Bryce 5 is a World Apart
Bryce, published by Corel Corp., is a one-of-a-kind niche program for creating static and animated 3D landscapes. That said, I'll embellish this statement by saying that the program is addictive, enormously powerful, and richly imaginative in both concept and execution.
The basic idea behind Bryce sounds simple. You can add objects (terrains, sky, water, geometric primitives, or imported 3D constructions) to a 3D drawing board; adjust sky, lighting, and animation settings; then render it all to a file for post-processing in another program such as Adobe Premiere or Photoshop. It's the remarkable breadth of tools and their potent flexibility that makes Bryce such a joy to work with. Most 3D programs seem daunting to learn. But that's not the case with Bryce. In no other consumer-level program can you so easily fool around with Mother Nature: tweaking cloud cover; painting a two-dimensional terrain and watching it emerge from the ground; or animating the development of a life-like (or completely alien) tree.
Cooking in the Labs
Although using Bryce can be as simple as dragging and dropping prefabricated items into a scene, the customization tools or "labs" provide an alarming array of controls for tweaking the appearance of each type of object. The Sky and Fog Palette, for example, offers adjustments for haze, sun, moon, shadows, clouds, and of course sky and fog. And if you want to dig deeper, you can enter the Sky Lab and fool around with rainbows, halos, star fields, and comets (See Figure 1). Similarly complex controls are offered for editing terrains and material textures (see Figure 2).
Figure 1: The Sky Lab's three sub-panels cover all the celestial bases -- you can even add a star field based on those visible from Earth or create your own custom star map.
Figure 2:The number of adjustments in the Materials Editor is mind-boggling. Fortunately, there are plenty of presets available that you can use as is or fine tune in the Materials editor.
Users of Bryce 4 who felt that version didn't offer enough customization will rejoice in version 5's two new labs. The Light Lab consolidates all the direct lighting controls found in version 4 into a single location, making it a lot easier to adjust the myriad parameters available to you (see Figure 3). There are new options to experiment with -- shadow ambience, soft shadows, blurry reflections, blurry transmissions, and true ambience. The biggest problem here is mastering the complex controls to achieve the look you want. The ability to render the scene or render against a flat background is helpful for previewing changes, but we wish the teensy preview window were a little larger.
Figure 3: The simplified Light Lab makes it a great deal easier to create custom lighting effects.
The neatest innovation in Bryce 5 is the Tree Lab for designing your own flora. If you are partial to the shape of a willow tree but want evergreen needles -- no problem. Choose the Willow Tree Shape and the White Pine or Spruce Foliage Shape. Like birch trees but would like to see more leaves? Just adjust the Number of Leaves control. This dialog box has sliders for every conceivable tree parameter: trunk thickness; branch-start angle, thickness, segments; foliage distribution, gravity effect, randomness among trees with identical settings; and so on (see Figure 4). For both the bark and the leaves, you can specify a textured material (presets for both leaves and trunks are available), an image, or a uniform color. I am crazy about this lab -- it takes landscape design and creative botany to a whole new level.
Figure 4: The Tree Lab is electric botany at it's finest. Best of all, there's no waiting around to see the mature result as you would in nature.
Given it origins as a product in MetaCreations' Kai's Power Tools line, Bryce is well known for its fantasyland interface, what with oddball buttons, mysteriously named adjustments, and extra functions that lurk inside of the window. In this version, the Terrain editor has been spiffed up. There's a new animation timeline function for keyframing the development of the terrain, although some of the tools may give unpredictable (and weird) results if you choose to record the steps you took to generate the final terrain (see Figure 5). You'll also see floating, rather than static, panels for quicker access to more features and you can now scale both the Terrain Canvas and the 3D Preview windows. The terrain brushes are still limited to varying round sizes -- we sure would like to have more flexibility for brush shape. And could we please have readable type and right-button context menus?
Figure 5: Build a ground plane with a paintbrush and the extensive editing tools in the Terrain editor. Too bad the editing functions are listed in murky-colored type.
More Modeling Tools
Although Bryce offers a nice range of geometric primitives (cylinders, cones, toruses, and so on), most of these have a man-made appearance, making it difficult to construct organic-looking objects with the Boolean operators. Bryce 5 introduces Metaballs -- spheres that flow into each other based on proximity. You can use metaballs effectively to assemble life-like creatures and other bulgy objects. Working with metaballs is kind of like modeling with magnetic clay: the closer you position the spheres to each other, the more they fuse together. In wireframe mode the metaballs just look like spheres, but you can see what's going on in the NanoPreview window or a rendered scene (see Figures 6 and 7). The metaballs don't have to remain perfect spheres -- all of the usual Edit functions are available for changing the appearance. However, the shape of these metaballs isn't anywhere near as flexible as those in a program like Caligari's trueSpace, which allows considerable leeway for deformation by pinching and yanking. In Bryce, the metaball may be scaled along any axis and that's about it.
Figure 6: Metaballs don't look like much in wireframe mode...
Figure 7: ...but when the scene is rendered, the metaballs come alive. (Note the frog tongue metaball lying on the ground.)
The final big addition to version 5 is network rendering. Rendering a scene can be time-consuming and may tie up your local machine for hours. If you are on a network, you have the option of slicing the scene into smaller pieces and sending each section to a different machine for simultaneous computation. One machine acts as a server and the other computers can have a copy (licensed, of course) of Bryce 5 or you can install the included helper utility, Bryce Lightning, that just handles network rendering.
Unfortunately, the machines must be connected via TCP/IP for network rendering -- you can't use other network protocols -- and in some circumstances (at least in my early experience with a Windows XP beta in which TCP/IP was bound to a network board) local TCP/IP connections may slow all the machines on the network to a mind-numbing creep. If network rendering is important to you, be aware of this potential limitation.
Three-dimensional landscaping is a specialty application and I won't say that this program is an indispensable component of every graphic designer's toolbox. However, if you just can't get the hang of more complex 3D modeling programs and want the ability to easily fashion landscapes and world terrains, you should definitely consider this program. Bryce will also be of interest to geographers, as USGS formats are importable and can be turned into 3D terrains with a minimum of fuss. Of course, current Bryce artists will want to upgrade to version 5 -- the simplified interface and new labs are well worth the $159 upgrade price.
Read more by Susan Glinert.
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