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For flexible modelling

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Form.Z is an ideal tool for architectural visualisation, and the long-awaited version 3.0 brings new organic modelling tools and basic animation fuctionality - as well as tweaks and bug fixes. We look at what it has to offer

The air is a little thin in the highend 3D market on the MacOS. If you take broadcast and film work as a yardstick with which to measure applications, only Lightwave and Form.Z/Electric Image come out as major contenders. Form.Z has carved out a place as the Mac's most capable modelling system over the last few years, and with the longawaited release of version 3.0 this position remains secure.

Version 3.0 builds on the incremental releases over the past 18 months but does offer significant new features worthy of more than a dot release. The major new areas of development are the addition of basic animation, object personalities and a fully customisable interface.

The interface is far more flexible than in previous versions but still looks a bit dated. Interface options allow the tool bars to be displayed in black and white, grey or full colour, but the main palette still looks a little flat. Interface design is a personal thing, but in my opinion the current look and feel of the application does not reflect the high standard of the application's functionality. Toolbars can be pulled out to form floating palettes, giving you instant access to the tools you use the most. Keyboard short cuts can also be assigned to any function, greatly speeding up working. An options palette has been added to the interface which displays options for any tool selected.

While this takes up a fair bit of screen space, it does allow you to change setting on the fly. Tool dialogues are still available if you prefer to regain some screen space.

The alignment and distribution controls now work in any orientation. The new justification and distribution options combined with a new preview dialog to encourage experimentation as the possibilities are endless. All objects can be optionally displayed with centroids, centres of gravity, origins or local co-ordinate systems for selection, manipulation or snapping.

Line-editing operations have been extended for both 2 and 3D entities - for example, tools for direct insertions of points and segments have been included.

Parametric primitives are now initially generated as analytic primitives, meaning they can be transformed into polygon, nurbz, patch or metafromz (Autodessys likes its Zs). This greatly increases the flexibility of the application when modelling. Autodessys calls these attributes 'personalities' as the same base primitive can be transformed and used in a scene in a number of different ways and will behave differently when edited.

Once a primitive has been placed, the drop tool or edit controls can be used to assign a personality to the object. The parametric functionality has been extended further to include derivative objects. Objects such as helixes and screws are stored, with the parameters generated by them providing a simple means to edit the overall object at any stage. Edit Controls and Edit Surface are new tools that allow manipulation of parametric objects, reshaping them via its controls or direct surface manipulation.

Pure NURBS modelling has finally made an appearance in the application, supplementing the hybrid NURBS produced by controlled meshes. Called nurbz in Form.Z, they can be created from control lines, skins, sweeps or by converting analytic primitives.

More complex and organic shapes can be produced thanks to the improved spline drawing tools which now offer freehand sketch curves as well as b-splines and both quadratic and cubic Bezier tools.

The skinning is now much more straightforward and forgiving, as you do not have to specify whether a tolerance needs to be used or whether an unequal number of vertices exists in the sources.

Drafting and modelling tools have been improved across the board, with a reworking of both the 2 and 3D toolsets. Form.Z has long been a popular visualisation tool for architects, as it boasts excellent 2D CAD features. The addition of a staircase generation tool is sure to enhance this position. Any path, straight or curved, can now be used to generate any shape of staircase, rather than just a spiral as was the case in previous releases. Multiple flights and rails can be created, with a preview window showing you exactly what you'll get before you commit yourself.

As well as the improvements in modelling functionality, version 3.0 adds basic animation to the package. Animation is restricted to walkthroughs and fly-bys using user-defined cameras. Camera controls are robust, if a little basic.

The animation tools will suit architects or industrial designers, who form a large part of the Form.Z user base. If you are more demanding or you wish to produce material for broadcast, you'll still need to go elsewhere and will probably end up with Electric Image as a companion application.

Autodessys is clear that it wants to produce a market-leading modelling and rendering package and is leaving high-end animation to others. This is a shame, as Form.Z outstrips other packages such as 3D Studio Max and Cinema4D when it comes to modelling complex geometry, but does not offer the level of animation functionality many high-end users are looking for.

Rendering in both RenderZone and RadioZity now features the ability to capture rendered surfaces as textures. This is very useful for capturing radiosity rendering and multi-layer texturing. This technique can also be used when exporting to VR application or for creating materials for game production.

Accurate light intensities can now be created in RenderZone as well as RadioZity, helping to create far more realistic interior rendered images. Hybrid radiosity/raytracing images can be created to maximise image quality while reducing overall rendering time.

One aspect to bear in mind when using the RadioZity options is that the rendering is very slow.

Calculating the radiosity values in a scene is computationally complex and you should only really go down this route if you have a fast machine with lots of Ram. If you don't increase the memory partition of the application after you've installed it, you can't use RadioZity.

Your machine will also be locked up while Form.Z performs its calculations as it won't run in the background, which can be a pain.

All in all, version 3.0 performed well. A few bugs remained in the version we reviewed, especially with organic modelling. A patch to 3.0.2 should now be available which should fix many of these problems. While rendering remains a little sluggish, modelling is excellent and shows 3D Studio Viz just how things should be done.

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