Animation Alley - Shade 7 Professional, Reviewed

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When I first opened the program I felt a sense of relief. Part of me was expecting to see a user interface (UI) like that used in Poser or Bryce, where various tools and buttons take up a large portion of the screen. Fortunately, Shade's UI provides plenty of workspace thanks to huge viewports that give a feel more like 3DS Max or Maya, making it very functional and user-friendly.

The software ships with four different manuals: Beginner's Tutorial, User's Guide, Plugin Manual and Technical Reference. These are meant to teach everything you need to know about the software and are successful nearly 90% of the time.
Despite the thoroughness of the documentation, I would have preferred more information in the areas pertaining to rendering. Still, the manuals do a good job and the user should have little difficulty working with them.
The Shade UI includes an object browser that is very similar to the Outliner available in Maya and a script editor. The script editor, as you would expect, can be used to write and run scripts in Python format. However you can also run Java and Visual Basic scripts. The supplied browser lets you play with your objects hierarchy in any way you want. In addition, the browser also allows the user modify object display attributes (other object attributes can be modified within the Object Info windows).

Without doubt you will spend most of your time using the ToolBox. This little window looks like the toolbox from Adobe Photoshop and it contains many creation and modification tools that can be used to make curves, primitives, surfaces, metaobjects, cameras, lights, etc. - practically anything you may need.

Shade 7 also includes different modules related to what are you do for your project: modeling, lighting, animation, shading and rendering. Although it could use some extra features or polishing here and there, the program is more powerful than you'd expect.
Some of the problems I encountered dealt with object transformation (moving, rotating, and scaling). Performed by simply dragging lines, I found that Shade's refresh during my transformations was something less than real-time, unless I moved slowly.

Even though modeling is not my favorite task, Shade made the work more enjoyable than I expected. The basic workflow for modeling is splines, where splines are drawn to define objects. Since this is the backbone of non-organic design, a lot of time will be spent with this type of modeling.

The second modeling tool is called Magical Sketch, and is used to draw 2D shapes in a paint-like program. While not well documented in the Shade reference material, Curious Labs has some tutorials available on their website for Magical Sketch 2 that should prove useful.
Even if you are a master at spline modeling, you will find Shade's true strength is completely experienced through the use of MetaObjects. Surely every modeler knows about metaballs, but Shade goes a bit farther by providing other metaprimitives as well. The idea behind this is to allow combinations of various types of MetaObjects when shaping your model. This is a very organic way to model because you can create parts and then weld them together by simply moving them closer.
Unlike the material editor in Poser 4, the one supplied with Shade Pro is vastly different and works more like those found in 3DS Max and Maya. With this editor I was able to change and modify surface attributes such as specularity, transparency, and reflectiveness. The material editor also contains a wide variety of procedural textures and allows the user to import image textures. Further, various textures can be combined to create many interesting effects.

When it comes to light setup, I only found basic light setup options (intensity, diffuse, specular, etc.). While I was able to change the intensity of the shadows (making them darker or lighter), I was not able to alter their color. Perhaps this isn't such a big deal, but it can come in handy when simulating the colored shadow cast by a piece of glass. To create this effect users may need to resort to raytracing, wasting valuable rendering time. However, the light editor (accessed through the Object Window) does provide options for tweaking resolutions to improve output quality and allow for simulating soft shadows. These options function exactly like other high-end applications, putting Shade Pro on par with 3DS Max or Maya.
As an animator, I was really looking forward to the animation workflow. Shade makes available a variety of joints used to rotate, translate or morph your objects; everything that character animation needs. You build your rigs just like you would build them in any other package by simply placing your joints in the desired position. However, the skinning process can be quite time consuming specially for high resolution meshes. Character setup in Shade departs from other packages in that vertices are controlled by weight factors. While this provides more flexibility, it can be a very time-consuming process getting surface deformations correct.

For example, during animation playback it is noticed that a vertex pops out of place. In order to correct this, the user needs to open the Skin Window and massage (or tweak) the weighting to get the deformations fixed. The higher the resolution of a given character, the more involved this process becomes. Compare this to the technique used in Poser or 3DS Max and you'll soon see the difference.

It is my opinion that Shade could benefit from a hybrid system, making use of a process similar to Poser or 3DS Max while still allowing for manual point adjustments.

However, Shade's animation system provides much greater control over curves and keyframe tangents through the use of a fully functional curve editor that is accessed through the Motion Window. Working with animations is very user-friendly. You can enter the values for your objects in the Object Info box or do it directly in the Motion window. Also when you are blocking out your animations you can easily move the keys around just by dragging them to a new position. The additional tangent controls provided also help fine-tune interpolations between keyframes, producing a more efficient animation system than previously available in Poser.
Rendering in Shade includes all kind of fancy things that you see nowadays in different applications. You can use the default scan line renderer or go for the most advanced features such as global illumination or path tracing. Path tracing in Shade is something like a more advanced version of raytracing. It outputs a better image quality by getting rid of those awful artifacts on the images and also calculates indirect lighting, something that is only available as an add-on with other render engines.

Even if these features are impressive by themselves, the Callisto renderer is the one that will surely draw everybody's attention. This render engine allows users to tweak plenty of options depending on the effect desired. It is a very nice and powerful renderer, but as you can imagine it is also somewhat difficult to get used to all those options. The Callisto engine is so powerful that I wish it could be used to render projects from other applications.

Should you encounter trouble using Shade Pro, help is only an email away. During my test drive I had several questions that required me to contact Tech Support. Experience told me not to expect answers right away, but their swiftness in answering really surprised me. Sometimes I'd have the answer to my questions waiting in my inbox just 30 minutes after I had sent the request.

Although I feel Shade is missing non-linear animation tools, it is a very powerful meta-objects modeling system. Combined with a superb render engine, good documentation, and very responsive support services, Shade 7 Pro is a package well worth considering.

Shade 7 Pro, Shade 7, and Shade LE are available for both the PC and Macintosh platforms, and are available as downloads or physical shipments. For either version, a minimum of 256 Mb RAM is required although 512 Mb is recommended. Prices start as low as $109.00 (US) for Shade LE and go as high as $1009.00 (US) for the full version of Shade 7 Professional, although there are discounts available if you own selected Poser products. Please see the Curious Labs website for specific pricing and upgrade information.

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Member Opinions:
By: Paula Sanders on 3/1/05
Good review. You gave me a feel for Shade and how it approached 3D modeling and animation. Thanks

Paula

By: PANdaRUS on 3/2/05
Thanks for this review - I look forward to more such reviews on newer, little known applications like this. (I ordered the P6 Special Edition and was wondering what Shade was about and if I should upgrade the LE version that came with it to the Pro version if I already own Max 4 and Rhino 2)

By: Helos on 3/6/05
Thanx for this informative walkthru. It gave me really a good glimpse of SHADE 7. I couldn't await my preordered Poser 6, which includes Shade 7 LE.
I'll give this application a try!

Henning

By: RobinOberg on 3/7/05
hmm, a slightly introductory review, not very in-depth.
it feels like we have to rely on your past experience, but that only works if we know you. (and not all of us do)

on the program itself, I have only good things to say myself.
i've seen some rather stunning work by japanese and korean artists using shade, and everytime i see their work i feel i just have to try shade some day.

it's good that shade get's some spotlight, but imho, it could've been done better :)

By: jsoenke on 3/8/05
Before spending $1000 I recommend taking a very close look at the competition. There are many software titles in this price category to choose from. My personal favorite is Lightwave 8. In comparison, Shade still has quite a ways to go.

By: nemirc on 3/8/05
Thanks for the C&C people. I am glad to see you've found the review useful.

Robin, you have a good point. I tried to rely on comparisons between programs but I don't know every program out there. The program is too wide and too deep to be covered in one single review but at least I think that users can get a glipse of it :)
Thanks for taking the time to write the critique. This was my first review and hopefuly my next one will be better.

By: Dhurgan on 3/11/05
The metamodeling reminds me of Organica modeling, very fast and intuitive...
perhaps they mesh it better in Shade?


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