Cinema 4D GO, v 5.3

The November MacAddict had a limited version of Cinema 4D, by Maxon Computer, a product that has gotten some rave reviews by people on several mailing lists I'm on.
There was an offer to upgrade to C4D GO, their entry-level product, for $50, a steep discount from the $195 list price.

They have two higher levels of the program, SE and XL at $695 and $1495 respectively. C4D GO differs from the higher end products by having a limited rendering size (max is PAL format 768 x 596 whereas SE and XL support up to 16,000 x 16,000), limited support for IK and no particle systems, or NURBS modelling. Upgrading to SE costs $495 and XL is $1295, or basically, the cost difference between the products.

I have been using Strata products (first Vision 3D and then Studio Pro) for some time now, so my experiences are colored by this. I'm also not doing animation, but stills, so a lot of both programs is untouched in this review.

C4D opens up into a fairly typical 4-view wireframe, with palettes for modelling and manipulation tools. The palettes are quite customizable, and thankfully, the porogram doesn't crownd the screen with every concievable window at the beginning.

There are a number of basic objects, and many more complex shapes can be created using splines.

Here is where I hit my first snag in the documentation. To create anything but one of a limited number of regular spline shapes, one must insert an empty splin e into the scene, then select the point manipulation tool, and then ctrl-click in the scene to add points to the spline.

While this is an uneccesarily modal way of working from my point of view, it's not bad, _except_ that the manual completely leaves out the 'select the point manipulation tool' step! The fact that you need to use this tool is buried some 100 pages further on in the manual. There is a mailing list set up for C4D users via a subsidiary site, and to Maxon's credit, about a day after I posted the question (in great frustration!) the manual author wrote me back, explaining the proper procedure, and apologizing for leaving it out in the manual. (Strata Tech support take note!)

Notably missing from Cinema 4D GO is any sort of metaball facility, and the ability to suspend a rendering, something I think Strata alone offers, which can be a great lifesaver. You can model all day long, suspending renderings as needed, then fire the suspended renderings to crank out at night.

Very nice, indeed!

Texturing is a mixed bag with C4d (they call them Materials). There are a host of 2d and 3d shaders that come with the program, and more are possible with the plug-in language C.O.F.F.E.E., but there are some glaring omissions, too.

There are a number of properties for each texture: color, luminosity, transparency, reflections, environment (aka reflection mapping), fog, bump, genlocking (aka stencil mapping), highlight, highlight color (aka specularity and specular color), glow, and displacement. Strata Studio pro has all of these save displacement (which is available as an additional plug-in), and offers separation of the color into diffuse and ambient fractions, plus allowing specular mapping and caustics. (Amber, aka Cinema4D XL V6, offers these mapping types, but it's not been released yet)

What C4D calls Luminosity is Strata's glow property, ie: making an object look like it is luminescent. C4d's 'Glow' property is Strata's 'Aura', which is applied as an effect, creating a glowing aura around a shape.

What is nice, is that in any Material property that offers some sort of mapping to an external file, you can use one of C4d's many 2-d shaders, many of which are animated. This is a fairly serious lack in Strata, forcing an almost symbiotic relationship with Photoshop. Often it would be nice to just specify a bit of fractal noise in a bump map, without having to go drag in the file from soemwhere else or make it up.

Noise, waves, fire, and clouds are all available, as are more esoteric ones such as galaxies, cyclones, and Neptune, Saturn and Saturn Rings which make the equivalent planetary maps. There are a number of volumetric shaders, such as wood, marble, and terrain, which makes bryce-like terrain gradations for applications to terrain objects, which are fractal terrains (again, bryce-like, but with fewer editing options).

Strata offers many of these as effects, but there are a lot of places where I'd love to be able to specify procedural shaders in maps. Strata's Fog effect is much more versatile however (again, this has been fixed in Amber), and C4D's flames effects are pretty artificial looking, though I've yet to play much with them. C4D GO lacks the particle effects that Cinema 4D XL offers, but I've been told they're more versatile and better behaved than Stratas.

Studio Pro has the edge in object manipulation, however, barring a few effects. When you select an object in Strata, a number of handles appear on the bounding box surrounding it. Depending on which handle you select, you can move, rotate or scale the object in only that direction; grabbing the object in the middle, lets you move, scale, rotate in all three dimensons.

In C4d this is managed by clicking on buttons for the X, Y, and Z axes, toggling which is and isn't active. These toggles are remembered between uses of the tools, meaning I was running the mouse over to the palette a lot. (there are extensive keyboard shortcuts; these are one of the selections.) Still on the whole I think Strata's method is much more versatile.

Lights are manipulated in pretty similar fashions in both programs, including gel effects (called 'light maps' in C4d) and volumetric and other effects such as lens flares. Here C4D has and edge; these effects are easier to apply and control than in Strata.

Where Strata absolutely leaves C4d in the dust is it's object system of shapes. I can, for instance, make a chair to go with my table, and in Strata, place 6 instances around the table. In C4d I'd place the original and 5 duplicates.

Now I decide that I want to change the upholstery and add arms to the chairs. In Strata, this is painfully simple. I open the shape window, make my changes, and voila' all the instances are changed. As far as I can tell, there are no easy ways of doing this in C4d, at least not as noted in the manual or my experience. I'd have to either go change each of the chairs, or change one, delete the remaining 5 and duplicate them again.

Even if you don't consiously use Strata's shapes, its very apparent how much you do use them when they're not available!

Strata is not without it's problems. First, and foremost (and you'll hear people pissing and moaning about this no end in the forums and mailing list) Strata is somewhat buggy, there are some well documented ways to crash SSP every time, and there are a couple of bugs that are particularly nasty: one (rare, thankfully) eats your file when it saves it.

Studio Pro also does not use Apple's standard OpenGL drivers (as they weren't available when 2.5.3 was released) locking most people out of meaningful OGL acceleration with the newer systems. This is going to be fixed in SSP v2.8, which will also use the G4 altivec extensions.

To be fair, however, Studio Pro is quite stable on my system (Mac OS 8.1, 233 mhz 604e, 192 mb ram) and the aforementioned file-eater bug has only gotten me once.

If you're doing a Close-do you want to save-yes, your file is gone gone gone, barring some creative lower level disk recovery. If you save before exiting, and this happens, you are recoverable, thankfully, though. It also crashes, though lots and lots of people say it's a stable as a rock on their system, so I suspect extension conflicts for a lot of this.

Strata's boolean operations, while far better than previous versions, are still painfully slow and prone to scattering loose polys all over the place, or deleting polygons far from the afecctor shape, and too many useful tools (clouds, waves, displacement) are only available as pricey add-ons.

C4D has a built-in programming language, which has lead to a cottage industry of add-ons at either free or shareware prices. For instance, there is a free hair generator that makes stuff that actually looks like hair, rather than the rather weird stuff that Strata's hair generator creates.

Strata has in its advantage the renderer, which, properly set up, outdoes anything on the market, offering far greater control over the final output than C4d. C4D uses a hybrid raytracing/scanline redndering system that is very fast (my test image rendered in just under 4 minutes on my 233 mhz 604e. But Strata offers both Raytracing and Raydiosity (a proprietary radiosity renderer) which as I said before can produce stunning effects.

Strata has in the past committed some serious software sins (their 2.0 version was almost unusable when released, and the current 2.5.3 version, while stabler, is still old, an update is in the works, but the company, now owned by C3D, a 3-d TV outfit (!! ) is not saying what is in the upgrade or when it'll arrive.) but the product is still a solid one.

Note, Strata isn't the only company with a tardy upgrade. Maxon is late with their V6 major upgrade, as is Newtek with Lightwave R6, and users of both programs are howling about it. Maxon was also just purchased by another company, which makes archhitectural software. Like Strata, only time will tell what effect this has on the product.

My greatest criticism of C4D GO is the absurdly small limit on rendering size. The SE and XL versions offer a great deal more functionality for their price that I doubt that Maxon would lose much by loosening up on letting GO render up to, say 1024 x768 or 1200 x 1024. Hey, At least let me make screen backgrounds of my masterpieces! ;-)

Cinema 4D isn't going to replace Strata in my arsenal of tools, but it's going to be close. Were C4D to get a real object orientation like Strata, it would be a far, far closer call.

Instant Space

Instant Space is a cd of premade spaceship parts, textures, planets, backdrops, etc, for creating the stereotypical 3D space scene.

The CD (a hybrid Mac/PC disk) has a fair amount of stuff paked onto it: about 130 models of spaceship parts, asteroids, moons, a planet and suns, plus, as an inexplicable bonus, some trees.

Each part is textured (there are about 150 assorted tif files on the disk, 300 x300 24-bit resolution, all tileable) and the models are of decent quality. There are catalog tiffs of all the parts, textured and plain, but no real catalog, you have to guess that hull01.C4d is the one in the upper left hand part of the hulls01.tif catalog file. There are several sample scenes and ships assembled from the various parts, and three animations showing those ships in action.

It's a nice approach, and dissecting the shapes themselves reveals that many of the more basic bits have been recombined into more complex shapes. For example, the fighter craft I made is composed of just three of the premade parts: the ovoid cockpit area, the wing (engines and exhaust were included) and the brackets holding the cannon.

The CD displays a distinctly pacifistic nature, as there are no parts that immediately remind you of weapons ;-) so my plasma cannon mounted under the wings were a fairly simple extrusion I imported, then textured using the same material as the wing and engines.

Of course, with any such project there are a few glitches. In this case a number of the premade parts have materials that refer to non-existent tif files. The tif's _are_ there, but subtle changes in the file names have broken the connection. Fortunately they were all easy to fix, substitutions like rost1.tif for rost01.tif, and suchlike. (Maxon, btw, is a German company, and much of their materal has bits of german poking through occasionally)

All in all I give the collection a thumbs up, two and a half sunbursts, three dead mice or whatever...above average. The parts are valuable in and of themselves, and as idea-spawning examples, as well. For those of us whose designs seem to fall into a rut quickly (guilty!) tools such as these let you break out into new ruts even quicker!