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Maxon Cinema 4D R11 Review: 3D Applications Made Easy

Peter "The Rizk" Rizkalla starts off the New Year by getting behind Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, Fallout 3, Tecmo Bowl: Kickoff and Sonic Unleashed.

Cinema 4D has a wide variety of geometry types, as shown in this complex vehicle. All images courtesy of Maxon and George Maestri.

Maxon's Cinema 4D has been around since the early 1990s and has become very popular in broadcast and motion design as well as in feature film vfx and animation.Its big claim to fame is its ease of use, which makes it more appealing to artists who don't have the technical chops needed to operate other 3D applications. Version 11 adds in a number of new features, including a high-end matte painting application, non-linear animation and faster rendering.

Cinema 4D runs on either Windows (XP and Vista) or Mac OS X. The code is now available in 64-bit versions for both operating systems, adding some speed. The software is sold on a per-module basis, and modules can be purchased individually or in bundles. Installation was fairly straightforward, but one little sticking point was licensing. Each module has its own long serial number, which makes it a little time consuming to enter them all when first configuring the application. This was a one-time annoyance, however. Once up and running, the software presents a clean, icon-driven interface. Most major tools can be accessed through iconic pull-down menus, but also through a more traditional text-based menu system. The interface has several stock layouts -- for modeling, animation, 3D paint and others. Users can also create their own custom layouts.

One of the things the really differentiates Cinema 4D from other 3D applications is its ease of use. Some 3D applications can get very complicated, using all sorts of nodes, stacks, and graphs to build scenes. Cinema 4D takes a simpler object-based approach. Drag a spline on to a lathe modifier, for example, and it will revolve the spline into a glass. Drag this to an array object and you can create a set of glasses. The workflow, however, is a little different from other 3D applications, so the included video tutorials really helped me get over the learning curve. The workflow when modeling really speeds along, and Cinema 4D has a robust modeling tookit. Most of the tools are polygonal-based, but there are spline and some basic NURBS-based surfaces as well.

Cinema 4D's renderer can create highly realistic images. The Advanced Renderer supports caustics and global illumination.

One of my favorite features of Cinema 4D is its 3D painting system. This is a very powerful and direct way to add color and texture to 3D models. You can paint up to 10 channels in a single stroke, which means you can simultaneously paint color, bump maps, opacity and more. The software has some very robust brushes, which are pressure sensitive and can be shared with Photoshop as well. These brushes can be used to paint in 2D views, 3D views as well as a 3D raytraced view, which allows an almost hyper-real way to paint. You get to see reflections and surface detail in great detail as you paint.

Leveraging these 3D paint tools is Projection Man, a matte painting system that was developed for Sony Pictures Imageworks for such features as Beowulf and The Polar Express. It integrates with Photoshop to allow artists to create matte paintings. When projected on 3D geometry in Cinema 4D, these matte paintings can be used to create 3D environments. One of the nice things about this feature is the ability to quickly revise mattes so they can be patched or altered if the demands of the shot change. Since this module is very closely tied to Photoshop, it gives matte painters the freedom to work in their favorite application while keeping their work integrated into the 3D world.

Those wanting to integrate Cinema 4D with other applications will appreciate support for Collada, which is an XML-based format that allows transfer of 3D assets between applications, including Adobe Photoshop's new 3D tools.

For animators, Cinema 4D's new non-linear animation feature makes it easier to manage motion. Animation can be organized in layers that can be looped and mixed together to create more complex motions. This gives animators the freedom to separate motions out into their component parts. A basic walk cycle can be modified by adding a second layer to adjust and tweak the character of the walk. This can then be mixed with a run cycle to transition the character from a walk to a run, and so on. Motions can be stored as pre-defined motion clips, allowing you to create libraries of animation and motion capture data. Another long-overdue feature for animators is ghosting, also known as onion-skinning. This allows you to create motion trails from an animated object in order to analyze its motion.

BodyPaint, an excellent 3D painting tool, is included with Cinema 4D.

For more advance character animation, the MOCCA 3 module offers a wide array of tools, including hair and cloth tools. A muscle system allows characters to deform more realistically. One the ones I liked was the squash and stretch tool, which adds a bit of cartoon dynamics to a character or object in the scene. As the character animates, the skin will squash and stretch realistically, never losing volume. I found this system to be much better than other soft-body-based systems for character animation because it produces much more consistent results.

Rendering in Cinema 4D can be done using the built-in renderer, which produces excellent quality renders. Cinema 4D is used a lot by After Effects artists because the renderer outputs scenes in a very After Effects-friendly way, including the ability to export 3D objects such as lights and cameras. For advanced rendering, the aptly-named Advanced Rendering module gives you the ability to render global illumination, caustics, and ambient occlusion. One more Advanced Rendering feature is a sky tool for creating very realistic skies with just about any cloud or weather condition.

For vfx, the Thinking Particles module allows for a high degree of control over particle systems. Particles are created and controlled using Cinema 4D's XPresso interface, which allows you to control particle streams down to the individual particle. This allows for precise placement and interaction between particles and the scenes they inhabit.

Overall, Cinema 4D is a great application for those who have better things to do than learn a high end 3D application. While it doesn't go quite as far as some of the more advanced 3D titles on the market, Cinema 4D goes a lot quicker. On top of that, Cinema 4D goes a lot of places other 3D applications simply don't. Cinema 4D's 3D painting and matte painting tools, for example, are some of the best on the market.

George Maestri is an animation director and producer. He is currently the president of Rubber Bug, a Los Angeles-based animation studio. He also teaches animation at Otis College of Art and Lynda.com.

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