Modo is one of the most unique and interesting 3D creation applications available. It has clearly taken its own development path. The team that developed it, lead by Brad Peebler, were originally at NewTek developing LightWave. I often complained in the early days that LightWave was like an old farm house, put together helter-skelter with a lot of old code underneath and an interface that begged for improvement. I also wrote that the the program needed to be rewritten from the ground up with serious interface and performance improvements. Apparently some of the lead engineers at LightWave were thinking in the same direction because in 2001, they had the testicular integrity to leave LightWave en masse to form Luxology. They were brave and I salute them. They’d had years of feedback from users and they knew what users wanted, even if upper management didn’t. With their years of experience they also had a few ideas of their own—great ideas.

The bad thing is this left NewTek in the lurch and LightWave foundered for a few years. The upside of that branch of the story, however, is that LightWave is still alive and well and is rapidly improving under the able guidance of VFX guy Rob Powers, animator of the 3D dancing baby on Ally McBeal and virtual set supervisor on Avatar and The Adventures of Tintin. But that’s another story.

The Luxology team struggled for three years to write an entirely new and unique 3D development application that incorporated their new view of where the industry was headed and what kinds of new workflows and tools were really needed. Personally, my hat is off to them. They did what NewTek had refused to do at the time. Years ago Brad Peebler told me, “Management is hesitant to change the interface because we have such a large, entrenched user base and they don’t want to learn a significantly new interface. The fear is that if we make too many improvements all at once, we’ll loose them.”

Clearly Brad had ideas of his own along those lines. He and his team managed to build modo from the ground up incorporating their many creative and out-of-the-box solutions. They announced modo 201 at 2005 SIGGRAPH. The software was actually released the following May, and promptly won the Apple Design Award for Best Use of OSX Graphics. Don’t worry, it’s now available in a Windows version as well. Less than a year later a new version was released featuring even faster rendering. I should say that modo is known for its outstanding real-time workspace performance and outstanding original render engine. It was quickly adopted by some of the major studios. Pixar is a user; the latest version, modo 501, in fact has support for Pixar Subdiv Surfaces and was used on Wall-E.

Peebler tells me that at Luxology, render speed with quality is a key driving force. The company has done deep research into finding that holy grail: super-fast rendering on the GPU. They’ve worked with NVIDIA engineers and have discovered that, as currently configured, GPU is not truly suited to fast quality renders. They had an interesting video on the subject where Peebler demonstrates the problems with GPU high-quality renders, but that’s no longer on YouTube. He addresses some of the same issues in this video, however:

For Luxology, it’s about the CPU. In the video, Peebler shows some amazingly fast renders Luxology has been able to do with the CPU. It took some collaboration with Intel to get there, but they’ve found ways to exploit all sorts of little known CPU-render capabilities. The difference is significant.

My talks with several developers have yielded the similar information. NVIDIA’s Maximus, which ramps up GPU rendering with a companion Tesla processor, is getting close but in my opinion, high-quality GPU hardware rendering still has a way to go. It is hard to compete with the CPU, which has many fewer restrictions. The key seems to be parallelism. The more CPUs you can throw at the problem the faster your quality renders will be. Luxology is also looking into Cloud rendering with some significant success thus far. The closest solution appears to be a hybrid one where the rendering chores are split up with the GPU doing what it does best and the CPU doing the polishing and integrating the results.
As a side note, one of the people I discussed GPU rendering with was Nicholas Phelps, CEO of E-On Software, makers of Vue. He said they’ve run into similar problems and have come up with some solutions for rendering complex atmospheres, but it’s expensive and only available in their professional line of production software.

As for Modo 501. I really like it. It is innovative and, in many ways, unique. Admittedly it’s taking me some time to get used to Modo’s unique, yet efficient workflow. Like Zbrush and Vue, Modo has thrown out some convention in order to maximize efficient workflow. I’m so used to working in Maya, Max that I keep forgetting how to do certain things in Modo. That’s just a matter of getting used to the interface and its workflow.

So the problem here is that we’re all so used to inefficient workflows that it takes guts and determination for a software developer to go against convention (I’m not an editor, but you could say the same about Apple’s recent move with Final Cut Pro X). For reviewers like me, and animators who have been working in the field for a few years, it’s a small problem. We’ve been working with the same standard ways for years and change is not everyone’s cup of tea. The first program to change things up significantly was the now gone trueSpace. They fooled around with the windows interface in an attempt to moderately modify the workflow. Then came Pixology with their amazing Zbrush. It took me a while to get used to their way of doing things, and I forget every time I switch off to another application for a while. Modo has that same problem. It has been designed by artists and engineers to be more efficient than conventional. Ideally it is more efficient than many other packages, but mostly if this is your first experience with 3D modeling, texturing and animation. The best way to learn and work with Modo is to invest in Luxology’s excellent tutorials and work through them methodically. I’ve been told by people who know that once you get used to Modo, the other packages start to feel really klunky.

Rather than having literally thousands of individual tools to choose from like the Autodesk packages, Modo has i’s own way of doing things where you have versatile tools that can be combined in various ways to accomplish what you want. It takes creativity, but the resulting efficiency and speed of creation can be mind boggling. Modo uses a “Tool Pipe” that allows a tech savvy artist to build a tool to do pretty much whatever she needs it to do. Using the Tool Pipe you can create your own special set of tools that work exactly the way you want to work. You can then assign them their own falloffs and hotkeys. The tool pipe works with modeling and selection tools.

I believe Modo is definitely worth the time to learn, especially now that it’s being recognized and used by the major studios. The tool’s ability to let you customize your personal workflow is unmatched and that leads to greater efficiency and faster modeling, texturing and animation, increasing your personal productivity.

At the moment I’m also looking at Zbrush V4R2 and the Vue 10. Both have significant improvements in speed, efficiency and new tools. More on them soon.