3D Modeling

Bonzai3d v2

6 Oct, 2010 By: Mark A. Donohoe

User Review: The 3D modeling tools you need are simple, powerful, and a snap to learn.

Editor's note: This article was originally published in the Summer 2010 edition of Cadalyst magazine.

When it comes to 3D solid modelers, Bonzai3d v2 from AutoDesSys may be one of the newest kids on the block, but don't let its age fool you. This little program's heart and pedigree descend directly from its older sibling, the powerful and capable Form.Z 3D modeling and rendering solution. Think of Bonzai3d as the best parts of Form.Z wrapped in a new way of thinking.

As a software architect, I'm not the typical user of 3D modeling software. In my work I design custom software, from retail titles to home automation systems to mobile-based games and puzzles for platforms such as iPhone and Android. I also like to model for pleasure — for example, small furniture pieces such as custom speaker stands for my home theater. So when I looked for a 3D modeler, I made a checklist of 10 must-have features, including the ability to quickly frame out beveled models, print directly from the working area, display advanced labeling for model documentation, and export in open-source formats. In addition, the software had to be as easy to use as a 2D program. Every affordable product I found offered only a few of these features, and most were simply too complex. But then I found Bonzai3d. It included 9 of my 10 must-haves right out of the box, plus some capabilities I hadn't considered.

Usually software this complex comes with a steep learning curve, but Bonzai3d, which is available in Windows and Mac versions, has one of the fastest learning curves of any modeler I've experienced on any platform. This ease of use is thanks in part to a large assortment of excellent, free online video tutorials that demonstrate various aspects of the program. These tutorials are so effective that I was able to create my first spec-ready model for those speaker stands within half an hour, all without cracking open the Help file once. When I did have questions about more advanced features, technical support was nothing short of top-notch.

Tools with a Twist

So how did Bonzai3d achieve its ease of use without sacrificing performance or capabilities? Its developers took a new look at the tools and functions commonly found in 3D programs and analyzed how users interact with them. For example, consider the task of inserting solid primitives in a scene.

If you needed an extruded rectangle, in other products you would most likely start by inserting a simple cube primitive that would first appear in the center of your scene. Then you would have to manually resize it before positioning it in its final location.

Bonzai3d combines all those steps into one, allowing you to create, size, and place objects simultaneously. On the currently active plane, simply click a point to indicate one of the corners of the rectangle to be extruded, click another point to mark the opposing corner, and an onscreen vertical ruler automatically appears. Move the cursor to extrude the rectangle from 2D to 3D, click a third time when you have the proper thickness, and you're done! You just created a new shape that is properly sized and already in place within the scene. I can't tell you how much time this feature alone has saved me.

When you need to move or rotate an item within a scene, gone is the concept of the standard Translation tool with its arrows along the axes for moving and arcs for rotation. Instead, Bonzai3d has separate Move and Rotation tools that provide new power and capabilities.

Using the Move tool, start by selecting one or more target objects. Then, on the currently active plane, click an arbitrary start point. When you do this, Bonzai3d calculates the difference vector between that first point and the cursor's current location on the plane and applies that difference to the selected objects in real time, while showing ghosted images at their original location for reference. A second click locks the objects in their new positions.

Rotation with Fancy Footwork

Like the Move tool, the Rotation tool uses a nonstandard approach to perform its task — and it has a neat trick up its sleeve too. To perform a rotation, start by selecting the target objects. Then on the currently active plane, which acts as the plane of rotation, click to set the center of rotation. Here's where Bonzai3d really shines: As you move away from the center point, Bonzai3d projects a 360-degree protractor directly onto the surface of the plane. As you move toward or away from the center point, the protractor shrinks and grows in radius to match. A second click locks the size of the protractor as well as its orientation. Once the protractor is locked, as you move the cursor around the plane the selected objects rotate in real time around the center of rotation while a vector representing the precise angle of rotation is projected onto the protractor. If snapping is enabled, you also can constrain the rotation to specific angle increments. This function is simply beautiful, and so effortless to understand.

The Rotation tool in action.

A side effect of this tool's flexibility, however, is one area in which I feel Bonzai3d stumbles a little — specifically, when rotating an object around its own dimensional center. Although I like being able to choose an arbitrary rotation point, I want that point to be the center of the object's dimensions for 90% of my day-to-day tasks, so it's frustrating that I must choose it manually every time. Bonzai3d provides automatic snap points to assist in finding the center of an object's face, but it can't provide them for certain shapes, such as torii or L-shaped blocks that have no faces at their dimensional centers. In those cases, unless an object is precisely aligned to the active plane's grid, you must manually create a temporary faux face to find its center snap point, perform the rotation on the original object, then delete the temporary object.

When I mentioned this limitation to AutoDesSys tech support just before the release of version 2, the developers quickly implemented a center-of-gravity snap point to address this issue. Although this fix works for symmetrical objects such as cubes or torii, it still doesn't work for an object that has a center of gravity that isn't the same as the center of its dimensions, such as the aforementioned L-shaped block. Although it's only a partial solution, I commend the developers for responding so quickly.

Creativity with a Click

In addition to rethinking the standard tools, Bonzai3d features several specialized tools that make otherwise tedious tasks practically effortless, freeing users to focus on creating rather than on the mechanics of modeling. For example, the Roof Generation tool can automatically create roofs of various styles given nothing but outside walls. Even more impressive is the Stair tool, which generates entire staircase models in various styles with surprising ease and control. Create a path to outline a staircase, select the Stair tool, move the cursor to set the over-all height, and the software creates a fully realized staircase, complete with an interactive palette to modify and preview parameters such as individual step height, railings, landings, and more. The Windows and Doors tool not only automatically creates a properly sized hole in the walls of your model for the window or door you are placing, it also correctly positions the frame and casings on both sides of the wall and adjusts the spacing as needed.

One of my personal favorites is the idea-inducing Match View tool that you can use to superimpose a 3D model onto a photograph, matching the size and perspective of the photo perfectly to help you visualize, for example, what a new addition to your house would look like. I admit that between the Stair tool and Match View, I spent several hours imagining the hidden remodeling possibilities in my own house instead of doing actual work. It was just so easy and fun.

The image on the left shows a 3D model's perspective mapped to a background photograph. The image on the right shows the final adjustment and positioning of the model by the tool based on the calculated matched perspective using the Match View tool.

Another of my favorite features is the Scenes palette that allows you to show, ghost, or hide various objects in your work area and save each configuration as a scene that can be recalled with a single click. It's a great feature when you are recording various stages of a model teardown or when you want to isolate different parts of your model quickly and repeatedly.

Other great utility features include an automatically generated reference plane that matches the currently active face, as well as the ability to create an unlimited number of user-defined planes, each with its own size, orientation, and grid settings. The software also supports nested layers for organization, and ghosted objects that let you show the spatial relation of your models without cluttering up your working area.

One seemingly small but surprisingly effective feature is the new Shaded Full view mode. This feature is similar to the more standard Shaded view (or Solid in other programs) but adds smoother shading, a fixed light source, and shadows cast right in the working area. This view isn't rendered output; it's a fully interactive model on which you can use any tool of your choice. That extra realism really helps with visualizing your projects while working on them.

An example of the three primary view modes: Wireframe, Shaded, and Shaded Full.

Other notable features in Bonzai3d include the Reshape tool for sculpting objects, real-time Booleans and 3D sections, NURBS, and solid printing.


Overall, Bonzai3d truly is an impressive piece of software; however, I feel a few areas need to be addressed. Bonzai3d supports the family of 3Dconnexion navigation devices, but this needs a lot of improvement to be usable as a primary input device. And although the program works great on a single-monitor configuration, the fact that it uses separate windows and docks for all parts of the user interface makes it inconvenient to use on a multi-monitor system. The ability to save various layouts would have gone a long way here.

The sticker price of $499 might dissuade users in smaller shops from even considering the program, which offers great payback on saved training time alone. Lowering the price by $100 or so might help alleviate that reluctance.

Bottom Line

It has been a long time since I have been this productive with a modeling program, let alone had so much fun experimenting with different ideas. I've found myself intentionally creating new projects around my home simply because I can experiment so easily with different designs. It's impossible not to feel an extra sense of creativity when using this program. In its current form, I would rank Bonzai3d a solid 8 out of 10. If AutoDesSys adds the ability to rotate around the dimensional center of an object, that number would easily rise to 9. Fix the 3D controller support, enhance the windowing for multi-monitor support, and drop the price to between $300 and $400, and Bonzai3d would be pretty close to perfect. 

About the Author: Mark A. Donohoe

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Re: Bonzai3d v2
by: Bill_601
October 8, 2010 - 9:29pm
I've tried the trial version of this software and liked a lot. I'm wondering what others think about using this software to create scenes for models from other programs. I often need to take a model from another program, match it to a photographic background and add trees, bushes and other items. Bonzai3D seems to do that very well. I especially like the perspective matching tool.
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