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REVIEW: Autodesk Mudbox 2012

Digital Sculpting Tools Get Serious with Ptex

For the past five years, Autodesk has been busy developing Mudbox alongside its other well-known suites of animation and modeling software. As a result, Mudbox 2012 ships with an even better 3D paint system, better posing, new sculpting options, interface improvements, and critical performance updates.
Though Mudbox 2011 introduced important new features to the 3D paint system, Mudbox 2012 goes above and beyond with support for Per-face texturing (Ptex) and new layer masks and blending modes.  Developed by Disney Studios,  Ptex is a novel, open source, texturing/mapping method that does not use UVs. Unlike UV mapping Ptex assigns texture data to each face (polygon) on a model; no UV data is required. Further, different faces can have varying resolutions and Ptex files can hold different texture maps like ambient occlusion, displacement or normal maps.

To get started using Ptex in Mudbox, simply run the Ptex Set Up command, select the texture resolution and start painting. It's that simple. You work with the painting tools, brushes and paint layers in Ptex exactly as you would work with UVs. Ptex, however, simplifies the painting process. The downside? The Ptex files are not really editable in programs like Photoshop, limiting those users who regularly use other apps to finish their work.

The layers in Mudbox 2012, however, did take a page from Photoshop and now have layer masks and 22 new blending modes. So instead of exporting textures to Photoshop to tweak them there, you can now do that work entirely in Mudbox. A handy tool called Solo inside paint layers quickly isolates the contents of one layer for easier editing.

Mudbox 2012 can now export multiple paint layers from all models in the scene in one operation, a very nice addition. There's also a new opacity channel for painting transparency, something many users have been waiting for.

The 3D/2D painting system in Mudbox 2012 is considerably improved. The paint layers feature a total of 22 blending modes, better interoperability with Photoshop, a new Solo option for easier editing, and many other new features. Image copyright © Robin Hall.

Overall, Mudbox's 3D paint system is top-notch and easily outshines the competition because of its ease-of-use and its comprehensive array of paint brushes and tools. The best thing about Mudbox's 3D paint system is that it has a standard interface and resembles Photoshop, so a new user does not have to learn yet another  paint workflow. The only thing I can complain about here is the fact that Mudbox does not have any practical UV tools like those found in ZBrush and 3DCoat.

Better Posing?

The ability to pose a model during sculpting is an important part of the design process. Mudbox used to be sorely lacking in any  real  posing tools. This new version, however, delivers a more complete joint and posing system and it is now possible to create multiple joints connected by bones. Theoretically, this should make it possible to completely rig, weight and pose an entire model. But you'll need to be careful: If weighting is not done correctly joints can sometimes end up being parented to the wrong bone. Fortunately Mudbox can import models that are fully rigged from applications like Maya and 3ds Max or any other application that can export files in the FBX format. Pose Presets is another new option that lets you save various poses and apply them later. But beware: While Mudbox's new posing tools are a huge improvement over previous versions, there is still a bit of quirkiness in the system that can cause unexpected results.

The Posing tools introduced in Mudbox 2011 are much improved in Mudbox 2012. It is now possible to completely rig a model with a full skeleton for better posing, though there are some annoying bugs. Its is also possible to import fully rigged models into Mudbox via FBX.

Improved Sculpting Workflow

While Mudbox 2010 introduced many new sculpting brushes and Mudbox 2011 added several more tools and options, this version adds only a few options to the existing Grab brush. It's better than nothing. The sculpting workflow got a lot more attention, however, and a bunch of sculpting tools have emerged with expanded features. Stencils got one of the coolest enhancements: you can now edit in real time with various brushes to make them conform better to models. The new Transfer Details option, thanks to better interoperability with Maya and 3ds Max, lets you import a model that has been changed in an external application and transfer sculpting data to that model. One of my favorite new tools is Rebuild Subdivision Levels, which will restore subdivision levels to dense models, making it possible to sculpt in the appropriate sub-D level on an imported model.

Smooth Performer

To offset the sheer processing burden imposed on your workstation by  digital sculpting and 3D painting, Mudbox 2012 has been tuned like a fine race car. Autodesk, working under the hood, has improved Mudbox's ability to load, display, edit and save massive texture datasets. This version can better manage huge, imported models with tens of millions of polys and native subdivisions for faster, smoother display and editing. These performance enhancements make Mudbox a more efficient, more stable digital sculpting and 3D painting platform overall.

Streamlined  Look

The Mudbox 2012 UI takes a page from Maya: New heads-up displays comes straight out of the Maya interface. Press the space bar and you get a new hot box displaying icons for Mudbox's main sections including sculpting, painting and selections. Right-click over a model or the scene and you get a display of contextual menus with common options. The Freeze, Weights and Selection tools also have new selection options including lasso and marquee. All of these new improvements are welcome, but Autodesk still needs to work on the Objects list so it conforms better to other Mudbox lists. You can't move or group objects from the Objects list and it does not have a contextual menu.

Are the Updates Worth the Price?

Mudbox has no quirky interface or steep learning curve to contend with and someone familiar with Maya, Max, Cinema 4D, (etc.) will quickly get their heads around Mudbox's workflows. Someone familiar with Photoshop will also instantly see the logic behind Mudbox's paint system, freeing them to create. Mudbox's sculpting and painting tools are unmatched in the market, and now it's getting even more serious with Ptex support, new layer masks and blending modes, updated posing tools, new sculpting options and workflow, and tuned computing performance. While still a bit pricey when compared to ZBrush or 3DCoat, Mudbox features tools and workflows not found in its competition, including one-click interoperability with applications like Max, Maya, SoftImage, and Photoshop.

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