cmiVFX is a web site specializing in online / streaming video tutorials for popular 3D programs. Their range of CINEMA 4D video tutorials includes C4D Ultimate Learning Systems Vols 1 - 5, C4D Cloth Systems, C4D Matte Painting Extractions and now Thinking Particles and XPresso. This review is about the Thinking Particles and XPresso tutorial videos.
The video tutorial author is Brazilian Michael Marcondes. The tutorial is in English but Michael speaks with an accent as English is not his native tongue. The 2 video course totalling almost 8 hours costs $79.95 US.
Bad news if you want to buy the 2 videos on DVD. The only option is streaming videos from the cmiVFX site. The videos are not cached on your hard disk like the Cineversity videos are so the trick of looking in your temporary internet file folder for the videos and saving them won't work. In reality the streaming works pretty well. Obviously you will need broadband but the broadband speed doesn't need to be that fast. I had no problems streaming the videos on my ASDL broadband connection down here in New Zealand and this was while members of my family were also downloading things from the internet and playing on-line games. I also had no problems watching the videos in a motel with quite slow wi-fi broadband on my laptop.
Apart from a broadband connection you will need at least a 1280x800 screen at the very least. Although you can resize the videos to fit your screen best quality is achieved when viewed at 100% size. I watched most of the videos on my 22" Samsung LCD which has a 1680x1050 resolution. Even on that I found it was best to make my browser full screen. This then allowed the playback controls and book marks etc to be under the video rather than on top of it as they were on my laptop. Below is a screen grab from my 22" monitor. Click on the image for the full size version.
The way it works is you pay for the 2 video course. You then have an online account with cmiVFX and you have to sign in every time you want to watch the videos. Access to the videos is yours for life. Signing in is pretty easy and you can speed things up by adding the videos to your Favourites. I had it configured to load the last played video after I had logged in. There were 2 occasions or 2 consecutive days when I couldn't log in and watch the videos. I received a "No service" error message. This was a little bit disappointing as I had set time aside to watch the videos.
The video quality is quite good for streaming videos but not as crystal clear as a DVD would have been. Audio quality however was quite good. Probably the biggest issue apart from no having a hard copy is scrubbing and rewinding. When you want to replay something, something that you will frequently need to do, you don't see the video scrubbing forwards or backwards so it's pretty hit and miss. There is a built in topic index system and a bookmaking system and these helped but to be frank I would much prefer a hard copy either on DVD or downloaded to my harddisk where video quality was better and scrubbing backwards and forwards worked better. So these negatives aside, let's get on the with the review as the content of videos is actually very good.
Video 1 - 3 hours 43 minutes
The first thing that I need to make clear that despite the title Thinking Particles and XPresso this is a Thinking Particle course. Video 1 starts off with an 1 hour and 20 minutes introduction to XPresso but it is mainly XPresso nodes that will be used when working with Thinking Particles. So if you are planning on buying this video course to learn XPresso then this is not the video course for you. On the other hand if you do want to learn Thinking Particles and perhaps haven't really done much with XPresso then the introduction serves as a pretty good introduction to XPresso. If you're pretty comfortable with XPresso you may actually want to skip this first part because if you were like me and busting to have a go with Thinking Particles that 1 hour and 20 minutes took an eternity to get through.
As mentioned we get to Thinking Particles after an hour and twenty minutes. Michael begins by using the Doodle tool to draw diagrams on the screen and explain what result he wants to achieve with Thinking Particles. He does this throughout the videos. (Invest in a tablet Michael as trying to write text with a mouse looks awful.) This is one area of the videos where the presentation wasn't a patch compared to the well presented 3DFluff DVD's that cost about the same. I found the spoken introduction and the screen drawing with the Doodle tool in this section lasting 11 minutes and a few other introductions a little bit tedious at times because they dragged on. I guess that's the nature of working with a complex subject matter. Anyway Michael gets his point across with the roughly drawn diagrams and lengthy descriptions.
Michael starts demonstrating using some of the Thinking Particle Presets. This is a good way to begin using Thinking Particles as all of the XPresso is already created for you. Following this, animations using the PBlurp, PMatterwaves and PFragment nodes are created and explained. This is where the fun really starts with the videos. If you're like me you'll probably watch something cool being done in the video and then have to fire up C4D and have a go yourself at creating the same effect yourself. I found myself constantly stopping to go and have a play like this. Next up, more nodes are worked through with examples. The end result after watching both sets of videos is that all Thinking Particle nodes will have been covered.
There were a couple things that I thought should have been mentioned in the videos. Michael created all nodes from the X-Pool list in the XPresso editor. While there is nothing wrong with this and it may in fact be the most efficient way to create nodes there was no mention that nodes can be created by right clicking in the editor window. Another one was the PShape node. The default Bounding Radius for this node is set to 100. The end result if you are using objects as particles is that they will be 10% of their original size. To keep particles the same size as the source object you either have to change the value to 10 or use a PScale node. In my opinion this should have been covered.
No Cafe review would be complete without an animation. Here is a simple animation based upon the pSetData video. I had never used the PGetData and PSetData nodes before so this was new stuff for me. So that you can see something I have added an arrow object and to make the arrow point in the direction of travel I have used a PAlignment node. Another node that I hadn't used before until watching a video on using it. This animation and XPresso code is typical of many examples in the videos. What's occurring here is are particles are being emitted then after 2 seconds the speed of the particles increase five fold. Until I had watched this video I would have had no idea on how to achieve this result.
Video 2 - 3 hours 53 minutes
Video 2 carries on from where video 1 left off. Michael continues to work his way through explaining and demonstrating all Thinking Particle nodes. This is all excellent stuff as there were many nodes that I had never used before. Like in video 1, I had to keep stopping the video to go and have a play with what I had learnt.
Video 2 finishes with a complete project of blowing something up. This section is about 1 hour and 40 minutes long. This is culmination of everything that has preceded this video with a few new things tossed in for good measure. The end result of this tutorial is a very complex animation. The Thinking Particles / XPresso node set up is big. Here is just one part of the XPresso for the final scene below. There is plenty more!! Perhaps the final project should have been made less complex. I'm running a 2.4ghz Core 2 Duo PC with 3gb memory and viewport playback speed of the final scene was very sluggish. I had to have several goes just to do the Preview render shown below as I received out of memory errors a couple of times. When I did get the preview render finished it took over 2 hours to generate. I wonder how long an actual render would take?
Video 2 comes with the final project scene file. This is useful for those people that may get a bit stuck. What would have been useful would have been the inclusion of other scene files from video 2. Not absolutely essential as creating the XPresso / Thinking Particles nodes in the XPresso editor wasn't that difficult but again it would have been handy for those people completely new to XPresso and Thinking Particles and may have done something wrong and needed a working scene file to figure out what they had done wrong. Video 1 was meant to have some scene files but I received an error message when trying to download the files.
One thing that I thought may have been mentioned at least in the final project was using Pyrocluster with Thinking Particles. A trap many people new to using Standard Particles or Thinking Particles in conjunction with Pyrocluster fall into is having the Volume Tracer world step size at the default setting. This results in very slow renders. At least mentioning that this setting should be changed can bring significant render speed improvements would have been useful.
A portion of the XPresso from the final project
Click on the image to play the preview or better still right click here and download. (20mb QT H.264)
I quite enjoyed this tutorial series. I certainly know a lot more about Thinking Particles than I did before. Once I got used to Michael´s mis-pronounciation of a few words, it was easier for me to follow along. All Thinking Particles nodes are covered and demonstrated. Don't expect a complete breakdown of what every single node option does. Only commonly used settings are demonstrated and or just spoken about. If you know just a little about using XPresso then you should have no problems following along. If you are completely new to CINEMA 4D then I would suggest learning the basics first before getting into Thinking Particles as it is quite a complex subject.
The videos felt a like a draft version to me. There were a number of mistakes where in my opinion that section of the video should have been rerecorded. I think the occasional deliberate mistake or unintentional mistake is okay as you get to see how to resolve problems but some of the mistakes were where the author had forgotten to do something. You wouldn't get mistakes like this for example on 3DFluff DVD's which have a much more polished presentation but at the end of the day I guess it's the content that matters and the content is very good. You will definitely know a lot more about Thinking Particles after watching the 2 videos.
No doubt having the videos only in a streaming format will be an issue for some people. I much prefer to have a hard copy on my computer rather than having to constantly download from the internet. That said, the streaming does work pretty well except that you can't scrub through the videos as you would if you had the entire video downloaded. You can scrub through but you have to guess where you want to go back to if you are rewinding or fast forwarding. The contents markers and user definable bookmarks do help a little.
Can I recommend the video tutorials? Without a doubt yes for anyone wanting to get to grips with Thinking Particles. The 2 videos are best training for Thinking Particles that I am aware of. The reason for this is that all nodes are covered and many examples of doing things with Thinking Particles are demonstrated.
Review by 3DKiwi / Nigel Doyle