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Rendering down the price

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Choosing the right software on a tight budget is getting easier with more powerful stripped-down software at the lower price range

Cut-down, or 'Lite', software seems to be a bit of a growth area in 3D software at the moment. NewTek has successfully released Inspire 3D, a more affordable (£349) version of its market-leading modelling, LightWave 3D, (£1395). German developer Maxon has weighed in with Cinema 4D Go, a smaller sibling to its well-received SE and XL packages. When dealing with Lite software you always have to ask the question 'what's been left out?', but in the case of Go, in comparison with the £495 Cinema 4D SE the answer is not very much at all. Apart from the maximum rendering size and the absence of special-effects tracks in the Time Line Go and SE are functionally identical. Now, when you consider that Go sells for a paltry £169, you start to see that this product deserves closer scrutiny.

Go shares its interface with Cinema 4D SE, which is to say it has assumed the interface of the 5.0 version of the company's high-end package Cinema 4D XL. The main modelling window is the classic four-view: Top, Front, Side and Perspective. The other ancillary windows are the Object Manager, Materials Manager, Time Manager, Coordinates Manager and any number of floating palettes, which can be customised by the user. However some of the more obvious tools are missing from the default toolset - Boolean and Mirror for example. The Object Manager is particularly well designed, with the hierarchies of groups, objects, properties and textures clearly displayed. Each data type in the Object Manager has a clear icon associated with its name, and clicking on the icon brings up the Properties dialogue for that data type. Also, importing models in a variety of formats (DXF, Direct SE, Imagine and Wavefront OBJ, among others) brings the objects into the Object Manager with hierarchies intact and all the relevant icons assigned. In the case of LightWave SE scene files, Go can import them with colour, lighting and animation information (except bones) intact, although you'll probably have to reapply any textures used.

The modelling tools in Go are identical to those in the £459 Cinema 4D SE. This means that there is the usual array of primitives backed up with an array of spline tools for creating sweeps (single and dual path), lofts and lathes, as well as some exotic spline-generation devices like the Epicycloid and Hypocycloid tools, which allow the creation of complex symmetrical and asymmetrical spline paths. As well as serving as sweep paths, splines can be used as alignment curves for groups of objects and as motion paths for objects, cameras and lights when animating. There are a large number of ready-made spline curves, or custom ones can be built up by adding individual points. What can't be easily done is the filletting of surfaces after they've been Booleaned together - the only related command is Bevel, and this is best left for bevelling the outside edges of well-formed primitives, eg text. Using the Boolean tools, you become aware of a quirk in the Cinema 4D interface: you can't multiple- select anything. As a consequence of this the names of the operands for a Boolean operation have to be typed into fields in a dialogue box, and the resulting object will be a group which will contain copies of the two original objects. Also the two original operands remain, but have their visibility turned off. Doing multiple Booleans, the Object Manager gets very cluttered, very quickly.

Still on the subject of building models, Go also ships with an extra CD called Instant Space, an animation freebie.

When it comes to texturing, prospective purchasers will be delighted to know that Go has inherited all of the texture-mapping modes from XL, which is to say, Planar, Spherical, Cylindrical, Cubic, Frontal, Spatial and Shrink Wrapping. On top of this UV and UVW coordinates can be assigned to any mapping type, to eliminate texture smearing if an object is distorted. UVW mapping is included since Go supports true SE procedural shaders, which project their texture through the thickness of an object. Many of the 2D and SE procedural shaders also have animatable properties. Fog, for instance, is a SE shader that has animatable turbulence, enabling realistic walkthroughs. Texture positioning is helped by a useful grid proxy associated with an object, which can be scaled, moved and rotated to accurately position the grid on the surface. The grid is needed since although there are fully-shaded Gouraud previews in all windows, there is no live texture display - this remains the province of XL. Another oddity is that while Go's Move, Scale and Rotate tools can be used with almost any entity - Objects, Lights and Cameras, only the Move and Scale tools can be used with textures. For rotation you have to choose the Texture Axes tool, which is not immediately apparent, and has caused a lot of consternation among users. Also present is the ability to layer textures for complex surface effects, and to use Genlocking an effect which knocks out parts of a surface according to colour. The nice feature about a Genlocked surface is that the knocked-out areas allow the transmission of light, so Genlocking can be used to produce a high level of surface modelling based only on bitmap information. If you combine the Genlocking image with a greyscale bump map derived from it, you will have a lot of result for little effort.

The lighting tools are the same across all three cinemas, so it will probably amaze you to learn that a £169 package supports true volumetric lighting. That's right folks. Also, the volumetric rendering is pretty speedy, since the Maxon engineers are whizzes when it comes to coding rendering algorithms. Go shares an identical rendering engine to XL, which is to say the fastest software-only raytracer on the planet. This is achieved by using adaptive raytracing, whereby the scene is divided up into three- dimensional pixels (called Voxels), and then only those Voxels which contain reflective or refractive elements are raytraced. The others are rendered using a Scanline algorithm, which is much faster, but gives no loss in quality. The result is that Go renders similar scenes around three to four times faster than LightWave's raytracer, found in Inspire SE. The quality of raytraced images is generally very good, although you do need to tweak the lighting to get decent shading falloffs over surfaces. Rendering output is limited to 720x576 (D1 video) on both animations and stills, which shows the intended use for Go. In combination with D1 video resolution Go can also handle Field rendering and so is ideally suited to producing broadcast-quality output.

Animation control is effected by the Time Manager and Time Line windows. The Time Manager is a quick-playback console where you record keyframes and the Time Line is where you manipulate the keyframes to tune your animation. Moving an object and setting keyframes in the Editor windows produces an editable spline path. Sequences of keyframes in the Time Line can be moved around to alter their start and end points, and copied across to different objects, but since you can't multiple-select keyframes you have to enter a scaling factor in a dialogue. For character animation, Go supports a good implementation of Inverse Kinematics which uses TimeLine goal tracks to direct IK chains. The solution isn't as immediate as LightWave's, but at least it's there, and usable. The one thing missing from Go's Timeline, and present in se and xl, are the Special Effects tracks, although you could probably write your own on Maxon's coffee programming language. A collection of freeware and demo plug-ins is included on the CD.

So, for your money you get an extremely capable, all-round package capable of producing broadcast-quality animations which in many ways puts established mid-range packages such as MetaCreations' Infini D to shame. The fact that Maxon is selling it for £169 is little short of astounding.

Cinema 4D Go Win 95/98/NT MacOS.

Price £169 exc. VAT

Further details: HiSoft

Tel: 01525 718 181

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