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Rendering software

The Rendering makingsoftware of 2012

Renderers: a guide for the perplexed RenderMan or RenderMan-compliant? V-Ray or mental ray? Our guide to today’s expanding rendering software market cuts through the confusion to help you find the renderer you really need

Do you need a third-party renderer?

GLOSSARY

Key technical terms used in this article Biased rendering > Any rendering system that does not converge on the correct solution when many renders of the same scene are averaged. Bias often occurs when an algorithm ignores or misrepresents the contribution of a particular lighting effect – for example, reflected or refracted light – for the sake of computational speed. Many standard algorithms, including most radiosity methods and photon mapping, are biased. RenderMan-compliant renderer > A renderer that conforms to Pixar’s RenderMan Interface Specification protocol. Often known as RIB renderers after RenderMan’s native RIB file format. The Pixar software commonly known as ‘RenderMan’ used to be more strictly known as ‘PhotoRealistic RenderMan’ or ‘PRMan’, to distinguish it from this protocol.

Does VFX have to mean RenderMan?

Unbiased rendering > Any rendering system that converges on the correct solution on average. The term is often used interchangeably with ‘physically based rendering’, although this is not actually accurate: a result that is ‘physically correct’ is one that matches nature, whereas ‘unbiased’ is purely a mathematical concept.

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The first question to ask when choosing a renderer is whether you actually need a third-party solution. For modo and Cinema 4D users, the answer is probably ‘no’. Artists we spoke to commented that Cinema’s base engine is adequate for many jobs, although most professionals also use Maxon’s Advanced Render 3 module. Similarly, NewTek evangelist William Vaughan estimates that “90 per cent of LightWave users work with the built-in renderer”. Over in the 3ds Max and Maya communities, things are rather different, with most mid-to-large VFX houses opting for a RenderMan-compliant system such as RenderMan, 3Delight or AIR; while most visualisation studios opt for one of the ‘big three’ 3ds Max renderers, V-Ray, Brazil r/s and finalRender, for their GI capabilities and high raytracing speed. Houdini’s built-in Mantra renderer offers a hybrid of the two approaches: its “single biggest underestimated feature”, according to Black Mountain VFX’s Abdelkareem Abonamous.

In serious visual effects work, it’s easy to assume that there is only one renderer in town: Pixar’s RenderMan. But that isn’t necessarily the case. “RenderMan is great… if you have enough of a team to support it,” says VFX supervisor Allan McKay, a veteran of ILM, Blur Studio and Prime Focus. “A lot of small and mid-sized studios just automatically assume their work is going to look as good as the big boys if they use it. It’s like buying a Flame suite because you hear it’s good for compositing.” For smaller studios, RenderMan-compliant systems like 3Delight, AIR or even the open-source Aqsis

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and Pixie offer many of the benefits without such heavy technical overheads, while McKay notes that mental ray is also worth considering. “RenderMan is much more flexible and open, so it’s very fast when optimised. But mental ray is really solid for certain things like water and glass.”

Do you need a physically based system? Of all of the issues raised here, the pros and cons of physically based rendering have probably been responsible for the most flame wars over the past five years. While conventional renderers use mathematical shortcuts to approximate the behaviour of light, sacrificing absolute realism for speed and controllability, newer systems such as Maxwell Render, fryrender and Indigo Renderer use algorithms that closely replicate the real world. Such packages progressively refine the rendered result over time, resulting in a trade-off between speed and image quality. They offer potentially unparalleled results, but many artists find them agonisingly slow. So which is ‘better’? While most visualisation studios we spoke to used V-Ray for most of their work, physically based renderers also had staunch supporters; while some used both, either on a per-job basis, or employing a physically based renderer to get an idea of what overall lighting levels should be. This one really does come down to personal taste.

01 V-Ray Many 3ds Max artists’ renderer of choice, and especially ubiquitous in visualisation > TYPE Biased/unbiased (depends on settings), non-RenderMan-compliant > PRIMARY USES VFX, visualisation > HOST APPLICATIONS Native support for: 3ds Max, Maya. Via third party: Blender, Cinema 4D, Rhino, SketchUp > PRICE $999 > DEVELOPER Chaos Group At times, the presence of V-Ray in the ‘software used’ lists in online galleries seems so ubiquitous that you’d be forgiven for thinking that it came built in to 3ds Max: just one measure of how much the speed and power of this Bulgarian-developed renderer have endeared it to artists, both for visualisation and personal work, and to a lesser extent, VFX. Although interviewees noted that recent updates to mental ray are encouraging some studios to switch back, V-Ray’s all-round strengths, good forum support and large pool of freelance artists make it difficult to dislodge from its position of dominance in the industry.

The right renderer for the job Over the next six pages, you can find profiles of ten of the most important renderers currently on the market – and what their users feel are their strengths and weaknesses. For reasons of space, we haven’t included renderers intended primarily for industrial design tools or SketchUp. Nor have we covered renderers still awaiting a 1.0 release, such as LuxRender or FurryBall; or those on which development has been discontinued, such as Gelato or BMRT. And, with the exception of mental ray, we felt that it was unnecessary to review the built-in render engines of the main 3D packages in detail, since most people are already familiar with them. The summary table at the end of the article lists other key third-party renderers and built-in render engines, and you can find a more information on our website, including an extended version of this article. But for now, happy render hunting! More information online: tinyurl.com/renderers

EXPERT OPINION

Text: Jim Thacker

ew other parts of the 3D market offer quite the thrilling – and often bemusing – diversity as rendering software. While most artists are content to use the tools built into their primary application or one of a small number of specialist packages for modelling, texturing and animation, rendering solutions multiply like rabbits. In the preliminary research for this article, we counted over 40 currently in use – and that’s before you get to the CAD industry. Sometimes, you suspect that developers are writing them just for the fun of it… So for anyone overwhelmed by the sheer range of systems available, we’ve put together this guide for the perplexed. But first, a few basic questions.

F

An industry standard: four of the five previous winning entries in the Architectural 3D Awards, including this 2006 image by Gustavo Capote, list V-Ray as the renderer used 3dworldmag.com

Gus Capote, art director, Neoscape STRENGTHS • Great speed-to-render-quality ratio • Very stable on large scenes • Multiple calculation options, including brute force, irradiance maps and light cache WEAKNESSES • Limited antialiasing on channel passes • Distributed rendering can create issues with 3ds Max’s Backburner system

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Rendering software

Rendering software

Its origins may lie in VFX, but Brazil r/s also remains a workhorse of visualisation studios such as Utrecht’s 3idee

Used in both VFX and visualisation, recent high-profile finalRender projects include these shots from Uncharted Territory’s work on the movie 2012

While its first audience came from automotive visualisation, DCC studios are starting to realise the power and simplicity of HyperShot

05 FPrime

The interactive renderer that changed the way many people work with LightWave 3D > TYPE Biased, non-RenderMan-compliant > PRIMARY USES General > HOST APPLICATIONS LightWave 3D > PRICE $399 > DEVELOPER Worley Laboratories

Image © Drive Design

EXPERT OPINION Joe Zeff,

02 Brazil r/s

03 finalRender

04 HyperShot

A third-party renderer for 3ds Max that straddles the worlds of VFX and visualisation

A fast, versatile raytracing render engine that performs strongly on complex scenes

A ‘little renderer’ from the world of design visualisation that’s starting to make it big in DCC

> TYPE Biased, non-RenderMan-compliant > PRIMARY USES VFX, visualisation > HOST APPLICATIONS Native support for: 3ds Max Via third party: Rhino > PRICE $995 (includes 10 render nodes) > DEVELOPER Caustic Graphics

> TYPE Biased, non-RenderMan compliant > PRIMARY USES VFX, visualisation > HOST APPLICATIONS 3ds Max, Cinema 4D, Maya > PRICE €695–1,295 ($1,050-1,950: varies according to edition) > DEVELOPER cebas Visual Technology

> TYPE Biased, non-RenderMan-compliant > PRIMARY USES Visualisation > HOST APPLICATIONS Native support for: Pro/Engineer, Rhino, SketchUp, SolidWorks, SpaceClaim. Supports most DCC packages via 3DS, Collada, FBX and OBJ formats > PRICE $995 (HD edition: see website for others) > DEVELOPER Bunkspeed

Of the three main third-party 3ds Max renderers, Brazil r/s has arguably the strongest pedigree in VFX. Scott Kirvan and Steve Blackmon, co-founders of original developer SplutterFish, both worked at Blur Studio in the 1990s: a background borne out by Brazil’s raytracing and antialiasing capabilities. While it has not achieved the same ubiquity in visualisation as V-Ray – and lacks a physical sky system and GI cache for animations – it maintains a dedicated user base, though announcements have slowed since Brazil was acquired by hardware rendering firm Caustic Graphics earlier this year. It will be interesting to see where Caustic takes this much-loved tool.

EXPERT OPINION Michiel Quist, founder, 3idee STRENGTHS • High stability • Very fast raytracing and 3D motion blur • Quality and speed of image sampling WEAKNESSES • Small user base • No SDK

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Speed and performance on complex scenes were the key features cited by our interviewees in choosing finalRender, one of the three ‘big’ 3ds Max renderers: both selling points that seem to have been amplified in the recent R3 release. While a smaller user base makes it more difficult for studios to call upon a pool of freelancers while scaling up for projects than with V-Ray, the product maintains a strong following – while its visibility in the world of visual effects has been recently raised by its use at Uncharted Territory, lead facility on Roland Emmerich’s 2012. Native versions for Maya and Cinema 4D further widen finalRender’s appeal.

Creative director, Splashlight STRENGTHS • Ultra-fast rendering on complex scenes • Handles area lights and transparency without significant time penalty • Intuitive, efficient progressive render engine WEAKNESSES • Lacks ability to use LightWave’s volumetrics •S  truggles with some new material nodes

With a development team including technical Academy Award winner Henrik Wann Jensen, there was little doubt that HyperShot would turn out to be a bit special. Marketed as ‘The first digital camera for your 3D data’, ease of use was a priority from the outset, with the renderer quickly finding favour with industrial designers wanting to visualise their own models, but put off by the complexities of Maya or Showcase. Recently, however, DCC professionals have begun to realise the power concealed beneath HyperShot’s deceptively simple exterior. “It’s a little renderer – but it can kick ass,” says Escape Studios training development director Lee Danskin.

EXPERT OPINION Ari SachterZeltzer, owner, Shadowplay Studio STRENGTHS • Extensive, customisable feature set • Good render elements system, including option to include/exclude objects • Powerful new layered EXR exporter WEAKNESSES • Hardcoded defaults not ideal for speed or quality • Needs a proxy system

EXPERT OPINION Mark Pritchard, design manager, Drive Design STRENGTHS • Extreme ease of use • Very rapid results • Deceptively flexible material system WEAKNESSES • Manipulation tools can be awkward

Image © Splashlight

Image © 3idee

Images © Columbia Pictures

When Steve Worley first released FPrime back in 2004, some people jokingly suggested that he should put in an offer to buy LightWave itself, such was the developer’s standing in the host app’s user community. While the market has caught up to some extent, with some interviewees reporting that they now use FPrime mainly for setting up lights and surfacing, it’s still remarkable how quickly this ultra-fast interactive renderer made itself indispensable in so many people’s workflows. Real-time previews make set-up more intuitive, while the progressive rendering engine allows users to stop and start renders without having to wait to the end to see results.

FPrime offers LightWave 3D users fast, intuitive interactive rendering on jobs such as this print ad from Splashlight 3dworldmag.com

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Tim Ellis, head of unbiased lighting and texturing, Cityscape Digital STRENGTHS • Unparalleled render quality • Intuitive network rendering, including resume render • Powerful Multilight system WEAKNESSES • Render times can still be very long, particularly for larger scenes

Early users of GPU-accelerated rendering and compositing system MachStudio Pro include pre-viz house The Third Floor. Will VFX studios follow suit?

08 mental ray

09 RenderMan

10 Turtle

Can this GPU-accelerated production renderer and compositing system live up to its early hype?

The first port of call for artists working in Max, Maya or Softimage, enjoying a resurgence in popularity

Pixar’s production workhorse retains its position as the big name in rendering for visual effects

Robust global illumination and advanced baking features make for an indispensable games tool

> TYPE Biased, non-RenderMan-compliant > PRIMARY USES Animation, visualisation > HOST APPLICATIONS Native support for: ArchiCAD, 3ds Max, Maya, Rhino, SketchUp. Supports most DCC applications via FBX format > PRICE $3,995 > DEVELOPER StudioGPU

> TYPE Biased, non-RenderMan-compliant > PRIMARY USES General > HOST APPLICATIONS 3ds Max, AutoCAD, Inventor, Maya, Revit, Softimage > PRICE Integrated into host application > DEVELOPER mental images

> TYPE Biased, RenderMan-compliant > PRIMARY USES VFX > HOST APPLICATIONS Native support for: Maya Via third party: Blender, Cinema 4D, Softimage > PRICE $3,500 (Pro Server edition) > DEVELOPER Pixar Animation Studios

> TYPE Biased, non-RenderMan-compliant > PRIMARY USES Games > HOST APPLICATIONS Maya > PRICE $1,499 > DEVELOPER Illuminate Labs

Built into 3ds Max, Maya and Softimage, mental ray remains the first port of call for many smaller studios, both in VFX and visualisation, with interviewees reporting a return to the platform from third-party tools in recent years. As well as the price – or lack of it – users cite its wide range of physically accurate preset shaders and ease of set-up as key selling points. Jamie Cardoso, co-author of the book Realistic Architectural Visualization with 3ds Max and mental ray, notes the “few drawbacks” as the nature of its proxy system, and the fact that the new iray interactive rendering engine, while more powerful than alternatives, is not yet part of Max or Maya.

For large animation houses, RenderMan remains the renderer to beat. Developed and used by Pixar since the late 1980s, our interviewees noted that it requires a large technical support team to harness fully, and that reliance on third-party exporters to get files into its RIB format can be an issue for smaller studios, but that its reputation as a production workhorse remains unchallenged. As ILM VFX supervisor John Knoll notes: “RenderMan’s widespread use among facilities whose reputation depends on creating consistently excellent imagery is telling. Its extreme flexibility, quality, robustness and scalability have made it the standard that it is today.”

EXPERT OPINION Jamie Cardoso,

EXPERT OPINION

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Chris Edwards, CEO, The Third Floor STRENGTHS • Intuitive interactive workflow • Empowers directors and cinematographers WEAKNESSES • Export process from Maya is time-consuming and not straightforward • Artists require training in unique workflow

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A shot rendered in 3ds Max and mental ray at GMJ Design. The renderer offers an attractive mix of power and accessibility

07 MachStudio Pro

With the advent of a new generation of tools that actively harness a workstation’s GPU to calculate results, the goal of production-quality renders in seconds – rather than minutes or hours – may finally be approaching. The first of this wave of applications to hit the market, GPU-accelerated rendering, compositing and grading system MachStudio Pro promises not merely dramatically reduced render times but the potential to open up entirely new production workflows. While it’s still too early to tell whether the software really lives up to the hype, sources tell us that major London VFX houses are in detailed discussions with developer StudioGPU.

Offering extreme realism, and now with an improved speedto-noise ratio, Maxwell remains a benchmark for unbiased renderers

A retail unit in Oxford Street, London rendered with 3ds Max and mental ray at Glass Canvas Productions

RenderMan remains the tool of choice for large studios such as ILM and Digital Domain on projects such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Images courtesy of BioWare

EXPERT OPINION

Image © The Third Floor

At the time of its original alpha release in 2004, physically based system Maxwell Render became one of the most talked-about products in the 3D industry. Five years on, it remains the de facto benchmark for other renderers of its type. Version 2.0, released in late 2009, boasts a greatly improved speed-to-noise ratio and greater processor scalability – one interviewee reported it performs 4-15 times faster than 1.7, depending on the scene – and while its core market remains visualisation, Maxwell is also being adopted for some visual effects tasks, including matte work on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Turtle bakes all the components needed for modern games such as Dragon Age: Origins, including normal maps, ambient occlusion and polynomial textures

Image © DreamWorks Pictures/Paramount Pictures. Courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic

> TYPE Unbiased, non-RenderMan-compliant > PRIMARY USES VFX, visualisation > HOST APPLICATIONS Native support for: 3ds Max, ArchiCAD, form.Z, Cinema 4D, LightWave 3D, Maya, modo, Rhino, SketchUp, SolidWorks, Softimage Via third party: Allplan, Houdini, MicroStation, solidThinking > PRICE $995 > DEVELOPER Next Limit Technologies

Image © Glass Canvas Productions (www.glass-canvas.co.uk)

The application that introduced most artists to the idea of physically based rendering

Image © GMJ Design (www.gmj.co.uk)

06 Maxwell Render

Rendering software Inset image: Aketoshi Tada, ataKikaku co (info@atakikaku,com)

Main image: 7-t (www.7-t.co.uk)

Rendering software

3dworldmag.com

senior 3D visualiser and consultant STRENGTHS • Free, and fully integrated into host packages • Wide range of physically accurate preset shaders • Rapid results on complex scenes WEAKNESSES • Proxy system does not enable retrieval of the original mesh as in V-Ray • iray not yet part of host applications

3dworldmag.com

EXPERT OPINION John Knoll, VFX supervisor, Industrial Light & Magic STRENGTHS • Extremely robust, production-proven renderer • High-quality output • Flexible and scalable WEAKNESSES •M  ore costly than other RenderMan-compliant rendering solutions

Initially perceived as a more general-purpose global illumination renderer, Turtle quickly found its niche in games, where it developed a reputation as a fast, flexible system for baking lighting information. Employed on such distinctly different-looking recent productions as Dragon Age: Origins (pictured above), Killzone 2 and Mirror’s Edge, users praise its feature set, the flexibility offered by Lua scripting, and the technical support offered by developer Illuminate Labs. There may be other ways to solve the problem of creating lighting assets for games, but for its power to enable a studio to quickly iterate the look and feel of a level, Turtle is largely unchallenged in this sector of the market at the minute.

EXPERT OPINION Andreas Papathanasis, senior graphics programmer, BioWare STRENGTHS • High-quality results • Extensive render optimisation options • Large range of map types and output formats WEAKNESSES • Difficult to integrate into baking pipeline if not using Maya for level editing – unlike Turtle’s sister application, Beast

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Rendering software

Rendering software

In brief | Key renderers compared Selected built-in render engines Blender

Cinema 4D

Houdini Escape

LightWave 3D

Developer

Blender Foundation

Current release

2.5

Maxon Computer

Side Effects Software

11.5

10.0

Price Annual maintenance

Free

$3,695

N/A

N/A Price for Studio bundle

Other pricing notes

Selected third-party renderers modo

3Delight

AIR

Brazil r/s

finalRender

NewTek

Luxology

DnA Research

SiTex Graphics

Caustic Graphics

cebas Visual Tech.

9.6

401

9.0

9.0

2.0

3.0 (3ds Max ed.)

$1,995

$895

$995

$900 - $2,150

$450

$995

$1,050 - 1,950*

$800

N/A

N/A

$190 - $450

$150

N/A

See website

Unlimited render nodes

Unlimited render nodes

Inc. 50 render nodes

First two threads free

Price for four threads

Inc. 10 render nodes

*€695 - 1,295

FPrime

fryrender

HyperShot

Indigo Renderer

Kerkythea

MachStudio Pro

Maxwell Render

mental ray

Worley Laboratories

RandomControl

Bunkspeed

Glare Technologies

Ioannis Pantazopoulos

3.0

1.0

1.9

2.2

2008

$399

€795 ($1,190)

$995

€295 ($440)

N/A

N/A

N/A

N/A

Unlimited render nodes

Inc. 2 render nodes

Price for HD edition

Inc. 2 render nodes

RenderMan

Turtle

StudioGPU

Next Limit Tech.

1.2

2.0

Free

$3,995

N/A

N/A

V-Ray

mental images

Pixar Anim. Studios

Illuminate Labs

Chaos Group

3.8

15.0

5.0

1.5

$995

As host app.

$3,500

$1,499

$999

N/A

N/A

$700

$899

N/A

Standalone: $745

Price for Pro Server ed.

Inc. network rendering

RenderMan-compliant? Unbiased?

Optional

Hybrid

Fully GPU-accelerated?

Optional

Optional

Includes shader compiler?

Python only

In development

Key market sectors

Any

Any

Any

Any

Any

Applications supported

N/A

N/A

N/A

N/A

N/A

VFX

VFX

VFX, visualisation

VFX, visualisation

Native

Native

Any

Blender

Via third-party plug-in

Via third-party plug-in

Cinema 4D

Via third-party plug-in

Via third-party plug-in

Houdini

Native

Native

Maya

Native

Via third-party plug-in

Softimage

Native

In progress

Other (selected applications only)

Rhino

Rhino

Rhino

Win/Mac/Linux

Win/Linux

Win

Native

Native

Native

Native

Win/Mac

Win/Mac/Linux

Win/Mac

Visualisation

Visualisation

Native

Native

Native

Native

Win/Mac

Any

VFX, visualisation

VFX, visualisation

Native

Native

Native

Win

Win/Mac

Animation, VFX

Games

VFX, visualisation

Via FBX In development

Supported Native

Native

Via third-party plug-in

Lightwave 3D

Win/Mac/Linux

Visualisation Via OBJ, FBX

3ds Max

Platforms

Visualisation

Native

Native Via third-party plug-in

Via third-party plug-in

Via third-party plug-in

Via third-party plug-in

Supported

Native

Native

Native

Native

Native

In development

Native

Native

Native

Native

Native

Rhino, SketchUp

Native

Native

Via third-party plug-in

Win

modo, Rhino, SketchUp Win/Mac/Linux

Win/Mac/Linux

modo, Rhino, SketchUp

Rhino, SketchUp

SketchUp

SketchUp

Win

Win/Mac

Win/Mac/Linux

Win/Mac/Linux

Win/Mac/Linux

Native

Native In development Rhino, SketchUp

Win/Mac/Linux

Win/Mac/Linux

Linux due in CORE

Features Windows only

64-bit compatible

Not public

SDK

In development

Network rendering Due in CORE

Instances Proxy system Render layers/passes

Lighting only

Lighting only

Interactive render preview

Via custom code

Via V-Ray RT

Material system • Layered materials Bump only

• Bump and normal mapping • Micropoly displacement/MTD

In development

Via LightWave

• Subsurface scattering • BRDF support

Internal

In development

Via RSL In development

Raytracing Via LightWave

• Ambient occlusion • Colour bleeding

In development

• HDRI • Caustics Camera controls Via other settings

• Depth of field • 3D motion blur

Hybrid 2D/3D  

• f stop controls

Via LightWave

• Bokeh effects Via image shaders

Tonemapping

3ds Max only

In development

Hair and fur Present

Particle rendering

Via extension

In development

Varies with ed.

• Points • Spheres

Via extension

• Implicit surface/blobbies

Via extension

Via plug-ins

Baking tools • Texture baking Via custom shader

• Vertex baking • Point cloud baking Bent normals

• Radiosity normal maps Physical sky

Via custom shader

Photometric lights

Via custom code

EXR support Other key features

Built-in compositor

Built-in texture painting

Volume rendering

Anim. radiosity cache

Volumetric lights

Point-based GI

Programmable shading

Quasi-Monte Carlo core

Unlimited render elems.

Image zoom support

Turntable animation

Shading language

Instancing brush

Stereoscopic rendering

Multi-light system

Progr. IBL rendering

Deep shadows

Optimised baking

VRayFur

Built-in video editor

Unlimited render nodes

Amazon cloud support

Unlimited render nodes

Anisotropic effects

Stereo rendering

Instancer shaders

Unlimited number of

True hybrid scanline/

Supports multiple

Render queue

Full spectral rendering

Easy clay/depth/mask

Real-time subpixel

3,500+ free materials

Fast blur rasterisation

Point-based colour

Scriptable via Lua

VRayEnvironmentFog

Audio playback/sync

True multi-threading

Multi-segment blur

EXIF support

Fresnel effects

Procedural geometry

(Both Pro edition only)

Camera aperture diffr.

Native RealFlow support

MetaSL language

bleeding and SSS

Hardware vis. of results

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render presets

raytracing

3dworldmag.com

cameras/windows

3dworldmag.com

render modes

displacement

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Sources: All data was supplied directly by the relevant software developer, with the exception of FPrime

Global illumination


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