It’s been well over a decade since I first used LightWave on the Amiga. I have fond memories of those times. I remember drooling over articles about VFX shots created with it for shows like Babylon 5, where the 3D shots still look good to this day. LightWave has progressed massively in some directions since then, but in other areas it hasn’t quite kept up to date.
The last real update came with 9.6 and that was some three years ago now. Version 10 had a few tweaks and new tools, but did little to inspire. LightWave fans have always been vocal about what they like or dislike in their software, perhaps more than other groups. I think that’s because you either ‘get’ LightWave or you don’t. Unlike most other 3D applications (excluding anything Kai Krause had a hand in) LightWave has a particular way of working.
For a start, you won’t find any icons in the user interface: all the menus and tools are labelled with text. Some people hate this and find it wastes screen space but, considering that most tools have their keyboard shortcuts shown too, it doesn’t take long to memorise them and hide the buttons. There are actually three interfaces you need to get to grips with, one for each of LightWave’s programs: Modeler, Layout, and the Hub (which runs in the background).
In pretty much every other application you will model your object, then set up your scene with lights and materials, followed by animation. This can get tiresome as you hide one area to get to the next. LightWave solves this problem neatly by separating the modelling and texturing from everything else. Build a model in Modeler and apply some surfaces, then click a button to swap to Layout, where the scene is set up and completed. I find this style of working very easy to use, and if you’ve ever worked in a team or studio using Xrefs then it makes much more sense than trawling through a heavy scene, hiding and showing things.
The Modeler program is a fully featured SubD modeller with a huge assortment of tools on offer, for everything you might need. I like the way layers are used in LightWave: for example, Booleans or stencilling take the content of one layer to add or subtract the contents of a second layer. This is a sensible way to work and means complex hierarchies can be avoided. Simple parenting for animation can be done in Layout.
Layout is a solid, powerful application, with a full suite of tools for animation and rendering. The character rigging and animation tools are pretty good but not quite as intuitive or full-featured as other options available. Where the fun really begins is with the Object Properties panel. Hit [P] with an object selected and you’re presented with a large assortment of tools to refine your project. It’s hard to summarise here but you have everything from setting the basic properties, such as SubD levels, through to a host of deformation tools and the new instancing feature, which is a major addition to LightWave 11.
I’m a regular Cinema 4D user and have always turned to it for motion graphics work, but the instancing tools in LightWave now make that choice a little harder. I prefer the renderer in LightWave, which is very fast and predictable (it also allows camera and lens matching to real-world gear) and more intuitive. It supports Background Radiosity, Monte Carlo, and Final Gather, with some really nice motion blur and depth of field effects. Lighting with standard or photometric lights is a breeze, as is throwing in an HDRI, or a combination of all of the above.
NEW TOOLS AND FEATURES
▲ This rock wall was made from one cube. LightWave allows each instance to be different from the next
With instances and new flocking tools that offer great motion graphics or VFX results, creating a swarm of models that can avoid each other to your specifications is once again just a few clicks away. The new instancer lets you quickly take an object and create arrays of instances, with controllable size, position, rotation, and texture attributes, all definable via simple field input or with the Node Editor, another of LightWave’s strong points. Nodes allow a degree of freedom and understanding that surpasses layers or channels. You can set up complex materials with a few clicks and experimentation is visual and immediate, especially if you turn on VPR for high-quality viewport rendering.
LightWave has a great implementation of the Bullet dynamics engine, which also makes it easy to add physical properties to your animations. If there’s a model in your scene that you wish to break into pieces, you can switch to Modeler and predefine where the fractures will occur, send it back to Layout and click Play. That’s a simple overview but you can delve deeper and create as much complexity as you need, and it’s more intuitive than nDynamics or MassFX.
The huge array of features, tools, and options is a blessing to the power user but can also be a negative. At times it can feel like there are too many windows to open to get to different tools. If you have a large monitor then you can allocate space for some but it still feels like a mess, and some features seem to have been bolted on rather than applied more sympathetically. With this in mind, Newtek has made it so that if you navigate your scene with an options window open, that window will become transparent. This seemed like a gimmick, but in daily use it’s a lovely touch.
▲ For streamlined working, set pop-up windows to turn transparent while navigating viewports
These little things are forgivable, though, and the overall experience is a good one. I use a 3D mouse with a tablet, rather than a mouse, and LightWave offers support for both – in fact, the Studio Tools feature enables you to use the 3D mouse (or a host of other devices, even PlayStation Move controllers) to animate objects or cameras in your scene. This is recordable too, so you can have real-time, tactile input and see the results on screen.
Solid and reliable
Fast, high-quality renderer
Text buttons not to everybody’s liking
Some tools feel a little dated
LightWave has long been a strong contender, but it previously remained an underdog. Version 11 should not be discounted and makes for a refreshingly good upgrade
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rob Redman is the technical editor of 3D World magazine. He has been a 3D artist and trainer for over a decade, and his clients range from The Who to national governments