LightWave v9 (First Look Review)1 Jul, 2007 By: IDSA ,Mike Hudspeth
Go Hollywood with your project.
How do they do it? How does Hollywood take an idea for a prop or set that would cost too much to actually build and then add it to their movie anyway? We've all heard of CGI (computer-generated imagery), but what do they use for that? More importantly, what can I use? Why would I want to create computer graphics of real-world stuff? To show off my latest design, of course.
I learned a long time ago that it's easier to understand and harder to throw out a design that has been thoroughly modeled and demonstrated. To that end, I try to create images and animations of product designs that portray those designs in the most accurate and realistic manner possible. So I return to the question of what I can use for that. Fortunately, I have an answer—LightWave v9.
What Can It Do?
LightWave v9, from NewTek, is an integrated 3D modeling, rendering and animation program par excellence. With its wide range of tools, you can model just about anything you can imagine—and make it look like the real deal! The workspace defaults to a four-view layout that is very reminiscent of Alias. You have three orthographic views and one perspective view. If you are like me and prefer to work solely in the perspective view, you can do so by merely expanding it to full screen.
I like how LightWave v9 handles its layers. You have unlimited layers. They are controlled by a group of little icons in the upper right corner of the screen (figure 1). You model in the foreground, so that layer is active and you can edit what's there. Then you have an option to turn the layer's display off or send it to the background. By doing so it remains visible but locked so you can't mess it up. That's a great thing for when you want to use geometry as a reference but don't want to change it.
Figure 1. Layers can be turned on and off. One really interesting capability is being able to send the layer to the background so you can see it but not touch it.
Inserting features is really easy. You can start with primitives that you select from the left side of the screen. Just click in the graphics window and drag the feature to wherever looks right. You have a numerical box where you can enter exact values for your entities (length, width and height) and where you want them (in x, y and z coordinates) in 3D space (figure 2). To apply your values you must hit the Make button at the bottom of the screen (or the spacebar or enter button). Be careful not to go too fast because the numbers you enter don't really exist in the model until you hit Make.
Figure 2. A numeric entry box lets users specify exact numerical values for whatever they're modeling. They can apply values by clicking the Make button at the bottom of the screen.
Some of the menus could have been made a little more intuitive by including the Action button, which applies the menu choices they offer. The numeric box is a good example. One of the best rules of thumb in interface design is to have the control in close proximity to what it controls. That way you intuitively know where to look to use it. In the real world, it's not always that easy.
Modeling in LightWave v9 is very freeform. You just go in and start clicking. You can always adjust things later. Biomorphic shapes are a breeze for LightWave v9. You can create your models using faceted, low-resolution boxes and then change the display to smooth them out and create things you wouldn't have thought possible. You can turn symmetry on, and whatever you do to one side happens to the other. The nice thing about this function is that you can build one side of a model and the other side will be done for you automatically. It also works with selection. What's selected on one side is selected on the other as well.
You can use a spline to shape objects such as text (figure 3). It's interactive so if you change the spline, the objects change too. When you use the Lathe tool to revolve a model you lose your creation curves. That's unfortunate because when you model you rarely get exactly what you want the first time around; you almost always need to tweak a model. In future versions, I hope the creation curves will remain.
Figure 3. You can use splines to alter geometry in interesting ways. This ability can be valuable for flexible products that you model straight but use in stretched or bent forms.
Of course, modeling isn't everything that's good about LightWave v9. Not only can you model just about anything, you can apply wonderful shaders and textures that will improve the realism as well. You can select and adjust your lighting conditions to match a background image and make it look as if your product is sitting in the image. You even can match your model's perspective to that in the image.
After you've got the model the way you want it, you can animate it with cinema quality. For example, say you design ATVs. You can animate one running right through the obligatory puddle—spraying realistic-looking mud everywhere. Your marketing and sales people will love that! LightWave v9 also can animate particles that look amazingly lifelike. After you have the animation you want, you can output it to most video formats to distribute as you see fit.
Who Uses It and for What?
Video production is the place where LightWave really gets to wave its banner. Rest assured, unless you live in a cave somewhere (not that there's anything wrong with that, Geico guys), you've seen what LightWave v9 can do. LightWave is used by some of the biggest movie and television studios to create the most-watched video footage. Just a few of the productions you'd likely recognize are Metro Goldwyn Mayer's Tomorrow Never Dies, Warner Brothers' 300 and Babylon 5, Nickelodeon's Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, Paramount Picture's various Star Trek television series and movies, the Sci-Fi Channel's new Battlestar Galactica (see figure 4), Stargate SG-1 and Raptor Island, 20th Century Fox's Garfield: The Movie, many Pepsi commercials and so on and so forth. The great thing about LightWave v9 for these productions is that most of the time you can't even tell the effects aren't real. Of course, it's not just Hollywood that's using LightWave v9. Engineering and architectural firms use it too.
Figure 4. If you've seen the new Battlestar Galactica TV series, you've seen what LightWave v9 can do.
Is It a Good Value?
For professional graphics software, LightWave v9 is surprisingly easy on the pocketbook. It starts at $795 (a version with special training materials is $895). To get the kind of quality output that LightWave v9 offers without breaking the bank seems to be a win–win scenario. To obtain more information about LightWave v9, visit www.newtek.com. Highly Recommended.
Mike Hudspeth, IDSA, is an industrial designer, artist and author based in St. Louis, Missouri.
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