Review: Can MODO 701 Make its Mark on Animation and VFX?
In 2001 Brad Peebler was working as VP of 3D Development at NewTek. He, along with several others at the company, felt their flagship product LightWave was in dire need of rewrite from the ground up. Unfortunately NewTek's senior management team disagreed, and Peebler left the company to form Luxology with Allen Hastings, Stuart Ferguson and several other LightWave developers. Their aim was to create a new breed of 3D application. While other companies focused on adding more and more new features to their software, Luxology would instead focus on creating a more productive way for artists to work in 3D.
After a few years of development MODO was born. The team at Luxology had initially focused their efforts on 3D modeling, and when they showcased MODO at SIGGRAPH in 2004 it was clearly revolutionary for its time. Early adopters included the likes of Digital Domain, Pixar, ILM, and a slew of other studios. When Luxology added paint, shading and rendering features to MODO the architectural industry started to pay attention (this was further helped by Luxology licensing their software architecture to popular CAD tool SolidWorks). MODO also started to build momentum in 3D for print and product design. Super-fast modeling tools coupled with the high quality rendering engine and relatively low cost of ownership made MODO the obvious choice for this kind of work.
Fast-forward to 2013 and this is still generally where you will find MODO being used. It's a popular choice for studios specializing in architectural design, product design, and CG for print, but it seems to fly under the radar when it comes to visual effects and animation. Those early adopters of MODO in our industry use it as a specialized modeling tool, but little else. Few studios are producing character animation or VFX work with MODO, and it struggles to be taken seriously as an end-to-end 3D application like Maya, Softimage, or even LightWave. However, that could all be about to change...
Late last year Luxology announced that it would be merging with The Foundry, a major player in the world of visual effects (for those not in the know, The Foundry produces Nuke, the industry standard compositing tool for VFX). For The Foundry this was an opportunity to add an all-round 3D application to their range, and for Luxology it was a chance to grow their animation and visual effects customer base. What's really exciting is how well the two companies fit together. Something about this partnership just feels right. When you flick between MODO and Nuke it feels like the two products were developed with the same ethos.
And this brings us nicely to MODO 701, which was released in April. This is the first release since Luxology merged with The Foundry, and it boasts a number of features and improvements that are bound to spark the interest of visual effects artists and animators. But the big question is: can it deliver? Have The Foundry done enough with this release to make MODO a real contender to the likes of Maya, Softimage or LightWave?
The first thing to understand is that the UI and workflow in MODO is somewhat different to other 3D applications. A long-time Maya user dipping their toe into MODO for the first time is likely to find it a struggle. But what should be immediately apparent is how grown up MODO feels. It gives the impression of a powerful, professional product that has been carefully crafted for serious artists. And in a lot of ways, that’s exactly what it is. But to be truly productive in MODO it is necessary to get into the “MODO mindset.” Trying to use it as if it were Maya will only lead to frustration.
MODO's strength has always been subdivision modeling, and for the vast majority of animation and VFX studios who are using the product today, this is primarily where it sits in their pipeline. The modeling workflow is both quick and powerful. MODO achieves this by keeping the range of tools fairly simple, but allowing users to combine them to give even more flexibility. For artists who have settled comfortably into MODO's workflow, creating even complex models can be an effortless process. It’s well established that MODO is probably the best modeling tool on the market, and has been since its first release.
But users have been far slower to turn to MODO for rigging and animation, despite these features having been present in the software for some time. However, it’s only with the release of 701 that these tools have become more “integrated” and feel more mature. Like many aspects of MODO the rigging process isn't quite the same as in other 3D applications. Creating a basic skeleton is simple enough, but working with vertex weights to get a mesh to deform correctly can be a little intimidating. It’s worth persevering with, however. Former Pixar character and articulation modeler Brian Tindall has gone on the record as saying that MODO's rigging and deformation tools are the closest thing commercially available to Pixar's own in-house software. That's a reassuring fact for those wondering whether MODO has what it takes to be a serious character animation tool.
For the less technically astute, an Automatic Character Setup (ACS) kit is available. This greatly simplifies the process of rigging a biped character in MODO by providing a pre-built rig which can be dropped onto a mesh and then tweaked to fit its proportions. Unfortunately the ACS kit does not support facial rigs (yet?), but it is still a fantastic tool for those starting out who want to learn character animation without getting too deep into the rigging process.
And when it comes to animation, 701‘s new stripped back animation interface allows artists to focus only on the things that are important to the task in hand. The newly designed graph editor and the properties window are easily within reach. While there's nothing revolutionary here, MODO feels like it has a complete animation toolset when compared to other 3D software. Certainly, there are a few gaps in functionality when compared with the bigger applications, but this by no means leaves MODO inept. There's no reason why an artist can't produce animation in MODO that is on par with any other product.