3Ds Max enters the big league

3ds Max finally proves its worth against long-fancied competitors.
Analysis, Content production
Analysis, Content production
Analysis, Content production
Screen shots show various tools being utilised in 3ds Max 2010.
Screen shots show various tools being utilised in 3ds Max 2010.
Analysis, Content production
Analysis, Content production

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By Amitaabh Naaraayan

If 3ds Max was previously thought to be a notch below Maya and Softimage, it’s no longer the case. Amitaabh Naaraayan calls 3ds Max 2010 a “friendly giant” that has now joined the big league.

3ds Max 2010 comes with a new look and a great interface. The new Graphite Modeling Toolset immediately impresses with its Microsoft-style Ribbon interface with over 100 tools for freeform sculpting, texture painting, and advanced polygonal modelling. To the lay user, these new tools might seem daunting at first.

To the experienced user, however, it is clear that possibly all of these new features are from PolyBoost, a $150 plug-in for the previous versions of 3ds Max created by game developer Carl-Mikael Lagnecrantz, and many 3ds Max modelers already have the plug-in.

There are more than 100+ tools in this software. Here, I shall look at the top 10.

Topology: With Topology, you can take a high poly model from a painting application like ZBrush or Mudbox and simply “draw” your new low poly re-topology onto it. It’s just like taking a pen and drawing a grid on a sculpture and then Voila! the grid becomes a new mesh. This allows for total freedom in paint/sculpt tools without worrying about your final topology until the “sculpt” looks its best. It would also be easier to create a terrain rather than cleaning up an existing mesh imported from a GIS application. This is so much fun!

Loop Tools: Modeling just got easier with this feature. There are a range of excellent tools in this area, from auto-selection of loops/edges, customisable selection and edge skipping, auto-connecting and averaging of loop placement (Flow Connect and Set Flow). You can also add subsequent loops interactively using the rather nifty Swift Loop tool. There is a lot here to tinker with.

Optimise: With a single tool, users can now do heavy-duty mesh optimisation and mesh-flow tweaking without switching tools. Once this is activated and using various key combos (shift/alt/ctl), you can delete rings, loops, edges, etc with a single click. This is incredibly useful for those that use Box Modeling and find themselves with too high a polycount. Of course, this is also handy for optimising game models that were built carelessly.

Besides the modeling, there are several new features and enhancements in 3DS Max 2010 like the new Scene Explorer and Material Explorer. The material explorer aims to simplify the way you interact with objects and materials, giving the ability to quickly browse and replace materials in the scene, as well as to view material properties and relationships.

The key benefit of the material explorer is the ability to change material properties and settings, either globally or individually, from a central resource. There’s no need to enter the material editor when you need to make quick changes: the Scene Explorer enhancements offer similar shortcuts for greater scene organisation. A user can have several Scene Explorer dialogues open at one time, and this configuration will be saved along with the user’s 3DS Max scene.

My viewport looks very good as well! No complaints. The viewport itself has a handful of interesting tools under the New Review Enhancements, most of which I find really useful.

These enhancements can fall under two main categories: Hardware Shading and XView. Hardware Shading simply allows the user to see advanced lighting in the viewport, including hard or soft shadows, ambient occlusion and exposure control. Aah, that’s why it looks so good.

XView analyses the scene and displays important information based on the option chosen. Things like Open Edges, Overlapping Faces, T-Vertices and Isolated Vertices are among the available options. These are quite helpful for those using game, animation or rendering pipelines.

Containers is another new feature, and is highly useful for collaborative working in larger 3D, post or game design studios. A user can collect large amounts of related objects (building in a city block, characters, props and buildings for a particular level in a game) as a Container. They can then place and manipulate them in a scene together by transforming a Container helper object. One can save time by updating all the objects in a container at once, or by instancing the container and then enable the instances to inherit the changes. Containers can also be used to make scenes simpler, as although the contents are visible in the viewport as part of the container, they are in reality removed from the scene.

You can unload the container, move it to a new location, and then load it again. It’s just like a better and stronger XRef.

At this point, I noticed that my favourite renderer just got shinier and more powerful and wondered if I was just imagining things or got mental ray-ed. I was zapped to say the least. Besides 3ds Max 2010 being the first animation package to integrate the powerful mental mill technology, there are some new enhancements here that are worthy of mention.

The global quality knobs is one of them. With this, one can quickly dial up or down overall quality settings for shadows, glossy refractions or reflections with the new global quality knobs along with image anti-aliasing and indirect illumination quality. This will save you a couple of hours of work.

Multi-Map Shader: The new 3ds Max Multi-Map Shader for mental ray lets users purposely assign specific colour variations to a set of objects that otherwise share the same material. It can also be used to quickly randomise or assign colours to multiple objects/maps based on object IDs or Material IDs.

This new capability could be used to randomise the colours of rocks, scales, crowds, or anything repetitive that could benefit from a degree of colour variation. Just think of the possibilities.

There are few more unassuming yet greatly beneficial enhancements that you will not want to miss.

Viewport Canvas: New in 3ds Max 2010 (but not so new in Autodesk Maya) is the ability for artists to paint on a 3D model directly in the Viewport. This means artists will be able to quickly create new maps or extend existing maps using brushes, blend modes, fill, clone and erase. The Viewport also provides quick updates for changes to textures made in Adobe Photoshop software.

ProBooleans Enhancements: A new Quadify modifier has been added to the ProBooleans toolset that enables modellers to clean up triangles in model for better subdivision and smoothing. A new Merge Boolean operation has also been added which lets them attach an object (or multiple objects) to another while maintaining the transforms, topology and modifier stacks of each object.

UVW Unwrap Enhancements: Manipulating UV maps in the Viewport is now as easy as modelling in the Viewport thanks to a significantly expanded UVW Unwrap toolset. New features include such UV Selection tools as Growing/Shrinking Rings and Loops, and quick editing tools for aligning, spacing, and stitching UVs.

Some Advance Effects Enhancements include:

Cloth: A whole new range of cloth effects is now available. The cloth toolset now supports pressure settings for simulating inflated, enclosed cloth surfaces (e.g. cushions, balloons) and cloth can now be torn with variable strength and timing (e.g. cutting, tearing and unzipping cloth).

Collision objects can even be set to cut cloth when they collide. Finally, a new Inherit Velocity tool blends a new simulation with one from previous frames to create a smooth transition for staged simulations.

Hair: The 3ds Max Hair toolset has been enhanced to give artists more precise control over the styling and animation of hair. A new Spline Deform feature enables them to add splines to a set of hairs which act as control guides so that the hairs can be posed, keyed or assigned a dynamic target – with the hair following. The Hair toolset has now also been exposed in the software developer toolkit (SDK), making it possible for hair to be rendered with other third-party renderers.

ProSound: Animators and others can now add up to 100 audio tracks to their animated scenes. The integration into 3ds Max of the Sound Trax plug-in as the ProSound, multi-track audio toolset means they now have a permanent solution to the problem of sound syncing. ProSound enables them to sync their audio with the viewport play rate, render it to match playback speed, or play it backwards and forwards (Ping Pong mode).

The technology supports both PCM and compressed audio in AVI and WAV format with up to six output channels; it also gives animators 46 scriptable audio commands.

This is not the end but the new features have definitely made 3DS Max 2010 bigger, friendlier and taken it to a new league where it can now rest comfortably with the likes of Autodesk Maya and Autodesk Softimage.

Amitaabh Naaraayan is a freelance VFX specialist and can be reached at amitaabh@gmail.com.

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