Saturday, February 16, 2008

Modo 301

Luxology are charging $25 for a 30 day trial of their flagship product Modo along with video tutorials. (This has apparently led to howls of annoyance, and a pledge to provide a free trial sometime soon, in a long, rambling, and quite annoying "modcast".) Apparently one of modo's too cool for school features is that the president of the company sends out periodic podcasts that are audio only and -- as far as I can tell -- unscripted and unedited rambles.

I've been looking at replacing Silo 2 as my chief modeling tool in part because the sculpting tools remain quite flaky (and the Silo development team has been pretty uncommunicative as to when this might get fixed) and in part because I'd like to use a program that integrates sculpting and texturing.

Last time I checked, the 800lb gorilla in this market was a program called zBrush from Pixologic. If you visit cgtalk you'll find that many of the most jaw-dropping pieces of modeling have been done with zBrush. However, I tried their free trial a year or two back and found that it had a user interface that resembles something Kai Krause might have knocked together on a lazy Sunday afternoon, only uglier and less consistent.

Anyway, zBrush has had at least one major revision since then and (from screenshots) the UI looks much improved, but it's also not yet out for Mac OS X (but if you buy zBrush 2 for Mac they'll give you a free zBrush 3 license to tide you over until the Mac version arrives). I found this a little off-putting and decided to look around.

Modo, which I had also played with a year or two ago, has had a major release, and now claims to offer sculpting tools in addition to its well-regarded painting tools. I remember liking modo, especially its Maclike user interface conventions, but not so much that I didn't baulk at its fairly hefty price tag (currently $895). The latest version offers an apparently zBrush-like feature-set (with far better modeling capabilities) along with basic animation functionality. The only catch -- they're charging for their trial version.

Well, I paid $25 and downloaded everything, including their eight training videos. Let me tell you that the $25 is only well-spent insofar as it may have saved my $895. First of all, the training videos are tedious to watch. E.g. if you don't know what a UV point is, the video discussing UV-mapping will explain it to you. But if you do know what a UV point is, the video discussing UV-mapping will explain it to you. Similarly, when actually explaining how to UV map an object, the presenter carefully explains how not to do it in two different ways before doing it the correct way. The video skips over the fine points of doing it correctly, but covers the two incorrect ways at roughly the same level of detail. Good grief.

The videos are rather poorly put together in other respects. The modeling tutorial doesn't start out by showing you a picture of what the presenter is trying to model. This means that, at least for me, I'm wondering WTF is he doing rather than understanding how he's doing it.

Finally, the presenter constantly uses annoying and unexplained series of shortcuts to do things that probably don't need to be done (and shouldn't need to be done). He explains that SPACE deselects the current tool but does not explain that ESCAPE clears the current pipeline. He also uses terminology (e.g. "form") long before he defines it.

I would have hoped that the $25 would at least represent "good value" in terms of Modo training, but it doesn't.

Luxology originated when all the key technical people at Lightwave rebelled against management and went off to do their own thing. Since then, Lightwave seems to have done rather well for itself, although its price has dropped precipitously (from around $2000 to $700) which may be a bad sign. One of Luxology's key principles is producing great user interfaces, but it seems to me that between 2xx and 3xx Modo has gotten quite amazingly convoluted while still lacking a tiny fraction of the capabilities of Lightwave. E.g. the quite frequent process of adding a new texture map to a model seems to involve doing a whole bunch of things in completely different places manually. These are: selecting the mesh layer (top left), creating the image (button somewhere in a tool panel tab under utilities), assigning it to the correct UV map (bottom right somewhere), and um ... I don't remember. It seems to me that if you have a mesh selected and you create a texture layer, a whole bunch of obvious things should happen by default.

In the video the presenter spends a lot of time saying "then press escape and space" after doing almost anything. This screams "fix the UI, guys" to me. Oh well.

The two main reasons I was put off by modo are:

1) There's no way of simultaneously painting and sculpting. This seems like a really obvious feature to me, especially since it's something that zBrush does brilliantly. Why can't I paint the texture AND color of a scar onto a face in one pass?

2) its pipeline concept is really great for mucking around, but there doesn't seem to be an option to store the operations as a modifier chain and revisit them later.

In the end, charging $25 for trial software and justifying it by including rather badly put together training videos is not the best way to sell me software -- first impressions last, as someone wise once said, but I've got 29 days to go, so I may learn to love it.

However, Lightwave doesn't seem harder to use and at $500 (sidegrade) seems mighty tempting. And lightwave + zbrush costs about that same as Modo.