LightWave 10.1 Review: Making the 3D Artist's Job Easier

Related: 3D, CORE, Lightwave

Product Review: LightWave 10.1

"Out of all of the real-time 3D options that are available, I have to say that LightWave's is the closest to 'what you see is what you get'. Many out there claim to offer true 1 to 1 real-time previewing, but they're not. Whereas, LightWave 10, honestly, is really, really close"
-Kevin Quattro, Zoic Studios

NewTek's LightWave 3D was first released as a stand-alone 3D application 16 years ago. Since then, the program has garnered a huge following, both professionally and in the hobbyist market. It's also earned multiple Emmy awards and has grown into a solid, dependable application for every aspect of a professional 3D work-flow. Video games, the Hollywood film industry, and especially television, all have LightWave 3D as part of their application set. Even one-person filmmakers use LightWave: Richard Mans' short 3D film Abiogenesis was created in 4 years entirely by himself. And, most recently, LightWave 3D was used as the renderer of choice for creating VFX for the Steven Spielberg-backed SyFy series "Terra Nova," premiering in September, 2011. LightWave 3D is a high-end 3D application that enables artists to do practically anything they can imagine.


Still from Abiogenesis, a short 3D film made in LightWave by Richard Mans

But, several months ago, NewTek made a difficult choice between either continuing to develop LightWave 3D, or moving to an entirely new LightWave CORE application, built on a completely new code base. Their decision has had important ramifications, both for NewTek and for their LightWave 3D user-base.

The CORE Dilemma

Back in the fall of 2010, NewTek released version 10 of LightWave 3D and got a very positive response from users. Version 10 included elements of a new 3D application NewTek had announced in 2009, called CORE. The company had struggled to develop CORE, which was a complete re-write and re-imagining of LightWave 3D. Eventually, since CORE was taking much longer to develop than planned, NewTek found themselves in the difficult situation of having to develop two separate applications and answer to the many "HardCORE" users who had signed up for the CORE package.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, NewTek brought Rob Powers on board as VP of 3D Development. In addition to an extensive resume in visual effects and film production, Rob had supervised the world's first virtual art department on the film Avatar, and brought both the artist and producer's perspective to NewTek. Here's what he had to say in a recent CGSociety interview about the problem NewTek faced with CORE development:

"Rather than create a re-branded, new product in a separate package, which considering the constant evolution of technology, could take months or even years, we plan to implement the CORE technology advancements directly into LightWave itself, in an iterative fashion. We are aware that re-writes and updates to the underlying architecture for LightWave will be necessary to accommodate the advanced features that CORE technology represents, and we are confident that these re-writes are possible."

Technically, this solved a lot of problems since NewTek could now focus on one application, the one that the majority of users knew and trusted: LightWave 3D. However, it also created many additional problems, since NewTek was unable to deliver the CORE platform directly. It was the right decision, but frankly, I think this cost NewTek some users and hurt their reputation a bit as well.

Fortunately, with the leadership of people like Rob Powers, NewTek is dealing with their problems and putting their focus firmly on making LightWave 3D a strong competitor in the 3D application market. The recent July, 2011 release of LightWave 10.1 provides tools and functionality that other applications do not have. Rob's statement, "My vision is to make the technology serve the artist," is exactly the goal that NewTek is attempting to achieve. I know, because I've met Rob several times at SIGGRAPH and this is his mantra. And after working and testing LightWave 10.1 over the last month, I can attest to the fact that this version of LightWave is probably one of the best releases in the program's history.

LightWave 10

In order to appreciate the updates to LightWave made in version 10.1, we have to look at what was added/improved in LightWave 10. Since this version was released almost a year ago, there have been many articles, videos and reviews of the application, so I won't go into too much detail here. There were many, many improvements made to version 10, and depending upon how you use LightWave, they'll effect your work-flow differently. Some of the most important updates include:

  • Updated UI (user interface) with channel sliders, improved color control and tweaks to create a more dynamic user interface.
  • Virtual Studio Tools which supports the 3Dconnection 3D mouse and the InterSense Virtual Camera so you can interact with a LightWave scene in real time.
  • Linear Color Space work-flow – allows for more realistic lighting and improves compositing ability.
  • Brand New Anaglyph Stereoscopic Preview - real-time-interocular, 'red-blue' anaglyphic separation gives you the ability to view changes as they happen.
  • New Data Interchange Tools including support for MDD, Autodesk® Geometry Cache, FBX® and Colladatm allows you to move content in and out of LightWave much more easily.
  • Viewport Preview Renderer (VPR) – probably the most exciting addition to LightWave as it lets the users interact with a scene in real-time with the added ability of being able to choose the area of rendering.

You can check a NewTek video for a more complete look at what's new in LightWave 10. The addition of better Data Interchange tools and the new Viewport Preview Render are worth the price of an upgrade alone for veteran users. Seeing the VPR in a video is one thing, but actually using it in your work makes it much, much easier to see how changes in lighting, surfacing and volumetrics happen in as close to real-time as you can get. This feature fits perfectly with NewTek's focus on making LightWave a friendlier tool for 3D artists, as it speeds up their work-flow and gives them more room to experiment and use their imagination.

"We're using Lightwave10.1 for everything from lighting and shading, to working on material from other pieces of software, as well as just producing everything in it from start to finish."
-John F.K. Parenteau, Pixomondo


VPR real-time rendering in LightWave 10.1

Improvements in LightWave 10.1

Although the 10.1 version is essentially an update to features that were new to the LightWave 10 release (plus some entirely new additions), it has many enhancements across the entire LightWave feature set, making elements like VPR, Data Interchange Tools and Modeling Tools deeper and easier to use. Let's look at some of what LightWave 10.1 has to offer:

  • New Filter Options for FBX gives you the ability to include/exclude Models, Morphs, Cameras, Lights and Animations upon export. FBX settings are also stored persistently across sessions.
  • Many Modeling Improvements which focus on the Edge tools in LightWave. Edge Walk, Extend Edges, Loop2Poly and Sel Open Edge are among the dozen or so enhancements making edge work much easier in LightWave 10.1
  • New ClothFX Calculation Mode:Velocity - This new mode allows the user to solve problems when using very small timesteps. The new Velocity mode will allow you to calculate faster than the default mode of Frequency.
  • A New Skin Subsurface Scattering Mode – Works with the improved VPR, this new shader node gives the artist a physically accurate setup for realistic skin. Can also be used to simulate other subsurface scattering effects like wax.
  • Improvements to Linear Colorspace Workflow – LCW now supports ICC/ICM monitor profiles, presets are now included which set everything up by default, and color space correction is supported for HyperVoxelstm, color picker and gradient editors.
  • Enhancements to the Viewport Preview Renderer - Clip Maps allow you to cut away portions of an object using a texture without having to model them. Plus, there is now support for Object Dissolve and Distance Dissolve, which lets object fade in or out as the move to and from the Camera View

And there are many more improvements included with Lighwave 10.1 to Virtual Studio Tools, mesh handling, FiberFX, and the user interface. There's even an improvement for Windows 7's menu to improve work-flow, by eliminating pop-up menu annoyances.

You can see a full list of updates to Lighwave 10.1 here (pdf file) and by watching their excellent video on the topic here.


Surface Editor in LightWave 10.1

Using LightWave 10.1

I've been interested in LightWave 3D for several years now. I have a very good friend who works for a company that produces VFX for a major TV series and who is a veteran LightWave 3D user. We often have talks about the application when we see each other. When I recently asked him, "What is it about LightWave 3D that you like so much?" his reply was, "Ease of use, speed and a great render engine. I'm also biased because I've been using it since it first came out on the Amiga." So, when I started working with LightWave 10.1, I was looking for those specific qualities, and I found the program to be exactly as my friend described and more.

The 10.1 update to LightWave 10 is available to all registered users of LightWave for free. I received LightWave 10 in the mail with 2 discs: the application disc and the content disc, along with 3D glasses, a 3D sticker and the dongle which NewTek uses to make sure only licensed users have full access to the application. Installation was easy after reading the "Read Me" (which I recommend as it helps you to understand when to use the usb dongle). I had the program registered and was downloading the .1 update within 30 minutes.


Modeler interface in LightWave 10

LightWave is divided into two main workspaces: the Modeler and Layout. Both are designed to work specifically with certain aspects of 3D content creation. The Modeler is for modeling and Layout is used primarily for animation. There is a third area of the application called the Hub, which works in the background and acts as a message board that LightWave uses to sync information between Modeler and Layout. LightWave 10.1 makes it easy to configure the workspace and menus in any color or configuration you like. It's also very responsive to using keyboard shortcuts and customizing them as well.

I spent a considerable amount of time importing a variety of model formats (obj, fbx, 3ds, etc) and experimenting with animation and the surface editor for textures. LightWave has a very powerful node-based shading/texturing editor, but it is a bit complex. I was able to get started fairly quickly with the Node Editor using a tutorial from the documentation, but it really takes focused usage to master this part of LightWave.

It's easy to switch from either workspace and I found the learning curve for getting up to speed with LightWave 10.1 to be fairly short. Modeling tools are easy to use, and after some trial and error, I found I could create geometry easily. More complex tools in modeling forced me to the manual, but, in an evening I felt I had a good grasp of the workspace and most of the tools.


Layout in LightWave 10

The animation tools in Layout are excellent. LightWave doesn't use the traditional icons/buttons, but prefers to use tabs at the top which, when clicked, adds a detailed menu on the left side of the GUI. Click the "Light" tab and you get its clearly labeled menu possibilities. After an hour or so of working with the interface, it becomes easy to use and intuitive. Very easy to send an object you've created or imported to Layout to animate. The addition of easier-to-see graph handles in LightWave 10.1 helps to adjust movement to more subtle timings.

Many aspects of LightWave 10.1 are appealing, but the real jaw-dropper is the VPR, which works in nearly real time. Want to change the color of a light or its intensity and see the results instantly? You can do that with LightWave 10.1. This is an amazing feature that allows for so much time saving and creativity for artists in all areas of 3D production. Once I discovered this tool, I found myself spending almost all of my time working with it. And the great thing is that you can set up your workspace in modeler using the traditional front, side, top and 3D views, then set your 3D view to VPR and see your work results instantly. The View Port Render is a very, very cool feature that sets LightWave 10.1 apart from other 3D packages.

Documentation & Content

Documentation in LightWave 10.1 is good, but there is room for improvement. In the previous version 9 of LightWave, you received 3 softcover user manuals with almost 1,000 pages of illustrated instruction on Modeler, Layout, Surface & Rendering. With LightWave 10.1, you have a built-in help system that allows you to choose between accessing the online help system or the application's internal help, but no printed manuals. The amount of information is practically the same for both versions though (over 1,000 pages of LightWave 10.1 documentation with high-res color illustrations; the older version 9 manuals were in B&W), but I found that the internal help system doesn't work with the Chrome browser, and parts of the documentation are not up-to-date - flaws that a high-end package like LightWave should not have.

On the other hand, you can download the LightWave 10.1 documentation from NewTek in the pdf format and use it as a separate manual (as I did), or you can buy the bound manuals directly from NewTek for $100 a piece (a price that will most likely keep many users from buying them).

My friend in the VFX industry, whom I mentioned earlier, told me that with regards to documentation for LightWave, "Newtek needs to have clear tutorials for new users included with the software to get them up-to-speed quickly. Most of what I've learned over the years has been through trial and error, and I always have people say to me, 'I didn't know you could do that!'" And I agree with him. Despite over 2.3 Gbs of objects, scenes, surfaces, etc., there are no introductory videos or "getting started" tutorials included. NewTek should at least include the 3 volume manual as a pdf with the content disc.

At the NewTekTV website, you can find tutorials and scheduled live demos on LightWave 10.1, but the selection is slim and I couldn't find anything that was simply an introduction to the program. Still, the LightWave 3D community is huge and you can find lots of very good tutorials at LightWave-focused sites all over the web. Plus, the NewTek forums are very active and are friendly to new users.

And on the plus side, NewTek provides an SDK (software development kit) for developers who want to create plug-ins for LightWave 10 to enhance aspects of the application's functionality. Since LightWave has been such a heavyweight for so many years, there is a very large assortment of plug-ins, many of which are of very high quality. One of the best places to find out about these plug-ins is SpinQuad.com, a classic Lightwave 3D website. The SDK for Lightwave 10 is a free download.


Page capture from Lightwave 10 help manual

Conclusion

Markets for high-end 3D software packages have changed over the last decade. While individual users and very small studios might focus on a single package because it makes it easier for them to learn over time and allows for increased productivity, the VFX, TV and Hollywood industries are increasingly using a mixed pipeline that combines elements from several applications to achieve their goals. Older, more established 3D software programs, like LightWave 3D, have an advantage in that they have many years of development, an established user base and fast/dependable results. However, the newest versions of LightWave 3D have a slight disadvantage in that they have to adapt a code base that is older and many-layered in order to add updates that compete with newer 3D software built on up-to-date code.

I think NewTek's decision to stay with LightWave 3D and incorporate their CORE technology is a good one. It allows all of their development resources to focus on solving code-related problems, and it enables their established user-base to work with a program they know well, while getting up-to-date improvements that enable them to be efficient and productive in a fast-moving and competitive 3D application market.

Rob Powers has suggested there is a 3-year plan to incorporate and upgrade LightWave 3D with CORE technology (LightWave 10.1 being the first step). Both LightWave 10 and 10.1 are significant improvements to the application. The addition of VPR, Linear Color Space Workflow and improved Data Interchange alone are worth the price of an upgrade. Factor in the many other major upgrades, like Virtual Studio Tools, excellent Stereoscopic rendering, improved modeling and FiberFX updates, and with LightWave 10.1 you have one of NewTek's best versions of an already excellent 3D application.


Rob Powers at the NewTek booth at Siggraph 2010

"We've made it so that if you make the files in Maya, you can open them in LightWave. Make them in LightWave, you can open them in Maya. LightWave's focus is to the workflow and the artist. What we are proud of is making LightWave fit so well into those professional pipelines."
-Rob Powers, VP of 3D Development, LightWave 3D

I found LightWave 10.1 to be a program I didn't want to stop using. As I learned more, I wanted to create more with this fast and powerful application. I had zero crashes, the interface was flexible and interesting, plus LightWave 10.1 is just fun to use. It's an incredibly deep program that, as my veteran LightWave user friend said "You can do anything with LightWave." After a couple months with LightWave, I'm starting to believe him.

NewTek's LightWave 10.1 is highly recommended. Its price-point is attractive and NewTek and Rob Powers are out to make it the best tool for 3D artists in the business. Future versions of LightWave will add more and more elements of the remarkable CORE technology, which means that an already excellent program will get even better very soon. LightWave version 11 should really be something.

If you've never used LightWave 3D before, download the 30-day trial and discover for yourself how good it is. I especially recommend LightWave 10.1 as a beginners program, as it has one of the best renderers in the business, features a short learning curve, and the community is large and very helpful. Plug-ins for LightWave 10 are numerous, since NewTek released their SDK (software development kit). You can check some of the most interesting ones here.

Notes

LightWave 10.1 is available for $1,495.00 (USD), with an upgrade price of $695. It's available as a 32-bit or 64-bit application for Windows. It's also available on the Mac at 32/64 bit. More information can be found at NewTek's LightWave page, and many excellent videos on LightWave 10 and LightWave 10.1 can be found at NewTek TV and NewTek's YouTube page. Be sure to check out Renderosity's own LightWave forum, run by petes and TalleyJC.

Hardware requirements for Lightwave10.1 are available here. My own home-built Windows PC Workstation features an Intel 8 core cpu, 12 Gb RAM, Nvidia Quadro 5000 GPU running Windows 7 64-bit with SP1.

Many thanks to NewTek for providing a copy of LightWave 10 and the 10.1 upgrade for review. I'm also grateful to Rob Powers for his help and encouragement in putting this review together.


Editor's Note: Be sure to check out the following:


Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.


October 17, 2011

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