Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 10 (October 2002)

3ds max 5

Discreet's 3ds max has found a solid home in gaming, broadcast, and film production. It is strong in the areas of polygonal modeling, subdivision surfaces, and effects and character animation. Version 5 enhances these abilities with the addition of global illumination rendering and some new character animation features.

3ds max runs on Windows-based machines only. As with any high-end 3D package, it is best used on a beefy machine with a decent graphics card. The software is fully multi-threaded to take advantage of dual processors, and can use either OpenGL or DirectX. The latter has the ability to employ Nvidia's vertex and pixel shaders, so game developers can preview their work directly in max.

The interface has been revamped somewhat. The timeline now shows the audio waveform, and a button click expands it to show trackview. One nice little improvement is in the translation gizmos that appear when an item is selected. The gizmos now have little planes that, when highlighted, allow you to easily move an object along two dimensions. One interface feature still missing is some sort of connection editor akin to Maya's Hypergraph. This would allow for more efficient object management and shader construction.

The most important new feature in 3ds max 5 is the addition of global illumination to the renderer, which allows you to duplicate the subtle and realistic lighting effects created by the scattering of light throughout a scene. The software supports true radiosity as well as a technique called light tracing, which provides soft-edged shadows and color bleeding for brightly lit scenes. Unlike radiosity, the Light Tracer does not attempt to create a physically accurate model; thus it can be faster than radiosity for some scenes.

Radiosity is based on a physically accurate real-world lighting interface. Instead of specifying lighting intensity with arbitrary values, you can now specify it in photometric units (lumens, candelas, etc.). This is a great feature for architects or anyone involved in real-world modeling. It must be noted, however, that real-world lighting calls for modeling using real-world dimensions. A 100-watt lightbulb, for example, looks a lot different in a room 100 meters across than it does in one that's 100 inches across.

On the opposite end of the realism scale, Discreet has incorporated a toon shader into max 5. This shader allows for multiple types of ink as well as multiple levels of shading to produce shadows and highlights.

Backburner is 3ds max's updated render manager. After spending the past year using other software, I'm surprised at the lack of rendering management offered with packages such as Maya and LightWave, which require third-party programs such as Smedge or Spider to manage network renders efficiently.

Trackview has been completely revamped and reorganized. The window is user-customizable and can take on two modes—graph editor and dope sheet. The graph editor allows you to select and manage curves, while the dope sheet allows for quick manipulation of keyframes without looking at the curves. A nice addition to the curve editor is the introduction of flat tangents as the default curve type. This eliminates the inevitable "overshoot" that crops up when using ordinary bezier curves.

Animators will also appreciate the new character assemblies feature, which allows you to define groups of objects (the parts of a character, for example) and manage them as a single node. For more discrete control, character nodes can be nested, so an animator can group and organize a character by body part. In addition to characters, the feature can also be used for managing other types of complex animation, such as the parts of a machine.

The new Set Key feature allows animators to key only the necessary components of a character or animated object to facilitate pose-to-pose animation. Combined with the new character assemblies and trackview improvements, the package is now much more efficient for animation. Still, it pulls up short of having the true non-linear animation system found in other packages (including Discreet's upcoming Character Studio 4.)

Overall, 3ds max has come a long way in the areas of character animation and rendering. It's an excellent package for anyone involved in the production of 3D content for film, broadcast, or games.

George Maestri is president of Rubberbug, a Los Angeles-based animation studio specializing in character animation.

The latest version of 3ds max has an improved interface and global illumination.

3ds max 5
Price: $3495
Minimum System Requirements: Windows; 300MHz
Intel or AMD processor; 256MB of RAM