hybrid-motion blur types.

LightWave's Virtual Darkroom simulates film and print exposures. Shading noise reduction improves shadow quality and lowers render times. VIPER (Versatile Interactive Preview Renderer) lets you make rapid changes to textures, lights, backdrops, volumetrics, and HyperVoxels without re-rendering the scene.

Layout
To synchronize (and transfer your models to) Layout, you activate the LightWave Hub. In Layout, you can stage your animation, add lights and cameras, and then generate images and animations. LightWave lets you create keyframes, or let Auto Key do most of the work. Here you can create Preview Animations without rendering.

Layout items are grouped into objects, bones, lights, and cameras. Buttons on the Toolbar change to reflect the applicable tasks. "Info Display" lets you read, or change, an object's position or rotation. The Layout workspace, in the center of your screen, opens with one light and one camera, and with one or more viewports. New layout features in version 8 include improved character animation setup and controls; foremost among them are the bone editing tools mentioned earlier.

LightWave aims to ensure broadcast-quality color depth with rendering engines that account for radiosity, caustics, HyperVoxels, soft reflections and refractions, Voxel Baking, and the Digital Confusion depth-of-field filter. The Rendering Options Panel lets you determine how realistic your model will look, from wireframe test objects to full raytraced final images. You can choose to render a single image or a complete animation.

You can set the program to beep when it finishes rendering a frame or select Automatic Frame Advance to render an entire range without stopping between each image. Activate a Render Status window to display the image as it is generated.

Users with multiple systems can engage the "multithreading" option by which NewTek means distributing rendering among all supporting PCs on the network. The distributed rendering program packaged with Lightwave controls up to 1000 CPUs. Each CPU takes a frame, renders it, and then grabs the next frame in the animation until the scene is complete. At render time, you can specify any combination of individual frames.

The Data Overlay option lets you place a title in the lower corner of the rendered image. The Serial Port Recording option sends each frame, as rendered, to a single-frame recorder, such as a VTR deck.

An included SDK module offers the LScript integrated scripting system with its own command window. Among other options, you can install scripts as toolbar buttons.