An Introduction to form•Z

1 Jul, 2002 By: John E. Wilson

form•Z is a general-purpose 3D modeler from auto-des-sys, Inc. Both Windows and Macintosh versions of the program are supported, and within each version you can purchase form•Z in any one of three levels. All levels have the same set of 3D modeling tools, as well as walk-through animation and fundamental 2D drafting tools; their differences are in their rendering capabilities. The most basic level of form•Z, which has a list price of $1,495, is limited to z-buffer renderings and sunlight-type lighting. The next level, form•Z RenderZone, has a full set of tools for making sophisticated photorealistic renderings. The list price of form•Z RenderZone is $1,995. The third level of the program is form•Z RadioZity, with a list price of $2,390. It contains all of the rendering capabilities of form•Z RenderZone plus radiosity--solution based rendering for accurately simulating the relationships of lights and surfaces.

form•Z sales are handled through dealers. To obtain the name of your nearest form•Z dealer visit the auto-des-sys Web site at You can also download a trial copy of form•Z from this Web site. The minimum requirements for the Macintosh version of form•Z are a Power Macintosh using the 8.5 operating system that has 32MB of RAM and 20MB of hard disk space. An additional 16MB of memory and 10MB of hard disk space are needed for form•Z RenderZone and form•Z RadioZity. The minimum requirements for the Windows version of are a Pentium-class computer, Windows 95, 32MB of RAM, and 30MB of hard disk space. Windows versions of form•Z RenderZone and form•Z RadioZity require an additional 8MB memory and 15MB of hard disk space.

Figure 1. This rendering of a 1965 Morgan automobile is an example of the sophisticated and complex 3D models you can create with form•Z. It was created by Richard Booth of West Yorkshire, England, and rendered in form•Z RenderZone.

form•Z is especially popular with architects, but it's used throughout the world in a wide range of fields, including industrial design, urban planning, toy design, motion picture special effects, and advertising. See Figure 1 for an example of what you can create with form•Z.

As are most serious 3D modelers, form•Z is a complex program. It has many tools, and it will take you time and effort to learn which tool you should use for a certain task, in addition to learning how to use the tool. We will take an overall look at form•Z and at its interface this month to give you a feel for the program.

The Graphics Window
A typical form•Z screen layout is shown in Figure 2. The bulk of the screen area consists of the working, or Graphics, window. You can have multiple Graphics windows open simultaneously to show your model in a variety of viewing conditions and also have Graphics windows simultaneously open for multiple files. The x, y, and z axes are shown in the Graphics window, and the plane of the x and y axes is shown as a grid of lines.

Figure 2. In both its Windows and Macintosh versions, form•Z uses tool bars and small floating windows, which are referred to as palettes, extensively for invoking operations and managing program features.

form•Z supports both a modeling and a drafting environment, with the current environment being indicated by the word Model or Draft at the top of the graphics window. The drafting environment is for making 2D drawings that are either created from scratch, or based on a 3D model. Most of your work, though, will be within the modeling environment, and that is the environment we will concentrate on.

The Window Toolbar
The Window toolbar, which is located in the lower left margin of the Graphics window, contains tools that affect your view of your model and establish the drawing and movement conditions within the Graphics window. One set of buttons (or palette, as form•Z calls them) is for changing the magnification level (the zoom level) of the Graphics window and for moving (panning) the center of the viewport. Real-time zooms and pans are handled by buttons in the View palette. Palettes for setting a variety of object snaps and for setting direction and grid snaps are also in the Window toolbar.

As is the case with virtually all 3D modelers, you are confined to a 2D plane in drawing with your pointing device. form•Z refers to this plane as the reference plane, even though in effect, it is the xy plane. Two of the palettes in the Window toolbar are for establishing the location and orientation of the reference plane in the current Graphics window. If you have multiple Graphics windows open, each can have its own reference plane.

The Menu Bar
A horizontal menu bar listing nine menus is positioned at the top of the screen. The items in these menus are for managing files, setting preferences and drawing parameters, establishing display modes and viewing directions, and obtaining information. These menus are not for creating objects or for initiating modification and editing operations on objects.

The Toolbar
You invoke the commands for creating and working with objects from the toolbar that is located, by default, on the left side of the screen. With the exception of the Delete objects button, every button in this toolbar can be pulled out to access additional buttons in the set. Also, each set of buttons has a name, such as "Parametric Derivatives." You can pull a set of buttons out and away from the main toolbar, as shown in Figure 2, to more easily select a specific tool. When you select a tool, the background of its button is darkened, and the tool remains active until you select another one.

Three sets of the buttons are turquoise colored to indicate that they modify the actions of other tools, and within each set one button is always active. For example, when 3D Extrusion in the Object Type set is active, every open object you draw, such as a line, will be a wall, and every closed object, such as a circle, will be a solid.

The Prompts Window
When you select a tool, its name appears in the Prompts window along with instructions and requests for data to perform the operation. For instance, when you are drawing a circle the words "Circle, Center, and Radius" appear in the Prompts window, and on the next line the prompt "Center Point (x, y,z):" will be issued. As you move your pointing device about, its coordinates are displayed to the right of the prompt, and you can either pick the center point with your pointing device or else type the center point coordinates in the Prompts window. Next, you will be prompted to specify the radius of the circle, with either your pointing device or by typing in a radius value. The boxes labeled A, W, and C determine whether the coordinates are absolute or relative to the previous point; according to world or to reference plane coordinates; or in Cartesian or polar coordinate format.

Other Palettes
By default seven other floating windows, which form•Z calls palettes, are initially open. They are as follows:

  • Coordinates displays the current coordinates of the screen cursor.
  • Tool Options is a dialog-box type window for you to use in specifying the options and parameters of the current tool.
  • Objects lists every object you create. Through this palette you can control the properties, including visibility, of your objects.
  • Layers is for creating and managing object layers. When you click in the top row of this palette, a dialog box for managing layer properties is displayed.
  • Views is for establishing, managing, saving, and restoring parameters for viewing your model.
  • Animation creates and activates walk through animations with your model.
  • Surface Styles sets the material properties of objects during renderings.

In the next 3D column we'll begin looking at at specific form•Z tools for creating 3D objects.

About the Author: John E. Wilson

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