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Making a landscape

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You have to hand it to the folks at MetaCreations: they do have a habit of coming up with some amazing things. Bryce started life as a fractal generator: Version 1.0 was seen as an interesting idea, but of very little practical use. The same was true of Poser. What is amazing is that a few releases later both these applications have turned into extremely powerful and very practical applications. Perhaps Kia's nice little introductions in the manuals have gone, but the amount of work that MetaCreations invests in its software puts many other developers to shame.

Bryce is still in essence a landscape-generation program, and version 4.0 adds a number of interesting tools to help with this. However, the elegant interface and the range of tools make it possible to create highly complex models, with the added bonus that they can be raytraced and animated.

Version 4.0 introduces a number of new features designed to make some of the more complex operations more straightforward. File import and export has been improved, along with display options and third-party plug-in support. 2D texture maps can now be enhanced and modified, using Photoshop plug-ins, for example.

In this release, MetaCreations has provided users with two new Labs for materials and sky generation. These act like mini applications, taking you out of the general interface and providing users with a focused set of tools and settings. Unlike many 3D applications, Sky Labs creates an infinite 3D representation of natural environmental phenomena, which is fully interactive. Cloud colours react to the position of the sun and change appearance when animated. Natural lighting effects are replicated, so a red setting sun will produce black highlights on a red object, or purple ones on something blue.

Basic environmental effects can be produced quickly from the Sky and Fog palette. Like most palettes within Bryce, a number of thumbnails are provided, showing just how different settings affect the final appearance. Cloud altitude, coverage and colour, along with Fog and Haze effects, can all be controlled from here. Clicking on a thumbnail brings up the control palette where values can be specified. Like any of MetaCreations' interface solutions, this involves playing with graphic devices rather than typing in numbers. Some users prefer the more traditional approach but it's worth making the effort with the graphic controls.

Hitting the Sky Lab button allows fine-tuning of environmental effects. Rainbows, cloud types and sun and moon attributes can all be controlled. Bryce provides two basic cloud types: cumulus and stratus. These create the basic low- and high-level cloud effects and can be customised to produce an infinite number of variations. Cloud planes can be created to produce the effect of blanket coverage. As the clouds are volumetric, and not just images, they appear very realistic when animated or when objects are passed through them.

Just like in the real world, the sun and moon are linked in the Bryce universe. The simplest way to see this is to place the sun on the horizon line in front of your camera. If you then turn the camera 180degrees, you'll see the moon. Sky colours change automatically to create the effect of sunrise or sunsets. Rings can be added to either the sun or moon to produce intensity effects and the moon's phases can also be controlled.

The creation and application of materials is the key to the success of any scene. Bryce materials are made up of 14 channels, each of which affects a different property of an object's surface. Each channel simulates different physical properties and how these react with light. Channels have an additive effect, meaning any changes made in one channel will affect the actions of others. The success of any material depends to a large extent on your understanding of the physical properties of the real material and how Bryce can emulate these. This is true for any application, and a basic understanding of physics can really help here.

Each channel with a material can contain up to three components: colour, texture and a numerical value, for example. Components are combined using three different modes: A, AB and ABC. In mode A, only one component is used to set the channel's value. AB mode sets the value based on the values in A being applied to those in B. In ABC mode the values of A and B are blended, based on the alpha channel of texture C. The combination of components changes for different channels, and as such, so do the effects of the modes.

Improvements have been made to the lighting controls of Bryce 4. The new light editor contains options for a fall-off method, allowing lights to stop abruptly as well as gradually fading. Light attributes can be edited in the Edit Lights dialogue, with four basic types available. Radial lights throw light out equally in all directions and are ideal for general lighting. Two types of spotlight are provided: the standard circular light and a square spot. Square spots throw out light in a pyramidal manner. Parallel lights cast parallel rays along a single axis, which produces shadows with no spatial distortion.

The final option is a cylindrical parallel light, which works in exactly the same way as the standard version, but has a circular beam. Visible and volumetric lights are easy to set up and add a sense of realism, especially when combined with environmental effects. All lighting attributes are fully editable and changes can be previewed in real time.

Animation controls remains much the same, based on a time line metaphor. The animation controls within Bryce are excellent and can be fine-tuned in the animation control palette. This release allows you to preview animation in a small window without having to pre-render, which really speeds up working.

The raytracing engine has been improved and, while not the fastest in the world, does produce good results. MetaCreations provides presets for all the major formats, including IMAX and 70mm. Render quality can be improved using gamma correction and 48-bit dithering. Gamma correction allows the application to compensate for some of the shortcomings of computer displays, with clouds appearing much truer. Dithering also improves image display, as it prevents banding in areas of graduated colour.

As well as standard raytracing, a number of render modes are offered for post-production and Web-based image display. Mask render produces an anti-aliased black and white image, with the selected item white. This is an easy way to produce alpha channel masks for use in other applications. 360degrees panorama rendering creates QuickTime VR files that allow viewers to navigate around your scene. Panoramas can be combined to create a virtual world through which viewers can travel.

Distance render is one of the most useful and under-used options in Bryce. This mode produces a greyscale render based on object depth. Objects close to the camera appear black and become light as distance increases. The best use of these modes is as a means to create depth-of-field effects in Photoshop, in combination with a rendered image. This is just a case of using the distance render as an alpha channel and using it to control a blur filter. Altitude render mode works in the same way, but uses height as a controlling factor. This mode is a good way to create information for bump maps.

Plop render mode and spray render both allow you to render areas of an image. This can be useful if you've made changes and don't want to wait for the whole thing to be rendered. Bryce does need a considerable amount of RAM to render images in a reasonable time. We gave the application 128Mb and it worked very well. Using the standard allocation, however, proved very slow.

Movies can be rendered as either QuickTime on the Mac or AVI files on the PC. It has to be said that QuickTime offers a much better option, as it offers far more compression and image options.

All in all, Bryce offers both professional users and those new to 3D an excellent way to work and play in 3D space. While it lacks the features of some of the heavyweight applications, it offers enough basic polygon modelling tools to get you going. Given its price, anyone who needs to create landscapes or environments would be mad not to give it a go. MetaCreations has improved file support, and files from the US geographical survey can be brought directly into the application to be used. Bryce 4.0 is an ideal partner to your other 3D tools and great fun to play with on its own. MetaCreation's influence on general interface design has been profound and this application is a shining example of what it can do.

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