NewTek LightWave 3D v9

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NewTek LightWave 3D v9
  • NewTek LightWave 3D v9
  • NewTek LightWave 3D v9
  • NewTek LightWave 3D v9

Pros

  • All-in-one 3D animation package, incredible array of tools and features (including plenty of third-party content)

Cons

  • Requires a USB-hogging hardware key, certain processes remain dauntingly complex for the first-time user

Bottom Line

Fast, feature-rich and endlessly versatile, LightWave 3D v9 is one of the best 3D animation suites on the market. No other complete package offers the same level of professionalism at this price.

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If 3D animation suites were all soldiers in a WW2 action flick, LightWave would be the grizzled general who has seen it all before. The veteran software package has been around since the days of the Commodore Amiga (remember those?) and has been a staple after-effects tool for the film and television industries ever since. From the ropey S.F.X in Babylon 5 to the visual eye candy of The Matrix Reloaded, the program has certainly come a long way since its inception. This latest version ushers in a host of unique features, including improved character animations, lens-specific virtual cameras, advanced APS tools for particles, fur and hair effects, a completely overhauled rendering engine, plus a new Node Editor interface for fast and effective shading. This is barely scratching the surface however, as practically every facet of LightWave 3D has been injected with a mind-boggling array of enhancements. Rest assured, if you're an existing user of NewTek's software, there has never been a more comprehensive or worthy upgrade.

As its name implies, LightWave 3D is an all-in-one CGI solution that combines professional-level modelling, rendering and animation tools into one affordable package. ('Affordable' is a bit subjective here; while $1300 isn't exactly cheap, its value remains unmatched for what it offers.) From spectacular CGI in feature-length movies to photorealistic renders in video games, its uses are as varied and versatile as the system itself. While NewTek would like its customers to believe that they are only limited by their imagination, the truth is that most users will also be hamstrung by their know-how. Make no mistake; the learning curve for newbies is steep, though it's certainly no worse than any other professional-level animation suite. In any event, those who manage to crest the learning curve will be highly satisfied with what they find on the other side.

The first thing you'll notice upon opening the LightWave 3D box is a device that looks like a USB thumb drive. This isn't a bonus gift, but rather a hardware key, or dongle, used for copy protection purposes. What this means is that the software won't work unless you have the dongle inserted in one of your USB ports. We're a bit leery of anti-piracy methods that require periphery hardware – what happens if the dongle breaks, or you lose it? After all, vendors aren't particularly well known for the swift delivery of replacements – this could effectively see your workflow frozen for days, or even weeks.

But enough about dongles. Let's get down to the nitty-gritty (or as much of the nitty-gritty as our word count allows). If you've ever watched the special features on DVDs like Lord of the Rings, you'll have an idea of how LightWave 3D and programs like it work. Objects and character models are built from the ground up in the Modeller window and then rendered and animated in the Layout window. Both windows are divided up into four separate viewpoints; depicting your model at different angles (the default viewpoints are front, back, top and 'perspective', though these can naturally be changed to suit your purpose). You are given a range of rendering options, including wireframe, texture, shade, stretch, flat shaded and smooth shaded. Naturally, you can also elect to have each viewing panel depict a different rendering style.

With the high turnaround times demanded by modern animation studios, LightWave 3D 9 attempts to make everything more streamlined. One handy option is the ability to adjust the resolution of an object in relation to its proximity to the camera (i.e. increasing to a higher resolution as the object moves from background to foreground). This effectively speeds up the rendering process without compromising on image quality and will be a boon for animators on especially tight schedules. As with previous versions of the software, it is also possible to 'multithread' rendering tasks across networked computers. This allows multiple CPUs to tackle individual frames of animation.

As mentioned earlier, getting the most out of LightWave 3D will require a hefty chunk of preinstalled knowledge. (There's a reason why 3D animators make good money – it's not an easy skill to learn!) If you're new to all this CGI malarkey, we'd suggest investing in a LightWave training course or at the very least, a tutorial video. If that sounds like too much time and effort, perhaps this software isn't for you – instead, go for Ulead's Cool 3D Production Studio; a consumer-aimed package that offers a smoother ride. On the plus side, a selection of pre-built royalty-free models are included in the sales package to help you get started.

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