NewTek's LightWave 3D isn't the most popular 3d package. It also isn't the most expensive or the cheapest 3d package available, but it does have an incredibly loyal group of users. This raises the question, what is it about this package that makes it stand out from other packages? The answer is surprisingly simple. First, LightWave has all the features and tools that you need and second, they are designed and implemented in a way that makes the software incredibly easy to use. The combination of powerful software that is simple to use makes it the 3d package of choice for many users.
The LightWave Interface
3d packages are complex and they are getting even more complex with each new release, which can make it particularly tough on a user interface designer to include controls for all the new features to an already busy interface. LightWave includes a novel approach to this dilemma. The 3d package is split into two separate programs that are run separate from one another. The first program is the Modeler and it includes all the modeling functions for building objects and applying surface materials. The other program is the Layout Editor which includes features for adding lights and cameras, positioning objects relative to one another, and animating and rendering the scene.
I've found that users either love or hate this solution with very little middle ground. Personally, I love this design because it keeps each program simple and focused and it doesn't take 5 minutes to load the entire program. For example, whenever I find that I need a quick model, I can quickly load the Modeler, create the object and export it to whatever package I need. By including a Modeler separate from the render engine, you can jump very quickly into modeling without the overhead of a rendering engine.
LightWave also includes an intuitive link between the two programs, so a model in the Layout Editor can be quickly opened in the Modeler for some touch-up and then re-synchronized with the Layout Editor using a single command.
Another key benefit of the LightWave interfaces are the dynamic menus (see Figure 1). Features are presented as simply buttons on the left of the interface that dynamically change when a different tab is selected at the top of the interface. Although these buttons aren't flashy or sexy, the tabs allow only the selected set of features to be displayed. This keeps the interface simple and less confusing, but it also requires some time to learn where the various features are located. As you begin using LightWave, expect to play some hide and seek as you search for particular features. If you still don't like the default interface, the LightWave interface is completely customizable, so you can tune it to exactly what you want.
Figure 1: The Modeler interface includes only those features used to model and surface objects.
The Modeler is elegantly simple. It includes several view windows in the center of the interface that can switch between the various views at different resolutions. All objects and subobjects are selected using basically two different modes—polygons or points. This makes sub-object selections and transformations easy. When a selection of polygons or points is selected, you can press a single key to instantly select all connected polygons or points on the entire object.
The Modeler includes several primitive objects including some unique ones like gears and seashells. It also includes tools for creating and working with points, curves and text. Most of the editing tools deal with polygons, but polygon objects can be converted to SubPatch objects, which smoothes the entire object surface (see Figure 2). It also supports Metaballs and Metaedges.
Figure 2: Polygon objects can be smoothed into subpatches.
In addition to all the standard transformation tools, LightWave's Modeler also includes a huge number of modification tools for working with individual polygons or points. Each of these tools have options that can be used to change how it functions, but the default state is typically what you want, which makes modeling complex objects easy.
New modeling features included in version 8 include several new selection modes like Select Loop, Select Outline and Select Ring; new tools for working with layers; the new Translate Plus. Supershift, and Move Plus tools and the useful Bridge tool for connecting holes between objects.
A surface is a designated area that holds a unique material or texture. Once an area has a surface applied, you can define the material properties using the Surface Editor and textures can also be applied using the Texture Editor.
Basic material properties include Color, Luminosity, Diffuse, Specularity, Glossiness, Reflection, Transparency, Refraction Index, Translucency, and Bump. Some advanced surface properties include Alpha Channel, Glow Intensity, Color Highlights, and Diffuse Sharpness. Material properties can be opened within the Graph Editor to animate material properties.
The Surface Editor can also use several pre-defined Shaders including Fast Fresnel, Halftone, Interference, Super Cel Shader and any pre-defined shader that is loaded into the interface.
LightWave also includes an easy method for applying vertex colors including a Vertex Paint interface that lets you paint directly on the surface of an object with configurable brushes.
The Layout Interface
Once objects are created and surfaced in the Modeler, they can be loaded into the Layout interface where they can be positioned with other objects, lights and cameras. The Layout interface (see Figure 3) can use a single perspective view window, multiple view windows like the Modeler, or view the scene through a camera view.
Figure 3: The Layout Editor includes controls from animating and rendering the scene.
Available lights include distant, point, spot, linear, and area lights. Each light can have shadows computed as Ray Trace shadows or as a Shadow Map. There are also options for creating Lens Flares and Volumetric Lighting. Cameras also include several advanced properties including anti-aliasing, motion blur, depth of field and masking.
Scenes can be animated in the Layout interface using keyframes. Objects can also be animated using a Motion Path, which is a curve that the object follows during the course of its motion.
LightWave also includes support for Animation Modifiers. These modifiers enable objects with regularly repeating motions to be added such as a jitter or a wave-like motion. You can also use an animation modifier to dynamically parent several objects so they follow the same motion only several frames behind.
The Graph Editor lets you see all animated motions as function curves. It also lets you edit the animation curves, add new keys, and change the curve's type between linear, smooth Bezier curves, or stair-step curves. The Scene Editor provides a quick look at all the property settings of a selected object along with a Dope Sheet for synchronizing animation keys.
Endomorphs, which are simply morph targets, can be created and stored with an object in the Modeler and imported into the Layout interface where they can be accessed while creating an animation using the Motion Mixer. The Motion Mixer will also let you layer several motions together to create a new unique motion.
For animating characters, LightWave includes an integrated bone creation system complete with a flexible Inverse/Forward Kinematics system. LightWave also includes a robust set of dynamic animation features with support for hard and soft-body objects, as well as cloth. The dynamic animation features also include particle systems along with wind, gravity and collision forces that can be defined.
LightWave scenes can be rendered using a fast rendering engine. It also includes several unique tools such the SkyTracer 2.0 plug-in that automatically creates backgrounds with clouds (see Figure 4). Another unique rendering feature are HyperVoxels. These objects are textured volumes that can be used to create some amazing effects.
Figure 4: The SkyTracer 2.0 plug-in automatically creates realistic backgrounds with clouds.
For interactive previews, you can enable LightWave's VIPER utility, which lets you change textures, lights, backdrops, volumetrics and HyperVoxels without having to re-render the entire scene. Other advanced rendering features include radiosity and caustics.
LightWave also includes the ability to add hair and fur to objects using the Sasquatch Lite plug-in that comes standard with LightWave. Figure 5 shows a simple sphere dividing into stripes that has hair applied to it.
Figure 5: LightWave includes an integrated hair and fur system.
LightWave tasks can be automated and extended using LScript, a scripting language based on C. LightWave also supports custom plug-ins developed by 3rd party developers. By adding custom plug-ins, you can access advanced features without having to wait for software updates.
Overall, LightWave is a great package with all the bells and whistles you would want. Its approach is straight-forward and simple making it a great end-to-end solution. This makes the software easy to use and enables users to quickly produce fantastic results with a relatively short learning curve. I really liked how the Modeler was separate from the Layout interface making it incredible quick to create models without the overhead found in other packages.
NewTek has endowed LightWave with numerous plug-in utilities like the SkyTracer 2.0 and the Sasquatch Lite that are great time-savers and fun to use. These utilities are seamlessly integrated within the package.
LightWave is available for both Windows and Macintosh systems. For more information on LightWave 8, visit the NewTek web site located at www.newtek.com.
Kelly L. Murdock is the president of Logical Paradox Design, a design firm specializing in 3d graphics. He recently authored LightWave 8 Revealed.
by Kelly L. Murdock