Eovia Carrara Studio 3

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Improved modeling, shading and rendering and the bargain price combine to make Carrara Studio 3 an attractive proposition.

These days 3D is moving into the mainstream of graphics creation, but the flagship applications such as Maya, LightWave and 3DS Max are way beyond the means of most designers. That's where Eovia's Carrara Studio comes in, promising professional functionality at an affordable price.

However there's an immediate price to pay. Carrara Studio is a direct descendent of MetaCreations' pioneering 3D work and this inheritance is apparent in the program's idiosyncratic and at times maddeningly frustrating interface. At least Eovia is moving things in the right direction and has again streamlined the working environment and in particular the Properties panel, which now provides access to the crucial object hierarchy. It has also added a new Scene Wizard which provides access to over 150 ready-to-use scenes. I wouldn't get too excited about these but the generous collection of pre-designed objects is certainly useful and, along with the comprehensive manual and tutorials, means that it's possible for new users to create good work from the outset as they begin tackling the precipitous learning curve.

And for those users willing to put in the effort, Carrara Studio certainly provides some serious power, especially when it comes to modeling. To begin with, you can quickly add basic primitives and text, but the real power comes with Carrara's spline and vertex modeling. Spline-based modeling depends on the user adding cross-sections along customizable sweep paths and now offers the ability to automatically add bevels. Vertex-based modeling offers even more control, right down to the individual polygon level, and its implementation has been seriously enhanced with a new Dynamic Extrusion tool, which is great both for roughing out shapes and for controlling fine detail, and the addition of Edge Creasing to the Subdivision tool.

Carrara also provides plenty of organic modeling functionality with the ability to add metaball-based shapes, bitmap-based terrains, particle-based effects such as rain and snow, and volumetric clouds and fog. Completely new is the ability to add realistic vegetation with the new Tree Maker engine. This provides complete control over features such as trunk shape, leaf type, leaf twist and so on. Even better, there are 26 presets provided ranging from arbutus through to willow, and a render preview in the dialog so that you can see exactly what you're getting.

The Tree Maker engine further improves Carrara's organic modelling options.

Once you've added the elements to your scene, you need to control their appearance. The easiest way to do this is to use the preset shaders from the Browser palette and Carrara 3 now provides 270 to choose from including a complete collection of planet texture maps. If you want to take things further the Texture Room now provides a range of new shader functions such as Colour Gradient, Fractal Noise and an Environment option which shades terrains depending on their altitude, slope and orientation - ideal for producing realistic snowy mountains. There's also a new Overlay operator for combining shading effects. For precision control over your objects' appearance, Carrara Studio 3 now supports shading domains so that you can format part of an object differently from the rest and even includes a full-blown UV editing tool for total control over texture map placement.

When your scene is assembled and formatted, it's ready for output. Carrara has always supported the main 3D standards such as OBJ, DXF and 3DS and now it incorporates two web-oriented standards that were previously only available via plug-ins. The first is the VET (Viewpoint Experience Technology) format which lets you produce highly efficient, fully-textured 3D models for interactive viewing in a web browser. The second is the W3D Shockwave format which lets you incorporate 3D work into your Director projects. To output to Flash SWF format however, you'll still need to buy Eovia's dedicated VectorStyle plug-in.

Of course the most common way of outputting your work is to render it as a 2D bitmap or animation. Eovia has completely revamped Carrara 3's rendering engine combining the previously separate renderers into a single more flexible hybrid engine, Photon Reality 2.0. This offers a number of relatively minor improvements such as improved control over anti-aliasing, depth of field and the ability to output alpha channels. More importantly the whole quality of the ray tracing has been seriously improved with support for soft shadows, optimized global illumination including sky dome illumination and, for the most impressive results, support for realistic lighting via High Dynamic Range Image (HDRI) files - though apart from the few provided HDRI samples you'll have to source these for yourself.

HDRI support seriously boosts rendering quality.

The improvement in rendering quality is certainly significant but, apart from HDRI work, this is still an area where Carrara Studio loses out to its high-end rivals. Sadly "photo-realistic" is still the aim rather than the reality in most cases and you're not going to use Carrara to produce the next Monsters Inc. Cleverly, Eovia has come up with an ingenious alternative. Using the completely new Non Photo-Realistic (NPR) rendering engine, Impression, you can automatically turn your scenes into attractive artistic renditions. This works by rendering the geometry of the scene as brush strokes with separate customizable control over the main image, background, highlights, shadows and outline.

It's important to realize that, if you're intending to go all the way with 3D, you'll eventually hit a ceiling with Carrara Studio and so would be better off shelling out for one of the expensive top-end packages from the start. Having said this, Carrara Studio's range and depth of power is seriously and surprisingly impressive - especially at the price.

Ease of Use
Value for Money

ratings out of 6

System requirements: Pentium III 300MHz, 128Mb of RAM, 300Mb of hard disk space, Windows 98, ME, 2000, NT 4 (SP3) or XP, CD-ROM.

Tom Arah

January 2004

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