Cinema 4D Modules
Tom Arah pushes the boundaries of 3D with CINEMA 4D and its comprehensive range of add-on modules.
About two and a half years ago I looked at the range of software available for 2D designers wanting to make the move into 3D and concluded that much the best option was MAXON’s CINEMA 4D...
Since then CINEMA 4D has seen no less than six upgrades (four major), each of which has consolidated that initial impression by concentrating on improving central functionality such as lighting, rendering, scene organization and animation. Alongside this excellent and always improving core functionality, for its mid-range price (£499 exc VAT), CINEMA 4D offers some extraordinary high-end creative power. Most notable here is the excellent integration with Photoshop and After Effects and the recent incorporation of the formerly separate BodyPaint 3D module, which offers the near-unique creative option of painting directly onto your models. On top of this, thanks to its streamlined environment and object-based interface, CINEMA 4D is efficient, productive and, bearing in mind the inevitable complexity of working in 3D, remarkably user-friendly.
Core functionality and usability are excellent, but ultimately they prove secondary to CINEMA 4D’s greatest strength: extensibility. While CINEMA 4D’s immediate power is all that the occasional user needs and more, when you begin exploring the near endless creative possibilities that producing your own 3D scenes opens up, the chances are that you will end up wanting to take things further in a particular direction. With a budget application when you hit the program’s ceiling there’s nothing you can do about it. Alternatively, with the high-end professional-only solutions, you are made to pay heavily (>£1500) for their all-embracing in-depth power - most of which you will never need and all of which affects general usability. By contrast, if you come to feel that you need to extend your work in CINEMA 4D, MAXON provides a range of eight additional modules specifically designed to offer state-of-the-art power clearly focused on a particular area of 3D creativity – and with third-party developers offering even more (see below).
The Advanced Render module specialises in photo-realistic output
So just what additional power is on offer? Now that BodyPaint has been integrated into the core application, there’s no doubt that the most popular additional module is Advanced Render (£295). As its name suggests, this extends CINEMA 4D’s core rendering capabilities, most notably by adding a fully customisable GI (Global Illumination) rendering option including support for HDRI (High Dynamic Range Imagery). Whereas traditional ray tracing works backwards from the eye to the scene’s direct light source, GI recognizes that in reality light is everywhere around us, bouncing off and affected by all the objects it encounters. To produce truly naturalistic output, all objects therefore need to be treated as indirect light sources, which is exactly what GI does.
GI’s natural lighting is Advanced Render’s main selling point, but it’s only the beginning. Also greatly improving end realism for specific scenarios are Advanced Render’s support for: translucency via Subsurface Scattering (great for skin); light focusing via Caustics (great for glass and water) and naturalistic soft shading via Ambient Occlusion (great for everything). In addition the module provides support for SubPoly Displacement which lets you add displacement detail to simple polygonal models and the dedicated SKY tool for creating atmospheric environments complete with volumetric clouds. The latest 2.6 release of Advanced Render now adds a second way to produce cloud effects as it incorporates the previously separate PyroCluster module, a volumetric shading system specifically designed for creating smoke, fire and dust effects.
Thinking Particles, Dynamics, Net Render
For further advanced particle-based effects you need another of Maxon’s optional modules, Thinking Particles (£229) which, like PyroCluster, extends CINEMA 4D’s in-built particle system. What Thinking Particles brings to the party is the ability to emit particles from any plane surface or volume and, more importantly, to make particles interact with one another and their environment. This is handled through XPresso, CINEMA 4D’s node-based scripting language, and means that you are in complete control over effects that look completely uncontrollable such as exploding volcanoes and whirling tornados. Don’t expect it setting up such cinematic effects to be child’s play, but the results can be jaw-dropping.
Like Thinking Particles, the great strength of the Dynamics module (£229) is the intelligence it adds to CINEMA 4D’s animation capabilities. However, where Thinking Particles concentrates on the spectacular, Dynamics concentrates on the everyday. In particular the Dynamics module lets you set up interactions between objects in your scene based on the laws of physics. These interactions are everywhere around us but, when you consider factors such as the effects of gravity, drag and the different types of possible collision type, from metal through to rubber, trying to recreate them realistically can be a nightmare. With the Dynamics module it becomes straightforward. First of all you add a Solver object to your scene then set up the relevant Gravity, Drag and Wind effectors as sub objects and then drag on those objects to be affected. Next you describe each object’s properties by adding a Rigid, Soft Body or Spring-based tag and set parameters such as overall mass, and the level of elasticity and collision detection. Click play and your physically realistic interaction appears in the viewport in as close to real time as possible, depending on the calculations involved.
Of course actually rendering your finished animation is nothing like as speedy, which is where the next module comes in. As its name suggest the Net Render module (£229) is designed to spread processing across multiple networked computers. This is simple to set up based on a single server and multiple clients though you’ll have to ensure that the server has a fixed TCP/IP address. Jobs can then be controlled and monitored via your browser and the system is intelligent enough to dynamically add and drop clients depending on availability and to handle varying systems without running at the speed of the slowest. Net Render is also unusual in that it can be used to render individual complex imags, though this is awkward involving setting up a 9 or 24 frame animation, adding a special camera to the scene and then manually stitching the sub-divided results together in a bitmap editor. More impressive is the unlimited nature of the latest version of Net Render which means that you can run it on any number of CPUs – rather than throw out your old systems you can now create your own render farm!
The latest MOCCA 3 offers next-generation character rigging based on specific joints rather than generic bones
Thinking Particles, Dynamics and Net Render all help when animating the effects and objects in your scenes, but much the most difficult 3D task is animating believable characters to populate them. That’s where the MOCCA module (£295) comes into its own, providing all the tools necessary to set up advanced bone-based character rigging based on Inverse Kinematics, which means that if you drag a character’s hand its arm will follow just as it would in real life. With the recent upgrade to MOCCA 3, MAXON now offers a next-generation rigging system based on Joints with in-built flexing defaults, automatic weighting and binding and new constraints which make things faster and more flexible. It also now offers the ability to pin muscles to your rig to realistically deform your figure’s skin as its joints flex.
Setting up your character’s underlying rigging is only the beginning - bones aren’t much use for animating a face, for example. For jobs like lip synching, MOCCA 3 provides its system of absolute, relative and rotational morphs which can be controlled with simple slider-based tags. For human characters you’ll also need to add believable clothes which is where MOCCA’s Clothilde tool comes in to simulate cloth dynamics. Once you’ve prepared your character, the actual process of animating its movement can itself become a major chore too which is why MOCCA 3 now offers a Visual Selector so that you can quickly select the right controller objects and the appropriate tools to manipulate them. Even better, using the Cappucino tool, you can animate your characters in real time then reduce and refine the resulting automatically generated keyframes.
With MOCCA 3, and a lot of work, you can successfully bring your figures to realistic life but there’s an easily-overlooked factor that can either make or destroy the illusion: your character’s hair. Modelling hair and fur just doesn’t come naturally to the polygonal world of 3D which means that, if you want to avoid clearly artificial helmet-style hair-dos, you need some help. MAXON’s new HAIR module (£229) obliges. Simply select your polygons, add some hair guides, style the results using dedicated tools, such as brush, curl, comb and clump, and then control properties such as density, thickness, kink and frizz via a dedicated Hair material – all properties can then be animated. Typically MAXON goes that little bit further with features such as automatic partings and support for feathers along with the all-important, blindingly fast rendering.
The new MoGraph module is ideal for abstract imagery and motion graphic
HAIR isn’t the only new module for CINEMA 4D. With the launch of CINEMA 4D 10, MAXON also released an entirely new module, MoGraph (£229), designed for those interested in abstract imagery and motion graphics. MoGraph is built around a Clone Object which lets you set up linear, radial and matrix-based arrays of copied objects. Simple one-off effects like this are already possible with CINEMA 4D’s core tools but MoGraph takes things far further with options to transform each clone, to apply clones to the surface of a master object, to select between multiple clone children, to nest clones and so on - and all controlled non-destructively so that you can fine-tune any element of the effect at any time.
Crucially the object-based approach also means that all parameters can be animated which makes it simple to bring to bring your arrays to dynamic life. Even better in this regard are the range of eleven Effectors which can be applied to cloned objects to align them to splines, randomize them, make them follow targets, automatically add overshoot and so on. In addition, to add some variety to the mix, three new MoGraph Shaders let you affect existing materials, apply multiple shaders and so on. And for good measure, MoGraph throws in some Generator objects for combining splines, wrapping an object along a spline, tracing the paths of particles and so on. Put it all together and there’s something for everyone while motion graphic artists working with compositing packages such as After Effects will be in ecstasy.
Sketch and Toon offers non-photorealistic rendering – automatic art
Sketch and Toon
I’ve saved my personal favourite, Sketch and Toon (£295), till last. While the first module I looked at, Advanced Render, concentrates on photorealism, Sketch and Toon does the opposite providing the most comprehensive Non-PhotoRealistic (NPR) toolkit that I’ve come across. Key here is the dedicated Sketch material that provides a means of adding drawn lines and brush strokes to your models. The level of control is phenomenal with the ability to customize exactly where lines appear – on outlines, creases, folds, splines and so on – and how they appear – with control over parameters such as colour, thickness, opacity, adjustment and cloning.
The default line style is great for engineering plans and architectural sketches, but you can also create some extraordinary artistic effects and save these alongside the presets provided to produce an instant house style that can be instantly applied to any future render – fantastic. And with its four dedicated Shaders – Art, Cel, Hatch and Spots – Sketch and Toon lets you automatically add similar artistic flair to the materials in your images. If you’re interested in the artistic possibilities of 3D the CINEMA 4D / Sketch and Toon combination is unbeatable.
In fact, whatever area of 3D you are interested in or might become interested in - whether photorealism, cinematic effects, physical simulations, character animation, motion graphics or computer art – there’s a natural extension to the core CINEMA 4D platform ready and waiting. And for those looking to combine fields and so modules, MAXON also offers two bundles: XL (£1199) and Studio (£1949). However these offer slightly odd mixes - XL provides MOCCA but not HAIR for example, while Studio includes everything except for MoGraph. Moreover, as most users are unlikely to make full use more than a couple of the modules, the level of discounting is disappointing. A sliding scale based on the number of modules bought would make more sense and highlight the real benefits of MAXON’s unique modular approach in which you can add just the power you need whenever you need it - no ceiling and no wasted power or money.
The third-party Xfrog plug-in provides natural vegetation modelling
Third Party Options
MAXON isn’t the only add-on developer for CINEMA 4D and you can find comprehensive lists of dozens of additional third-party modules on the MAXON site and elsewhere. However, be careful: unlike the main MAXON modules, many of these are of niche interest at best and some are no longer being developed and so no longer work with the latest version 10 release. However, with a bit of digging, there are some real gems to be found.
Unsurprisingly the most polished options come from professional software houses. Interestingly these largely seem to focus on the one obvious 3D field for which MAXON does not provide its own add-on module - naturalistic organic modelling. E-on, the makers of the Vue range of environmental modelers are the real experts here and its Ozone 2 add-on with its 100 preset atmospheres and easy customisability is a wise investment for those interested in producing outdoor scenes (though Advanced Render’s SKY module is more fully integrated). For maximum power e-on’s Vue Stream is designed to let you tap into all the power of Vue Infinite’s vegetation and ecosystem-based modelling and there’s a new version due soon. Alternatively, if you are particularly interested in modelling plants then take a look at Greenworks’ Xfrog application. This leverages CINEMA 4D’s object-based system to let you procedurally create your own flowers and trees – you can even realistically animate their growth.
CINEMA 4D also has a number of enthusiastic individual programmers developing their own extensions though over time the best of these, such as Paul Everett’s Sniper Pro for automatic interactive rendering, tend to get subsumed into the main application. Other noteworthy authors to check out include Rui Batista, Mikael Steiner and Per Anders. I’m also a fan of Steve Baines’ fusionThing which adds a new object which allows you to procedurally and non-destructively control various common modelling tasks – in particular you can create surface details in the flat then automatically conform these to curved objects and randomly choose between multiple child objects to, for example, create townscapes.
It’s definitely sensible to check out MAXON’s fully integrated modules first but, if you need to extend your 3D work even further, you may well find what you need amongst the wider CINEMA 4D developer community.
Tom Arah is the webmaster of designer-info.com. He has been a professional designer working with computer software since 1987. He also offers training and consultancy and since 1997 has been the contributing editor covering design issues for PC Pro, the UK's biggest-selling (and best) computer monthly.