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Review: Can 'MODO 701' Make its Mark on Animation and VFX?

After merging with The Foundry, can Luxology and their new release compete with Maya, Softimage and Lightwave?

In 2001 Brad Peebler was working as VP of 3D Development at NewTek. He, along with several others at the company, felt their flagship product LightWave was in dire need of rewrite from the ground up. Unfortunately NewTek's senior management team disagreed, and Peebler left the company to form Luxology with Allen Hastings, Stuart Ferguson and several other LightWave developers. Their aim was to create a new breed of 3D application. While other companies focused on adding more and more new features to their software, Luxology would instead focus on creating a more productive way for artists to work in 3D.

After a few years of development MODO was born. The team at Luxology had initially focused their efforts on 3D modeling, and when they showcased MODO at SIGGRAPH in 2004 it was clearly revolutionary for its time. Early adopters included the likes of Digital Domain, Pixar, ILM, and a slew of other studios. When Luxology added paint, shading and rendering features to MODO the architectural industry started to pay attention (this was further helped by Luxology licensing their software architecture to popular CAD tool SolidWorks). MODO also started to build momentum in 3D for print and product design. Super-fast modeling tools coupled with the high quality rendering engine and relatively low cost of ownership made MODO the obvious choice for this kind of work.

MODO has been popular with product designers and those producing 3D for print work for years. Click on any image to see a high res version.

Fast-forward to 2013 and this is still generally where you will find MODO being used. It's a popular choice for studios specializing in architectural design, product design, and CG for print, but it seems to fly under the radar when it comes to visual effects and animation. Those early adopters of MODO in our industry use it as a specialized modeling tool, but little else. Few studios are producing character animation or VFX work with MODO, and it struggles to be taken seriously as an end-to-end 3D application like Maya, Softimage, or even LightWave. However, that could all be about to change...

Late last year Luxology announced that it would be merging with The Foundry, a major player in the world of visual effects (for those not in the know, The Foundry produces Nuke, the industry standard compositing tool for VFX). For The Foundry this was an opportunity to add an all-round 3D application to their range, and for Luxology it was a chance to grow their animation and visual effects customer base. What's really exciting is how well the two companies fit together. Something about this partnership just feels right. When you flick between MODO and Nuke it feels like the two products were developed with the same ethos.

And this brings us nicely to MODO 701, which was released in April. This is the first release since Luxology merged with The Foundry, and it boasts a number of features and improvements that are bound to spark the interest of visual effects artists and animators. But the big question is: can it deliver? Have The Foundry done enough with this release to make MODO a real contender to the likes of Maya, Softimage or LightWave?

The first thing to understand is that the UI and workflow in MODO is somewhat different to other 3D applications. A long-time Maya user dipping their toe into MODO for the first time is likely to find it a struggle. But what should be immediately apparent is how grown up MODO feels. It gives the impression of a powerful, professional product that has been carefully crafted for serious artists. And in a lot of ways, that’s exactly what it is. But to be truly productive in MODO it is necessary to get into the “MODO mindset.” Trying to use it as if it were Maya will only lead to frustration.

The MODO UI and workflow is slightly different to that of other 3D apps, but feels distinctly grown up.

MODO's strength has always been subdivision modeling, and for the vast majority of animation and VFX studios who are using the product today, this is primarily where it sits in their pipeline. The modeling workflow is both quick and powerful. MODO achieves this by keeping the range of tools fairly simple, but allowing users to combine them to give even more flexibility. For artists who have settled comfortably into MODO's workflow, creating even complex models can be an effortless process. It’s well established that MODO is probably the best modeling tool on the market, and has been since its first release.

But users have been far slower to turn to MODO for rigging and animation, despite these features having been present in the software for some time. However, it’s only with the release of 701 that these tools have become more “integrated” and feel more mature. Like many aspects of MODO the rigging process isn't quite the same as in other 3D applications. Creating a basic skeleton is simple enough, but working with vertex weights to get a mesh to deform correctly can be a little intimidating. It’s worth persevering with, however. Former Pixar character and articulation modeler Brian Tindall has gone on the record as saying that MODO's rigging and deformation tools are the closest thing commercially available to Pixar's own in-house software. That's a reassuring fact for those wondering whether MODO has what it takes to be a serious character animation tool.

For the less technically astute, an Automatic Character Setup (ACS) kit is available. This greatly simplifies the process of rigging a biped character in MODO by providing a pre-built rig which can be dropped onto a mesh and then tweaked to fit its proportions. Unfortunately the ACS kit does not support facial rigs (yet?), but it is still a fantastic tool for those starting out who want to learn character animation without getting too deep into the rigging process.

And when it comes to animation, 701‘s new stripped back animation interface allows artists to focus only on the things that are important to the task in hand. The newly designed graph editor and the properties window are easily within reach. While there's nothing revolutionary here, MODO feels like it has a complete animation toolset when compared to other 3D software. Certainly, there are a few gaps in functionality when compared with the bigger applications, but this by no means leaves MODO inept. There's no reason why an artist can't produce animation in MODO that is on par with any other product.

The animate tab strips out most of the interface so that artists can focus on their work, and not the tool.

When it comes to rendering, MODO has always been strong. But with the release of 701 it is now twice as fast, and also boasts quality improvements. The render preview tab was introduced in version 401 and still to this day is an extremely popular feature with long-time MODO users. It allows for realtime render feedback whilst using the shading tree, which is a huge timesaver. But when it comes to rendering out a scene, does MODO hold up when compared to the likes of Mental Ray or Renderman? In terms of quality - absolutely. However it's not all plain sailing. The network rendering and render management tools in MODO can be buggy. While this may not be an issue for those rendering still images, it will be a pretty big problem for studios producing animation or VFX work. This is definitely something The Foundry will need to address if MODO is to be become a more prominent part of the animation pipeline.

The render preview is a popular feature of MODO and allows close to realtime feedback when building shader trees.

But the real hero of 701 is the new particle system. This was an essential addition if MODO is ever to become a serious end-to-end 3D application for animators and visual effects artists. It is perhaps a happy coincidence that this feature landed in the version released after Luxology merged with The Foundry, although it was certainly on the cards long before that. Given that this is MODO's first generation set of particle tools, the functionality here is particularly impressive. But what's missing are quick and easy ways to get up and running with bread and butter VFX particle work - smoke, fire, explosions, fluid simulations. Much of this is possible in MODO but it's nowhere near as straightforward as in Maya, for example, where we have a number of presets to create these effects quickly. Dynamics were introduced in 601 but have been more tightly integrated in the latest version, and feature improved performance. There’s certainly scope to produce top quality VFX work in MODO, the problem is that because the tools are quite new, we aren’t really seeing it yet.

MODO's particle and dynamics toolsets are powerful but don't live up to the functionality offered in in other apps quite yet.

It's clear with 701 that The Foundry are positioning MODO as a more rounded 3D application, clearly with a goal to drawing in animators and VFX artists. And perhaps one of the more potent signs that The Foundry are serious about this is the fact that at SIGGRAPH this year the the Linux version of MODO was released. With more and more animation and visual effects houses switching to the Linux platform, this definitely puts MODO on the map for those studios.

But one of the biggest barriers to really making that breakthrough into animation and visual effects is that, right now at least, there just aren't many studios who are using MODO for this kind of work. As a result there aren’t many skilled animators or VFX artists who are familiar with the product. This is perfectly understandable considering MODO hasn't been around for quite as long as its competition. However, it is something of a paradox. People aren’t producing animation and VFX in MODO, because people aren’t producing animation and VFX in MODO. There exceptions to this and MODO is definitely starting to build some momentum. For example, Matt Burniston’s short “The Mega Plush” (which is almost complete) has been produced entirely in MODO and looks particularly impressive. It’s clear that MODO is ready and waiting for talented animators and VFX artists to start unlocking its potential.

The upcoming short The Mega Plush (www.themegaplush.com) is a testament to the fact that high quality character animation is possible with MODO. Image courtesy and copyright Matt Burniston.

And all this potential doesn’t have to come at a price. MODO represents fantastic value at just under $1,500 for a single user license. The only other major 3D application sitting at this price point is, wait for it, LightWave. And while on paper LightWave may be the more “feature rich” application, it just isn't as much fun to use as MODO (and arguably it’s nowhere near as productive). And that really is the point. When Peebler and his colleagues left NewTek more than a decade ago their aim was to create a new breed of 3D application. MODO may be different, but it’s different by design. Peebler and his team dared to take a risk based on their conviction that there must be a better way to do things, and they should be applauded for that. Thankfully their risk looks to be paying off. With the release of 701 MODO is now a highly competent and well-rounded 3D application. But perhaps their biggest achievement was in creating something that is so easy to fall in love with. Unlike Maya which sometimes feels like a necessary evil, it’s difficult not to find yourself rooting for MODO. This does however make it all the more disappointing when it falls down.

But can it start to make significant gains into animation and VFX pipelines? It’s highly probable. With the experience of The Foundry in this industry, and the passion of Brad Peebler and his team, the likelihood is that it’s only a matter of time before we see studios using MODO to produce world class animation and visual effects. One thing is clear: MODO is certainly up to the challenge.

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Paul Younghusband previously served as editor of Visual Magic Magazine and has contributed to publications such as Animation World Magazine and VFX PRO.

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