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LightWave 10 Review: A New Beginning

A LightWave guru takes the acclaimed reboot for a test drive.

SpriteGen feature has been used to generate thousands of Sprite Sheets for FunGoPlay's online virtual world. Courtesy of NewTek.

A few of my co-workers have been having mechanical issues with their vehicles recently, and it got me thinking about how reliable my truck has been over the years. In 1999, I purchased my very first brand new vehicle, a Chevrolet Silverado Z71 Sportside pickup truck. I've had zero issues, and the truck just keeps on performing. I jokingly tell people that I'll be buried in it. I know... spoken like a true Texan!

The thing is, it's rare these days to be able to rely on anything for any real length of time. The only other purchase I've made that has been equally as reliable has been NewTek's LightWave 3D. Back in 1995, picked up my first copy of LightWave (version 5.0) and have been producing content with LightWave ever since. Throughout the years, NewTek has released updates to the software that has allowed it to remain key player in broadcast television production, film visual effects, video game development, print graphics and visualization. The latest discovery was the character modeling work of Ten 24 "Dead Island."

NewTek's latest update, LightWave 10, was released late last year, and it's been a great production boost to the work I've been doing recently. I'd like to share with you some of the tools and enhancements that are now available.

What's New?

When you launch LightWave 10, you immediately experience the updated user interface, which has undergone subtle changes that deliver more dynamic user experience via features like interactive channel sliders, added control for custom colors, and numerous workflow enhancements. This is the handiwork of Matt Gorner, a familiar name in the LightWave community and a new member of the LightWave development team.

Using the OpenGL Overlay option with VPR allows you to view OpenGL controls, bones and more right on top of the real-time render.

A feature new to LightWave 10 that hasn't really gotten a lot of press, but has made a massive impact on a project I'm currently involved in is the SpriteGen animation saver. For the past several months, I've been working at FunGoPlay in New York with a team of LightWave artists on a new concept in online gaming where kids ages six to 11 get points controlling their artificial characters in computer space, and then use real-life gaming equipment like soccer balls and footballs containing microchips to gain additional points playing outside with members of their own social network.

All of the character assets in the world are modeled, textured, rigged and animated with LightWave 3D, which is a proven tool in our production pipeline. The project faced a massive challenge when we were tasked with generating the hundreds of thousands of sprite sheets needed to bring the characters to life in the world. With LightWave 10's Sprite-Gen feature, our rendering department was able to shave days off each week's rendering workload. For FunGoPlay, SpriteGen alone has saved the project's production schedule and has freed the render wranglers' time allowing them to focus on other areas of production. If you need to generate sprite sheets, LightWave 10 becomes your one stop shop.

One of the most groundbreaking and user favorite features introduced in LightWave 10 is the Viewport Preview Renderer (VPR). This feature allows you to turn any of your Layout viewports into a real-time interactive renderer. VPR gives you real-time feedback as you adjust items in your scene and is a massive time saver. One of the biggest "Holy Cow" moments I've experienced using LightWave 10 was when I loaded a scene that had several particle emitters with HyperVoxels applied to them, and they were displayed real-time within the VPR viewport. I immediately gave Volumetric Lights and FiberFX a go and was equally as impressed when they were displayed. These were features I thought would be a couple of years away from being displayed in real-time.

I experienced some additional surprises with VPR as well. For instance, it allows me to generate accurate animation previews extremely fast, and the OpenGL Overlay viewport option lets me display OpenGL controls, bones and more right on top of the real-time render. This has proven invaluable for posing characters for the high resolution images I've been creating recently.

Using VPR in a viewport speeds up lighting and surfacing.

When creating stills for creative reviews at work, I have found that I don't even bother generating a traditional render anymore since LightWave 10 added the snapshot button to the taskbar of each viewport. Simply activate VPR for any given viewport and click the snapshot icon, and it instantly saves an image. How simple is that?

After about a week of using LightWave 10, I found myself always having at least one viewport set to VPR with no real performance hit. It completely changes Lighting and Surfacing in LightWave, and I can only imagine the impact it will have on newer users who are experiencing lighting and surfacing attributes for the first time.

With 3D Stereoscopic being the hot item these days, LightWave 10's new Anaglyph Stereoscopic Preview option is sure to be a production pleaser. LightWave has had the ability to produce stereoscopic rendering for years, but with this real-time interocular, red-blue anaglyphic separation, it now delivers the ability to view changes as they happen in the Camera viewport. The days of test renders have become a distant memory.

Industry veteran Rob Powers (Tintin, Avatar), recently joined NewTek as VP of 3D Development, and I'm sure his experience working in the Virtual Art Department (VAD) for Avatar played a major role in the development of LightWave 10's Virtual Studio Tools. This toolset allows you to gain a true "on location" experience through interaction with massive 3D scenes in real time with control of light placement and camera directly in your 3D application. LightWave now supports InterSense Virtual Camera Tracking System and 3Dconnexion 3D mouse, allowing interaction with models and scenes in real time.

LightWave has been used in mixed pipelines at studios around the globe for years, and that's never been easier than now with LightWave 10's data interchange enhancements. LightWave's MDD file format has been a favorite for transferring animation data across multiple software pipelines, and in LightWave 10 the format has been enhanced to include support for Autodesk Geometry Cache, FBX, COLLADA, ZBrush interchange and improved OBJ UV support allowing LightWave to fit easily into any mixed pipeline.

The Anaglyph Stereoscopic Viewport preview in LightWave 10.

LightWave continues to offer unique capabilities such as Linear Color Workspace, which allows you to achieve photorealism much faster with the LightWave render engine. LightWave's Linear Color Workspace supports consistent gamma, color space and custom Look Up Tables (LUTs) for more realistic lighting and to maximize compositing flexibility in a professional pipeline.

I don't recall NewTek announcing how many bugs/issues got squashed in this upgrade, but it must have been quite a few as this has been the most stable version of the software to date. LightWave 10 shows a new level of maturity that makes it more reliable in production than ever.

On Deck: LightWave 10.1

Following the impressive LightWave 10 update in late in 2010, NewTek is ready to release a much anticipated free 10.1 update with many significant enhancements. Most notably, the new stereoscopic camera rig system introduced in LightWave 10 has been expanded to include an Off-Axis Camera rig, which corrects for render distortions associated with Toe-in rigs. LightWave now supports all three major stereoscopic camera rig types, Parallel, Toe-in and Off-Axis used in production. Additionally, the OpenGL stereoscopic rig gizmos have been enhanced to give real-time feedback for left and right camera projection planes and to allow corrections for Toe-in distortions interactively. Users can also interactively drag the convergence point directly in the viewport.

With the numerous other additions that have been made throughout the software in this free update, artists are getting a powerful bonus to add to the already robust new version of LightWave. If you haven't gotten your hands on the latest version of the software, be sure to download the free trial version that is fully functional for 30 days from the NewTek site (www.newtek.com).

William "Proton" Vaughn is creative director, Applehead Factory.

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