Web producers working in Macromedia’s Flash and Shockwave have had to work through some limitations. Although Flash and Shockwave are widely accepted as file formats for highly interactive and animation-intensive Web site graphics, creating compelling 3D content to work with those formats has, until now, required a cobbled-together collection of unrelated design tools. To fill that gap, Discreet (a division of 3D powerhouse Autodesk) has designed its $650 Plasma (for Windows 98/2000) to be an all-in-one 3D Web graphics tool.
Shockwave exporters have become de rigueu for 3D design tools, but only Alias|Wavefront’s Maya Real-Time Author has been available specifically as an interactive 3D Shockwave development tool. However, that software is a $995 add-on for Alias’ $1,999 3D design and animation system, Maya.
Plasma is a spin-off of Discreet’s high-end 3D animation system, 3D Studio Max, and users of Max will have no trouble finding their way through this mini-version. Although it strongly resembles its big brother, Plasma diverges from it in a variety of ways. For one, the included 150-page manual is only a set of tutorials, and online documentation takes the place of two thick volumes that come with 3D Studio Max. Even at $650, the software should come with a decent reference manual and printed index. Moreover, this first release was unstable and crash-prone when rendering Flash animations.
Like its high-end sibling 3DStudio Max, Plasma features a rich set of polygonal and subdivision surface-modeling features for creating just about any shape. Plasma offers a variety of primitive objects, and the capability to import many common 3D formats, such as 3D Studio (.3DS), AutoCAD (.DXF), 3D Studio Shape (.SHP), and Virtual Reality Markup Language (.VRML). Unfortunately, Plasma does not import .OBJ or .IGES files, two of the most commonly available formats for third-party 3D content.
But Plasma can also import Adobe Illustrator files, which make good starting points for creation of 3D logos and type. You can even edit Illustrator curves as editable splines, which is pretty cool (see figure 1). You can also create 3D text, using standard system fonts.
Figure 1a: Plasma lets you work with standard system fonts and to edit Illustrator outlines.
Figure 1b: An Illustrator logo extruded in Plasma.
Figure 1c: An Illustrator logo rendered as Flash.
As might be expected, Plasma can open 3D Studio Max files, including textures, lighting and animation, although a number of features, including 3DS Max plug-ins, are unsupported (see figure 2). However, 3D Studio Max users can quickly export standard animation files from Plasma to Shockwave or render them in Flash for online delivery. Unfortunately this is a one-way trip, and you won’t be able to import your Plasma files back into 3D Studio.
Figure 2: Plasma imports standard 3D Studio Max projects, but not all features are supported.
Plasma’s advanced modeling tools are capable of building sophisticated models. The polygonal tools include standard derivative surfaces, such as lathes, lofts and extrusions, making it possible to model all kinds of architectural and mechanical forms. Subdivision surfaces, meanwhile, allow you to quickly sculpt complex organic objects, such as animals, plants, and human characters, by working with much simpler polygonal shapes. I found Plasma’s subdivision surfaces (identical to 3DStudio Max’s MeshSmooth feature) quite enjoyable and fluid to work with, and I was able to build a detailed cartoon character in an afternoon.
Figure 3: Plasma’s subdivision surface modeler, MeshSmooth, lets you quickly build interesting characters, and other organic models. To create more detailed areas, such as an ear on a head, you simply add more detail to the polygon mesh in that area.