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Darkside Studios Co-Founder Andrew Bishop looks back over LightWave’s fortunes…

The past two years have seen a remarkable resurgence in LightWave’s fortunes. Darkside Studios co-founder Andy Bishop looks back over the entire 11.x series of releases, and assesses the work NewTek has left to do...

Over 20 years ago, while living in Atlanta, GA, I worked with a fantastic bunch of guys on a piece of music software called Bars and Pipes on the Amiga. It integrated with a third-party product called the Video Toaster, which contained within it a 3D program called LightWave 3D. When I started using it, I realised it was my future. All these years later, I still use LightWave.

So when I was asked to review the latest version of the software, I couldn’t help thinking how remarkable it is that this privately owned, independent 3D application is still here, when nearly all the world’s top 3D packages are owned by one giant, publicly traded company. Certainly, after LightWave 9.6, the program lost its way for a few years, but even at its lowest ebb, it was still a great render solution.

Who still uses LightWave?
Most people know the type of TV programmes LightWave has been used on (most of the Star Treks, Battlestar Galactica, CSI, and so on), but fewer know how heavily it is still used at major US facilities like Stargate Studios, or that it was used on SyFy’s recent hit show, Defiance.

At Darkside Studios, we created nearly all the VFX in the BBC shows Outcasts and Origins of Us in LightWave, and also work on shows such as Horizon, Spooks and Hustle. This year alone, we have used it on several fully animated pilots and numerous Discovery and National Geographic Channel shows, as well as several commercials. We use Softimage alongside LightWave on a lot of jobs as well, and this combination has generally served us well.

A change in development strategy

A few years ago, LightWave underwent a huge change, with Rob Powers, virtual art department supervisor on Avatar, joining NewTek as vice president of 3D development. While the impact of the first release he oversawperhaps wasn’t as great as it should have been, it was a clear indication of the vision he had for the future of the software, particularly through its virtual studio tools.

Since then, LightWave has taken on a whole new lease of life. Recent releases have provided LightWave users with a much better workflow, and a set of tools that start to make the software competitive with the other big 3D packages once more. Unlike many previous upgrades, LightWave 11.0, 11.5 and 11.6 have seen new features integrated seamlessly, along with a major tidy-up of the interface. And, as those version numbers indicate, this level of commitment was not a one-off.

So what are those new features? Let’s run through the most significant ones.

Features added in LightWave 11.0 and 11.5

Instancing (added in LightWave 11.0)
Instancing enables you to duplicate any piece of geometry many times without the huge memory overhead that comes with loading lots of objects. This is a feature that most LightWave users have wanted for years, and for which they previously had to rely on a third-party plugin, HD Instance.

All the usual Radial Array and Rectangular Array options are available, along with Motion Path, Time Offset and Random Seed. The controls can be accessed via the Instancer tab in Layout’s Object Properties panel, or via individual Instance Generators, which gives the system immense power and flexibility. Colours can be assigned to the instances at random or according to rules, and there is a really good weighting tool with the option to animate weights over time.

The new system works extremely well, and we have already used it on several TV shows. On a sequence that required us to create a swarm of a CG bats, on a machine with 12GB of RAM and a 2GB Quadro 4000 graphics card, the most I could manage without instancing was 300, and even then, the scene took 15 minutes to load. Instancing gave me 1,000 bats, and real-time refresh rates.

Flocking (added in 11.0, updated in 11.5)

Flocking is a natural extension of instancing, but can also be used with HyperVoxels and, as is usual, with LightWave features is remarkably easy to use. Every revision created during the beta phase added real improvements, and as comments from beta testers went in, NewTek listened and updated as necessary. I mention this only to illustrate the sea change at the company: a real commitment to making the end-user experience much better and a willingness to listen to users when adding and enhancing features.

A new and very naturalistic path control system was added in 11.5, with full backwards compatibility to the old flight mode system, for those who prefer the flowing, if less controllable, motions it generates. However, this has resulted in the removal of the old presets Swarm, Flock, Herd, School and Fleet. Instead, behaviours like Avoid, Goal and Deflect are assignable to objects, all of which are adjustable, and can be animated over time.

Both flocking and instancing can be viewed in OpenGL and Viewport Preview Rendering (VPR) and are fully influenced by all optical traits such as motion blur and depth of field.

Bullet dynamics (added in 11.0, updated in 11.5):
If ever there was a feel-good feature, it’s Bullet dynamics! For many years, I would hand-animate hard-body dynamics, trying to imagine what effect one object striking another would have. This was fun to do, but very time-consuming. Bullet will create the same result more accurately, and much more quickly.

READ THE FULL ARTICLE AT:  http://www.cgchannel.com/2013/11/review-lightwave-11-0-to-11-6