NewTek's LightWave 11
CreativeCOW presents NewTek's LightWave 11 -- Lightwave Feature All rights reserved.

On 11/11/11 - a date that many people around the world regarded as a fortuitous day for beginning new ventures - NewTek unveiled version 11 of LightWave, its professional 3D modeling, animation and rendering software. "We started conversations on debuting Version 11 on this date over a year and a half ago," says NewTek Vice President and Head of 3D Development Rob Powers. Was the date lucky for NewTek? "So far the response has been overwhelming," he says. "It's been hard to keep up with the requests. It's been better than we could have imagined."

Rob Powers demonstrating LightWave 11's new capabilities

LightWave 11 is designed to be a complete out-of-the-box, all-in-one pipeline for modeling, rigging, effects, dynamics, animation and final rendering. It offers support for Autodesk Geometry Cache and FBX, including pixel-perfect camera matching with Autodesk Maya cameras; also supported are the Unity game engine and Pixologic GoZ ZBrush.

Recent productions to rely on NewTek LightWave include feature films TinTin and Avatar, and TV shows Terra Nova, V, Fringe, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and The Fairly Odd Parents.

According to Powers, the new features in LightWave 11 were developed in part by working closely with studios including Pixomondo, Nickelodeon and Stargate Studios. "We also have a wonderful beta group around the world that has been providing intense feedback for several months," says Powers, who was virtual art director on Avatar and the upcoming TinTin. "Workflows are important to me. Having experience working on productions and on pipelines where all kinds of crazy challenges arise and getting to solve them in creative ways is very important to what I'm doing at NewTek."

To create version 11, LightWave developers from around the world converged in the U.S., sometimes at the company's San Antonio, TX-based headquarters and sometimes in Burbank where Powers is based. "We discussed the architecture and the implications of implementing a process or changing it," he says. "It was an exciting process."

At the NewTek LightWave 11 debut gala, pioneer visual effects expert Ron Thornton - who has used LightWave since he was visual effects designer for the 1990s TV show Babylon 5 - spoke about the significance of the new version. "I've used LightWave for pretty much every single project I've been involved in since Babylon 5," he says. I started using it in 1991 as a beta tester when it was bundled with the first Video Toaster."

Of the new features offered in Version 11, Thornton points out the importance of instancing. "It's impossible to get enough memory without instancing," he says. "In an organic scene like a jungle, there are billions of polygons. With instancing, I can make a tree and then make a forest out of that one tree, and it doesn't take as much memory as loading up a thousand trees."

Instancing: Duplicate a vast number of objects in a scene with very little memory overhead. Please click on image above for larger view.

Instancing: Create huge polygon groups with great detail while retaining reasonable rendering times. Please click on image above for larger view

Instancing: Scale, position, rotate, and surface randomly cloned objects for realistic detail. Please click on image above for larger view

Bullet Dynamics is another important feature in LightWave 11, says Thornton. "We've been waiting for this," he says. "LightWave has had some dynamics but Bullet Dynamics ups the ante. You're getting the same level of tools as some of the packages that are renown for their dynamics work, such as Houdini and Maya."

Powers adds his perspective on the addition of instancing and Bullet Dynamics to LightWave. "Our Bullet Dynamics engine delivers physics-based animation," he says. "With Fracture, a new Modeler tool designed to complement Bullet Dynamics in Layout, the user can create explosions, blow things up and place objects in a natural-looking random pattern. And instancing takes it all to a high level of detail and quality."

"Also unique is the way our instancing system shows itself in OpenGL," he adds. "The common thread is that all these features give interactive abilities to the artist so they don't have to delay their creative decisions. The more tools they have up front, the more options they can play with, and the more they can experiment with creatively. That's the overall goal of our direction."

In response to user requests, NewTek also created a way to work better with Pixologic's GoZ ZBrush workflow. "It's functional in a unique way," says Powers. "The user is able to sculpture morph targets with the push of a button. When you've sent the objects back to LightWave, also with the push of a button, it automatically sets up the nodes for rendering, so you don't have to figure it out. I'm a ZBrush user and was on their beta team and love that workflow. Now, with LightWave 11, you push the button and you're automatically in ZBrush. You no longer have to set up things manually."

Import and export model and texture data to Pixologic ZBrush software with GoZ™ technology. Please click on image above for larger view

Thornton - who now consults with numerous SyFy cable network productions - notes that, in the early days, the Amiga-based NewTek LightWave was a much more accessible tool than other 3D software packages that not only were more expensive but also ran on much more pricey SGI platforms. For those same reasons of accessibility and cost effectiveness, NewTek LightWave 11 is still a tool of choice by many productions at SyFy.

"They like it because it's a one-stop shop," he says. "These cable shows are so controlled in the amount of money they can spend, they have to do the effects cheaply. A bigger visual effects house might be using Maya and Renderman, but Renderman is very expensive. And for every guy lighting, you need two guys writing shaders to get any level of speed. You can't really do a Maya-Renderman pipeline unless you have a big VFX facility. LightWave 11 allows these productions to do everything, from modeling to rendering."

Flocking: Animate realistic motion of grouped objects such as such as birds, fish, insects, animals, aircraft, spaceships, and more, using a new motion modifier. Please click on image above for larger view

Powers agrees that NewTek LightWave 11 opens up the possibility of a new kind of pipeline. "There's been a story that every visual effects facility needs to replicate the same studio pipeline as an ILM or WETA, which are extremely complex, based on Maya and an external renderer which requires Technical Directors and shader writers," he says. "But most companies are four people or less and don't have the resources to do all of that."

FiberFX. Please click on image above for larger view

"LightWave has a proven track record where TV productions have set up pipelines using nothing but LightWave," he adds. "If you look at the trajectory that everyone is moving in - with increasingly difficult schedules and budgets - it's into the landscape that LightWave has been in for 20 years. The Star Trek series, Terra Nova...if you're doing that type of work and not considering LightWave it is, in my opinion, a mistake."

Powers has a real point. As visual effects become ubiquitous, it's clear that the limited the limited budgets of the TV shows and indie films using them require similarly budgeted visual effects. There simply aren't enough blockbuster VFX movies to support too many large visual effects houses, and several mid-sized visual effects facilities have closed their doors in recent years. Staying alive in tough times requires talent, ingenuity and cost cutting. NewTek Lightwave 11 might not be the solution for every smaller visual effects facility but, as Powers suggests, for any facility looking to offer more for less, a package that offers modeling-to-rendering in a single program is worth a serious look.