Developed by Itoo Software, RailClone 2.0 is a parametric modeling plugin for 3DS Max. It allows users to build sophisticated models based on geometry parts from a built-in library or custom made meshes.
Artists that work in architectural visualization, civil engineering and interior design fields may benefit from this plugin the most. However, the parametric nature of RailClone can easily lend itself to creating unique models for other purposes. Version 2.0 is the latest major release of the software, bringing significant performance and feature improvements.
At first glance RailClone resembles a modeling power-tool that combines 3DS Max's default spacing tools, array and path deform modifier. The plugin works perfectly right out of the box using built-in presets and a few splines. Users that plan to create more detailed and complex models should prepare themselves for a certain degree of learning curve and unavoidable trial and error to reach the desired result. Nevertheless, you will experience a boost in productivity without needing to use every single aspect of the plugin. The new node-based UI is visually elegant without multiple cluttered drop-down menus, but a few glaring technical quirks prevent the UI from being the most ideal editing tool.
New tools and features have been introduced in v2.0 to make the iterative modification process as effortless and efficient as possible. Most of these new tools are fairly straightforward to use, but a few can be confusing and require going through online documentation. Let's dig deeper and see what RailClone 2.0 has to offer.
The Style Editor
The user interface is one of the most significant improvements over earlier versions. It has gone through a complete overhaul in version 2.0. Models are now created through a separate graphic node-based application called the "Style Editor", instead of tweaking values in the command panel. Similar to other node-based applications, the graphical approach not only aims to streamline the overall creation process but also to broaden its appeal and accessibility.
The editor consists of three distinct panes: properties editor, construction view, and items panel. The Properties editor exposes local attributes of a selected node; the amount of properties and variables associated with each node vary widely. The Items panel serves as a "depot" that hosts all of the nodes available in RailClone 2.0. The final and most prominent section is the construction view. This is the creation sandbox where you create parametric styles by connecting series of nodes to each other in a logical way. It should not take long for anyone to get comfortable with this new layout.
The Style Editor in RailClone 2.0 has incorporated a few small features that bring subtle convenient enhancements. This starts with a customizable layout that accommodates to a specific workflow. With the exception of the construction view pane, the default configuration can be reorganized. Also, color coding on each node provides a quick and easy assessment of the node tree and its components. These simple yet helpful tidbit trickles down to saving time on projects of various scope.
It is not all roses, though. Despite the advantages already mentioned, some common features leave much to be desired when compared to node-based editors from other software. For instance, hot-key support for copying nodes, right-click menu for fast node creation, the ability to sort nodes for organizational purposes, and the ability to add/subtract multiple nodes from an existing selection by rectangle marquee are a few things that are lacking, and could be extremely beneficial for future updates of the software. One of the big pros of using such type of graphic editors is the ability to disable certain nodes for troubleshooting; however, RailClone 2.0 has implemented this only in a handful of nodes.
Also, selecting any RailClone object will trigger the style editor window which will then stay on top of all windows. This can be distracting and cumbersome for some; though maybe not so much for those that have plenty of screen estate. If the former is the case, it is recommended to get into the habit of closing the editor window after necessary changes have been made to avoid constant editor popping.
On a much serious note, not closing the style editor can have costly repercussions of losing connection with RailClone or, even worse, losing your work after 3DS Max becomes unresponsive. Performing certain actions, such as saving or hitting the render button, will also cause the editor to close out. Why the hassle? The answer ties back to how the style editor is built - a separate application from 3DS Max. And because of this, closing the style editor is mandatory in order to maintain stability. While animating numeric values is possible in RailClone 2.0, the style editor is unable to provide obvious visual queues (like the red brackets) or update affected values in real-time.
New Creation Method Through Styles
Users of RailClone 2.0 will find themselves employing new systematic ways to generate models through "styles" and getting familiar with a new set of terminology along the way. To take this plugin to its full potential, it is important to do some planning before jumping into the style editor right off the bat. Ask relevant questions such as "How should I build my model, is it a linear or two dimensional array configuration?", "What components do I need to build my model?", and "Are there ways to streamline the node tree to increase my work efficiency?". The answers to these questions will maximize your effort while working with the style editor and can determine the accuracy of the final model.
RailClone 2.0 tutorial scene “Drop Kerb” illustrates the versatility of the parametric modeling tool
To start constructing any styles in RailClone 2.0, regardless of complexity, you must begin with one of two generators. Each generator, in turn, is determined by the number of splines, or "Base Objects", you specify. One spline manifests into a "Linear 1S" generator, and a two-spline system is called "Array 2S". Each generator is uniquely different in its own way and serves a different purpose. For example, Linear 1S utilizes features similar to the spacing tool and path deform modifier to create a final model based on a tileset algorithm. It is, more often than not, the quickest solution to create objects such as railings, fences, rows of seats, etc. Additional controls over start, corner, end, and in-between meshes make Linear 1S easy to use.
The newly introduced Array 2S generator, on the other hand, is a robust and elaborate system with many variables to consider. To set it up, you will need two spline objects: one that governs the length of the path and the other that determines the height. With these two splines, nine distinct regions are established inside this virtual matrix: four perimeter sides, four corners, central columns, and middle rows. Although the variables outnumber the other system, Array 2S generators are much more versatile. Using this generator, it is possible to create complex and detailed models including, but not limited to, building façades, patterned flooring, tiled roofs and even bookcases.
Both RailClone generators adhere to the parametric concept closely in that you have the ability to manipulate either the base object(s) or the source meshes at any given point throughout a project. Such flexibility is, arguably, the utmost advantage when considering the possibility of adding RailClone 2.0 to your production pipeline.
The generators have both been given a new "Clipping Area" feature, which works in a similar way to the "Area" rollout in Forest Pack Pro. The clipping area, defined by a single closed spline, utilizes a more efficient boolean operation to exclude or include certain portion(s) of the final model. It works properly in most cases; however, employing this option can still have chances of producing undesirable results depending on the model. And this feature could be made more practical if multiple splines were allowed instead of just one.
Different controls and inputs found on the two generator types allow them to be used for uniquely different tasks
The next step in creating a style in RailClone 2.0 is to incorporate geometric meshes, or "Segments". A Segment is a component that gets distributed along the base object splines mentioned before. They can be made up of a single complete mesh or several modular pieces. Each segment has an exhaustive list of properties and rules that can be adjusted to achieve a certain look. Existing users will be glad to find that many properties, such as segment padding, alignment, slope deformation, UV mapping, and transforms have been kept from previous versions. Their functionality is quite similar in 2.0. One new addition is the "Transform affects Size" feature. Even though it is not a critical feature, it can affect the precision of the model by taking randomized transformation into consideration.
New users should bear in mind that materials applied on the source segment(s) do not automatically carry over to RailClone objects. In fact, one RailClone object can only have one material. To build a parametric model using segments that have multiple materials, you will need to consolidate all materials into one multi/sub-object material before applying it to the RailClone object. Also, preparation of custom segments needs to be done before inserting them into a style. RailClone requires segments to have a proper local axis setup in order to establish appropriate alignment in relation to the base object. Inaccurate models can sometimes be attributed to users having overlooked this minor detail.
Finally, RailClone 2.0 introduces eight new "Operators", which can be used in a style to deliberately transform and modify behaviors of other nodes. They can be categorized into three groups that provide influence over segments, other operators, and parameters.
First operator type alters the way segment(s) are perceived by a style. For example, "Randomize" operator returns one random segment from a segment list with a set percentage of probability; "Compose" nests few segments in a particular order for a style to treat them as a group; "Material" replaces segment's material ID; "Mirror" creates a mirror copy of a segment; "Conditional" returns one of two segments depending on whether certain conditions have been met; and, "Sequence" returns multiple segments in a sequential order.
Oporto Architecture University interior by
Archviz artist Jacinto Monteiro
Second operator type works with other operators. "Reverse" is the only operator in this category and can, as the name suggests, reverse the order of elements in a compose operator.
Last operator type deals with parameters, which are manually exposed variable(s), from any nodes inside the style editor. "Arithmetic" operator performs common mathematical operations and yields a numeric value that can then be plugged into parameters that supports either an integer, float, percentage, or scene unit. For example, if two segments share the same equal amount of padding on the Y axis, you can expose both segments' Y axis padding parameter and plug an "Arithmetic" operator with add or subtract function to affect two parameters simultaneously in one place.
In general, operators come off as a set of extremely powerful tools that can bypass duplicate portions of a style and provide quick solution to situations that would otherwise require an excessive amount of nodes.
"New tools bring new workflow to the table" is an understatement in RailClone 2.0. With so many new mechanisms at your disposal and multiple means for you to go about building a model, it becomes a daunting task. Be prepared to take a few rounds of trial and error to adapt and get comfortable combining generators/base objects, segments, and operators. You will be able to appreciate these integral elements that make RailClone 2.0 a unique toolset once you do.
Styles Are In The Bag...And Library
Previous versions of RailClone Pro provided a styles library containing more than 80 commonly used presets; however, the number and practical uses pale in comparison to the new library featured in RailClone 2.0. It is now more comprehensive with over 280 styles and offers more options for users across multiple design disciplines. The contents include styles for architecture, civil engineering, and industrial applications. Exterior and interior railing, chainlink fence, structural truss and beam, pavement, and interior crown molding are merely fractions of what the new library has to offer. Itoo has put up a webpage showcasing all available styles for your convenience (http://www.itoosoft.com/railclone/library.php).
Using these styles cannot be more intuitive and straightforward: select a desired style and then pick a spline under the "base object" rollout. Users can refine or build custom styles from any presets and subsequently save them out into custom library for future use. Even if you do not find the presets applicable for your need, the library should be perceived as a great resource for learning and exploring various methodologies behind how certain styles were created. One minor note when working with pre-made styles from the library is that all undo histories will be cleared after a preset has been selected.
Parameters Rollout Allows Efficient Modifications
Parameters is a feature introduced alongside other node types in RailClone 2.0. You may have noticed a separate rollout in the command panel soon after launching the plugin; however, it appears empty and you may have ceased to bother with it. While that mentality is valid, you will be surprised to know the Parameters' rollout can actually control certain aspects of your style directly with proper setup.
To do so, a "Numeric" node must be present in the style editor and wired into parameter values that have been exported manually from nodes. Once the connection has been made, the value you enter in the command panel will feed directly into the exported value inside the style editor. The parametric rollout automatically updates to reflect the amount of active numeric nodes that you have in the editor. In retrospect, this rollout bridges the gap between the style editor and max for imposing certain change of specific value, and it allows modifications to be made on the final model without delving into the node trees.
Itoo has made a number of great display improvements in RailClone 2.0 to ensure maximum viewport feedback while accommodating styles with considerable amount of instances. Most notably, a new point-cloud mode that most Archviz artists should be familiar with from using Itoo's other well-known Forest Pack Pro plugin. In version 1.x, there were only three viewport display options made available: mesh, boxes, and adaptative. This made working in RailClone quite undesirable and increasingly frustrating. Users would have to toggle between display modes to compensate for working in heavy scenes in an effort to check the accuracy of the RailClone model.
Hence, the addition of point-cloud mode in RailClone 2.0, which utilizes DirectX acceleration, should gain quick acceptance. This particular display mode has the same capability to quickly generate 3D preview of copious mesh instances in viewports, but users may find it differs slightly from Forest Pack Pro with a few new options. One of which grants you control over point-cloud density globally, affecting all RailClone objects in the scene, or locally to only the selected RailClone object. Also, working in point-cloud mode while limiting distributable distance on a spline is also a great way to improve viewport feedback. Being able to review the impact of each alteration in real-time definitely makes RailClone's iterative modification process more production friendly.
Comparison tests between common display options in RailClone 2.0 were carried out using the "Curtain Wall" tutorials scene and a mid-range workstation with specs of one Nvidia GTX 560Ti graphics card, 8GB of RAM, and dual Xeon CPU. Approximately 54 million polygons, or 25 building façades, can be created in point-cloud display (with default global and local density values set at 50% and 50%, respectively) before a noticeable dip in refresh rate. The Box display mode was capable of handling more than 100 façades, but the downside of not being able to review how the mesh looks loses the tactile connection that you want. Mesh display, on the other hand, brought the refresh rate to its knees while depleting all available memory after about 10 building façades, or approximately 21.6 million polygons. The benefits of using point-cloud display are easily obvious.
RailClone Tools Permit Flexible Conversions
Like in previous versions, RailClone tools in 2.0 are available only in the Pro version; however, it is a worthy feature that either does not get noticed immediately or simply neglected. The RailClone tools can be found in the utilities tab in 3DS Max and can be accessed by adding it to your button sets. One of the tool's accomplishments is its "Instanciate" feature. Instanciate can turn any RailClone objects into instanced editable geometries and has ability to group them, add them to a new layer, change their display modes, etc.
The concept is instrumental in translating the same RailClone meshes and their layout into other renderers or software that don't have RailClone support. And the process is reversible given the resulting mesh retain its original naming. Being able to create instanced geometries can also become a cost-effective way for smaller studios with tight budgets to get one Pro license without purchasing licenses for all workstations. The feature performs really well, but it is unfortunately marred after realizing the box UV mapping, which is exclusive to the plugin (defined in the segment nodes), cannot be transferred over.
A curtain wall building created using two dimensional arrays by Paul Roberts
Itoo Software aims big with the goal to redefine the modeling process in 3DS Max, offering a tool that revolves around a parametric system and an optimized workflow. While this goal seems ambitious, the plugin introduces a lot of great features that well justify the claim. The contemporary node-based interface, flexible styles system, new and optimized display modes, and extensive styles library are extremely versatile and show huge potential.
After covering the majority of the new features and upgrades, it may look like working with RailClone 2.0 seems very practical. But one lingering question remains, and that is if this plugin is necessary for you and your production pipeline. Practical uses of RailClone may vary based on the final model. Sometimes users may find it easier to just build something with typical poly modeling tools instead of using the plugin. Focusing on what the plugin can do instead of what it cannot do is the best way to overcome this situation and make the best use of RailClone.
In the end, RailClone is simply a modeling tool. The journey in which you adapt to it and its particular workflow can be rewarding. Certain aspects of the plugin, such as being able to expedite the design changes after each client review, will certainly strike a chord among many artists.