In this months Mind Your Business, Mark Simon tackles the ins and outs of a freelancers dreaded necessity invoicing.
Earlier this month Eovia (just acquired by DAZ Prods.) released Carrara 5.1 Pro, an update to its fully featured, low cost 3D modeling, animation and rendering package. This review will focus on the Pro version of the software; however, Eovia has also released the lower priced alternative standard version, Carrara 5.1.
Carrara is impressive from the start, utilizing a visually polished interface that is reminiscent of other 3D programs in its class. In particular, Carrara is strikingly similar to Poser at first glance. The smooth, carefully designed interface not only looks attractive, but it is also quite functional. Icons are clear and easy to understand, tool tips are plentiful and mode changes are obvious. The biggest problem for experienced users will most likely be the alternative keyboard shortcuts.
Eovia chose to use for such basic maneuvering such as move, scale and rotate. More and more we are seeing applications share shortcuts, thus lowering the learning curve considerably. Custom keyboard shortcuts are possible, but the lack of save and load for groups of keyboard shortcuts is limiting. The good news is that Carrara is clearly an application marketed to those new to 3D. This takes some of the sting out of the non-standard keyboard shortcuts, as the whole idea of 3D is probably new to Carrara users. For these folks embarking on the great 3D adventure, non-standard keyboard shortcuts are the least of their worries. Professional 3D artists looking for a piece of software to use at home for personal pet projects may consider Carrara, but there are many other options available, including free trial or learning edition versions of much of the software they use at the office. Graphic designers looking to round out their toolset with a 3D application will find much to like in Carrara, as will those new users mentioned earlier.
Carrara offers many strong features that push the envelope of 3D software in this price range. The most impressive of these features is the environment simulation. Although it is possible to recreate a similar image in more expensive software, Carrara offers very usable, fully tweakable options with just a few presets. There is no need to make any direct changes to the geometry or textures, although if a user wants to do this, it is possible.
Another of the fun and useful semi-automated tools in Carrara is plant creation. After selecting the plant icon on the main menu and dropping a plant object into their scene, users will find themselves in front of the plant manipulation interface. This interface is broken up into five tabs, each containing a number of clearly marked sliders, in addition to some drop down lists. The tabs are logically separated into trunk, branches, leaf, tree shape and experts which allows users to jump between tabs in order to create their perfect plant. The plant preview is good, but there are enough differences between what users see in the application and what the render output looks like to cause a bit of confusion. The bottom line is that the plant generator is a great feature, it just takes a little getting used to when trying to predict what a render will give you.
Modeling in Carrara is in line with many other 3D apps, following standard conventions. Again, the alternative keyboard shortcuts take some getting used to for experienced users, but beginners will find Carrara a great first step into 3D. Primitive object creation is where most users will begin. Primitives can then be modified with extrusion, lathing and other standard tools as well as the usual assortment of vertex, edge and polygon manipulation.
Once a model has been created it can be textured using standard materials and shaders. One of the best things about Carrara is the assortment of preset shaders. There is a wide variety of natural and fantastic materials, all of which can be adjusted to create totally unique materials.
Animation in Carrara is solid, especially for a mid-level application. Characters can be set up with IK chains and the resulting animation can be edited via a decent graph editor. Professionals will find the animation tools in Carrara frustrating as they come close but stop short of the full feature set found in higher level apps. This is good news for beginners though. Animators looking to try out 3D animation for the first time will find enough to chew on in Carrara, the limits only presenting a problem for advanced use. Character setup is not as straightforward as other apps, but it is possible without too much pain. Eovia has done well to include tutorials for character setup and many of the more advanced features right in the software help file.
Rendering in Carrara is high quality, fast and easy to manage. While I didnt have time to render any lengthy complex animated sequences the handful of still images I did render was impressive. Users have many options to choose from, all available in the Render portion of Carrara. Everything from photorealism to cartoony effects is possible. Users wishing to go for photo-realism in their images have many options including HDRI, subsurface scattering and global illumination in the Carrara rendering toolkit. Another surprising feature for software in this class is the network rendering option. We all know how long those photo-real renders can take, so for beginners just feeling the pain of long render times, network rendering will be a joy to discover.
Considering the target market for Carrara 5.1, the system requirements are important. While machines today are faster than ever, beginners are more likely to have less powerful systems than professionals. Fortunately, system requirements for both Mac and PC users are quite low, with minimum specs around 300mhz and 128MB of RAM on both platforms, and recommended specs of around 2GHz and 512MB of RAM on both platforms.
There are a few significant differences between the standard and Pro versions of Carrara 5.1. The Pro version includes an animation graph editor, robust vertex modeling tools, advanced lighting, rendering and import/export options plus audio preview. The import/export are of particular interest as there is support for FBX files. Support for this popular format makes Carrara an option for users on the brink of professional and part-time 3D work.
The price difference of a few hundred dollars between the standard and Pro versions is just enough to keep folks from upgrading before they need to. The standard version is a bargain for beginners, but the Pro version is fairly priced especially when you consider the vertex modeling tools that are useful, and, in fact, required for doing any kind of advanced custom modeling, such as character creation.
After spending a few days with Carrara Pro 5.1, users will find it an impressive entry-level 3D application. The software is recommended to hobbyist beginners as it provides just enough horsepower to create some nice scenes, whether still or animated. Graphic designers and illustrators will also likely find enough in Carrara to accomplish a specific task for basic projects. Experienced users will probably find more frustration with Carrara as it does what it does very well, but stops short of being a full production tested tool.
Carrara 5.1 is available in standard and Pro versions. The full version of Carrara 5.1 sells for $249, with upgrades available for $99. Carrara Pro 5.1 is priced at $549 for the full version and $169 for the upgrade. All versions are available directly from the Eovia website.
Fred Galpern is the art manager for Blue Fang Games, located just outside Boston. He is also a part-time Maya instructor at Northeastern University and a co-creator of the game development program at Bristol Community College. Since entering the digital art field more than 10 years ago, Galpern has held management positions in several game and entertainment companies, including Hasbro and Looking Glass Studios. He began his art career in comicbooks and also has interactive, print and web graphic design experience.