Pros: Very powerful modeling and animation, price, well organized interface, OpenGL preview in editor
Cons: Startup time, no solids, no NURBS, no parametric design, hardware dongle (USB), support
Lightwave has been one of the most instrumental tools in the advances in computer graphics (CG) for more than a decade. Now that CG takes center stage even in movies, you might feel inspired to give it a try yourself. I remember drooling over this program in my Commodore Amiga days ever since it's reincarnation as a stand-alone product in 1995. At the time CG was a matter of Unix or AmigaOS and not much else. That was 10 years ago and when I recently returned to Lightwave 3D, it was like I never left -- same excitement and overall very similar in user interface too. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as Lightwave for almost 20 years pretty much stood out for its well organized user-friendly interface -- stand-alone or as part of VideoToaster (before 1995). What's different is that I spent the last 11 years with solid modeling in a much more expensive package (Pro/Engineer) with a completely different focus (CAD). However, with the price cut to almost half, Lightwave3D is one tempting package for the CG interested.
There is no denying that Lightwave's portfolio reads impressive in the movie and film industry. Newtek can claim their contribution to such blockbusters as "The Aviator", "The Day after Tomorrow", "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban", "I, Robot", "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow", "Van Helsing"; just to name a few from 2004 alone. Of course, Lightwave3D wasn't the only tool used in those features, but played its part nevertheless.
Though often showcasing industrial designs in the portfolio of CG software like Lightwave3D, the main use is not for the actual design but for concepts and photorealistic visualization of the final design. In between, there is typically a full CAD software deployed (i.e. PTC Wildfire) for engineering drawings and various types of analysis and prototyping. While artistic freedom in Lightwave is far greater than any CAD program, it's certainly at the expense of accuracy, documentation and technical analysis (as needed for engineering products). A similar distinction applies to architectural visualization where Lightwave3D typically ends up with the cosmetics while the actual design is left to specialists like ArchiCAD.
There is many more applications for CG software like rendering for computer games and logo design and many other things. Due to my engineering background I will stick to applications in industrial design and leave the rest to your imagination or other reviews. This covers mostly version 8.5 -- a recent free update to Lightwave3D . New is Lightwave64 (v8.5 for WindowsXP 64x Professional). End of 2005, a major update to version 9 is expected with significant changes to the Lightwave3D foundation -- opening doors for a bright future. Well, we will see. Let's focus on the most recent incarnation Lightwave3D v8.5. (I will shorten that to "LW3D8".)
The looks and basic feel of the LW3D8 interface follow standard conventions with a Grey background and a configurable view ranging from quad-view (3 projections, 1 perspective) to a single view (preferably perspective or camera view). The Grey (neutral) is important for color decisions, but makes it slightly harder to see fine structures. The menu is divided into 2 sections: tabs and the menu bar which is context sensitive according to the chosen "tab". This keeps the interface neat and easy to navigate. Configuration nuts may complain about the lack of freely configurable custom palettes, but in order to learn the software it's better to stick with the standard layout anyway, if you don't want to end up with a wild goose chase for commands.
Though very well laid out, the interface is full with information that "reveals" itself more as you get to know the program. Many parameters are listed only by a single letter or in the case of layers by a rather cryptic icon. (Tool tips help out in those cases.) Overall, LW3D8 completely relies on a text driven interface which is -- at least for English speakers -- is not a disadvantage. Descriptive icons are hard to create for similar commands, and initially harder to remember. Often, badly executed icons look unprofessional and a wild collection of them succeeds to confuse more than it helps. That is not to say that icons are bad or text is better (and vice versa), but strengthens the validity of LW3D8's text driven interface which is designed to focus on your work. (The buttons are still rendered beautiful and elegant.)
User guidance is relatively minimal as to each step of a command and the required action. The program is hard to learn without the excellent 1500 page manual. With that help though (be it in PDF or actually printed), it's intuitive and mostly follows a natural workflow. There are a few exceptions to the rule, and an accidental click and drag with the wrong mouse button can send the program into a lengthy process of generating geometry (or a point cloud) which wasn't even intentional to begin with. (The html based handbook doesn't feel as intuitive as the other two formats.) Best of all is the wealth of tutorial videos available online to learn LW3D8's tools and techniques.
Lightwave is one of the very few programs that separate modeling and actual stage setup with rendering into two virtually independent modules: Modeler and Layout. Much debated, changes to integrate more modeling into the layout editor are underway and v8.5 shows a few tools but more changes are yet expected from v9.0 late 2005. Separated at birth, Modeler and Layout have a strong connection and easily exchange models and that way keep each user interface relatively clean (which otherwise might double in complexity). Nevertheless, LW3D8 seems to have outgrown the available space with the current GUI concept as there are already too many commands tucked away behind a "more" button in virtually every category.
LW3D8 is still a surface (facet) based modeler and everything essentially consists of triangular or quad surface patches that represent the skin of an object. They are typically rendered (visible) only on one side, and the so-called Normal determines whether the piece of surface is visible. If the model get's mixed up (i.e. imported geometry), the Normal needs to be flipped in order to correct this issue. While that's easy enough to do in LW3D8, it's no match for the worry-free handling of true solids as seen in Caligary TrueSpace or CAD software like SolidWorks, Pro/Engineer and so on. Primitives cover the usual range and to my surprise, the "teapot" is still in the list, though I have trouble to believe that this is used very often. Either way, primitives are a quick and easy way to create basic shapes and the combine them in many ways via Boolean operations and eventually deform section thereof to you needs.
Modeling tools in LW3D8 can consist of splines with infinite resolution, but only until the object is "made". (LW3D8 allows to preview the shape and changes thereof. At that point it's still possible to change all parameters that go into shape create. Once the "Make" button is used, however, the only way to change the shape is to use the modification tools (i.e. scale, move, shift etc.). There is no parametric modeling as seen in Pro/Engineer for example where any dimension can be changed way after creation. However, the artistic freedom of manipulating vertexes and facettes is greater and warrants the approach LW3D8 and many other CG programs take.
Free form modification in LW3D8 is amazing and examples like "Vortex" and "DragNet" or MetaNurbs (an adaptation of the nurbs concept to a modeling tool that actually works with facettes) are awe inspiring upon first use and very handy in actual designs. Most tools are very responsive and work in real time, though others appear to drag along ever so slowly (especially in the 32bit version). The latter was hard to explain since CPU activity stayed typically below 50% and memory wasn't even close to get into any paging (use of virtual memory). One example was the nearly 10 second delay when attempting to extrude the word "test" (with virtually no CPU activity to speak of).
Though powerful, LW3D8 has room to grow and the lack of real NURBS may not be as significant since LW3D8 does very well even without it. However, I miss true solids and especially parametric features (beyond creation). This wishlist is not likely to be answered in v9.0 (despite the foundation changes). With that in mind, new programs like Rhino 3.0 and Caligari's TrueSpace 7 offer some fresh ideas that simplify design in some areas, but don't answer above requests either -- other than NURBS. Either is not suitable for straight engineering design with a high probability of changes (i.e. add chamfer, replace chamfer with radius etc.), shells, geometric patters (arrays) and feature based assembly. That's the domain of solid modeling CAD software, which can be used to create models and LW3D8 takes the "raw" model (typically converted to a facetted format) for visualization, animation and further refinement. I am currently using PTC Wildfire 2.0 for the engineering modeling, and that works fairly well when exporting in Wavefront format to load the model into LW3D8.
This is where you make "a scene", be it a single (imported) object, a still image or animation. While materials can be assigned in the Modeler; composition, lights, materials and particle effects are assigned in the Layout as well as motion paths and collision or even dynamic modeling using cloth algorithms (deforming a flexible object based on gravity and collision with underlying "rigid" parts).
Initial setup is very easy to master within a few hours and you're ready to go for simple scenes. The complexity grows significantly as you're trying to perfect lighting and material properties or even include special effects like "sweat". This requires a lot of experience to make sense out of the numerous parameters and the nearly infinite number of layers in the material editor and ultimately the possible combinations thereof. It's easy to get discouraged if the result doesn't look as intended with a "million parameters to play with" to make it right. Once you gather more experience, this becomes less frustrating and at some time may even seem intuitive -- thanks to the new OpenGL preview of material properties without any raytracing. Either way, the limited number of predefined material makes it harder to approach LW3D8's material editor - especially when you don't know yet what you're doing.
Render quality and speed are not fully up-to-date comparing it to the competition. It's relatively complicated to set the parameters up and get quick results. The scattered settings for all rendering aspects are initially confusing as render parameters like resolution are tied to a camera, shadows to a light, reflections to the overall rendering parameters and so on. This is not to say that it doesn't make sense, but at least initially it's easy to miss parameters since they're spread out over several objects. In fact, once you get used to it, it makes a lot of sense to have the camera determine resolution and focal length etc. since ther may be more than one and depending on the project you might switch between them. The same is true for the lighting and so on as you could achieve different goals by turning certain groups on or off without redefining everything.
INSTALLATION & SUPPORT
Installation requires the presence of a hardware dongle or else the program is going to be impacted in rendering (checkered board pattern overlays picture) and I am not sure what else is affected. The included dongle driver (Sentinel) is a 32 bit application and will not work with XP64. There is currently only an (unsupported) beta version of the Sentinel driver for XP64, not to be confused with the released 64bit driver for Itanium processor.
The first download of "Lightwave3D 64" had trouble recognizing WinXP64. Further, in dual boot systems be aware that Lightwave installs by default on drive "C:" regardless what letter your system drive is (i.e. "D:" since "C:" is already taken by WindowsXP x32 on my system). Not only can it affect your installation on the other system but the 64 bit update of Lightwave 3D v8.5 simply refuses to install when XP64 is not installed on "C:". Newtek quietly posted a new version of the installer which solves this problem by allowing to override the failed OS recognition, so make sure to download the latest.
Given the professional focus and application of LW3D8, online support should be no area of concern and as long as information is listed online, it really isn't. However, the FAQ is the only resource (other than user groups) and it feels like it has not been updated for many years. There is very little info available for Lightwave3D v8.x and it's even hard to find the Windows section. Contacting tech support via e-mail has finally resulted in a response -- 5 days after submitting the issue above (dual boot install). The feedback eventually solved my problem. Thanks to Donny!
Installing the new 64 bit version of Lightwave3D v8.5 poses several hurdles, and the tallest turned out to be the Sentinel SuperPro dongle driver (a third party product). Currently there is only a valid driver for Itanium processors available for download. However, it will refuse installation on my Athlon64 X2 4200+ processor, and the whole Athlon64 series for that matter. Despite the driver download links on the newtek website, the proper 64 bit beta version is available only on request (e-mail) from NewTek. (as of October 2005)
Lightwave3D is a great tool for computer graphics that shines mostly due to a powerful set of modeling commands that make the absence of nurbs virtually unobjectionable. The interface is well organized, and objects and scenes are created with ease. Render quality and some (professional) features may be lagging, but that's hardly an argument when looking at the overall quality and performance of Lightwave3D v8.5 (Free update to version 8.0 and up.)
There is a number of improvements lined up for the end of 2005 when the heavily revised version 9.0 is going to be released. Announced interface changes scare me more than they bring hope, but otherwise it's a great deal to get version 8.x now and then receive a free update (current promotion) to 9.0 when it's available. Especially since there are still a few days left on the special offer that pretty much throws in Vue 5 Infinite for "free" -- a $600 value. (Offer expires October 31st, 2005)
Copy protection via hardware dongle may be necessary, but it's cumbersome nevertheless -- especially if the dongle driver is part of the problem (XP64). Overall I doubt that this type of protection is any more effective than others.
The 64 bit version is currently a little bit problematic due to described installation issues and the mere fact that XP64 is not fully supported by many drivers. However, in my installation I found that Lightwave 64 feels much more responsive and overall performance got a big boost (though it really should have been the same).
Newtek's website is a bit disorganized and support information mostly outdated (or sometimes even wrong), with very little info pertaining towards the most recent v8.x. Technical support via E-mail is initially slow but eventually very helpful (in my case). Overall, support appears to be the Achilles heel for professional users.
© 2005, theuerkorn
- Product Overview: Lightwave
- Product Overview: Vue 5 Infinite
- History of Lightwave 3D
- Video tutorials
- Sentinel SuperPro drivers (dongle)
- WindowsXP x64 Professional
- AMD Athlon64 X2 4002+