REVIEW October 24, 2001
by Lachlan Westfall
Electric Image, $1995
Electric Image (EI) Universe 3.1 (www.electricimage.com) is a major upgrade-complete with a brand new name-to what was the Electric Image Animation System, a powerful 3D modeling, animation, and rendering package that's been available on the Mac platform for over a decade. With the release of Universe, the program is multiplatform (Mac, Windows NT and 2000, and Sun Solaris), and has been essentially rewritten from the ground up. With the addition of raytracing, improved multiplatform network rendering, and a very powerful modeling system, EI Universe 3.1 remains a strong, professional 3D production tool.
With its Mac-only heritage, EI must overcome some of the same difficulties Apple has in marketing the Macintosh-it's not that people don't like it; there is a vast group of people who don't even know about it. And just as the Mac has a core group of loyal users who do superior work on the platform, EI has a core group of visual effects artists who've used it to create countless film and broadcast shots for titles such as Star Wars: Episode 1, Mission Impossible, Jurassic Park, Titanic, Stuart Little, Super Bowl XXXV, Dateline NBC, West Wing, JAG, and countless others. The reason EI has remained a stalwart Hollywood production tool is that the company has always understood that the most important feature of any professional production tool is that it enables you to get the job done on time and on budget under Hollywood's insane deadlines.
Although EI has been around for years, when you talk 3D nowadays, people invariably ask whether you use NewTek LightWave or Discreet 3ds max (or Avid Softimage XSI and Alias Wavefront Maya on the high end). This is somewhat understandable, as these programs' character animation tools have developed hand-in-hand with the explosion of 3D for games-which is a significant segment of 3D work. In addition, the fact that these other programs run on the Wintel platform doesn't hurt. With the release of Universe, EI is addressing most, if not all, of the issues that kept it somewhat of a niche program.
Universe 3.1 is a multiapplication suite made up of three primary programs: Universe Modeler, Universe Animator, and Universe Camera. There's also a program called Renderama that handles distributed rendering. Unlike many other 3D apps, there is no per-seat rendering license.
Universe Modeler is a relatively new addition that was first added in version 2.9 (see Reviews, Mar. '00 DV). Universe Modeler 3.1 is the first major update to the first Universe Modeler version, and it sports improved stability and many new features. Universe Modeler is an extremely powerful and elegant hybrid solids/surfaces modeler. One of its most important aspects is its resolution independence.
In other words, you determine the resolution of curves or surface meshing as you export the model, not while you're building it. This allows you to create both low-res and high-res models from the same source elements. You can also set the specific resolution-tessellation-of individual objects, which provides high poly counts where you need them and less where you don't.
There are myriad ways to create objects in Universe Modeler. You can start with lines and both Bezier and NURBS curves. These can be extruded, revolved, skinned, and so on to create solid or surface objects. You can also start with solid or surface primitives and use the various boolean tools to add or subtract geometry as desired.
I was pleasantly surprised with how effectively the rounding/fileting tool works. Of course, you can always model yourself into a corner and create objects that just can't be rounded; but with the ability to set multiple rounding radii for a single edge and various other functions, I've rounded some objects that I know would have given me fits in other applications.
All of the basics and more are to be found in Modeler. In addition, there are some unique tools that greatly expand this program's power. The new Laws tools allow you to create lines and surfaces from various mathematical formulas. You can use some presets that create objects like spirals or even a Moebius strip. You can edit the presets to change the radius of a conical spiral, or look up formulas of your own and type them in. The Derive Cross Section and Intersection Wires tools let you create complex wires from 3D elements. You can take standard bodies and convert them into NURBS bodies, allowing you to push and pull on vertices to manipulate the shape. There are also many new NURBS Surface tools that give you incredible control over the creation and manipulation of curved surfaces.
Ubernurbs is yet another way to create shapes. You build control cages whose edges and points define a shape within. Ubernurbs are also known as subdivision surfaces, and are a great, albeit complex, way of creating organic forms. Other new features include the ability to import EPS files-handy for building models of logos, IGES import and export, collision detection (which allows you to move an object until it bumps into another for precise placement), and more.
Overall, Universe Modeler 3.1 is an extensive improvement over the previous version, which suffered from version 1.0-itis. In many ways, Universe Modeler is like a Ferrari: It has everything you need to do the basics, but it really shines when you need to push it to the extremes.
It may be a little bit overwhelming for someone new to 3D modeling-but, of course, any powerful modeler would be, because 3D modeling is an inherently complex endeavor.
Universe Animator is the program you use to texture, light, and animate your models. One of the most notable new features is that previews are based on OpenGL. This allows for quick previews of lighting, texturing, and even fog and lens flares. However, you'll greatly benefit from a speedy OpenGL accelerator card. When I first installed Universe, I was disappointed using the OpenGL performance with Apple's standard video card. But when I installed a new ATI Radeon, the performance improved. With newer cards such as the GeForce 3 and improved OpenGL drivers, expect even better performance.
The texturing tools in Universe build on the powerful texture tools EI has had for years. One extremely useful feature is that bitmapped textures can be layered with Photoshop/After Effects-like transfer modes. Thus, if you want to add a bit of grunge to another texture map, you can just throw it on top, use Multiply, and you're there. This is a much faster than going back into Photoshop each time you want to tweak an object's texture. Texturing also reflects the new raytracing features of Universe. You can set reflections and/or transparency to be calculated via raytracing. When it comes to raytracing reflections, Universe's occlusion function is noteworthy. With occlusion, you can essentially set a "one-bounce" raytrace for calculating reflections. This greatly improves the speed of raytracing, and yields the look you need at a fraction of the typical render time. Another welcome aspect of raytracing is refraction. Refraction allows a transparent object to correctly distort the image seen through it-just as a clear drinking glass bends light passing through it.
EI has always had strong lighting capabilities. Universe gives you many types of lights, from spot and radial to parallel (simulates a distant light source) and tube (much like a neon tube light). Master Lights have been added, so if you have 20 lights on a building, you can link them to the same master light and adjust all of them simultaneously. Further, you can set which aspects of the Master Light each specific light will inherit. For example, you can simultaneously adjust the intensity of a group of lights that have their own individual colors. Master Materials work in much the same fashion for textures. Lights can now cast raytraced shadows. You can set drop-off, and specify the edge softness and number of samples used to calculate the shadow. Each light can be set to cast either a buffered or raytraced shadow so you can mix and match, taking the raytracing render hit only when necessary.
Lights haven't been drastically improved, but that's because they didn't need improvement. It's always been fairly easy to get good lighting in EI. And because you can so effectively adjust all lights' shadow properties (including no shadows), you can have many lights in a scene and greatly optimize the render time. Optimizing a scene to render as fast as possible has always been one of EI's strongest points. The ability to adjust raytracing parameters to minimize the hit to rendering time just makes lighting that much stronger.
As far as animation goes, Universe builds on the strong foundation of previous versions. The program is still good at handling scenes with a large number of polygons. Such scenes would make other programs grind to a snail's pace or simply choke. Universe also features a new inverse kinematics (IK) system. In the past, EI was often criticized for its lack of specific character animation tools.
I wouldn't tout Universe as a character animator's Holy Grail, but with Universe Modeler's ability to create organic shapes and Universe Animator's morphing tools and brand new IK system, Universe has come a long way.
Another feature that deserves mention is Camera Mapping. With Camera Mapping, you can project a QuickTime animation or still image, typically of a landscape or city, onto simple geometry in a scene. Then you can move the camera in or out, and it looks like a live shot. Many of the wide cityscape shots in Star Wars: Episode 1 were done with this technique. You can also preview the camera map in realtime.
Universe Camera is the application that renders the final image or movie. Universe Camera has always been and remains a blistering-fast rendering engine with exceptional Phong shading, antialiasing, and motion blur. EI's quality and rendering speed haves been its strongest point. With this new version, Universe Camera handles raytracing. And although raytracing is invariably slower than Phong shading, Camera's raytracing renders briskly.
The most significant rendering improvement is the updated network rendering solution called Renderama. The best thing about Renderama is that it works (there were problems with previous versions). Now you can connect multiple computers and Renderama will distribute the job frame by frame across the network.
And Renderama is completely cross-platform, so you can mix Macs, PCs, and Sun machines. And when the job is finished, it will stitch the frames into a single movie in either EI's native image format or QuickTime. The recently released 3.1 update includes versions of Universe Camera and Renderama Slave that run under Apple's OS X-with rendering speeds up to 20 percent faster than OS 9.
Universe was designed to address EI 2.9's problems and drawbacks. I use the program every day, and I think that by and large those issues have been solved. Universe is well thought out and complete.
It features tools designed to let you work quickly and create good looking clips.
My wish list is a short one: I'd like to see Global Illumination/radiosity and support for rendering RLA files in Universe. Because the program was rewritten from the ground up, you may run into a problem here and there, but most if not all bugs have been addressed in the 3.1 update.
Although the name is new, Universe is based on the Electric Image Animation System, so it's mature software that has allowed artists to produce top-notch visual effects. That work speaks for itself-remember the queen's chrome ship in Star Wars: Episode 1? 'Nuff said.
Such a Deal
If you're new to 3D, Universe gives you a great benefit. Electric Image and DV Garage have teamed up to offer the 3D Toolkit so newbies can learn the ins and outs of 3D modeling and animation. The 3D Toolkit is essentially Electric Image 2.9 bundled with many tutorials-and it's available for under $200. So you get full production-quality 3D software for the learning process and then you can upgrade to Universe 3.1 for $1295. For more information, check out www.dvgarage.com or www.universe3d.com.
Lachlan Westfall's company, Quiet Earth Design, runs the gamut from print to 2D and 3D motion graphics. Westfall also helps run the Motion Graphics Los Angeles (MGLA) users' group with DV columnists Trish and Chris Meyer.