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LightWave 9.2: The Rebirth of An Industry Favorite

Troublemaker Digital and The Orphanage tell Alain Bielik how they made Grindhouse rock with creative vfx for Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino.

LightWave 9.2 is a powerful upgrade cloaked in a humble dot 2 extension. This is the LightWave that many long-time users have been waiting for.

These are good times for LightWave users, many of whom have had their faith shaken over the past few years. The LightWave 8 development cycle was generally seen as lackluster by the user community at large. After two years of waiting for an update from 7.5, many expected 8.0 to be a revolutionary new product. They were disappointed to find a handful of third-party plug-ins in place of innovative new features. Some viewed this as a sign of the program's demise. Others came right out and said it. But nothing could have been further from the truth.

Under the hood, LightWave was undergoing a massive reconstruction -- a "parallel changeover" in which large chunks of the architecture were being stripped out and replaced with newer, more modern pieces of code. As each chunk was replaced, it paved the way for the development of powerful new features. Like the faint heartbeat of a child in its mother's womb, the first signs of new life were hard to detect. But for those with ears to hear, the sound was unmistakable. LightWave was not dead. It was alive and kicking, just waiting to be reborn.

If you've seen the ads for LightWave 9.0, you've likely been struck by the use of the word "Reborn." Those who are jaded will view this as nothing more than marketing hype. But don't be fooled. LightWave 9.0 is not the same old application. While the outward appearance remains the same, the introduction of new camera types, Catmull-Clark subdivision surfaces and an incredibly powerful node system are evidence of an inner renewal. They are the reflection of a new creation. And over the past year that creation has rapidly matured.

Enter LightWave 9.2, a powerful upgrade cloaked in a humble dot 2 extension. This is the LightWave that many long-time users have been waiting for. Innovative. Powerful. Easy to use. If you had your doubts about the future of LightWave, put them to rest. Nine point two is one hell of an upgrade. And if it's any indication of what's to come, the LightWave 9 development cycle will undoubtedly be the most powerful in its long-revered history.

In this article I'll touch on some of the key features that you'll find in LightWave 9.2. Just about every aspect of the program has been revised and distinct improvements can be seen in the software's modeling, lighting, surfacing, cinematography and rendering tools. In addition, there are a number of new workflow enhancements and a wealth of core changes, which make this version faster and more responsive than ever before.

OpenGL improvements now allow you to set up and adjust textures in Modeler which would have previously required a special trip to Layout. Courtesy of Steve Warner.

Modeling Improvements

Let's begin with a look at the modeling improvements. Modeler was not the main focus of 9.2, but even so the venerable program sports a respectable list of new features. First and foremost is the new OpenGL. The core changes to the OpenGL code, which first appeared in Layout, are now available in Modeler. A new tab appears in Modeler's Display Options giving you control over which parameters will be visible in the OpenGL display. Procedural textures and multi-layered UVs can now be seen in any Textured viewport. (Unfortunately Node-based textures still do not appear in Modeler or Layout's OpenGL display.) While your results will be determined by the power of your graphics card, I can tell you that many texturing tasks, which would normally require a trip to Layout, can now be done directly in modeler. This is a huge time saver and a welcome improvement. If however you find the new OpenGL taxes your video card too much, you can always revert to the old display techniques by simply clicking on the Legacy OpenGL button.

You'll also notice that the maximum OpenGL texture display resolution of 1024x1024 has been doubled to 2048x2048 and MipMapping has also been added to allow texture smoothing. This makes previewing high-res texture much easier.

Beyond the OpenGL, Modeler has seen improvements in the way it handles selections for high poly count geometry. In 9.0 and earlier, trying to select elements on objects with a lot of polygons would cause a noticeable lag. It was not uncommon to run your mouse over a dense area of the mesh and have to wait for the software to catch up with your selection. No more! The optimizations in 9.2 allow you to rip through polygon and edge selections. This makes the entire program feel snappy and more responsive.

While we're on the topic of selections, Modeler just got a handful of new selection tools. Select Entire Surface and Select Entire Part provide direct tools for actions, which formerly required the use of the Statistics panel. At first you may brush these off because they lack pizzazz, but by adding these functions to direct tools, we now have the ability to assign them to keyboard shortcuts. This can save a trip to the Statistics panel and streamline your workflow. That's very cool in my book.

The Select Path tool allows you to select a range of points, polygons or edges. Simply select the first and last elements and run the tool. All elements in between the first and last will be selected. It's interesting to note that this tool does not require you to select elements in a clear line (although that will yield the most predictable results). You can select two elements anywhere on your object and the Select Path tool will create a selection between them even if it has to wind its way and make turns in the process.

The Loop Expand and Loop Contract tools allow you to grow and shrink edge selections. The results are similar to the native Expand and Contract selection tools, but the results are slightly different.

LightWave 9.0 saw the introduction of Catmull-Clark subdivision surfaces in addition to its native Subpatches. To switch between the two, you needed to select a SubD mode at the bottom of the interface and then toggle the SubD status by pressing Tab. It worked, but it was a bit cumbersome. LightWave 9.2 can now force polygons into any SubD mode via its "Set" tools. Set CC will force the selected polygons to become Catmull-Clark SubDs. Set Subpatch will force the polygons to become regular Subpatches. And Set Face will turn off SubDs for the selected polygons. The Tab key will still toggle the SubD type that you've set at the bottom of the interface.

There are two other tools new to Modeler in 9.2. Julienne 2 is an update to the existing Julienne tool. It allows you to create evenly spaced slices along a particular axis. The new version will work on 2D polygons, not just 3D objects and it doesn't leave cutting geometry behind like the old version did.

Create Rows is a nice time-saving tool. It allows you to extend geometry to a specific location as defined by your point selection. You select a first point on an edge and then all the remaining points on the edge (or edges) that you want extended. Finally, you select a point opposite the first one where you want the geometry to be extended to. Then run the tool and your new geometry will be created. In the past, this type of action would require multiple tools and multiple steps. This allows you to do it in one fell swoop.

New Global Illumination modes allow beautifully nuanced lighting to be achieved in a fraction of the time they did in earlier versions. © Allen Bussell. 

Lighting Improvements

The modeling improvements are certainly nice, but they pale in comparison to the lighting improvements. Radiosity, a feature that used to be synonymous with unacceptably long render times, received a major upgrade in 9.2. In addition to Background and Monte Carlo we now have a new global illumination mode: Final Gather. And each of the three modes now has an Interpolated option, which speeds up its rendering significantly. These enhancements allow you to produce stunning images in a fraction of the time that was required prior to 9.2. Radiosity used to be a luxury, which could rarely be afforded. However it is now possible to use radiosity on quick test renders. The implications of this are staggering.

Faster render times are not the only improvement. Radiosity renders now receive their own rendering pass, which incrementally refines itself. This refining process can be viewed in the Render Status window when the Preview option is turned on in the Render Globals panel. Users who are familiar with the incremental rendering found in Worley's FPrime plug-in will love this new feature. Rather than having to wait for your render to finish, you can see a rough sample almost immediately and then watch as the sample becomes clearer and clearer. It's a remarkably useful feature that makes setting up radiosity a snap.

One last noteworthy improvement in the realm of lighting is a change in Area light intensity. In previous versions, Area lights were noticeably brighter than all other light types. When testing out various light types, you would constantly have to adjust the Light Intensity value to compensate for the discrepancy. In 9.2 the intensity of Area lights is consistent with every other light type. This small, but wonderful, workflow enhancement makes it much easier to tweak the lighting in your scene.

Radiosity now features a progressive render which is visible when the Render Preview option is enabled. Courtesy of Steve Warner.

Surfacing Improvements

If you're impressed by the lighting improvements, wait until you see what's been done in the surfacing department. The Node Editor, which debuted in LightWave 9.0, radically changed LightWave's approach to surfacing. One of the coolest things about the Node Editor was the addition of dedicated Shading channels. Effects like subsurface scattering and anisotropic reflections, which used to require special plug-ins or shaders, could now be created with ease. LightWave 9.2 has gone a step further by introducing a powerful new Material channel.

Materials allow you to create physically accurate reproductions of complex surfaces such as metal, glass and skin by simply plugging a single node into the material channel and adjusting the settings to your liking. Best of all, the Materials in 9.2 work beautifully with the new radiosity options and are capable of producing stunning photorealistic results.

LightWave 9.2 ships with six distinct Materials and three Material utilities. Conductor simulates metallic surfaces. Dielectric simulates glass surfaces. Delta provides a combination of the functions found in Conductor and Dielectric, allowing you to specify both solid and transparent material properties. One interesting thing about Delta is that it uses an "energy conservation" technique. Specular values are inherently linked to Diffuse values in the real world. When you raise one of these values in the Delta Material, the other will automatically be lowered. Sigma simulates translucent surfaces, allowing you to create everything from complex skin to marble or milk. Simple Skin is a Material that is specifically designed to simulate the unique properties of skin and includes the ability to define the epidermis and subdermis layers for accurate subsurface scattering. And finally the Standard material allows you to define basic surface properties using the traditional settings found in LightWave's main Surface Editor.

The new Conductor and Dielectric materials allow the creation of physically accurate metal and glass surfaces. Image © Jean-Marc Labal.

The new Materials are incredible in their own right, but the Material utility nodes allow you to take the concept of Materials to a whole new level. Make Material accepts Diffuse, Specular, Reflection, Refraction and Transparency inputs, thereby allowing you to create a brand new Material. The Switch node allows you to switch the properties for the backside of your object's polygons. And the Material Mixer allows you to blend two Materials together using a straight numeric mix or by variable transparency via an Alpha input channel.

Camera Improvements

LightWave 9.0 saw the addition of several new camera types. The most powerful was the Advanced Camera. It allowed you to create nearly any type of camera imaginable. However the interface was confusing to the point where it was nearly impossible for the average person to use. Effects like fisheye distortion were difficult to set up and required frequent test renders. LightWave 9.2 makes working with all of the new cameras (especially the Advanced Camera) much easier. If you switch to a Perspective viewpoint you will now see an accurate visual representation of the camera's view and a grid showing any distortion.

LightWave 9.2 also features a new camera called the Real Lens Camera. It allows you to select from an extensive list of real-world cameras and an enormous list of real-world lenses. Want to match the optics of your Sony F-707 digital camera when shooting in Macro mode? No problem. Just choose Sony as the manufacturer, the F-707 as the model, and the Macro Lens preset. It's that easy! You can even adjust the amount of light to dark falloff around the outside of the lens by changing the Irradiance Falloff setting. The Real Lens Camera is poised to make many common compositing problems a thing of the past.

As great as the Real Lens Camera is, it's nowhere near as cool as 9.2's new motion blur and depth of field options. In LightWave 9.0 and earlier, motion blur and depth of field required you to use extremely high levels of antialiasing to get reasonable results. And even then, the output was far from perfect. But LightWave 9.2 now sports an entirely new system for handling these effects. These options are available when using any of the new cameras.

The Simple Skin material allows you to create impressive skin surfaces with ease. © Lino Grandi & Fabrizio Bortolussi.

In the Motion Blur pop-up menu in the Camera Properties panel you'll now find a Photoreal option. As the name implies, this produces motion blur that is photorealistic and is vastly superior to the Normal (now called Classic) and Dithered modes we were limited to in the past. Likewise, the Depth of Field option for the Perspective camera produces superior results compared to previous versions. Best of all, motion blur and depth of field can now be turned on even when your antialiasing is turned off and the results are surprisingly good. This makes it possible to create fast test animations that are much more accurate than ever before.

A common problem with setting up depth of field and motion blur has also been resolved in LightWave 9.2. In the past, the only way to preview these effects was to click on the MB Preview button (or press Shift+F9). But this preview only worked for the current frame, making it impossible to preview animations. In LightWave 9.2, we now have a full-time DOF/MB Preview mode that can be accessed from the Camera Viewport's options menu. This mode allows you to preview these effects in realtime and will even work with RAM previews. Setting up a rack-focus effect is now dead simple.

The camera enhancements in LightWave 9.2 unleash the real power of the tools, which appeared in 9.0 and now make them a joy to use.

The new Motion Blur and Depth of Field effects produce photo-real results. © Stephen Moody.

Rendering Improvements

Just in case the things I've mentioned so far weren't enough to get you excited, then hold on. LightWave 9.2 features brand new antialiasing and adaptive sampling techniques that produce higher quality results in less time than ever before. In the past, removing aliasing artifacts required you to render a frame in multiple passes. The more passes you used, the more antialiasing you'd get. Of course, multiple passes meant longer render times. To speed things up, you could turn on Adaptive Sampling, which would tell the program to only look at the high contrast areas and refine them on subsequent passes. But you still had to use a fairly high number of antialiasing passes to get good results.

In LightWave 9.2, all of the new cameras provide antialiasing in a single pass. That's right. One pass. Multiple pass renders are ancient history. Now you can set a general antialiasing level in the Camera Properties panel and away you go. The higher the level, the more antialising will be applied all at once.

If you turn on Adaptive Sampling, the program will still look for places that need refining and limit its antialiasing to those areas. But the amazing thing is that you can now use Adaptive Sampling with absolutely no antialiasing whatsoever. Keep the antialiasing at Level 1 (none) and turn on Adaptive Sampling. Your image will be refined over and over, removing aliasing artifacts on only the areas that need it. This blew me away when I first saw it and it continues to amaze me. It's one of my favorite features in 9.2.

The new antialiasing and Adaptive Sampling changes are the most obvious improvements, but under the hood LightWave 9.2 has made drastic improvements to its raytracing engine. Scenes with complicated effects render much faster than ever before and some users are reporting an 8x increase in speed.

Miscellaneous Improvements

So far I've hit on the high points, but the features I've mentioned are really just the tip of the iceberg in 9.2. There are hundreds of squashed bugs and a host of stability and workflow enhancements that you'll only uncover when you start working with this new version. For example, many windows are now non-modal and can be left open while you work. You can open the Info window in Modeler and get immediate feedback on any point or polygon in your object. You can leave the Display Options window open as well to quickly change between viewport configurations or to simply turn the Grid Snap feature on and off more easily. Layout also has some nice new interface enhancements. For example, when closing your scene, you now have the option to be notified of what has been changed (i.e. which objects have been modified) and to be given the option to save before proceeding.

Conclusion

While Autodesk is charging its users $899 to upgrade from Maya 8.0 to 8.5, NewTek is continuing its policy of providing all incremental point releases for free. If you already own LightWave 9.0, the features you've just read about won't cost you a dime. Yes, these are definitely good times for LightWave users. The changes in 9.2 have brought improvements to nearly every aspect of the software and have made it overwhelming clear that LightWave 9 is the best LightWave to date.

This is not just a collection of new features. It's the rebirth of a beloved application. With this release, NewTek has shown that it is committed to the future of LightWave. Not just to continue servicing an aging application, but rather to forge a bright future that is characterized by the type of innovative, easy-to-use features that have made LightWave an industry favorite the world over.

Steve Warner is an award-winning designer and producer who has contributed articles to Keyframe, HDRI 3D and 3D World Magazine. He is the author of the ZBrush Pipeline Guide for LightWave, co-author of Essential LightWave v9 and co-author/editor of 1001 LightWave Tips and Tricks. He currently works as the art director for C2 Technologies Inc. at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona.

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