Forest Pack Pro is a scattering plugin for 3ds Max developed by Itoo Software. It's designed to create environments made out of vegetation, from a little grass area to a forest with thousands of trees, and to mainly distribute, instance, and randomly modify certain objects' properties in a scene.
The plugin can be used with Mental Ray and V-Ray, proxy objects of both render engines are supported. You can also use the native instancing system of 3ds Max and the scanline renderer.
Let's see how the software performs.
Initial impressions and workflowThe interface is clean and efficient, small images are used to help quickly identify the various features available, and most parameters are similar to those used in 3ds Max and other 3d packages.
Forest Pack Pro can manage two kinds of objects: templates and custom objects. Templates are planes with textures, a kind of billboard, useful mostly for backgrounds trees. The second type, custom objects (i.e. custom meshes selected by the user), are what we will focus on this review. When you load an object Forest Pack Pro assigns it a unique ColorID (which you can choose to use or not), this is useful for dealing later with objects' distribution.
One way to define placement of objects in Forest Pack Pro is by drawing some splines in the viewport and using them to define areas for including or excluding placement of objects.
You can easily attach multiple splines in order to achieve a complex area shape. A falloff setting is available to help make your zone's limits look more natural. Areas are easy to setup, one just needs to pay attention to the direction of splines.
This feature could be improved: if you'd like to use a map instead of splines to define the area where meshes will be scattered, this could be done through the Distribution panel, but you'd lose the flexibility it offers to switch from groups, to scattered or dense maps in a click. So you would have to paint all the features in Photoshop. The possibility of using complementary, separate maps for areas and distribution would be a welcome addition.
Distribution is the feature that will help you scatter objects. There are many ways to achieve a desired result. Forest Pack Pro allows you to choose from a small but efficient library of bitmaps (that offer dense, very scattered or grouped distribution). You can also use your own map and some renderer-specific ones (I'm thinking of V-Ray's VrayDistanceTex, for example). After choosing from the Forest Pack Pro map library or your own let's see how this works.
A Density panel allows you to define the size of your map and the density in the distribution of objects. It works the same way as a simple UVMapping of your ground. The size of the map can be seen in your viewport.
Diversity and clusters are surely some of the most useful features in Forest Pack Pro. With them you can easily group objects that were imported using the Geometry panel (which were assigned a specific ColorID). For example if you want to create some autumn grass, some parts of the surface are going to be covered by short grass, some by tall plants and some parts will be left empty.
With Forest Pack Pro you don't need to use multiple objects to create this effect, using diversity and clusters makes it easy. In order to make things look natural, it's possible to apply roughness, blur and noise settings to the cluster map. All these changes can be seen in real-time in the viewport, a feature that is not available in some other scattering plugins.
Finally, a collisions feature will help you reduce the number of objects in your scene without losing surface covering. This is one of the basic features of a scattering plugin and certainly the best way to optimize render time and RAM usage.
Using the Surface panel, objects can be aligned to the surface's normals. Another interesting option is the altitude parameter. This is really efficient, it lets you limit object placement to a certain altitude range with just a few clicks. In my test scene I used this option. All four Forest Pack Pro objects are linked to the same surface, trees are only placed at the top, grass at the bottom, and in the middle there are some little bushes.
In order to help make things look natural and realistic, Forest Pack Pro offers the ability to randomize the scale, rotation and translation of each object. This is one of the most basic features expected from scattering plugins, the only thing that gives Forest Pack Pro a little edge is the mirroring option. If you want to, you can also use a map for determining scaling and rotation.
Variation can also be added through materials. There are two ways to do this: a simple gradient tool that'll modify existing maps, or the awesome Forest Map. This is a really great option, with this map you can mix a bitmap and a gradient (or a color), but the best part is that you can choose to do it per leaf, per tree, or both! With this option each leaf and tree will be different. You can also load multiple bitmaps and distribute them randomly.
Forest Pack Pro can handle animated objects and it allows adding a time offset to the animation in order to keep things non-linear.
The Tree Editor
When you use random distribution in a scene, you'll probably get something that looks good, but if you have a master plan to stick to, it'll need some tweaking. The Tree Editor is there to give you that flexibility. It allows you to deal with each object, so if you need to focus on some trees at a specific place you can. It will let you scale, rotate, delete and move one object, or groups of scattered objects.
This is a really nice option because it gives you a simple way to handle a single object with a few clicks and it doesn't kill the RAM optimization provided by Forest Pack Pro. Distribution settings won't be available after using this feature but viewport settings still will. Using the points cloud display in combination with this is a real pleasure.
Camera and Display options
The Camera panel offers two important features, one for planes and one for custom objects. Forest Pack Pro can rotate planes automatically, so that they are always facing the camera.
The second feature is "Limit to visibility". With it, trees are only created where the camera can see. There are also some clipping plane and density falloff options, these are very useful for reducing RAM usage and keeping render times as low as possible without losing density of scattered meshes.
A small problem with this function is that during a fly-through trees can disappear at the border of the frame. The pivot point is for Forest Pack Pro the point of interest of each mesh and when you're working with big trees you will need to use the expand parameter to resolve this. But it won’t always work, depending on the size of the object and the pivot point. I'd love to see this handled automatically by the plugin.
Camera options also offer the possibility to cast fake shadows from 2d objects.
The Display panel lets you choose the way you want to see scattered objects in the viewport. The points cloud display is a really nice way to see objects while working with clusters or with the tree editor. You can also limit the number of objects visible in the viewport, and use simple geometry replacements (plane, box, pyramid, etc.).
Something that could be improved regarding display options is adding a feature currently offered by Multiscatter (another widely used scattering plugin) that allows you to toggle scatter objects on/off through the utilities panel in 3ds Max, or select them without having to switch viewports.
Handling RAM issues
Forest Pack Pro allows you to administer RAM usage through its statistics option (General panel). This will help you resolve related issues that may surface. If there is a problem with a render, it will pop-up showing how many mesh instances Forest Pack Pro is managing, and it will also provide a brief description of how to resolve the issue.
Forest Pack Pro Library
The Library Browser is a tool to quickly add plants to your scene, and you can of course save your own models to the library. The latest release of Forest Pack Pro brings a number of free 3d models courtesy of Konstantin Kim's 3dmentor.ru. I've used these models for most of the scene I created for testing the plugin, I just added some trees from another collection. At Konstantin's site, there are also some free grass and flowers available.
The test scene
Now let's see how all the features discussed helped me create the test scene:
- There are two grass types. Modeling looks the same but rendering does not. I've used the Forest Color Map with a gradient but with solid colors inside.
- There are 6 kinds of flowers, these are actually three colors combined with two kinds of flowers. I've made this to show how clusters can be useful to group objects without having to use multiple Forest objects.
- For trees, I've used five tree models. Those all have the same Forest Color Map for leaves. I've used it to obtain a little variation on each tree. I really love this feature, it's fully integrated to my workflow with Slate. You can also use it to load multiple bitmaps for the diffuse channel, it looks like CGSource's MultiTexture map, a must use feature of Forest Pack Pro!
A scene created for testing the plugin's performance by Matt Guetta.
The sculpture depicted is a homage to French artist Bernar Venet's "Neuf lignes obliques".
A word about licensing
There's something important to mention regarding licensing: you can use the same Forest Pack Pro license both at your job and at home. It's not written in the license of the plugin, but Itoo is flexible about this and authorizes users to activate licenses more than one time. Just make sure not to use them at the same time.
You've probably guessed by now that I've really come to like Forest Pack Pro. RAM management works very well, tools are easy to use and some of the features (Forest Map, camera visibility, clusters, altitude range, etc.) really help with the scattering process and allow you to give a very natural look to your scenes.
Thanks to its accessible interface, the plugin is very easy to adopt for CG studios. Of course, artists will have to dedicate some time to read the help file and watch some video tutorials in order to learn all the little tips and get the most out of the plugin.
Forest Pack Pro is one of the easiest and most powerful plugins available for creating realistic vegetation environments. It is useful not only for architectural visualization, but also for cinematics, commercials and other kinds of CG production that require the creation of complex environments.
For those who'd like to give it a try, a free Lite version can be downloaded from Itoo Software's website. You won't get all the features but you'll still get to test much of its functionality.