3D-Coat Review (2016)
(PC version 4.7)
Introduction to 3D-Coat
Pilgway’s 3D-Coat has done something quite extraordinary over the last couple of years, it has placed itself in a sweet spot of a market dominated by ZBrush, Mari and earlier, Mudbox. It has grown to a mature multi-tool that is taken seriously now even by larger production companies.
The present version rivals and even surpasses some of the features in ZBrush 4R7, and now after 4.5 update 3D-Coat can do PBR. (Only thing ZBrush can do at the moment is a BPR, a Best Preview Render, not PBR, acronym chaos!).
3D-Coat is extremely well featured package. It can do both volumetric and surface based 3D sculpting, re-topology, UV unwrapping, per-pixel texture painting directly on a model (without never having to watch UV seam), baking, PBR in both variants (Metal-Rough & Spec-Gloss), Ptex, and render nice previews of the model with HDRI environment maps. Heck, it even has a rudimentary cloth simulation and instancing! It is completely possible to finish a complete modelling project without ever having to leave the application.
I have been big fan of 3D-Coat since version 3; what caught my attention that time was the ability to unwrap models so easily and per-pixel painting. I didn’t dare to step into the sculpting room since I was such a big fan of ZBrush since the earlier days and didn’t want to compromise my learned shortcuts. 3D-Coat 3 had bugs, and often the UV tools crashed the application; it had especially trouble dealing with objects with many pieces. I’m glad to say that the current version is rather stable.
Seeing the PBR introduced in 4.5 made me to upgrade my licence. I am enjoying to use 3D-Coat for many kind of modelling tasks now.
3D-Coat has two sculpting modes, Surface Mode and volumetric Voxel Mode.
Working with voxels is kind of like working with Dynamesh in ZBrush, the resolution of the sculpture is dependant on the volume, size of the object.
There are several differences though, with voxels you can sculpt holes that punch through the object and you don’t need to re-dynamesh, it is done automatically.
Voxels are like pixels but in three dimensional space, if that makes any sense. You never see the voxels themselves, you see only a mesh that is projected real time over the voxels.
Surface Mode allows you to work with, well, surface. This surface can be re-skinned, and adaptive subdivision can be used. So one could, for example build the main forms using Voxel Mode and do the fine detailing in Surface Mode, as the latter is also easier on your system. Either of these modes can be used for both organic and hard surface sculpting.
For my needs sculpting in 3D-Coat doesn’t fall much short of ZBrush, even though there are way less brushes. I am not big anatomy guy, but sometimes I wish there would be ZSketch kind of workflow. And I miss some of the brushes in ZBrush, especially TrimSmoothBorder for making rocks and such. But for almost for each of the ZBrush tool, there is equivalent in here. Again, I’ve noticed that if I can do something in ZBrush I can find a way to do it at least somehow in 3D-Coat.
Sculpting with Booleans and Curves
What’s great about 3D-Coat is that you can use boolean operations when working in voxel mode to subtract and blend models. All of a sudden, simple primitives become so powerful. Creating a Creek pillar (the one with pill shaped grooves) could be done, for example, by using subtracting capsule primitives with a radial symmetry from a cylinder. This is way of working is a bit similar to the Dynamesh boolean operations in ZBrush.
3D-Coat also has a powerful feature called Curves which is great to make organic shapes, tubes and the such. You can also use your own spline objects to make a tube belt, railroad track or whatever. There are so many ways you can use this. And remember, you can always produce a shape or object using curves, and use that object as a cutting tool. This is again quite similar to ZBrush Curves but 3D-Coat version is easier to use in my opinion and gets kinky less often. (See my Curves tutorial in Youtube)
I have been able to edit models with more than 94 million polygons when split in various voxel layers, without seeing much of a performance hit. I’m running just average desktop computer and the performance is solid all-round.
Instancing is also now supported and it works well. You can create any number of instances and this is generally very handy feature.
Retopology in 3D-Coat is very good. Whenever I need to make hand-made retopology I will choose 3D-Coat. You can have several retopology objects and you can show and hide several high poly models while doing retopology. I cannot come up with any idea how this could be any better. UV unwrapping is now integrated to the retopology room so you can unwrap the model as you go. This is a nice because it’s easier to estimate how the UVs will look while building the retopology mesh. This would be especially important for baking optimised normal maps in xNormal for example.
There is also now selection of retopo models to aid the retopology process, as well as new tools such as Free Extrude which allows extrude-like modelling operations. These are so useful that I rarely need to visit external application, no matter how complicated the object I’m making is.
I had a bit of a problem when I was importing a retopo model from Lightwave to 3D-Coat (check out my Youtube video). For some reason the model I was trying to import appeared grayed out and I couldn’t get it to work no matter what I tried. However I learned that retopology in 3D-Coat is based in the UV set. When I imported the model, new UV set was somehow created, so it was kept in it’s own place. Gladly merging UV sets is very easy in 3D-Coat, as I showed in the video.
Automatic retopology is also good in 3D-Coat, although maybe not as interstellar good as ZBrush ZRemesher is.
3D Coat can also bake normal maps and AO maps, which can also help streamline your workflow. 3D Coat uses T-Mikk tangent basis which is same as what xNormal uses and basically appears to use cage/averaged projection mesh. For organic shapes like characters this might work just fine, but when I tried to bake hard surface scifi box thing I got into issues with normal maps, and I absolutely had to rely to my 3Ds Max / xNormal workflow.
The way how I see it, as there is no way to set custom mesh normals in 3D Coat, I can’t for example use smoothing groups to mark where hard edge should be and so on. If we use higher res geometry, this will be less and less of an issue. But for the time being, to get a perfect and effective bake, I need to use xNormal. But it’s nice that the option at least exists.
UV unwrapping and packing
UV unwrapping has always been a pinnacle feature of 3D-Coat. I have used this so very much since version 3. Marking edge loops and seeing the islands being formed in real time as I keep laying down the seams is really awesome. It is possible to unwrap almost anything with this. I really love Global Unform unwrapping method which even rivals ABF (Angle Based Flattening). It’s great to have all these methods in my fingertips while doing the unwrap process. Auto seams also works remarkably well and can sometimes be good enough as it is.
You can adjust, scale and rotate the islands, faces, edges or vertices manually by using the manipulator. The colors in the UV preview will tell you the overall density of the UV map, whether some feature is too large (blue) or small (red). In best situation the colour appears grey.
UV packing is also very well implemented feature in 3D Coat, it’s great way to optimise the UV space. It can fill holes in UV islands and very efficiently pack the map for best result. It’s also possible to pack without rotation and flipping which is very nice and there’s option to set margins for the UV space. I am not sure how much efficient the packing could be, there are dedicated UV packing apps out there that can figure out best ways to place the UV islands and can even take advantage of the GPU in your computer to process the operation. For me however, packing in 3D Coat has been good enough so far.
See my UV unwrapping tutorial in Youtube.
Texture painting in 3D coat is crazy fantastic good. You can, for example sculpt an object in sculpting room, head over to paint room and just start paint textures in full PBR glory and render out the final object without having to do any UV work at all. This is great feature for concept artists; after the the model gets green light, one can take the production to the retopology and UV stage. This alone is a remarkable feature. I don’t know how this actually work behind the scenes but I can tell that it works and looks hella good.
The paint layers work just like layers in Photoshop, even the blending modes are similar. One can either fill the whole layer or paint it by hand. Painting layers can take advantage of the many stencils and these can be projected by cube mapping. No need to worry about those UV seams, ever. One can also paint directly to the flat texture. Tablets are also fully supported in 3D-Coat.
Textures with PBR
The included PBR smart materials are great way to get started with an idea, say a worn paint, for example. So you could edit some of the included Smart Material presets, adjust the Overall Cavity Modulator to give edges some extra punch, and then tweak the layer by painting or erasing with any of the included stencils. Same goes for dirts, rust, scratches and the like. And you can also make your own presets to basically make a template for serialised assets. Sure, Substance Designer is probably the preferred way for game studios, but I am just saying that it is possible to do that inside 3D-Coat.
The resizable smart material preview window is also very, well smart. Because this would help those with lesser machines to see s preview quicker. I’m running mine with GTX960 and having extremely good performance.
3D Coat can export whole a lot of maps, also AO, Curvature and such. There are a lot of presets and also option to export to Steam Workshop.
Please see my PBR Texturing Tutorial in 3D-Coat.
It’s very very nice that now that we have PBR and our scene is lit by 360 degree equirectangular HDRI images , we also get a renderer that supports all that. The renderer in 3D-Coat is pretty fast and can get your model rendered, but the options here are a bit rudimentary if compared to say, Substance Designer’s iRay renderer. I wish there was effects like bloom and such, and although technically it’s possible to render animation, it feels like an afterthought. Animation works by blended states of two different scene files, so to control camera movement, for example, one should create two scene files with different camera positions. There is a checkbox that also seems to allow camera animation through camera shortcuts and basically what appears to be a turntable option. But animation without a timeline? Difficult.
The Professional version of 3D-Coat costs at the moment 379. Upgrade from 3 is just 99. It’s nice that you can upgrade from Mac version to PC version, and I suppose vice versa. What’s interesting is that there is also Amateur version of 3D Coat for $99. This can’t be used for commercial work and is limited to 2K maps and 7 layers, but has all the other functionality. I would say the price is one of the great features of 3D Coat. If you own 3D-Coat 3, definitely get this update.
3D-Coat Review : A Conclusion
The strongest featurse for me in 3D-Coat at the moment would be the voxel sculpting, PBR texturing and retopology. These features alone are worth of getting the software. This fast and easy way to unwrap retopo objects is really timesaver. I can’t live without it. Being able to come up with intricate work fast, when needed is simply great. There’s surprising depth to the application and it’s tools.
On the other hand, weakest feature would be the render room. I wish there was a proper way to position model, use various lights and use background meshes and objects and use camera effects like bloom in Marmoset Toolbar and exposure control. Just the overall experience isn’t very good what comes to rendering. Also, lacking is the ability to use layer masks, a feature that would have huge potential.
If you want to get into 3D sculpting and want to have also ability to make game models or models for animation, 3D Coat will not disappoint you.