By George Maestri
The first full update under the Discreet banner of the software that used to be known as Kinetix's 3D Studio Max is 3ds max 4 (now lower-cased like the rest of Discreet's product line.) Many of the new features in max 4 show a strong influence from Discreet's core business: rendering and special effects. Plus, a slew of new character animation tools makes max 4 a robust and full-featured solution for the creation and animation of characters.
Installation is facilitated by the elimination of the hardware lock found in previous versions: No more dongles! Instead, max uses the "C-dilla" authorization system, which is software-based. Those familiar with previous versions will also notice some nice interface improvements. Right-clicking in a viewport brings up a new feature called a Quad Menu, a customizable, four-pane menu for manipulating and editing objects. The Stack View is also improved, in that it shows an expandable hierarchy of an object and all its modifiers, eliminating the need to press a Sub-Object button to change sub-object levels.
|The new bones system in max 4 allows for volumetric bones, so your skeletons can more closely match the shapes of your characters.|
Max 4 also boasts numerous modeling enhancements. For instance, meshes in previous versions were triangular; max 4 provides a true polygonal modeler based on quad-sided objects. Quad-sided objects work better for subdivision surfaces because they remain flat and smooth, allowing for seamless subdivision.
Speaking of subdivision surfaces, that capability in max 4 has been improved with a finishing tool called the Hierarchical Subdivision Surface Modifier (HSDS), which enables you to precisely subdivide parts of a model. For example, a dolphin's body can be left low-res, while just the nose can be subdivided for more detail.
Animators, meanwhile, will appreciate the huge number of character animation improvements. The new inverse kinematics system, for instance, includes multiple IK solvers and, because it's based on an open architecture, allows for third-party solvers. Character animators will also like the new Limb Solver, which is designed for invoking IK on limbs, and is much more stable and responsive than Max R3's generic IK solver. Best of all, the new IK system allows for FK/IK snapping, so you can freely mix between forward and inverse kinematics.
Max 4 now treats bones as objects, so they can be shaded and rendered just like any geometry. Bones can be modified with standard mesh tools, enabling animators to sculpt skeletal structures that precisely conform to a character's skin. This is good because you can now hide the skin and animate just the bones, which is faster, while still having a good idea of what the finished character will look like.
The skinning system now features joint, bulge, and morph deformers, which enable you to customize how skin deforms based on a joint's position. Furthermore, with the morph deformer, you can precisely sculpt the deformation using modeling tools. When the joint moves to the proper position, the skin morphs to the desired shape. This is terrific for fine-tuning a character's deformations.
Another important improvement is the addition of a class of objects called manipulators. These are simple objects, such as sliders and dials, which are used to control other objects. Manipulators can be used with the new parameter-wiring feature, which enables you to link animatable parameters between objects using a dialog box. For example, for facial animation you can set up a panel of manipulators and link these sliders to the character's morph targets; then you can animate the character's facial expressions directly in a viewport.
Rendering is improved with an eye toward productivity. Although max's core rendering engine hasn't changed, max 4 can render interactively in a viewport, a feature dubbed Active Shade. As a scene's parameters change, affected objects automatically update and re-render.
For those involved with compositing and special-effects production, the Render Elements feature enables you to render out each element in a scene individually. Elements can include diffuse color, reflection, refraction, specularity, and shadows, among many others.
Another big improvement is the addition of multi-pass camera effects, which finally give max feature-quality depth of field and motion blur functionality and enable users to preview effects directly in the max viewport so that they can be tweaked before rendering.
Overall, 3ds max 4 is an excellent update. The software boasts some of the easiest-to-use character animation tools on the market, and its rendering improvements will make it more appealing to special-effects producers. It is missing a few things, such as global illumination rendering and a nonlinear animation editor, the latter found in software such as Softimage|XSI. However, max 4 still remains one of the most feature-rich and cost-effective animation solutions on the market.
George Maestri is a writer and animator living in Los Angeles.
Minimum System Requirements: 300MHz Intel or AMD processor; Windows 2000/98; 128MB of RAM; 300MB of disk space; graphics card supporting 1024 by 768 16-bit color