Blender Revisited

Blender’s built-in rendering engine is getting pretty decent. Here’s a quick test render of frosted glass.

Blender 2.5 is still under development. The main thrust of Blender 2.5 is user interface customization. If you’ve read my previous rants posts on the topic you’ll know that I consider Blender’s user interface to be, well, bad. Blender’s UI is customizable, but not to the extent that you can “fix” it. E.g. it has a 3D cursor (its equivalent of the text insertion “caret” you use in word-processors) which determines where new objects appear and which is repositioned by clicking with the left mouse button. See, 3D is just like text editing!

Except that Blender doesn’t take the analogy far enough (you can’t select stuff by left-click dragging, the insertion point doesn’t position itself in the spot “left” by something you’ve just deleted, the view doesn’t scroll to frame the cursor, and so on). Most 3D programs don’t have a “3D cursor” because the concept is, essentially, idiotic (until we have true 3d interfaces so that we can actually see and control cursor placement). Given that Blender does, it would be nice if the idea worked properly.

Anyway, you can customize Blender to switch the left and right mouse button behaviors (so that left-clicking selects and right-clicking sets the cursor) but this has the bad side effect of borking the camera controls (which use the middle and right mouse buttons) and wasting a perfectly good mouse button for a perfectly useless operation.

This test render shows off Blender’s volumetric lighting (it’s not that great, and only supports spotlights) and its sub-surface scattering (which is pretty wonderful).

Blender 2.5 plans to address some or all of this by allowing true, low level UI customization. Hopefully, when it shows up there will Maya, 3D Studio Max, or whatever “themes” that make it easier for those not up to speed with The Blender Way to get things done.

Meanwhile, Blender 2.46 RC1 managed to fix one of my gripes with earlier versions. When you create a new object it is, by default, aligned to the global coordinate system rather than the current view (which, as I pointed out, is almost never what you want). This problem has been around so long that many tutorials include steps for removing the random transform applied to each newly created object as appropriate. This is a pretty huge win for the Blender UI. Another 10-20 improvements of this magnitude and the default Blender UI might not suck so bad.

Modo 301

Luxology are charging $25 for a 30 day trial of their flagship product Modo along with video tutorials. (This has apparently led to howls of annoyance, and a pledge to provide a free trial sometime soon, in a long, rambling, and quite annoying “modcast”.) Apparently one of modo’s too cool for school features is that the president of the company sends out periodic podcasts that are audio only and — as far as I can tell — unscripted and unedited rambles.

I’ve been looking at replacing Silo 2 as my chief modeling tool in part because the sculpting tools remain quite flaky (and the Silo development team has been pretty uncommunicative as to when this might get fixed) and in part because I’d like to use a program that integrates sculpting and texturing.

Last time I checked, the 800lb gorilla in this market was a program called zBrush from Pixologic. If you visit cgtalk you’ll find that many of the most jaw-dropping pieces of modeling have been done with zBrush. However, I tried their free trial a year or two back and found that it had a user interface that resembles something Kai Krause might have knocked together on a lazy Sunday afternoon, only uglier and less consistent.

Anyway, zBrush has had at least one major revision since then and (from screenshots) the UI looks much improved, but it’s also not yet out for Mac OS X (but if you buy zBrush 2 for Mac they’ll give you a free zBrush 3 license to tide you over until the Mac version arrives). I found this a little off-putting and decided to look around.

Modo, which I had also played with a year or two ago, has had a major release, and now claims to offer sculpting tools in addition to its well-regarded painting tools. I remember liking modo, especially its Maclike user interface conventions, but not so much that I didn’t baulk at its fairly hefty price tag (currently $895). The latest version offers an apparently zBrush-like feature-set (with far better modeling capabilities) along with basic animation functionality. The only catch — they’re charging for their trial version.

Well, I paid $25 and downloaded everything, including their eight training videos. Let me tell you that the $25 is only well-spent insofar as it may have saved my $895. First of all, the training videos are tedious to watch. E.g. if you don’t know what a UV point is, the video discussing UV-mapping will explain it to you. But if you do know what a UV point is, the video discussing UV-mapping will explain it to you. Similarly, when actually explaining how to UV map an object, the presenter carefully explains how not to do it in two different ways before doing it the correct way. The video skips over the fine points of doing it correctly, but covers the two incorrect ways at roughly the same level of detail. Good grief.

The videos are rather poorly put together in other respects. The modeling tutorial doesn’t start out by showing you a picture of what the presenter is trying to model. This means that, at least for me, I’m wondering WTF is he doing rather than understanding how he’s doing it.

Finally, the presenter constantly uses annoying and unexplained series of shortcuts to do things that probably don’t need to be done (and shouldn’t need to be done). He explains that SPACE deselects the current tool but does not explain that ESCAPE clears the current pipeline. He also uses terminology (e.g. “form”) long before he defines it.

I would have hoped that the $25 would at least represent “good value” in terms of Modo training, but it doesn’t.

Luxology originated when all the key technical people at Lightwave rebelled against management and went off to do their own thing. Since then, Lightwave seems to have done rather well for itself, although its price has dropped precipitously (from around $2000 to $700) which may be a bad sign. One of Luxology’s key principles is producing great user interfaces, but it seems to me that between 2xx and 3xx Modo has gotten quite amazingly convoluted while still lacking a tiny fraction of the capabilities of Lightwave. E.g. the quite frequent process of adding a new texture map to a model seems to involve doing a whole bunch of things in completely different places manually. These are: selecting the mesh layer (top left), creating the image (button somewhere in a tool panel tab under utilities), assigning it to the correct UV map (bottom right somewhere), and um … I don’t remember. It seems to me that if you have a mesh selected and you create a texture layer, a whole bunch of obvious things should happen by default.

In the video the presenter spends a lot of time saying “then press escape and space” after doing almost anything. This screams “fix the UI, guys” to me. Oh well.

The two main reasons I was put off by modo are:

1) There’s no way of simultaneously painting and sculpting. This seems like a really obvious feature to me, especially since it’s something that zBrush does brilliantly. Why can’t I paint the texture AND color of a scar onto a face in one pass?

2) its pipeline concept is really great for mucking around, but there doesn’t seem to be an option to store the operations as a modifier chain and revisit them later.

In the end, charging $25 for trial software and justifying it by including rather badly put together training videos is not the best way to sell me software — first impressions last, as someone wise once said, but I’ve got 29 days to go, so I may learn to love it.

However, Lightwave doesn’t seem harder to use and at $500 (sidegrade) seems mighty tempting. And lightwave + zbrush costs about that same as Modo.