modo 501 Review
by Neil Hayes
We (the modo Community) were told that the drive behind this release was all about a focus on refinement and optimization rather than major new features. Yet along the way the team at Luxology found time to include a plethora of artist friendly additions including Pixar SDS smoothing, HDR color picker, RPC, photometric light shape preview, occlusion shading, fur culling, billboards, motion vectors, multi-res sculpting, a schematic view for rigging/animation and a whole lot more. Indeed, in one way or another, a large swathe of these new features can be rather useful for AEC related work.
New features aside, the improvements to the overall toolset are extensive although too numerous to mention individually. Some key things that you'll be happy to hear about are the optimized render performance with improved quality, faster render previewing, improved snapping and a new approach to bump mapping. In addition, the SDK has been expanded to allow for the development of plug-in tools and the in-line help system has received a comprehensive overhaul.
Let's examine some of the key improvements and new features within modo 501.
Luxology with some support from Intel have refined and optimized modo's render engine and I could spend this entire review just writing about these improvements. Instead, I take a brief look at two of the key things that matter to artists: Quality and speed. Does 501 deliver?
To provide a better overall impression about render speed I asked Florian von Behr and J.O.Rust to independently render a 401 scene in 501, in addition to conducting my own tests. Our scenes (Figure 1) rendered between 1.7 and 4.2 times faster in modo 501 compared to version 401, which was no slouch.
Figure 1 - Performance comparison between modo 401 and 501. All images are single pass renders straight out of modo (no post-processing applied) and were rendered at 1-2k using each artist's own (various) hardware
In terms of quality, renders in 501 appear cleaner especially in terms of noise created by area lights and surfaces with blurry reflections/refractions (Figure2).
Figure 2 - A simple scene lit with a single area light and using fairly low settings for both blurry reflections and light samples. Compare the areas indicated by the red arrows on both sides: The 501 render on the right is noticeably cleaner: It also rendered more than 3x faster than the 401 version.
Render Preview and RayGL
modo's excellent render preview feels a lot snappier and is able to produce a higher quality end-result than before. One of the great new features is the ability to focus computational/render time on a specific area of interest by scrubbing your mouse in the preview window. Other improvements include the option to pause irradiance calculations and an improved Shader Inspector.
Figure 3 - Screengrab showing how RayGL can be used to preview lighting in an OpenGL viewport. Also, notice the shape previews for the IES lights and the locked camera indicator, both are new to 501.
In addition to preview, you can now render directly in the 3d model/camera viewport (RayGL, Figure 4) and there's a new render region tool to work with it, although it's a shame that you cannot active this tool from within the current view in a similar fashion to RayGL.
Figure 4 - A screencast showing modo's interactive preview and the new 'update under mouse' functionality, as well as, the improved Shader Inspector and the new color picker.
Figure 5 - The snapping options pop-up is now accessed directly from tool properties. Very handy.
This is not to suggest that snapping in modo is perfect, e.g., in edge mode it's currently far too easy to fall-off whilst sliding along an edge and the guides need improving. I would also like to see the option to define custom combinations of the various snapping targets (to vertex, to edge, to edge centre, etc.).
Overall, however, snapping in 501 is a big and positive step in the right direction and these improvements not only provide for a better workflow and time-saving, but also give you an increased feeling of confidence when using snapping in modo.
Bump mapping has been re-written for 501 and the improvement is very noticeable (Figure 6). Also, using a distance value to specify bump feels more natural. One of my favorite new features is "Displacement as Bump" which enables you create displacement-like detail without taking the huge memory hit associated with large areas of displacement - ideal for use with anything from tree bark to bricks, stones and tiles.
Figure 6 - The new bump mapping produces impressive results despite the very flat/even lighting used in this test.
HDR Color Picker
The color picker has been completely overhauled (Figure7) and now includes various color models with rules (analogous, shades, etc.) that enable you to quickly generate color swatches, which can be saved. Furthermore, it now supports the use of floating point values for HDR colors i.e. colors outside of the usual sRGB range. The new Kelvin color model is handy for setting up lights and users can create custom color models with the SDK.
Figure 7 - The new color picker is vast improvement over the previous implementation.
Occlusion Layers and Contour Rendering
A new occlusion layer provides various occlusion types (convexity, concavity, etc.) that can be assigned on a per-material/mask basis and you can use one or more of these occlusion layers to drive other layers, e.g., to create weathered/worn materials.
Surface or segment contour rendering is now possible and is useful when creating engineering type visualizations. Combine this feature with occlusion layers and you can produce some nice results (Figure 8). I would like to see contours as a render pass in future, but for now you do have control over the pixel thickness, including fractional values, and fading of the contours.
Figure 8 - Image created using the new contour rendering capability combined with some subtle convexity type occlusion. Model courtesy of Ernesto Pacheco.
Pixar SDS and Multi-res Sculpting
A welcome addition to modo is Pixar's algorithms for surface smoothing, known in modo as PSub. PSubs are especially useful for rapid creation of hard surfaces and allow you to be economical with geometry by favouring edge weights over adding edge loops. Moreover, PSub smoothing does not distort your UVs when weighting is applied and it performs well when smoothing regions that contain extraordinary vertices. Overall, the implementation in modo feels fast, robust and easy to use, and you can even mix hard polygons, regular SDS and PSubs in the same layer: modo highlights each with a different color. On the flip side using PSubs will limit your export options (e.g., to Maya) and freezing them will create more geometry at higher sub-division levels than modo's native SDS.
Alongside PSubs, multi-resolution sculpting has come to modo. On the whole sculpting feels more responsive and less "laggy" than in previous versions, although it's possible to freeze modo if the max level is taken too high by mistake: This needs to be addressed. You'll need a good/latest-gen graphics card for best results and dedicated sculpting applications are better for complex work. Nonetheless, it's more than suitable for a lot of everyday (Arch-viz) tasks from creating landscapes to abstract sculptures.
Rigging and Animation
Animation in modo is in its infancy and while this release lacks things such as a character animation toolset there have been some well-thought-out and positive steps forward. The introduction of a schematic (graph) view has improved workflow considerably over the previous version of modo and I love the way one can simply drag items or channels from other parts of the UI into this view and quickly link them up. You can create some fairly complex rigs using this node-based system combined with the new channel modifiers and to keep things manageable you can group nodes into assemblies (See video, below). A color coding system helps with the readability of the graph, although a minor niggle is that the edges(connections) in schematic view can become messy in the current implementation.
Not a particularly sexy thing to discuss, I know, but the new SDK opens up modo by allowing for the creation of new tools, procedural geometry, channel modifiers and more. The SDK comes with a good variety of sample files, however, I feel the documentation is somewhat on the slim side. Some exciting add-ons are in the works including a Plants Kit by Laubwerk, a Colimo plug-in and my own CADbuddy tools (Figure 10).
Figure 10 - Various plug-ins useful for AEC type work are in development after Luxology expanded the scope of modo's SDK. Left: Laubwerk Plants Kit; Right: CADbuddy.
modo provides an increasingly robust toolset that can be used to great effect not only in the area of architectural visualization, but also for rendering AEC models. Of course, it does lack a comprehensive animation feature set including CA (although you can use mdd for characters) and some other features when compared to more established software and it would be great to see the inclusion of features such as a render-pass manager and basic compositing functionality etc. Nonetheless, modo is an increasingly strong contender for AEC related work, especially given its great workflow, price point and the quality of the images it produces (e.g., see the Gallery on Luxology's website).
In closing, if asked if it's worth upgrading from modo 401 or if you should consider modo 501 for Arch-viz work then I would say, "Yes" on both counts and without hesitation.
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