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Modo 501 Review: The Creative Terrain

A 3D illustrator and concept designer explores how Luxology's flagship animation software has raised its game to stay competitive.

Warner McGee's "SHEro" is a rework of a former 3D

portrait and is a combination of modo and Photoshop.
Images courtesy of Luxology.

How do you improve, inspire or innovate upon a tested and proven product? If you're Luxology, you continually ask the question, "Can we do better?" With the release of modo 501, Luxology has answered that question again with a resounding, "You betcha!" It seems like everything has been touched and tweaked, some things more than others. From the improved and expanded online help materials, 64-bit Mac version, to the greased lighting Preview and Rendering abilities, Luxology takes a huge leap forward with the release of modo 501.

Modeling: Of course, modeling is where modo had its humble beginning. It quickly secured its foothold in the 3D industry as the Sub-D modeler of choice by major studios such as Pixar, ILM, Apple, SolidWorks and others because of its ease of use and implementation of tools and modeling processes. Now they are on version 5 and we are still witnessing innovations.

Pixar Subdivsion Surfaces:

The introduction of Pixar Subdivision Surfaces -- or "PSubs" -- is the biggest leap forward in innovation. PSubs offer greater control over creasing and edge control of subdivision surfaces without adding unnecessary geometry, thereby creating much lighter and more efficient models than in 401. When used in conjunction with edge weighting, PSubs expand the possibilities of complex modeling in a cleaner and more efficient way. Texture distortion, sometimes associated with regular Sub-D geometry, is greatly reduced or eliminated with the use of PSubs. PSubs are, of course, optional should you prefer using the regular Sub-D's. Finally, in terms of compatibility, PSubs are compatible with other systems and pipelines. As an example, using FBX 2010.2 the user can export those nice semi-sharp creases from modo to Autodesk Maya seamlessly.

Snapping: Snapping has gotten some modo love in 501, and graduated to its own "global state" button and menu allowing the user greater accessibility and control. Precise modeling is a celebrated feature of modo, so the snapping enhancements further compliment this.

Yazan Malkosh's Shader Tree & Schematic Rig using one linked controller constant material to control the scale of other materials.

Tool Stacks: New to 501, Tool Stacks is a refreshing concept driven entirely by user feedback. One of the intuitive features of modo's modeling experience is that when working with the modeling tools, the user can choose from a list of various Action Centers and Axis to more accurately work with the mesh. The idea behind Tool Stacks is that the user can now define the default state of any of the modeling tools (including brushes). It is a subtle, but elegant addition.

UVs: UV mapping is one of those necessary, but sometimes tedious, processes found in a lot of 3D work. UVing in modo, however, makes the processes faster and more easily understood. With 501, modo introduces a helpful new feature called Show Distortion. This visual aid is an interactive color map showing the user where the texture distortions of a model will occur. The colors update as the user adjusts the size and shape of the polygons in UV space. This is especially helpful with organic models such as a face where there are different sections requiring different levels of detail. modo's sculpting tools can also now be utilized directly on the UV map to smooth out, move and adjust the map as needed.

Preserve Curvature and Add Loop: Like a lot of users, one of my favorite features in modo is its ease of loop slicing and sliding. 501 makes it even better by introducing the Add Loop and Preserve Curvature tools. When using Add Loop you get the visual feedback of pre-highlighting of the intended loop before you add the loop. Preserve Curvature allows you to add or slide a loop and maintain the curvature of your model. Awesome!

Retopology is good with 501, but not the best. It now supports edge extend with a background constraint. Products such as Topogun and 3D Coat have gained some attention from the 3D community because of their ease of use and innovation with retopology. I'm waiting -- and really hoping for -- an improvement here from Luxology.

"Ben" is a technical test rendered in modo 501 by Greg


Preview/Rendering: Put your tray tables up and hold onto your pixels folks! 501 has some amazingly fast and improved rendering features in store for you; the most notable being faster render times with improved quality. Most users will experience a whopping 30- to 40 % increase with render times. In some cases even more. Noise associated with Area lights, Motion blur and DOF have been significantly reduced or controlled. Ray tracing or RayGL viewports (from any view projection) is new and comes in handy by allowing the user to keep working within the viewport without having to jump over the Preview. The new Render Region tool allows for excellent "in viewport" preview renders within user defined sections. The Preview viewport has gotten a huge bump in speed as well, allowing for a better control over interactively setting up the render. The bump mapping system has been rewritten to perform more like displacements, allowing for faster and more accurate renders. Preview has a slick new feature called Update Under Mouse that allows the user to direct Preview to work on a certain region (under mouse) first by "scrubbing" within a desired section. A new Color Picker is introduced in 501, which allows the user to define colors and save out those presets. This is a welcome addition, especially for those that paint directly in modo.

Animation/Rigging: modo has introduced its new visual animation rigging system (nodal). This is a big deal. To best describe this huge leap forward, it's a good idea to look back and contrast 401 with 501. The raw power of Assemblies and rigging with channel linking, IK, Dynamic Parenting, etc. were introduced and present in 401, but was a bit challenging to work with because of its lack of a front end or UI components that a Node-based rigging system offers. Also, there was an ocean of missing documentation, instructions and tutorials on how to actually use the system to extract its power, making it extremely challenging, or in some cases, useless to those new to rigging in general. Furthermore, unless you had training from another software package, you really had to do your homework to make any real use out of it.

modo 501 has changed all that, and much of the pain associated with working with a blind system has simply gone away.

"Henning" is a Luxology competition winner by Brown

created in modo.

Rigging in 501 is a much more enjoyable experience and is easier to learn and implement because you can actually see the nodes and associated links. It's very visual. Obviously, rigging is quite technical, but there's no need to make it boring and tedious, right? modo not only recognizes that visual artists are the ones using these tools, it celebrates this fact, and because artists are visually oriented we naturally produce/perform better when the tools don't get in our way. We think less about the tools and more about creating with them. This new nodal approach is a welcome addition, and, as with its other tools, it's flexible enough to be used in many creative and innovative ways as it grows toward an advanced character rigging system.

At the time of this writing, modo 501 has only been in the hands of its users a few short weeks. One particularly creative and innovative use of the new nodal system has been implemented by a veteran modo user and Shader tree wizard Yazan Malkosh of 9b Studios ( If you're familiar with modo at all and its outstanding library of material presets and Assemblies, you've no doubt seen Yazan's work. Being one to push the edge of innovation, Yazan has taken the flexibility of modo's rigging system in a very creative direction by creating an assembly that controls and drives the complex material stack in the Shader Tree. The entire assembly is controlled by a single Constant layer. Simple and elegant! To describe this process falls outside of the scope of this review, but deserves to be examined fully. For a comprehensive look and walkthrough of Yazan's implementation of this process, please see these videos (

"Dino Drink" by McGee is a promotional image created in

modo and Photoshop.

Multi-Res sculpting: The integrated sculpting tools have always been a part of modo, but now with the support of multi-res sculpting, it's a whole new experience. If you're familiar with other dedicated sculpting apps you know the concept of multi-res. You can dial up or down the subdivision levels revealing more or less detail as it relates to its respective subdivision level. This is a huge difference from image based sculpting and totally easy to use. Literally, with a single click of a single box you have a multi-resolution surface to sculpt on. This ability to sculpt directly on your mesh with an enormous amount of detail is a lot of fun, but to make the experience even richer, 501 is packed with new sculpting brushes (alphas) found in other software packages and runs the gamut from image brushes like skin pores, to hardware rivots and traditional sculpting tools, etc.

Noted modo user and sculptor Greg Brown comments that the 501 brushes and settings are remarkably well done and implemented and that quick masking is on his wish list for future releases. Greg fancies modo's sculpting tools so much that he's taken it on himself to create a custom UI complete with custom viewport lighting more typically associated with dedicated sculpting apps. In addition, he has created custom tools, brushes and new icons.

As modo continues to innovate and grow, so does its creative community. The modo developers actively listen to users and continually respond with updates and new releases, as seen in 501. As artists armed with new technologies seek out new ways to express themselves, their appetite for powerful tools grows. However, and more important, beyond the need for these powerful tools is the need for an effective way to use them without sacrificing power or flexibility. modo 501 continues to meet those needs and adapt itself to the artists' every changing creative terrain.

Warner McGee ( is a freelance illustrator specializing in 3D artwork and with an extensive traditional art (2D) background. In addition to being an accomplished children's book illustrator with more than 60 titles, he is also a concept designer and digital sculptor for the toy industry working regularly with clients such as Hasbro, Mattel, Nickelodeon and others.