Carrara: MetaCreations' 3-D Modeling Debut

  • Ben Long (Computerworld)
  • 19 April, 2000 12:01

SAN FRANCISCO (04/19/2000) - After cornering much of the low-end and midrange Macintosh 3-D software market, MetaCreations Corp. has introduced Carrara 1.0, a completely new 3-D modeling, rendering, and animation package. Designed to replace Ray Dream Designer and Infini-D, Carrara takes the strengths of those packages and adds a wealth of powerful features that will prove attractive to beginning and professional 3-D developers alike.

Five Rooms, Nice Previews

Like other MetaCreations products, Carrara sports a unique interface. It distributes 3-D production tasks among five virtual "rooms": the Assemble room is for scene building and lighting placement; the Modeling room, for modeling; the Texture room, for texture mapping; the Storyboard room, for rough animation scripting; and the Render room, for creating final output. MetaCreations touts this "compartmental workflow" as a way of simplifying the creative process.

Though the idea is interesting, the modal approach actually slows things down and makes some actions more difficult than they'd be in a document-centered program. And although the interface is beautiful to look at, I'd happily exchange it for larger windows and a more expansive workspace.

To its credit, Carrara provides excellent OpenGL support, with full interactive shading and lighting and good performance. Well-designed previews and swatches make it much easier to set up complex effects in Carrara than in higher-end programs such as autodessys's form-Z or Play's Electric Image.

Model Modules

Carrara offers a number of modeling environments. In the Assemble room, you can create and position simple primitives, including basic geometric shapes and infinite planes. There's a powerful Bryce-like terrain generator, as well as automatic fire, cloud, and fog generators.

When you're ready to model more-complex shapes, simply decide whether you want to create a spline, polygonal, text, or metaball object and drag the appropriate modeling primitive into your scene; Carrara places you in the appropriate modeling room and provides the necessary tools. Ground, y, and z planes make it easy to place objects. As you drag an object around the screen, shadowy outlines on each plane help you position objects accurately, and the Collision Detection option prevents objects from intersecting.

In addition to sweeping, extruding, lathing, and lofting tools, Carrara's powerful polygonal modeler provides vertex-level editing. The vertex editor, which lets you select and name groups of vertices, is one of the best I've seen. You can grab and manipulate vertices to easily "sculpt" your digital shapes. And Carrara's Sphere Of Attraction tool makes it simple to move a natural collection of vertices, preventing weird, pointy edits. You'll also find full Boolean controls and creasing and smoothing commands, although controls for beveling and rounding are conspicuously absent. Spline-modeling tools are quite powerful: in addition to extrusions, lathes, and skins, you can easily create twists, sweeps, and spirals and add cross sections to existing objects.

The Texture room is an excellent, full-featured texturing environment with complete multichannel shaders. With support for multilayered shaders as well as a hierarchical shader tree, Carrara's shading controls are impressive.

Unfortunately, the drag-and-drop approach to applying shaders might make texturing difficult if you're working on complex models with many parts.

Animation and Rendering

Although the animation module is packed with powerful features, animation scripting is Carrara's weakest component. The program's timeline is easy to use and lets you animate any property of an object, but the program's tools can be frustrating to use. Unfortunately, its velocity controls-simple dialog boxes that present different keyframe-interpolation methods-are a far cry from the function-curve editors in more-powerful 3-D programs. And because Carrara doesn't automatically create motion paths between keyframes, refining an object's motion is difficult.

Multimedia and game designers will appreciate the program's powerful resolution controls for reducing the geometry of an object. Broadcast and film users, however, will be frustrated by the lack of support for the NTSC-standard 29.97-frame-per-second rate, motion blur, and field rendering.

Carrara's automatic-animation component is well designed and fun to play with, and the rendering engine is speedy. The hybrid ray tracer is the most impressive of several rendering options, providing ray-tracing quality at Phong shading speeds. Unfortunately, the program bogs down when presented with large polygon counts.

Macworld's Buying Advice

Carrara is an impressive achievement, especially given its version 1.0 status.

If you're in the market for a well-rounded 3-D package, it's definitely worth a look. However, it's difficult to say if these good beginnings will ever bear fruit. MetaCreations has announced that it's selling off its graphics products but claims it will continue to develop them until a buyer is found. We hope the company will be true to its word.