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December 2017 Tech Reviews


December 2017 Tech Reviews


Red Giant’s Trapcode Suite 14

Red Giant is a brilliant key source to expand your After Effects toolset. We are talking tools for color grading like the Magic Bullet suite; tools for processing footage, tools for keying and tools for making compositing just a tad easier. But it’s the Trapcode Suite that seems to get the most attention. It expands After Effects’ 2D world into a much more expansive world with particle systems and 3D geo.  Now the recently released Trapcode Suite 14 offers updates to Particular, Form, and a bit of an update to Tao.

Particular is the suite’s particle system, used for making incredibly beautiful and complex splashes, trails, pixie dust, you name it.  Now, it is GPU accelerated for faster playback and feedback as you design the looks. To help with that process Particular has a Designer module, filled with heaps of particle presets you can grab from the library. Fully customizable, with fast feedback (courtesy of the GPU), you and push and pull parameters to get a look you want.  You can even combine multiple systems for even more complex results.

OBJs are now supported as emitters, so you can match to you 3D geo coming from your favorite 3D programs, and emit from verts or edges or polys.  The Particular library is also filled with OBJ objects to get you started. Beyond the emitters, the particles themselves can be sprites —again, that library comes with nearly 300 prefab sprites to choose from.  But you can also choose your own by bringing them into your AE comp.

Combine all this with new Aux System features, which will spawn additional children from the original particle system, and you have yourself an amazing tool for quickly creating intricate systems.

Form is a complementary product to Particular, in that it deal with particles, but it is more about defining surfaces and structures with particles. Like Particular, Form uses Designer and the libraries to provide a plethora of presets to start with and begin to customize.  Form can also use imported OBJs (or ones from the library) to populate the particles onto, even animated geo. But where Form excels are the techy and often beautiful results that are so pervasive in the motion graphics world. There probably isn’t a HUD display in film and television that doesn’t have Form looks in them.

In addition, Form gives you further control over the particle distribution using noise and fractal patterns to break things up in cool and interested ways.  You can even drive animation through the patterns using audio sources. Lastly, the Tao module of the suite allows you to create 3D structures in After Effects by repeating or lofting shapes along paths. The rendering uses real lighting and it supported reflections and refractions.  But the addition in the Trapcode Suite 14 is Depth of Field for even more photographic realism.

Particular is the primary reason to invest in or upgrade to Trapcode Suite 14.  Even before this release it was a powerful particle tool, and it has become even better. Form is ubiquitous in the MoGraph world and if you don’t have it, you are probably behind.  And Tao is just one more reason.  You can get each module on its own, but it might be wise to put your money into the whole suite.


Price: $999 (full); $199 (upgrade); $499 (academic)


Solid Angle’s Arnold 5.0

So with Autodesk acquiring Arnold and then supplanting previous renders, it only seems fit to cover this release on its own, because the update is substantial enough that it needs its own space. Both Maya 2018 and 3ds Max 2018, are running flavors of the latest Arnold 5.0, which came out on its own around April this year—with a slew of new things that stems from an architectural overhaul to allow it to be more scalable and adaptable as new, unforeseen, technologies emerge.

The Solid Angle team went through and cleaned house. They made the C++ API simpler and easier to use so that developers and studios can write their own custom tools to access information within Arnold. They also did the same for the user-base, boiling down the process so the workflow is easy and intuitive to navigate.

Better samplers have been implemented at each area where samples are sampled: Lights, Shaders, Camera, so that render times are faster and cleaner than previous versions of Arnold.  Believe me, this is good, because you can make Arnold very slow, very fast, if you start increasing samples arbitrarily.

Shaders have been replaced with newer versions of the Standard (now more of an Uber-shader), Hair, and Volumes. Utilities have up around 80 difference processes to mix in with the shaders to create custom AOVs, or refine the ones that are already setup for you.  And those AOVs have support for the relatively new Cryptomatte methodology.  And Light Path Expressions allow you to extract light information into the AOVs for higher level of control on the comp side of things—because you can select the light contribution and manipulate it.

Guess what! You aren’t stuck with the Arnold shaders. Arnold also supports OSL (Open Shader Language) shaders, which was developed by Sony a while ago, who then made it open source—so everyone can enjoy!

On its own, Arnold is a robust, production-tested render engine.  And it comes bundled with both Maya 2018 and 3ds Max 2018.


Price: $65 subscription per month; $600 per year



Autodesk’s subscription format is all about pushing out features and fixes faster than an annual release. 3ds Max works under the same system. In fact, 2018 is already up to 2018.3, and I’m happy to report that this latest version is the most exciting.

3ds Max seems to have a bad rep about not getting enough attention with dedicated users expressing concerns that Autodesk is slowly letting Max pass away to the great software bin in the sky where Softimage lay in wait.  But I, being an eternal optimist, have a slightly different take.  Firstly, Max has a much broader demographic than Maya. Max also lives in the archviz world, product design, game development, as well as Film and Television.  So, even though it may not get as much attention when big tentpole films taut Maya as there tool of choice, 3ds Max is still truckin’ along in those industries that aren’t quite as loud.  And these subscription-based releases are a bit of a testament to the fact this it is not being ignored.

Earlier this year, the Max 2018 kind of popped out with some kind of meager features—Arnold integration notwithstanding (see Arnold 5 review). Then 2018.1 was pushed out with a bit of a snoozefest of features.  2018.2 arrives with a little toolbox of features for working with splines—relax, overlap detection, etc. Things that don’t blow you away, but that certainly make one’s live as a 3D artists easier.

But, then there was 2018.3, sneaking in silently in padded socks. And suddenly, 3ds Max has built in fluids. Not only that, but it is the same engine that resides in Maya: Bifrost. I’m not sure if ALL the Maya bells and whistles are in there— but, quite frankly, the Maya version of Bifrost doesn’t have ALL the bells and whistles yet. The point is that this is not insubstantial.  It also snuck in under my radar—and it was just suddenly there!  There is interoperability with Bifrost in Maya through the .bip files it creates. There is support for reading in VDB files. You can mesh the fluids.  And you can export them out to Albemics —or maybe just render them in Arnold 5.0!

So, fellow Max users, please share in some of my hope that Autodesk isn’t abandoning us. Sometimes, it just feels that way when someone else is getting more attention!


Price: $1470 annual subscription


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