Students, hobbyists get creative with programs favored by pros
By Mike Snider
Students and other fans of animation- and effects-packed films such as "Shrek" and "Lord of the Rings" now can learn to create computer-generated characters and environments for free using the same software as the pros.
Industry giant Alias/Wavefront (aliaswavefront.com) has introduced a free streamlined version of its "Maya" 3-D graphics software available for download from its Web site, and a $5 CD version also is available.
The company recently announced drastic price cuts on its professional versions, "Maya Complete" ($1,999) and "Maya Unlimited" ($6,999). That's far below their former prices of $7,500 and $16,000 sums that might not faze Industrial Light & Magic or DreamWorks but exclude small-time developers and hobbyists.
"Anybody who wants to do anything professional in 3-D now will be able to afford the tools that the top innovators use,'' said company president Doug Walker.
"Maya Complete" lets users build, animate and add voices to 3-D characters and create 3-D objects and environments for movies and games. "Maya Unlimited" has premium features for creating realistic cloth and fur. The free version offers tutorials and the same capabilities as "Maya Complete," but adds a watermark so that saved output cannot be used professionally. Still, students and budding animators can tinker with the technology used in films such as "Ice Age," "Monsters, Inc.," "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "Titanic."
Part of the "Maya" strategy is to get dabblers to graduate to more powerful and more expensive programs. "Going after the consumer market seems to be the Holy Grail for 3-D content-creation apps just now,'' said Daniel R. Huebner, editor of game development Web site gamasutra.com.
More likely: Lower prices might attract studios that previously "found 'Maya' too expensive," he said.
Others in the 3-D industry have aimed at developing new talent, too. SoftImage (softimage.com) has a free version of its "XSI" 2.0 effects software available online, also with a watermark. And last week NewTek cut the price of its LightWave 3-D software from $2,495 to $1,595.
Game publishers have been including a free developer version of Discreet's "gmax" animation software on games such as Microsoft's "Flight Simulator 2002" so that players can create new models, maps and character appearances. And Sony (playstation.com) is taking orders for its budget-priced Linux-based PlayStation 2 development kit ($199, due in May).
This is all good news for moviegoers and video game players, said Jennifer Olsen, editor in chief of Game Developer magazine.
"Removing the cost barrier means that more people can learn to author high-end 3-D content,'' she said. "The hobbyists of today will be the professionals of tomorrow, creating the sophisticated 3-D content consumers will be demanding.''