When Design & Drafting's developers contacted me about previewing their newest design and visualization package, ACAD Lighting PL, I jumped at the chance. Colorado State University's theatre program has used Design and Drafting's products, LD Assistant AC and LD Assistant PL, in design and production classes since Fall 2002. The summer break was an opportunity to try not only the new tools featured in ACAD Lighting PL, but also to explore what the program shares in common the company's other products, from Automatic Lighting to Viz Link. Priced at $499, ACAD Lighting PL offers all of the lighting visualization power found in other LD Assistant products, but without the specific tools to create the detailed lighting plots and paperwork required for theatrical lighting projects. Moreover, ACAD Lighting PL includes several advanced design-and-visualization tools which will be incorporated into the current product line as LD Assistant AC/FX and LD Assistant PL/FX.

LD Assistant AC is a stand-alone 2D/3D object-based CAD program utilizing AutoCAD 2002 technology. ACAD Lighting and LD Assistant PL are both Autodesk plug-in programs (A plug-in is an extension providing improved performance, capabilities, and tools for enhancing AutoCAD) for licensed users of either AutoCAD or Architectural Desktop. Since Design & Drafting is a licensed Autodesk Partner, all of the company's products read and write 100% compatible DWG files. I began with a pre-release version of the program, which was later upgraded twice. My workstation was an Athalon XP 2200 running at 1.8GZ with 512MB RAM running Windows XP. The plug-in ran successfully in both AutoCAD 2002 and Architectural Desktop 3.3. Installing ACAD Lighting PL is straightforward and the full installation requires approximately 450MB of disk space. The final step links the plug-in to your version of AutoCAD (or Architectural Desktop). Both plug-ins currently work with AutoCAD 2000, 2000i, 2002, and Architectural Desktop 3.3, and Design & Drafting is configuring both plug-ins to be fully compatible with AutoCAD 2004 and Architectural Desktop 2004.

ACAD Lighting PL loads automatically each time AutoCAD opens. All of AutoCAD's commands and functions remain in place, but you will note a new ACAD Lighting pull-down menu at the top of the screen, Figure 1, as well as a toolbar for direct access to the plug-in's features. Before using the program, go to VIEW/TOOLBARS and, under ACADLIGHTING, check the ACADLIGHTING VIEWS toolbar. It has the features of AutoCAD's VIEWS toolbar, but adds buttons to change immediately from 2D to 3D views. Important: when working within either plug-in application, use ACAD Lighting's VIEWS and RENDER commands. If you use AutoCAD's rendering engine, the special effects applied to the lights won't render correctly.

Once the program is open, use the CREATE ROOM Command from the ACADLighting pull down menu. Figure 2 shows the command's dialogue box where values for the room's size, walls, a stage, and basic lighting are entered. Once the room is defined, explore the BLOCK NAVIGATOR to add some objects and accessories to the room. If you want a person to provide a sense of proportion, look in the PROPS folder for DAMAN. Working in the TOP view, it takes only moments to drag and drop objects into a drawing. Since the room is a 3D environment, go to a FRONT or SIDE view to move objects to their proper height if they are not placed on the floor. ACAD Lighting PL comes with too many tools to address here, but easy-to-navigate wizards let you create Truss, Rope Lights, House Lights, Spotlights, Projectors, Security Posts, and Curtains.

3D objects must have materials attached so they will have color and texture when rendered. The MATERIAL PALETTE contains just under 150 bit-mapped images ready to apply to objects. Although no lights have been added to the scene, Figure 3 shows how the materials will look in the scene using ACAD Lighting's RENDER tool. It's a good idea to check the option buttons and add some global lighting. Rendering time depends on the computer's power, the complexity of the scene, and the size and quality of the rendered image. Before adding lights and effects to the scene and using just the default rendering settings, this scene rendered in under 20 seconds. When the time comes to save rendered files of higher quality, the program's dialogue box settings allow for saving to a variety of image formats and different resolutions a levels of color depth.

A feature new in ACAD Lighting PL is AUTOMATIC LIGHTING. This tool is the quickest and easiest method for lighting a 3D object or scene. Automatic Lighting's dialogue box, Figure 4, guides users through four easy steps as follows:

  1. Select either a 3D object or a target in the drawing as the central focus point.

  2. Next, choose lights from the library of lighting blocks or create a new custom fixture.

  3. In the Illumination Scheme section choose to add a back light, a quick tool for creating “three-point lighting,” or place a light at each vertex of a continuous polyline which would prove useful for highlighting quickly a series of special target points.

  4. The final step is to supply the basic instrument data, Height, Intensity (10-20% is usually a good starting point), and Beam and Field Angles (The maximum Field Angle is 160Þ and the maximum Beam Angle must be at least 1Þ smaller than the Field Angle).

Adding colors and gobos to lights is a quick and easy process. The Gel Colors Palette contains several hundred swatches representative of the Rosco, Lee, and GAM lines of color filters, and the Gobo Palette tools let you select from over 1,000 patterns to attach to a fixture. With both tools you simply pick the color or gobo from a palette and attach to the appropriate fixtures. When the scene is rendered, the lights, shadows, gobos, and colors now appear (Figure 5), but the rendering time increased to 27 seconds.

ACAD Lighting PL's second new feature is creating volumetric lighting effects. Basically, the Volume Tool creates the effect of using a theatrical hazer in the space, thereby providing particles off which the beams of light will reflect. Not only will the colored beams of light render in the drawing, but also respective gobo patterns cutting through the haze, glowing light sources, rays, and similar optical effects will also be evident. The newly rendered scene in Figure 6 now includes the visible cones of light with their respective colors and gobos cutting through the atmospherics. The rendering time, however, increased dramatically to just over ten minutes.

There are, however, challenges encountered when first rendering views with volume lighting. Not all AutoCAD views can correctly render volumetric lighting effects. I had problems when trying to render volume lights in views using Clipped Planes, as in Figures 3 and 5, and was couldn't render perspective views created in Architectural Desktop. Note that Figure 6 was rendered in a Front View tilted with the 3D Orbit tool. Design & Drafting's developers indicated that they would try to address the issue with the clipped views, but added it was unlikely that the volume lights could be configured to work in Autodesk perspective views. Most tools in the program are intuitive and easy to navigate; however, the program's HELP files are spartan. The developers, however, have always been willing to look at problem files and offer suggestions and guidance for registered users over the telephone.

Although the following tools are incorporated into all of Design & Drafting's visualization products, I consider them to be notable highlights in ACAD Lighting, including:

Schedules

Although ACAD Lighting PL does not offer the comprehensive schedules for lighting designers found in the LD Assistant products, the program still tracks all of the lighting elements inserted into a drawing in spreadsheet form. Once you create lights and effects, it is easier to view and edit settings in this window or print a hard copy for reference.

Creating Point Lights

Using the CONVERT BLOCK TO OBJECT command, a block in the drawing may be defined as a Point Light, which is, in essence, a point source of light. Place this point light inside a sphere with glass material and you have a glowing source of light. This is a great solution for candles (Figure 7) street lights, signs, and backlit windows.

Animation

Short AVI files can be generated to show rendered cones of light moving through the model. Figure 8 shows the animation path and story boards from key frames from an animation, which may be viewed in a tutorial at http://home.comcast.net/~cleveland.barry/Impatica/Part-1 — -Animate-a-Moving-Light-for-Impatica-smaller.html. I got some help from the support team when making my first animation, but once I understood the process, it does make sense and is straightforward.

So, which of the three Design & Drafting product is right for you? If you do not own a copy of AutoCAD and want full compatibility with Autodesk products and true DWG file compatibility, then choose LD Assistant AC/FX. This standalone product addresses 2D drafting and 3D modeling, and includes:

A suite of tools for creating intelligent 3D blocks, such as walls, doors, windows, curtains, and stairs;

Libraries of thousands blocks of theatrical equipment, furniture, and accessories to immediately drag and drop into drawings;

Comprehensive plotting and paperwork tools for lighting designers;

Enhanced rendering tools for creating sophisticated visualizations.

When compared to $3,395 for a single seat of AutoCAD 2004, LD Assistant AC/FX is a bargain at $1,895.

If you already are using AutoCAD, then it depends on your focus. Since LD Assistant PL W/FX includes all of the features of the stand alone LD Assistant AC, it is the logical choice for lighting designers, and a single seat is $1,295.00. Set designers and architects who are neither creating lighting plots nor needing the associated paperwork but want to enhance their visualizations with sophisticated lighting effects will likely choose the less-expensive $499 ACAD Lighting PL. All products are offered with multiple seat discounts and an educational pricing structure is available for qualified institutions.

Barry Cleveland serves as associate professor and lighting/sound designer for the School of the Arts at Colorado State University.