A new look at 3D? In the run-up to last week’s launch of modo 601, we spoke to Luxology president Brad Peebler (inset) about forging a niche between the worlds of CAD and DCC. Main image: Warner McGee
“One of our goals on founding the company was to expand the market,” says Luxology president Brad Peebler. “We just weren’t brazen enough to come out and say it. People would have thought we were crazy.”
Peebler, speaking at a pre-launch press briefing for modo 601, is talking about the vision that has guided the firm he started ten years earlier with fellow former NewTek employees Allen Hastings and Stuart Ferguson.
It’s a journey that has seen Luxology steer an increasingly interesting course around the 3D industry. Rooted in animation and visual effects, but with one eye on the wider world of industrial design, Luxology has neither become the NewTek killer nor the direct competitor to Autodesk that many predicted, instead staking out a more complementary – and more complex – relationship to both.
It’s also one that has sometimes confounded the developer’s devoted – and growing – band of users. Which brings us to the reason that we’re all gathered in Luxology’s native San Francisco on a breezy November Tuesday: the latest version of modo.
The most headline-grabbing feature of modo 601, of course, is its character animation toolset: a perennial forum request – and persistent journalistic question – for the past five years.
“For some reason, people got really freaked out that we didn’t have a character animation system,” says Peebler. “It was actually quite insulting to be asked when modo would become a ‘full’ application.”
But modo 601 is about much more than bones and an IK solver, and it’s these other features, not how Luxology has replicated functionality already present in Maya, 3ds Max, Softimage et al, that gives the clue to the company’s development philosophy.
For a start, there’s the way the animation toolset is implemented. Peebler has often stated that Luxology’s aim is to make 3D easier – and modo 601 contains a good example, in the shape of the new Pose Tool.
Richard Yot’s short Dragon Tamer was animated using modo 601′s Pose Tool and forward kinematics, with Morph Maps and Morph Falloffs to handle the facial expressions: an unconventional, but speedy, workflow.
The Pose Tool enables users to take any model that has an attached skeleton and pull it into position without the need for complex rigging. Designed to enable artists to protoype rigs, it’s also capable of creating entire animations, as UK illustrator and 601 beta tester Richard Yot proved with his short, Dragon Tamer.
Yot says that of the three weeks he spent rigging and animating Dragon Tamer, the rigging took just two hours. “Even on a small job, say for an advertising pitch where you might only have a couple of days to complete the work, a lot of time would have been spent rigging a character,” he says. “With 601, that’s a thing of the past.”
And then there are the CAD Loader tools that Luxology announced at the same time as modo 601. Designed to automate the import and clean-up of CAD data within modo, they aren’t the sort of things you’d expect a conventional DCC tools company to bother with – at the briefing, Peebler joked about calling a press conference to say that Luxology had improved its File Open dialog.
But they are crucial to the market sector that the company is targeting: one that sits midway between the worlds of DCC and CAD. CGAM professionals – that’s CG for Advertising and Marketing, in Luxology’s terminology – aren’t trained 3D professionals. Many come from a Photoshop image-retouching background. But 3D is increasingly replacing live photography within this field: a fact Luxology aims to capitalise on.
Compared to visual effects or games, it isn’t a particularly glamorous market. But it is a big one: when Luxology announced in 2008 that it was licensing its rendering technology to SolidWorks developer Dassault Systèmes, it increased its user base to 1.3 million overnight. As Peebler put it at the briefing: “Explosions and robots are sexy, but they don’t move the industry forward.”
So where next?
Of course, it helps to have some competition to move things along. Peebler points out that in the DCC market, “there has been so much consolidation that people are just waiting for someone to stand up and be an alternative to the 800-pound gorilla” – but stops just short of saying that that someone will be Luxology.
“I don’t want to sit here and chew on Autodesk, because they’re a public company,” he says. “They’re just doing what they need to do [for their shareholders].”
But if the future doesn’t involve facing Autodesk head on, what does it involve? More deals with CAD developers, possibly: Peebler says that licensing its underlying Nexus technology was always part of the business plan, although he admits that the Dassault deal came earlier than he had expected.
More ease-of-use work, probably: Luxology’s add-on kits were designed for “the sort of user who isn’t necessarily going to make the time to learn everything about modo just to do a SolidWorks visualisation”, and it’s easy to infer that a similar philosophy informs much of the company’s development decisions.
More market expansion, almost certainly: ten years ago, it might have seemed crazy to suggest engineers could do their own rendering, but Luxology isn’t the only company to believe they can do their own animation today.
And if you work solely in the world of explosions and robots, and none of these things seem relevant to you? Well, you don’t really lose either. If all else fails, at least you’ve got those shiny new character tools.