Book Review: Vue 7 – Beyond the Basics

Usually, when a new version of a major software package comes out, book publishers respond by updating the old book to reflect the new version. Many times, it’s really the same book as last time, starting at square one again, with a few “New in Version X” textboxes scattered about here and there. “Vue 7: Beyond the Basics,” by Richard Schrand (Course Technology, 2009), is kind of a rare beast among software training books in that it doesn’t cater to beginners at all. As the title says, the book is for those of us ready to go “beyond the basics.” To be sure, Schrand provides excellent coverage of the new stuff in Vue 7, but his audience is folks who already know their way around Vue 5 or 6. Vue 7 was mostly improvements to the existing toolset, so a full-blown book starting from scratch isn’t really necessary, unless, of course, you’re new to Vue. If you’ve read Schrand’s previous book on Vue, “Vue 6 Revealed,” then you’re ready for this. There’s really no overlap at all between the books, either. You’re getting your money’s worth with this one. 

Overview

As good as “Vue 6 Revealed” is, “Vue 7: Beyond the Basics” (”BTB,” from here on out) makes two major improvements: the book is in glorious full color (yea!) and comes with a DVD stuffed with goodies. The color illustrations are clear and sharp, making the book a joy to read. The list price has doubled since last time, but it’s listed for only about $10 more on Amazon than “Vue 6 Revealed.” (Note that Amazon, and other sellers, claim the book is over 500 pages long. It’s actually 342 pages.) 

This is a project-based book, and is best followed from beginning to end. You can, however, jump ahead if you like, as all the completed projects are included on the DVD. The projects are much more useful this time out, in my opinion. While there are some useful tutorials available on the web, what’s really needed is a full-scale workflow walkthrough, which is just what BTB is. Schrand knows the product inside and out, and he teaches Vue on the college level. It’s obvious, as you read, that he has lots of experience dealing with students who are just about at the stage I’m at: we’ve figured out how to use Vue, but not how to create truly professional images with it. This is because, up till now, there’s been little information about workflow, and the techniques the pros use. Schrand also seems to know exactly which areas students avoid, such as the dreaded Function Editor. He introduces the Function Editor early on, in a very painless way. (There’s also a chapter at the end devoted entirely to the Function Editor.) And everything is explained as you go along. Schrand doesn’t just tell you what you to do, he tells you why you’re doing something. 

Here’s a breakdown, chapter by chapter, of the book. 

Chapter 1: Land Development

The first chapter shows you how to create a cliff-face similar to Mount Rushmore, using a supplied carved head object. You’ll learn how to use the twist function of the Numerics panel to create a cliff, and create a material with three layers. You’ll use color-coding to easily see where each layer lies on your terrain, and determine where each lies using the Environment tab. You’ll apply an Ecosystem to one of the layers, and then import and place the head object. 

Chapter 2: Hitting the Ground Running

The project in this chapter has you create a lake surrounded by terrains. You’ll dip into the Function Editor to modify the default Blue Water material, to make it more realistic. Schrand explains how to add a custom camera to help you work more efficiently. There’s lots of practice with modifying materials, scaling, and adjusting the atmosphere. Though I’ve created scenes like this many times, most of the methods used here were new to me. 

Chapter 3: Highs, Lows, and Points in Between

In this chapter, you’ll learn how to use image maps (greyscale JPGs) to tell Vue where to place your ecosystems. You’ll create a cornfield with an alien crop circle formation. The function editor is the key here, and you’ll be amazed (I was, anyway) at how easy it was to do this. In the second part, you’ll use the Boolean function to create a volcano, using one terrain to sculpt another. You’ll turn a cylinder into a pretty impressive-looking log, add it to an ecosystem for your volcano, and top it off with a steamy Metacloud. 

Chapter 4: The Grand Vista

Here we take our new volcano and create a landscape setting for it. There’s also a good discussion of composition and design principles. You’ll dig into the atmosphere controls, and learn about the different atmosphere types, and the new Spectral 2 clouds with their new Sharpness and Feathering controls. The Ambient Light and Light Color controls are explained. 

Chapter 5: Going to Great Depths

As you may have guessed, this chapter has you dive into an underwater scene. You’ll work with the new Water Surface Editor at first, creating an island, and get some exposure to the Fractal Terrains Options window (one of those tools I’ve never figured out). Then there’s more filter fun with the Filter Altitudes and Add Function buttons in the terrain editor. After this, you go under the sea to create an Ecosystem on the sea floor. You’ll learn about caustic lighting effects for underwater realism. 

Chapter 6: Building Better Cities and Towns

Here you use a group of black and white image maps to create a small riverside downtown area, with paved streets, curbing, painted lines, greenery, and buildings. The image maps are provided on the DVD. This is the sort of project that might seem a bit overwhelming if you were to try to figure it on your own. Since the author has already done your “city planning” for you, you can concentrate on the process. Once you’ve gone through it here, you’ll be able to adapt the techniques to your own designs. At the end, you’ll use the new Dynamic Ecosystem to populate your buildings and greenery. 

Chapter 7: Beautifying the Neighborhood One Plant at a Time

One of the most common types of scenes is a house with a landscaped yard. This chapter shows you how it’s done, starting with creating flower boxes and planters, moving on to the cobblestone walkway, and finally placing the house. In between you’ll do a little carpentry, creating a group of display tables, such as you’d find at a local nursery, for the plants. This gives you exposure to the aligning and replicating tools in Vue. You’ll also create your own wood material using the Function Editor. You cover a lot of ground (sorry) in twenty pages. 

Chapter 8: The Growth Industry

The first part of this chapter is all about the Plant Editor, and how to create your own custom vegetation. Next, you’ll create an animation of a tree growing from acorn to full-grown. The final section shows how to work with image sequences to create animations with low polygon counts. The technique explained here would apply to any type of animation, I assume, not just trees growing. 

Chapter 9: Other Outdoor Activities

This chapter covers three different areas. The first deals with painting ecosystems and two methods for keeping ecosystem populations from growing out of control, and then explains how Ecosystem Affinity works. In the next section, you’ll have your head in the clouds, learning all about customizing clouds. You’ll learn how to use the cloud sliders (as I call them) as well as the Function Editor for even more creative freedom. Did you know that you can use image maps to shape clouds? I didn’t. And lastly, Schrand demystifies Godrays for us. Thank heavens!

Chapter 10: The Great Indoors

Here you’ll learn basic concepts around interior lighting. You’ll create a simple cubical room, assign some color to it using (you guessed it) the Function Editor, and then learn methods for lighting your room. This chapter is long and deep, so if you’ve been wanting to learn how to light interiors, you’ll probably find what you need here. Other lighting topics are covered next, including converting an object into a light, image-based lighting, and HDRI (High Dynamic Range Images). 

Chapter 11: Creating Toon Material for Comics and Illustrations

Vue doesn’t seem to have a “toon” (cel shading) ability out of the box, but apparently with some (cough cough) Function Editing, it can be done, though to me the effect looks more like clip-art than cartoons. Since no toon materials come with Vue, you’ll need to create everything you need from scratch. 

Chapter 12: Playing Well with Others

This chapter talks about combining Vue with Flash and Photoshop, mostly for use in web graphics, television ads and logos, and that sort of thing. You’ll create a short “id” animation for a fictitious firm, complete with a flying logo in the sky. Next you’ll learn about importing a Poser figure into Vue, and incorporating a walking figure into your animation. You’ll need to know and use Flash to get use from this chapter. 

Chapter 13: A Smattering of Techniques

This chapter contains various hints, tricks, and tips. Included are: 

  • Imitating particle systems
  • Translucency and sub-surface scattering
  • Exploring the new features in 7.5 (note that many of these are included in the free 7.4 update, as well)
  • Using metablobs to create an animation of a melting candle. 

Chapter 14: xStream Creations

Vue xStream is, basically, a plug-in version of Vue, allowing it to run inside of other applications, such as Cinema 4D, Maya, Lightwave, and 3DS Max. This chapter shows xStream in use, in this case with Cinema 4D. 

Chapter 15: Functional Behavior

By the time you’ve reached chapter 15, you have been well and truly immersed in the mysteries of the Function Editor. So now you should be ready to get knee-deep into it, with no fear whatsoever. I think putting this information both throughout and then at the end was a great idea. You get to see all the places the Function Editor gets called into action, and then you get a real masters-level chapter to complete your knowledge. Without knowing how the Function Editor works, you’re really handicapped. Once you’ve gone through the exercises in this book, your images will improve dramatically. More than that, you’ll know how to achieve whatever effect you’re after. 

Conclusion

BTB is just a superb book, as you can see. It would be useful to you even if you are still on version 6, since most of it applies. I think Mr. Schrand’s book is going to make a lot Vuesers (as he puts it) very happy.

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