Reported, written and edited by David Duberman
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by David Duberman
What is it about
Feeble attempts at humor aside, this is a review of finalRender Stage-1, the second release of this advanced rendering software for 3ds max; the first was Stage-0. For the remainder of the review, I'll just call it finalRender. finalRender is much more powerful than the venerable default scanline renderer that ships with max. In some ways it's comparable to mental ray, which, coincidentally enough, will be included free with 3ds max 6, coming this fall to a VAR near you.
So, if you're planning to upgrade, why should you buy finalRender? One reason would be if you use a render farm: The mental ray renderer in max 6 is a single license, while finalRender lets you render on as many networked machines as you like. There are other reasons, which I'll touch upon occasionally, but this is not a comparative review. Certainly, if you're planning to stick with max 5.x for a while, finalRender is a no-brainer. Get it, and your renderings will look 1,000% better.
finalRender provides an abundant set of tools: global illumination, caustics, a special type of displacement, camera effects such as depth of field and motion blur, volume lights and some additional special lighting tools, several dedicated textures, and a texture-baking utility.
The plug-in achieves many of its effects by means of its own renderer, which you use simply by assigning it in 3ds max Render Scene dialog. It has nine (count 'em) rollouts, vs. one for max's default renderer. The first covers global options such as anti-aliasing. finalRender includes two anti-aliasing options: a simple, brute-force sampler with a single control (maximum depth) and a hybrid sampler that analyzes the image and samples only where necessary. The latter is considerably faster, naturally, and often, but not always, produces results of the same quality as the former.
Like mental ray, finalRender renders in buckets rather than in scanlines. The global options rollout lets you set the bucket size and order, as well as whether the messages appear in a separate window during rendering; all of these are also options with mental ray. According to the documentation, when not rendering on a network, you get faster results with larger buckets, and my limited testing bore this out. Additional options include how the render window (frame buffer) clears before rendering, multithreading settings, and the ability to override all scene materials with a global material. There's even an option to allow shadows to follow bump contours, as if the bumps were real geometry.
At heart, finalRender is a ray tracer, and the second rollout gives you control over various related parameters. You can turn on reflection and refraction, set the number of bounces for reflections and atmospheric index of refraction (to simulate, say, an underwater scene), enable blurry reflection/refraction, and more.
But what makes finalRender special is the addition of global illumination, which is a method of simulating real-world lighting, such as the bouncing of light from surface to surface while carrying along the coloring of surfaces it's bouncing from. The GI rollout lets you specify a sky light, along with its intensity, color, quality, and a map to use as the source of the sky illumination. Although it's possible to use the sky light without GI, it's not a good idea; when I tried it, I got a very spotty image. But then, when I tried it with GI, but couldn't see any difference, until I removed the top polygon of the box of which I was rendering the inside. The sky is outside … duh.
While the GI controls themselves are too plentiful to list completely, the most important are the number of bounces, and the final color after the last bounce; this defaults to black, although you can set it to a map if you want. You can also set the amount of color bleeding, the overall contrast and saturation, and even the lighting quality of a high-dynamic-range (HDR) image. But the great thing about GI in finalRender is that, despite the many parameters, it's basically very easy to use; turn it on, and the default setup will suffice for the majority of scenes.
And it's fun to watch it render; the first pass places green dots where sampling occurs (typically around surfaces in close proximity), and the second adds the GI illumination. Also, with the Reuse Solution option, once the bouncing is calculated, subsequent renders are much faster. For example, one scene I tried took 34 seconds to render the first time, but only 11 the second, even after moving the camera. I should mention that finalRender gives you two additional GI engines besides its default: Hyper-GI and Quasi Monte-Carlo. I didn't get a chance to investigate these, but according to the documentation, Hyper-GI produces faster results at a cost in quality, and QMC is designed for outdoor scenes.
Other renderer rollouts cover such areas as distributed rendering, in which you can render a single, large image on a render farm, and caustics, which you can enable separately for reflective surfaces and transparent objects (and, of course, both). I've yet to see truly realistic caustics from any renderer, including mental ray, but finalRender's are relatively fast, and look quite good.
finalRender's displacement method, "micro triangle displacement," is quite different from max's default displacement. Instead of giving you mysterious Edge, Distance, and Angle settings, it simply lets you specify the subdivision level, which is squared to determine the number of triangles into which each face in the original model will be divided. Even at low subdivision levels, it's more accurate than max's method at any subdivision level, but it's also slower. For example, a teapot displaced with a Checker map tiled 3 x 3 took 46 seconds to render with finalRender set to a subdivision level of 3, but only 5 seconds with max's displacement using the High subdivision preset. Also, it requires a much higher Displacement value to get comparable results. Also, I was unable to get smooth edges; for example, using a fairly blurry Checker map (procedural or bitmap) for displacement still produced sharp edges between the checks.
Like mental ray, finalRender offers a high-quality depth-of-field option, which lets you set the distance and lens aperture; the latter option is misnamed "shutter size." But unlike mental ray, you can also set the shape of the aperture--and thus the shape of out-of-focus specular highlights--to any of eight options such as circle and triangle. And if you've ever bemoaned the limitations of the standard motion-blur functionality in max, you'll like the relative wealth of functionality and quality of results with finalRender. The Trails option isn't realistic, but it's great for special effects. Let's hope cebas adds support for motion blur in Particle Flow when it revs finalRender for max 6.
finalRender adds its own Object Properties command to the right-click menu. I won't get into the mostly utilitarian details here, except to mention a nice option that lets you transfer properties between objects.
Included are four special materials and two maps. Among the materials are one called Stage-0, probably for backwards compatibility, plus new ones dedicated for glass and metal, and a general-purpose "advanced" material. The metal and glass materials look quite realistic right off the bat, except that the latter, for some reason, has no specularity. These are both a subset of the advanced material, which includes settings for reflection and refraction--standard and advanced--plus shading, GI and caustics, and sub-surface scattering for volumetric light effects inside objects. So, for example, you can set a material not to bleed color onto its surroundings, or not to receive color from nearby objects. You can also use anisotropic reflection controls to simulate surfaces such as brushed metal, and emulate a prism's ability to separate light into its constituent colors. One of the included maps let you use high-dynamic-range bitmaps, useful for image-based lighting effects, and the other lets you incorporate finalRender's raytracing capabilities into standard 3ds max materials.
Then we have finalRender's lights, formerly part of cebas's LumaObject technology. The object light is very nifty; it lets you turn any object into a light source. Actually, it attaches a virtual spotlight to each face in the object. You have global control over these lights, and can set the color (via the object's material), a multiplier value, the angle of light coverage (narrow/wide beam), and exclude objects from its effects. A special S Distance setting lets you illuminate nearby objects evenly, and a Room Reflection option gives an ambient lighting effect based on the actual illumination. FinalRender's particle light lets each particle in a particle system act as a light source, and there's also a rectangular light that can simulate a fluorescent fixture or a skylight. These all work quite well, but I found a small problem with the object and particle light: Because each is represented as a small X in the viewport, it can be difficult to find and select, unless you use the Select Object dialog. Once you select one, however, its Modify panel rollout gives you easy access to the rest.
Closely associated with lights are shadows, of which finalRender includes the standard complement: shadow maps, raytraced shadows, and area shadows. finalRender's shadow maps improve on the standard ones in that they support transparency. This feature is not automatic, however; you must use a separate function to pre-render the shadows in order for it to work. On the plus side, you can pre-render all the shadows for an entire animation and reuse them for subsequent renderings, say, from other camera angles. The ray-traced shadows are basically the same as max's, with the addition of a few extra parameters such as one that lets you specify shadow-casting by fully transparent objects such as window panes. And the area light lets you choose the shape and make settings that optimize the ray-tracing process.
The finalRender volume lights come in two flavors; a 2D rendering effect and a true 3D atmospheric. Contrary to the manual's description of the former as "real-time," I didn't see a huge speed difference between the two, and the 3D effect does look more realistic, so I recommend sticking with that. Both use the same set of parameters, which exhibit a few differences from those of max's volume light. One of the principal differences is that finalRender's volume lights use a map for noise, rather than restricting you to the standard noise in max's volume light. This is mostly a big plus, although you do give up the "Wind From" option. Also, while the manual says you can use only 3D maps, I was able to get noise with 2D maps, albeit not very controllably. Other differences include the ability to specify graphs for color attenuation and light falloff.
The reference manual is comprehensive and well written; I especially like the feature that lets you jump to a certain section by clicking the corresponding part of a UI screen capture. But I discovered an omission: a number of controls on the rollout for the default anti-aliasing engine aren't shown or mentioned. Admittedly, they're basically the same as those in the standard max renderer's Anti-Aliasing rollout, including the same 12 filters, but the documentation could simply point that out instead of pretending they don't exist. The index is very complete, which is appropriate for such a complex piece of software. The tutorials, however, barely scratch the surface of what the software can do; I would've appreciated a bit more effort here.
As usual with such complex software, the best way to learn is by experience, and also by seeing and examining what others have done with it. In the latter area, finalRender comes with a generous helping of example files that do a good job of showing off its various capabilities. Unfortunately, however, the creators of the files neglected to take advantage max's Summary Info feature for describing what each scene does, so you need to do some sleuthing to find out. Hey, the journey is the reward, right?
Bottom line: This is a well-designed, powerful piece of software that has something to offer just about any user of 3ds max who renders. And if everything I've described isn't enough, finalRender also comes with cebas's excellent finalToon plug-in, which I reviewed in Spectrum last April. You get your money's worth and then some with this software.
Macromedia last week unveiled the next generation of its MX product family for building Web sites and applications, including new versions of Dreamweaver, Flash, and Fireworks, plus new products such as Macromedia Flash MX Professional 2004. The MX 2004 family also includes new building blocks called the MX Elements for Flash and the MX Elements for HTML, along with Halo, which Macromedia touts as a new look and feel for Internet applications.
The MX 2004 family includes new releases of Dreamweaver, Flash and Fireworks, and introduces a new product, Flash MX Professional 2004, which will enable a new segment of developers to create rich Internet applications. Studio MX 2004 includes Dreamweaver MX 2004, Flash MX 2004 (or Flash MX Professional 2004), Fireworks MX 2004, and FreeHand MX. The new products are expected to ship in September.
Dreamweaver MX 2004 adds new and updated support for standards and server technologies such as Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), secure FTP, and ASP.NET.
Flash MX Professional 2004 provides a new development environment for advanced application developers including a forms-based programming metaphor. It also includes Flash Video Exporter, which lets video editing and encoding tools encode and export into the Macromedia Flash Video (FLV) format. Supported applications include Anystream Agility, Apple Final Cut Pro, Avid Xpress/Media Composer, Canopus Procoder, Discreet Cleaner, and Pinnacle Edition. Once created, FLV files can be incorporated into content and applications using Media Components that provide controls for playback, streaming, and interactivity.
Fireworks MX 2004 delivers new design tools and effects for Web graphics, plus expanded integration with other MX products.
Also new are MX Elements and Halo. The MX Elements are a series of interface building blocks and embedded, interactive design patterns and behaviors. They're intended to let users build interfaces by bringing together components, templates, style sheets, and behaviors. The MX Elements, by default, have a distinctive new look and feel called Halo.
Other products in the MX family include ColdFusion MX 6.1, Director MX, Flash Player 7, FreeHand MX, and JRun.
Digimation has begun shipping GroundCrew 1.0 for 3ds max 4.x/5.x (a version will be available for 3ds max 6 when it ships) and Autodesk Viz 4.x. GroundCrew is a procedural texture map that contains 48 different fractal algorithms for creating a variety of ground cover materials. As a map, GroundCrew can be used in any material map slot in 3ds max for ultimate flexibility.
Parameters include preset, size, rising height (for bump and displacement map calculations), and color mixing. Colors are handled through a standard gradient color and are available in four different color-mixing modes.
When used for bump or displacement mapping, GroundCrew automatically switches to heightfield mode so that the bump or displacement is much more evident. Users can also switch to color intensity mode for finer control over the procedural map in bump and displacement mapping methods.
Newly available from Discreet is lustre, its software-based digital grading and color correction system for film-look creation.
Developed in conjunction with Colorfront
lustre processes images of any resolution (2K, 4K and above), and provides primary and secondary color-correction tools. It supports standard film-scan formats (Cineon and DPX), with real-time playback of up to 2k 10-bit RGB data. Other features include: tracking, keying, dust-busting, rotoscoping, and pan & scan tools; logarithmic and linear color manipulation and management; and accurate monitor/DLP projector calibration.
Discreet has published a white paper on Digital Intermediate workflow, which can be downloaded from www.discreet.com
The bundle includes:
Are you a technologist, strategist, CTO or CIO, programmer,
hacker, entrepreneur, researcher, or standards worker itching to put a
particular computing innovation or issue on the map? If so, O'Reilly Emerging
Technology Conference invites you to submit a proposal to lead tutorials and
conference sessions at the upcoming. The third annual event happens at the
Mobility will be one of the primary technological directions for this year's conference: what's happening with data, devices, and communication now that they're freed from the desktop and broadcast models of the past decade? The conference will also explore a number of juicy ideas, such as post-browser interfaces for data and services; social software, from Hiptop Nation to Weblogs; the untethered world of ad hoc networking made possible by wireless technologies like WiFi, Bluetooth, cellular, and Rendezvous; Geolocation, sensors, and RFID. These themes will be organized under six tracks: Interfaces, Social Software, Untethered, Location, Hardware, and Business Models.
Individuals and companies interested in making presentations, giving a tutorial, or participating in panel discussions are invited to submit proposals for session presentations and tutorials. Session presentations are 45 minutes long, and tutorials are three hours long.
The deadline to submit proposals is
Coming toward the end of 2003 is The Journal of Game Development (JOGD), a quarterly that publisher Charles River Media promises will provide a peer-reviewed medium of communication for serious academic research focused solely on game-related issues. It will present original research and theoretical underpinnings of recent findings in related academic disciplines, hardware, software, and technology that affect the way games are conceived, developed, produced, and delivered.
JOGD will cover such game development-related areas as artificial intelligence, mathematics, physics, networking (e.g., massively multiplayer online games), programming, graphics, audio, simulation, polygonal techniques, real-time issues, etc. Other areas of importance and application for these findings include robotics, visualization, and grid computing.
Following is a list of new and forthcoming books of potential interest to Spectrum readers from publisher Charles River Media:
Discreet recently announced one of its largest desktop
software sales to date with long-time partner The Art Institutes, a wholly owned
subsidiary of Education Management Corporation. The Art Institutes will
incorporate more than 4,000 licenses of Discreet's
3ds max and character studio animation software, combustion 3D compositing and
visual effects software, and cleaner encoding and media mastering software. The
software licenses will be distributed among 26 Art Institute locations in the
The latest purchase marks a continuation of the strategic, decade-long relationship between Discreet/Autodesk and The Art Institutes, which last autumn purchased more than 2,000 Discreet licenses. Part of the latest Art Institutes sale is composed of Discreet "Superpacks"-a specially priced product bundle for PCs that includes 3ds max, character studio, combustion and cleaner XL-and more than 1,000 licenses of Autodesk Comprehensive Educational Solutions (ACES) for the study of architectural design.
Coming this month from Electronic Arts is The Sims Double Deluxe, a compilation of The Sims plus expansion packs The Sims Livin' Large and The Sims House Party.
The Sims Livin' Large adds content such as a home chemistry lab, heart shaped bed, and crystal ball, as well as a cast of characters such as the Grim Reaper, Genie, and Tragic Clown. The Sims House Party opens the door for players to a bash, such as a hoedown at a country barn dance, a tropical luau, or an underground rave. It also adds items such as a dance cage and mechanical bull, as well as characters like a cake dancer and caterer.
The Sims Double Deluxe also includes customization tool The Sims Creator.
Midway Games recently released Mortal Kombat: Tournament Edition, the Game Boy Advance sequel to Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance. The game includes a gambling system where players can bet on the outcome of linked battles, mini-games and other secret fighting challenges. In addition, two forms of “kurrency” are available to wager with combatants. With red "koins," players can also unlock or purchase hidden characters, backgrounds and other features in the "krypt." New dynamic battlefield environments such as the Lost Tomb, Wu Shi Academy, Sarna Ruins, Molochs Lair, as well as other backgrounds from the original Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance have also been added.
Other features include:
Coming soon from entertainment software developer and publisher Enlight is Wars and Warriors: Joan of Arc. The game showcases Enlight's new graphics engine. With detailed terrain, it allows real-time control and command of legions of military units, depicting the mayhem and severity of medieval warfare. Through a series of campaign scenarios set during the Hundred Years War, players transform Joan of Arc from a single warrior into a military leader as they develop and master the art of chivalry and tactical warfare. In addition to managing Joan of Arc, players can develop and direct other historical characters from this era that will enhance their success as a military leader.
Sony Computer Entertainment America top executive Kazuo (Kaz) Hirai has been promoted to the position of chief executive officer, as announced today by Ken Kutaragi, president and chief executive officer, Sony Computer Entertainment Inc., to whom Hirai reports. Hirai continues to serve as president of Sony Computer Entertainment America as part of this new appointment.
A 19-year Sony veteran, Hirai played an instrumental role in
evolving the PlayStation business in what is now considered the company's
In addition to his current divisional responsibilities, Hirai continues to serve in his roles as a board member of Sony Computer Entertainment America Inc., and as one of the Sony Computer Entertainment Group Corporate Executive Officers of Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.
Music industry veteran Tim Riley has joined Activision, Inc. as worldwide executive of music. Riley brings to Activision more than 11 years of experience in the music industry and an extensive background in music licensing and supervision.
In his new position, Riley will direct all activities concerning the integration of music into the company's games and seek opportunities to expand Activision's alliances with record labels around the world. Additionally, he will identify, negotiate and secure worldwide music licenses for Activision's products. Supporting Riley in his new role will be Brandon Young, who joins Activision as music supervisor and licensing coordinator.
Prior to joining Activision, Riley was a founding partner of Westies Music, a Venice, CA-based company that provided music supervision for action sports films and video games. Before that, he founded and served as president of Go Big! Entertainment, a music/lifestyle company and independent record label. While at Go Big!, Riley launched the Free Air CD series, as well as CDs from such original artists as Shortie and Innercorse. Go Big! also provided music for award winning action-sports films and events including Tony Hawk's Boom Boom Huck Jam tour, Strapped, Laird and Seth, among others. Earlier, Riley held A&R positions at some of the top record labels including Jive, Giant/Revolution, Warner Bros., and Geffen, as well as Zomba Music Publishing.
Young joins Activision with several years of music supervision and licensing experience. Most recently he worked with MTV placing music for such shows as "Sorority Life & Fraternity Life." Prior to this he worked in commercial advertising for Ten Music where he placed and licensed music for numerous ads ranging from Nissan to Adidas.
Acacia Research Group will hold its third annual conference
for the 3D industry
At Emerging 3D Applications & Opportunities 2004, industry members and Acacia analysts will discuss the most important issues facing the 3D segment in 2004 and beyond, such as: What new entertainment applications are on the horizon, and what opportunities exist in the industrial, manufacturing, military, and government sectors? Attendees will learn about some of the advances in new 3D applications and technology being developed for handhelds, cell phones, and the Web, applications that could invigorate the 3D software industry and expand opportunities for toolmakers, content developers, graphics chip makers, consumer and industrial device makers, operators, and others.
Preliminary roundtable topics are:
To read detailed descriptions of the roundtables or to register, visit http://www.acaciarg.com/products/events/emrg3d2004/index.htm.
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