Two years ago, I looked at the range of software available for 2D designers who want to make the move up to 3D work, and concluded that by far the best prospect was Maxon’s Cinema 4D. Since that time, Cinema 4D has seen no less than six upgrades (four major), each of which consolidated that initial impression by improving central functions such as lighting, rendering, scene organisation and animation. Along with this excellent and ever-improving core functionality, Cinema 4D offers extraordinary high-end creative power considering its mid-range price of £499 exc VAT. Most notable is its excellent integration with Photoshop and After Effects, plus the recent incorporation of the formerly separate BodyPaint 3D module, which offers the option to paint directly onto your models. On top of this, thanks to its streamlined environment and object-based interface, Cinema 4D is extremely efficient, productive and – bearing in mind the inevitable complexity of designing in three dimensions – remarkably user-friendly too.
While its core functions and usability are excellent, ultimately these prove of secondary importance to Cinema 4D’s greatest strength; namely, its extensibility. The immediate power available is all that the occasional user will need (and more), but once you begin to explore the near-endless creative possibilities that producing your own 3D scenes can open up chances are you’ll end up wanting to take things further in some particular direction. Normally with such a budget application, once you hit the program’s functional ceiling there’s little you can do about it. On the other hand, the high-end, professional-only solutions make you pay dearly – £1,500 upwards – for their all-embracing, in-depth power, most of which you’ll never need, and all of which reduces the general usability. However, if you begin to feel you need to extend the scope of your work in Cinema 4D, Maxon provides you with a range of eight add-on modules that are specifically designed to provide state-of-the-art power, each clearly focused on one particular area of 3D design. What’s more, there are third-party developers offering more still.
So just what additional powers are on offer? Now that BodyPaint has been integrated into the core application, the most popular and central add-on module is Advanced Render at £295. As its name suggests, this module extends Cinema 4D’s core rendering capabilities, most notably by adding a fully customisable GI (Global Illumination) option that includes support for HDRI (High Dynamic Range Imagery). Where traditional Ray Tracing works backward from the viewer’s eye to the scene’s direct light sources, GI instead recognises that in real life light comes from everywhere around us, scattered and modified by all the objects it bounces off. To produce truly natural-looking results, every object in the scene needs to be treated as an indirect light source, which is precisely what GI algorithms do.
GI-based natural lighting is Advanced Render’s main selling point, but that’s only the beginning. The realism of specific scenarios can be greatly improved by Advanced Render’s support for translucency, via Subsurface Scattering (great for skin); light focusing via Caustics (great for glass and water); and natural soft shading via Ambient Occlusion (great for everything). In addition, the module provides support for SubPoly Displacement, which enables you to add displacement detail to simple polygonal models, and a dedicated Sky tool for creating atmospheric backgrounds complete with clouds that have actual volume. The latest 2.6 release of Advanced Render adds a further way into cloud effects by incorporating the previously separate PyroCluster module, a volumetric shading system specifically designed for creating realistic smoke, fire and dust effects.