This feature-rich, jam-packed lighting, visualization, and drafting application has eluded my attention until now. Design and Drafting LD Assistant 08 (LDA08) can be downloaded and evaluated for free for 30 days at www.ldassistant.com. It comes in two flavors: LD Assistant AC 08, with everything you need without having to purchase AutoCAD® 08; and LD Assistant PL 08, a plug-in for those who already own AutoCAD 08.

I did most of my evaluation on a MacBook Pro 2.4GHz Intel core 2 Duo with 4GB RAM, with a NVIDIA® GeForce® 8600M GT with 256MB VRAM. While the software is designed for Windows, I used VMware's Fusion and Windows XP Pro to see how it would fare on a Mac. I did comparisons with a PC running XP Pro, a true open GL card (NVIDIA Quadro® FX 3000g 256MB VRAM), dual Xeon 2.8GHz, 2GB RAM. My Mac was faster in all areas except visualization and recorded simulations that rely heavily on the GPU to run fast. The optimal suggested bang-for-buck configuration is WinXP running with an NVIDIA Quadro FX 1500.

There are so many robust features in LD Assistant 08 that it would exceed the scope of this article to go through them all, so I will touch on the most intriguing. The software originated in 2000, utilizing Autodesk® AutoCAD APIs to facilitate the building of AutoCAD lighting plots. Back then, it was mostly a drafting add-on that offered a nice array of lighting blocks with predefined attributes that could be extracted into databases and used in third-party applications to generate magic sheets or fixture schedules. AutoCAD today has well over 11 million users, so it made sense, and in 2000, it was the de facto standard for stage lighting plots.

Since then, many on the stage lighting scene have turned to either VectorWorks Spotlight or other software to develop and simulate plots. There is still a large worldwide base of AutoCAD users, especially among theatre and architectural lighting professionals, but it has become a minority in other areas of lighting since VectorWorks Spotlight came along. Testing out LDA08, this is the first time that I have considered using a PC application on a regular basis with my Mac.

LDA08 was built using the multitude of AutoCAD programming languages that allow third-party partner coders to build plug-ins, and in the case of LDA08, entire applications around existing first class technology such as Autodesk's AutoCAD and the DWG file format. I've often wondered why more lighting visualization packages haven't been built around professional animation, drafting, and/or rendering packages such as Autodesk's Maya® or Avid®'s XSI. Many have started from scratch developing proprietary technology, instead of using similar technology developed by the numerous CS PhDs working for companies such as Autodesk (which now owns Maya, 3ds Max®, Viz, and a mind-boggling list of vertical applications for every style of CAD, modeling, rendering, and animation).

LDA08 offers so much for such a small price that it is a good choice for those interested in a full-featured visualization lighting package that won't become redundant anytime soon. It is no longer just an excellent drafting plug-in; this software now includes fully functional realtime visualization, optimal photometric rendering, database schedule generation, paperwork, and multi-view plot generation, and it even incorporates projection and sound design into the mix.

Drafting And 3D

This is really a suite of 3D drafting tools, including advanced texture mapping and a set of poly tools. Chamfering, filleting, compounded 3D curves, 3D lofting, sweeping, planar surfacing, and Booleans present no problems for the application, nor does complex 3D poly modeling or texturing. Fourteen different types of snapping options can be combined to quickly snap trusses and lights perfectly into place.

Extensive layer controls and line thicknesses/styles allow the user to communicate the type of cable being used simply by drawing a line and assigning it one of many cable line types, such as 5-pin XLR. The line will then take on the label “5-pin XLR” all the way through. This is a useful tool to illustrate cable runs without the wire and cable database.

Users are also able to view modeling in four different realtime states, each varying in the degree that it taxes the graphics processing unit (GPU): wireframe, hidden line removal, realistic, and even a conceptual cartoon-type style for those who want less of a photo-realistic look and more of a hand-drawn look. Hidden line removal is my preferred choice for efficient modeling because it removes any lines behind surfaces exposed by whatever camera you are viewing through without straining the GPU. It's convenient to be able to instantly switch modes to more realistic views and go back with one click for quick previews. You can view your model from any perspective, and you can easily set up various cameras for viewing angles and attach them to poly-line paths to do complex walkthrough maneuvers in realtime. Views can also be named and recalled promptly.

Fixture Library

Like any good software, the package includes a constantly evolving fixture library. It's divided into three parts: predefined fixtures, user-defined fixtures, and a built-in web client that allows you to use Autodesk i-drop® technology. Option three gives you access to thousands of photometrically accurate IES (Illuminating Engineering Society LM-63-1991) standard profiled fixtures from lighting company websites all over the world. Many of the predefined fixtures have IES profiles, but you can also i-drop more right onto your plot from the web at the ever-growing fixture base at www.design-drafting.com/idrop.

The predefined fixture library is a slick and extensive 3D library of over 400 of the more popular automated and conventional fixtures, as well as many less popular fixtures. The library also has sound gear, stages, theatres, projectors, and a large variety of trussing, hanging structures, rigging equipment, lifts, and ladders. Highly detailed 3D and 2D textured models impressively represent the fixture base, as well as tables, consoles, TV cameras, and soft goods.

The predefined library isn't perfect and has some fixtures missing, but that's where the user-defined library helps. One of the greatest features of this application is the ability to make your own new fixture from scratch or from a predefined template at no additional charge. You can create LED fixtures, light curtains, and basically anything that has a light source without paying a maintenance or upgrade fee. This is a huge plus. The fixtures don't represent exact gobo roll speeds from one gobo to another or pan and tilt ramping, but I'd rather be able to make my own unlimited supply of fixtures than have to pay for new or updated fixtures every year or so.

The user community and developers are constantly adding new fixture profiles to download free of charge. LDA08 has stimulated the building of extensive fixture libraries by offering free licenses of the software to those who contribute the most useful set of new fixtures. This is not only a great marketing strategy, but it greatly benefits the user community. It's certainly a bonus to be able to create a photometrically accurate fixture starting with just a bottle, intensity, and a color temp.

Another way to create a new fixture is to base it on an existing one from the predefined library, using it as a template to make updated or completely different fixtures. All of these new fixtures can either be saved to the user-defined library or can override the predefined fixture.

The built-in web client opens up the fixture library to the Internet via i-drop technology, allowing you to go to a fixture manufacturer's site (they must also use i-drop) and simply drag and drop a fixture onto the plot. There are thousands of companies using this technology, mostly architectural and interior design firms. Since the advent of Viz2000, I've been waiting for more stage lighting companies to offer i-drop fixtures, and hopefully, it's only a matter of time now.

Every LDA08 fixture comes with the full range of attributes, such as unit numbers, channel numbers, gels, gobos, accessories, DMX universes, DMX channels, weights, prices, cable and wiring data, sound data, and data on tables and other event items. All attributes are stored as data exclusive to the type of block you are using and can be sorted by a multitude of keys using the simple Project Report Generator Wizard. Project Reports can then be placed on plots in Layout mode along with Legends (Key), title blocks, bitmaps of logos or renderings, and all the scale or non-scale plans, elevations, and 3D views. The paperwork generation is effortless and completely flexible. Allocating data to fixtures and other blocks is simple. You can select a group of fixtures — or fixtures in a desired order — and auto-number them with unit/channel/dimmer/circuit and cable ID. You can also add gels as well as a glass or metal gobo library to selected fixtures. It's easy to adjust any of the attributes of a fixture and restore it as new or the same. One caveat is that you cannot quickly allocate DMX channels and universes yet, which is a bit of a downside. Each fixture must be individually selected and universed/DMX-channeled, and that can get tedious.

Simulation

LDA08 has one of the most impressive, realtime, lighting visualization features I've ever seen. First, it allows you to use up to 64 universes of DMX to control extremely large-scale, realtime visualizations. This feature is opened up even more via its extensive support of DMX-to-Ethernet capture devices such as Enttec, Art-Net, Pathport, and LD-net devices. This makes it affordable to use either existing capture devices or purchase less expensive DMX capture devices to get even more universes.

More importantly, the visualizer can support extremely large rigs without becoming cluttered, confused, or looking like one big blob when all the lights are turned on in a scene. The visualizer supports an impressive falloff shader when you include smoke or haze in the scene. The falloff is so accurate and just transparent enough that you are able to see many fixtures deep through its transparency (which is also adjustable in the volume haze properties of the fixture). Each fixture's atmosphere and lens effects can be independently adjusted using an enormous option list of effects such as lens streaks, stars, glows, rays, flares, volume, and noise, with each feature having up to four adjustment options. All of these effects are used in the realtime visualizer and can have data attached for the database to use.

Once cueing is established, LDA08 has a unique feature that lets you record the entire simulation to an imported music track, cue to it, and then play back in realtime. This feature allows you to really refine a design — all visualized and beating to the music in realtime — before a single fixture is hung. For those without a console or DMX capture unit, you can use and record virtual sliders in each cue to control any part of any fixture without DMX capture. This feature extends to the projection of any WMV movie file on any surface. Not only can you use predefined projectors to project in realtime, but you can also sub out a gobo in any fixture for a movie. The final cued simulations to music can run with the full array of lens and atmospheric effects while you zoom, navigate, or walk though the scene.

Rendering

The renderer is similar to the professional-grade renderers you really only see in products such as AutoCAD, 3ds Max, Viz, and Maya. It not only includes ray tracing (the computation of light rays using refractive and reflective samples), but it also is capable of utilizing Global Illumination (GI) and Final Gather (FG). GI and FG work together. GI simulates direct and indirect bounce of rays and photons as well as their effect on shadows and shaders. Many parameters can be set to maximize the renderings to approach photometric precision accuracy. FG smoothes out the GI rendering by using camera-shot FG points that smooth blended photons and shadows that are cast from GI.

Volumes of options are included in the renderer. You can achieve some of the highest quality renders I've seen in a complete pre-viz stage lighting package here. You can also “region render.” This lets you draw any size box around a particular area in order to tweak a specific area without having to re-render the entire drawing — a major timesaver. The renderer is extremely fast, as it will utilize up to four cores or processors simultaneously. You can planar-map surfaces using planar, cylindrical, spherical, and box projections with the supplied or self-made textures that can include a movie file.

Missing from lighting packages like LDA08 is a true physically-based renderer similar to those found in Mental Ray, VRay, Maxwell, or Pixar's Renderman. You can't emit true photonic energy, cast onto true physical shaders such as die-electric or sub-surface-scattering shaders, or use HDRIs that yield incredibly realistic results. In fact, there are some options in the renderer that are not yet fully utilized by LDA08, but the fact that they are there, ready to be updated, generates much anticipation.

Summary

LDA08 is a well rounded and feature-packed professional lighting application that is also passionately supported. There is a lot to it, and it's to your benefit to be guided through it, but with one phone call, it all made sense to me. Design and Drafting has a free international Skype line for support at no charge.

There are some small issues that any new software package needs to work out, but the company has already made improvements to the package since its release. I'm impressed with nearly every facet of the application, and for the price, it makes it a must have in my small arsenal of lighting drafting packages. The expandability of LDA08 is eminent as the technology and licensing evolve with the host application, so there are some exciting things on the horizon with this product range.