Ann Fisher
Issue: May 1, 2007


It's all about how you finish. Rendering is the last major step in the graphics pipeline, and with the increasing sophistication of computer graphics it has become a more distinct subject.

This process of generating an image from a model, adding pixels to flesh out geometry, viewpoint, texture and lighting has spawned numerous tools. Post looks at the latest versions and highlights of  some 3D applications with native rendering, as well as standalone renderers, rendering plug-ins and rendering management tools.


Maya 8.5 has many renderers — its native renderer, hardware renderer, vector renderer, Mental Ray for Maya (based on the Mental Ray V.3.5 core) and Mental Ray Satellite. All share a unified rendering workflow with one type of user interface.
How important is the rendering function to Maya? "Typically, many artists want to have their cake and eat it too," says Autodesk's Rob Hoffmann, senior product marketing manager for media and entertainment, 3D, referring to Maya's many render options and smooth workflow from other 3D functions.
Much of the Mental Ray for Maya functionality was done for this release. This includes physical sun and sky shaders that let artists choose a particular time of day and the renderer sets up the sun with the correct lighting. New architectural shaders eliminate trial and error when creating frosted or clear glass, sandblasted or shiny metals, wood grains and lacquers. The new round corner shader lets artists determine the amount of bevel on straight lines and does it automatically during the render. A new tone mapping shader allows artists to convert a high range of images to low range images in order to accommodate the limitations of certain display devices. An enhanced Mental Ray render editor and batch option editor use hardware resources more efficiently since each automatically configures Mental Ray to determine optimal memory limits, tile sizes and number of threads. It improves the workflow and interface for CG effects shader support using CG library V.1.5. It can render HDRI files.
Says Hoffmann, "With both Maya and 3DS Max, if people want to use our renderers, great, they're already integrated in the software. but they also have ability to look at other renderers. On the Maya side, people use [Pixar] RenderMan as well. On the Max side, there's VRay to Final Render. If they want to use a third-party renderer, it's easy to integrate."
Release/Price: January '07/Complete $1,999, Unlimited $6,999
(32 and 64 bit)

3DS Max 9 includes two render options: its native renderer and Mental Ray for 3DS Max (based on the Mental Ray V.3.5 core). In Mental Ray for 3DS Max, "up to 1,000 render nodes are built into the software so that any individual who wants to start up their own miniature renderfarms is able to do so by just getting one copy of 3DS Max. It's all controlled through Backburner [render control software included in 3DS Max]," says Autodesk's Hoffmann.
Much work has been done with the user interface — dialogue boxes have been modified for workflow. V.9 also has physical sun and sky shaders, all architectural shaders, a rounded corner shader and a new car paint shader. "One of the really difficult things for artists to mimic are everyday things. The car shader, a drag and drop shader, will mimic the primer coat and base coat," he says. 
Release/Price: April '07 (available to subscription customers only; Max 9 released in October '06)/
$3,495 (32 and 64 bit)

Complete integration into any pipeline and 32-bit support are the latest news from this app with native renderer, according to Paul Babb, president/CEO of Maxon, US. "It's all about the artist for us — we just want to make it easy for the artist to get things done.
"Most of what you see on Fox, the NFL [Network], ESPN, these are all done with our software because we actually render straight out to applications like After Effects, Final Cut Pro, AlienBrain, so they don't have to re-render if there are any changes that need to be made," he says. "For instance, you can render out every single material channel as a separate channel. You can render out lights so that the lights all come out as separate channels, and you can even break lights up into shadows, diffusions and speculars so if the client wants to blur a reflection to make it softer you can do that in your 2D application, you don't have to render it out of Cinema again. However, our customers do export to other rendering engines. Sony [Imageworks] does using RenderMan. We don't have direct connections to Mental Ray but we do to RenderMan."
Cinema 4D V.10 (released with BodyPaint3D V.3) has 32-bit support throughout. Artists can render and paint at high resolution. "A lot of our film people utilize body paint for texture mapping. The 32-bit enables them to paint very, very high rez images, including HDRI imagery," says Babb. The company also still offers free tech support.
Within the past year, Cinema 4D has launched, a Website with over 600 tutorials that range from rendering and character tools to doing a full broadcast package for a station. Later this year the site will add many more visual effects tutorials on topics such as greenscreen shoots and how to build your own virtual set.
Release/Price: November '06/
Cinema 4D $895, Cinema 4D XL $2195, Cinema 4D Studio Bundle $3,495

For some people, the renderer is the primary reason they buy LightWave, says Jay Roth, president of NewTek's 3D division. "People really like the rendering engine and, at the price point it's at now, it's like a plug-in for other applications."
NewTek stresses LightWave's simplicity and ease of use. "We want the creative process to come out. We don't want people to have to sit around and screw with numbers and dials," he says. "There's this perception that if you don't have a lot of dials and techcentric boxes, there's not a lot of power — but that's totally wrong. The power's there but what we're doing is putting another layer on top of that that's more human in nature. It still looks technical, I don't want to give a false impression, but it's less so and these shaders are really self contained."
In LightWave V.9.2, the renderer has basically been rebuilt on a modern, very fast KDTree system. It has physically correct motion blur [artists have shutter and exposure control], physically accurate depth of field and powerful anti-aliasing. Several customer requests have been incorporated, including new radiosity with final gather and a new Monte Carlo sampler. New physically-active materials include a metallic properties shader, a dielectric shader designed to represent transparent volume for glass and liquids, and a simple skin shader that gives artists depth control over dermis and epidermis layers.
"When you combine this with a third-party product called Fprime [from Worley], the two together handshake really well and, from a creative throughput standpoint, it just rocks," says Roth. "Fprime is a realtime previewer. It can also render final images as well. It's up to the user to decide which way they want to go. A year ago they would've chosen Fprime for doing some of this stuff but now with what we've done with the radiosity engine, people are starting to choose LightWave again."
Release/Price: May 2007/ Until July 1st, $795 ($895 w/training bundle) full. After, $895 full

From the very beginning, Softimage|XSI has shipped with native Mental Ray rendering, offering a core-level integration of the Mental Ray renderer (current version is V.3.5.6), which provides significant performance and workflow advantages. To begin with, a shared memory architecture makes Mental Ray up to 10 times more efficient. .MI files can be up to 10 times smaller, and render times up to five times faster. Mental Ray can also take advantage of XSI's Gigapolygon core to render extremely large scenes, irrespective of physical memory limits.
Core-level integration means that Mental Ray features are exposed at every stage of the shading and rendering pipeline. From shading views like the texture layer editor and material manager, to the render tree — easily the most flexible way of creating and editing complex shaders and materials — XSI displays fully rendered, customizable shaderball previews. Users can draw interactive render regions in viewports to generate full-quality Mental Ray preview renders that can be stored in memory and compared easily.
In XSI 6, the rendering core has been completely revamped for increased performance, scalability and extensibility. In addition to native render passes and partitions, XSI 6 now lets users render any combination of built-in, preset and user-defined render channels using integrated frame buffers. Rendering options are now accessible from a centralized render manager that offers an improved global view of all render-related settings.
In addition to Mental Ray rendering, XSI offers native OpenGL and DirectX hardware rendering. XSI 6 also features a new rendering API that allows developers to make third-party rendering engines available directly in XSI. Integrated third-party renderers can be activated from the XSI render options, and can take full advantage of XSI shading and rendering tools like the render tree, the render region, render passes and the Quick Shade shaderball engine.
"For XSI Version 6, we wanted to expand the flexibility of our rendering core to offer far greater rendering capabilities, and in doing so we ended up re-writing the entire render core," says Halfdan Ingvarsson, rendering team lead at Softimage. "These new tools now give artists greater control over the look of final renders as well as expand their creative options with broader choices."
Release/Price: December '06, Softimage|XSI Advanced (End-to-end 3D
animation and effects)/$6,995


The savvy veteran of standalone rendering software, RenderMan has not stagnated. It is constantly refining its core product while identifying emerging markets. New this year, RenderMan Studio aims for the middle point of the road between entry level and high end server product. While the same price as Pro Server, it also includes a Maya bridge product and Alfred, a job distribution system. Other important tools are Slim, which artists use to produce high quality RenderMan shaders and a fancy image manipulation tool for processing and compositing that can be scripted and sent out to your renderfarm.
"There's a growing group of folks that fall between high end studios and smaller facilities that produce either short animations or even BBC segments," says Dana Batali, director of RenderMan development. "RenderMan Studio is in one way an upgrade for RenderMan for Maya but, in another way, it's also access to RenderMan Pro Server."
RenderMan Pro Server V.13.5, for professionals with gigantic renderfarms, has significantly enhanced its shading language and increased its performance for multiprocessor machines. It now scales more linearly with simple scenes and can scale for complex scenes fairly linearly up to eight processors. "Those are the kinds of machine that are just going to be coming widely available in the next six months," says Batali.
RenderMan for Maya V.2 supports Maya V.8.5. Pixar's goal was to make this equivalent to Maya's native renderer so it seems like an internal renderer. "The advantage is to open the doors to a broader audience," says Batali. "You don't have to be high end to capitalize on the advantages of RenderMan's technology. RenderMan technology is so good because of a combination of factors — it makes the highest quality images with the most control from artistic as well as technical dimensions, for the fastest speed and lowest memory consumption. This is the entry level version, for small post house type work."
Release/Price: May '07/Renderman Pro Server V.13.5, $3,500; RenderMan for Maya 2.0, $995; RenderMan Studio, $3,500


This management umbrella over rendering applications initially allowed artists to work in After Effects while they were still rendering. Now, Nucleo Pro 2 upgrades with broader support for 3D applications in background render queues. Artists can also specify how nested compositions are rendered to further streamline productivity.
"In that render queue, you can drag and drop projects from Maya or Softimage|XSI or 3DS Max, Cinema 4D, any of these 3D rendering applications, onto the background rendering queue, specify the details of the render you need — what file it's going out to, what frames to render — then drop it in and we'll manage it in the background with all your After Effects projects," explains director of product management Ben Piercey. "So it's a single place where all these renders are queued up and ready to run, you can reorder them but it's all managed under the umbrella of the Nucleo Pro background render queue."
Another new feature is Nucleo render proxies which allow artists to tag those features that are expensive, "that cost you a lot of time rendering, and render it out independently of the main composition. When you're rendering the main composition the next time, just drop those frames in. It's an optimization," he says. This particular suggestion came from a film client.
Release/Price: June '07/$395

This renderfarm management software offers a new Python-scriptable interface that allows studios to customize graphic interfaces for their pipelines. A single window layout replaces multiple windows. New panels include Farm at a Glance, which display worker status summaries for the entire farm; Output, which shows output images from jobs; and Histogram, which displays task/frame render times.
Supports: Maya, 3DS Max, LightWave 3D (this is new), Mental Ray (new)
Release/Price: March '07/20-license bundle starts at $2K.


In partnership with Mental Images, ARTVPS launched RenderServer, a 64-bit standalone renderer that can be used independently or as part of a dedicated renderfarm. RenderServer includes Mental Ray and its own advanced RenderPipe material library. Standard configuration of RenderServer includes two dual-core AMD Opteron processors, 4MB RAM, 250GB hard disk, 1GB Ethernet, a mountable 1U rack and an interactive front panel IP-setup display.
Supports: Maya, 3DS Max
Release/Price: August '06/$9,800

Raybox is a 64-bit Renderpipe renderer that can also be used as a standalone. It features the AR500, the new dedicated raytracing processor from ARTVPS.
Supports: Maya, 3DS Max
Release/price: March '07, $8300

This rendering plug-in offers photometric lights to render real-world light situations, offers true 3D microtriangle displacement and true 3D motion blur. It offers a physical sky simulation method that accurately represents colors and illumination models of real world sky environments.
Supports: 3DS Max (new), Maya, Cinema 4D and XSI
Release/Price: March '07, $695

This plug-in's latest version for 3DS Max is 64-bit ready, offers Global Illumination, Materials, Textures, Lights, Cameras, Render to texture, Vray frame buffer and MaxScript. It supports Max Render Elements. Its renderer supports motion blur on particle flow systems and new Reinhard color mapping mode. Modified features include Vray Light, Vray Fur, Vraytoon, VrayDisplacementMod and Distributed Rendering.
Supports: 3DS Max (new), Maya
Release/Price: V1.5 for 3DS Max in August '06, $799

This renderfarm management system works on Windows-based renderfarms of all sizes. It touts a modern, artist-centric, intuitive user interface. Extensive job scheduling options include numeric job priorities and machine pools.
Supports: 3DS Max, AE, Side Effects Houdini, LightWave, Maya, Nuke, Realflow, Toxik and XSI.
Release/Price: November '06, $1,625 (10 render nodes); $33,250 (250 render nodes)

This plug-in offers a fast and easy-to-use baking functionality for next-gen game developers. IL has been working on making the technology behind Turtle platform independent and now also offers Beast (based on the same Turtle technology), which offers development companies the freedom to add extremely complex baking functionality to their internal tools.
Supports: Maya,
Release/Price: March '07/$1,299

This 3D application with native rendering claims one of the industry's fastest renderers for global illumination. Modo 3D modeling, painting and rendering software is designed to accelerate the creation of models, their color and normal maps, and their rendering. This new version's renderer has boosted its raytracing speed and added ambient occlusion and full light baking operations, often used to increase rendering speed in game development. Irradiance caching has been optimized, upgrading global illumination performance on large resolution renderings.
Release/Price: March 2007/$895

This rendering plug-in, dubbed "the light simulator," is based on the physics of real light. Key factors include ease of use and Maxwell Multilight, which allows light adjustment in realtime. A new major release is in the works that will have Linux compatibility, improved networking options and efficiencies.
Supports: 3DS Max, Maya, Cinema 4D, LightWave, Rhino
Release/Price: July '06/$695
(available bundled with Rhino)

A GPU-accelerated rendering plug-in, Gelato 2.1 comes from the maker of graphics accelerator boards. Other enhancements include improved stereo rendering and fog lights. Performance improvements include faster raytracing and ambient occlusion. Gelato ships with plug-ins for Maya and 3DS Max. Gelato Pro is supported only on Nvidia Quadro solutions.
Supports: Maya, Max, Joe Alter's Shave and a Haircut
Release/Price: March '07/$1,500

Overall speed improves this plug-in with a completely rewritten core and revamped 3DS Max integration. New render features include an unlimited number of render presets, improved anti-aliased image filtering and texture filtering quality, support for basic texture baking, and enhanced Global Illumination adjustments. New materials features include improved dispersion shading for glass. There are also new texture maps, 3D motion blur support and displacement support. Camera improvements include support for multipass effects.
Supports: 3DS Max
Release/Price: Currently in beta/$995