AUGUST 29, 2001
by David Nagel
I haven't even looked at Bryce since version 1 or so, so when I got a hold of Bryce 5, I was, needless to say, pleasantly surprised. Bryce 5 is Corel's 3D landscaping, modeling, animation and rendering suite that the company acquired during the dissolution of Metacreations. As with an awful lot of tools originally developed by Metacreations, Bryce has achieved something of a cult status among users, along with Painter (which Corel also owns), Poser (now owned by Curious Labs) and Carrara (now owned by TGS). There's better reason for this now than ever, as we'll get to below, as well as more reason than ever for professional 3D artists to consider Bryce as an addition to their toolset.
First off, I should note that Bryce 5 is Corel's first Mac OS X-native application. However, I'm reviewing it under Mac OS 9.0.4 because, as with most applications running under OS X, there are still some limitations attributable to the OS itself that won't be worked out until the OS X 10.1 release due in September. These are chiefly related to OpenGL, but there are also some quirks in the OS X interface and device support that simply make working in OS 9 better for the time being. In OS X, this translates to slightly longer render times, which can create unnecessary problems for those working on multi-frame pieces, and a lack of support for some input devices, such as pressure-sensitive tablets.
All of this said, it should also be noted that Bryce 5 is Carbonized for OS X, meaning that you simply install the OS 9 version, which will then work natively in OS X as well without any further installation or hassles.
At any rate, kudos to Corel for putting out an OS X version for what is right now a very limited subset of the Macintosh market. This is the kind of move that shows when a company's interested in serving the customer's needs, even customers in a small niche. It takes time and money to port applications to OS X, and it says a lot about a company that chooses to do so.
I see Bryce as a tremendous tool for creating mattes/backdrops for film or video work to be incorporated into either live action or animated pieces. I think it would be even better if it could be hosted from within other 3D packages (a la Poser) or gain better integration with other programs (as detailed below), but, as it stands, it's still quite a useful, professional-level tool.
Now I already know what a lot of 3D artists out there are thinking. First, they're very attached to their 3D package. They've invested years of training to master it; no other tool can do what it can do; and they surely do not want to leave it to do a portion of a project in another application. Add to this the fact that Bryce is almost never the topic of interest in professional discussions, and they have lots of fuel for skepticism. These seem to be fairly common attitudes for 3D artists, but they're also very impractical and limiting views. If you're a little more open-minded, I suggest simply going to Corel's site and downloading the 30-day trial version. It's more than enough time to learn the basics of the program and give you enough information to tell you whether it will be useful for your needs. Couldn't hurt, right?
But by far the most appreciated new rendering feature is network rendering, which allows Bryce's rendering clientBryce Lightningto aid in the rendering of still images or animation files across a network, including the Internet. All you have to do is run the client on a networked device (regardless of platform) and enter the client's IP address in the network rendering setup dialog. Each client can also be set to render tiles of a single frame so that even still images can benefit from additional processors.
This is particularly important with the new, higher-quality dithering, 256 ray-per-pixel tracing and more processor-intensive optimizations, render times are longer in version 5 than in version 4. You can also very easily set a project to render only on client machines, freeing up your primary computer so that you can continue modeling or move on to another project.
The negative of trees in Bryce is that they can't be exported into other formats. So, basically, if you want to use Bryce's trees, you're going to have to do your final render in Bryce as well. I happen to think that Bryce's rendering is better than at least one popular, "high-end" package out there, but you may think differently. (I'll let you guess which one. Hint: It's not available for the Mac.)
At any rate, if you do plan to render from Bryce, the Tree Lab is a great tool for creating custom trees rather than going to the trouble of downloading polygonal trees, importing them and then customizing each one to prevent them from looking like duplicates of one another.
This includes intensity, softness, shadow ambiance and softness, volume, falloff, color and gel type. (Gels can include textures and images.) It also provides a space for animating a light's properties outside the main timeline and away from the clutter of the Advanced Motion Lab. (Actually, the Motion Lab isn't cluttered, but, since the window can't be resized, it's just easier to work in the Light Lab for animating light properties.)
Many of the features in the Sky Lab are accessible directly in the main composition workspace, but the Lab itself offers more options for customizing the scene, including animating cloud movement, adding volume to the atmosphere, etc. For night scenes, you can also add custom star fields or select a field based on the stars that are visible from the earth.
First there's new support for metaballs. For me, Bryce is first and foremost a landscaping program, and I won't pretend that it would be a great environment for doing character modeling or anything like that. Still, the addition of metaballs does give Bryce users one more tool to work with in the creation of their worlds, and that can't be bad.
There are new import and export filters for supporting a broad range of objects from popular (and not so popular) commercial 3D programs. These include everything from LightWave scenes and objects (but not LightWave 6 or above), OBJ, DFX, NFX, VRML, U.S. Geological Survey DEM and DDF and a whole lot more. I do hope that in a future release users will be able to export entire scenes to popular formats, especially the trees that Bryce creates.
It also includes new terrain grid resolutions (up to 4,096 for planetary scale) and five new mapping modes, including Sinusoidal, World Front, World Side, World Cubic and Object Cubic.
I have to say that in terms of disappointments, which I include in every review, Bryce offered very few. Rendering speed, of course, can always be improved. And more procedural objects could always be added. But for me the one thing that I think detracted from the experience of using Bryce was the interface. It's been improved, no doubt, but there's still room for more improvement.
In terms of appearance, the interface is actually quite nice. But in terms of function, in many cases, you'll find that functions can be accessed only through little dots or icons not really related to the function they represent. I would like to see a customizable interface in the next update, including the ability to add nested functions to the main interface and the ability to add text labels to icons.
Second, when you mouse over an icon in the main interface, explanatory text appears in the lower left corner of the screen; however, in subsections, such as the Motion Lab and Sky Lab, you get no indication whatsoever as to the function of a given button.
Third, I would like some standard interface elements added in, such as the ability to move and resize windows, more functions accessible via menus, etc.
I'm not saying that every interface should resemble Photoshop. Just that icons should be linked to function in a memorable and logical manner, that users should be able to make adjustments to the interface to make it work better for them and that in no case should interface design get in the way of the work.
As for the capabilities of the program, I have to give high marks. As it should be, the creation of hills, plains and bodies of water is simple but with enough customizability to allow you to be as creative as you want to be. Beyond simple terrestrial features, I also have to give high marks to all of the individual workspaces (Light Lab, Sky Lab, etc.) for their ease of use and sophistication. Animation is also very easy, with several automatic animation features (such as cloud movement), which can also be keyframed. In other words, you can set the rate of movement for clouds and then keyframe the rate of movement later in the timeline, all within the Sky Lab workspace.
Finally, the rendering features in version 5 have gained some great additions, particularly in the areas of depth of field and volume lighting and atmospheres. The network renderer is also a critical addition to this process for times when you need to render large, complex files with maximum ray tracing (256 rays per pixel), which can take an enormous amount of time to complete on a single machine. I really came into this review expecting not too terribly much from Bryce's rendering capabilities, figuring I'd focus more on the creation and editing tools. But, in the end, the renderer impressed me. It puts out some very nice looking images. The improvements to the quality of the renders have made the rendering engine a bit on the slow side, but hopefully this is a matter of optimization for a forthcoming update.
Corel has done a great job of taking Bryce to the next level in version 5 and bringing it further into the realm of professional 3D tools. Long-time Bryce users will appreciate all of the new features of the program, and new users should be delighted by the sophistication of this program. For those who need software for developing 3D worlds and animating them, I give Bryce 5 a strong buy recommendation.
Bryce 5 is available for Macintosh, Mac OS X and Windows for $299 for the full version, $149 for the upgrade. For more information, visit http://www.corel.com.
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Dave Nagel is the producer of Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; host of several World Wide User Groups, including Synthetik Studio Artist, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign, Adobe LiveMotion, Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; and executive producer of the Digital Media Net family of publications.