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Mudbox 2009 Review: More Robust and a Steadier Stroke

In this edition of her bimonthly column, Nancy Cartwright interviews top-ranked voice-over actor Jess Harnell.

This version of Mudbox marks the first new release completely under the Autodesk banner.

Mudbox 2009 is the second release of Autodesk's 3D sculpting and painting software. The package uses a brush and tablet driven interface to create and modify high poly 3D objects for later import into Maya, 3ds Max or other 3D applications. Mudbox got its start in New Zealand, where it was created at Weta digital for use in The Lord of the Rings movies. The software went commercial and was later purchased by Autodesk. This version marks the first new release completely under the Autodesk banner. Mudbox offers artists a way to get dirty and create highly realistic objects in 3D. The new version adds more robust texture painting tools as well as lighting improvements and more accurate viewport display.

The interface to Mudbox is best driven by a Wacom tablet, and it is fairly simple and straightforward, only containing the tools needed to sculpt and paint. There is very little learning curve on this program, and using it is quite fun. The interface contains one large viewport for sculpting and painting as well as two other tabs that allow you to view a model's UV texture coordinates or browse images. Along the top is a menu bar, a pallet of brushes and scultping tools runs along the bottom, and an options panel sits on the right side of the screen. Navigation is similar to the three button mouse model used in Maya, while the brush interface is similar to Maya's Artisan interface, so anyone familiar with that package will feel right at home. Mudbox offers a number of primitive objects, such as humans, creatures, reptiles and basic primitives to get you started. You can also load in your own polygonal models as .OBJ files. Once a model is loaded, you can pick any number of sculpting tools to sculpt or paint the model.

The sculpting tools in Mudbox allow you to work and shape the model much like a real world clay model, offering options to sculpt, smooth, grab and otherwise move the mesh of the object around as you please. The tablet- based interface uses pressure sensitivity to affect the behavior of the tools, making the interface very responsive. One of the nicer features of Mudbox is a symmetrical modeling tool that sculpts both sides of the model equally, which is terrific for objects like characters. Another handy tool is called Steady stroke, which can let you preview a stroke before is drawn, which helps produce a smoother stroke. Sculpting is further refined using user-defined brushes. These can be anything from simple round brushes with a used defined falloff, to stamp-like brushes defined by a bitmap. The stamps can be used to add actual roughness to a polygonal surface and add all sorts of fine detail. To get additional detail, Mudbox can easily add resolution to a model on the fly, making it simple to res-up a model as needed.

Mudbox's modeling tools allow you to sculpt highly detailed surfaces. Courtesy of George Maestri.

One of the more powerful ways to sculpt is in layers. This is similar to layers in Photoshop, but in Mudbox, the layers can contain varying levels of detail. This allows modeling to be separated into discrete tasks: one layer can have the wrinkles, and another can have blemishes, for example. This can also be used in productions where multiple artists are working on the same model. Each artist's contribution can be stored in separate layers.

Painting is similar to sculpting in that it uses the same brush-driven interface. The 3D paint tools consist of a brush, and airbrush and a pencil tool as well as a projection option. Painting can be done with brushes or stamps, and the stencil tool allows an image to be projected and painted on an object. You can paint any number of channels, including color, bump and specular and reflection, among others. Painting can also be done symmetrically and layers are also supported. Some things are missing from the paint tools, I'd love to see cloning brushes as well as the ability to smear and blur textures.

The painting tools allow you to color models in 3D. Courtesy of George Maestri.

Mudbox 2009 adds some nice new viewport features. It's always best to have good light when an artist paints or sculpts, and Mudbox gives artists the ability to change the lighting of the scene while working. You can add or reposition lights in Mudbox, but you can also use an ambient occlusion lighting model, which casts a soft, even light over the entire scene. This lighting really brings out the details in a model and makes sculpting fine detail much easier. For those working in gaming, Mudbox also supports CgFX hardware shaders in the viewports as well.

When the model is finished, it can be exported as a high resolution mesh for import into a 3D package. Another way to export this data is to use displacement or normal maps, which can be placed on a lower resolution character in software such as Maya or 3ds Max. These maps will actually deform the geometry of the low-res character at render time to create a high resolution render.

Overall, Mudbox is a really fun package to use. It's very accessible and the sculpting tools just seem to work. This is a great package for anyone who needs to create highly detailed models for 3D.

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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