By George Maestri
Discreet's 3ds max is a very popular and robust 3D animation and rendering package. Over the years, it has found a solid home in the gaming community and become popular in film, broadcast, and visualization. Version 6 of the software provides a number of excellent updates to existing features and adds some new features, such as a robust particle system and mental ray rendering.
Unlike most 3D packages on the market, 3ds max runs only on Windows. Installation is quite easy, and the interface has been reworked slightly. The left side of the screen contains a new toolbar with Reactor-based tools. Reactor, a nice physics and dynamics engine introduced last year, is now bundled with 3ds max. The render dialogs also have been revamped by adding a tabbed interface to help organize the wealth of new rendering options. The schematic editor, having been totally rewritten, is much more robust. With the new editor, users can view roughly any sort of relationship between objects, as well as an object's modifier stack and controllers.
|The schematic view reveals relationships between objects and offers the ability to edit constraints and links.
One completely new interface feature is the Layer Manager, which enables users to separate a scene into discrete layers for easy management. Layers are controlled through a floating toolbar. With layers, it's possible to divide complex scenes into parts that can be hidden at the touch of a button. Users could separate a character's mesh from the skeleton to speed animation and rigging, for example. Layers also work with the renderer, enabling the rendering of certain parts of a scene and not others.
One important addition to 3ds max is the bundling of mental images' mental ray with the software. Discreet offered a version of mental ray for max a few years ago, but the implementation was not nearly as complete as the new port. The new mental ray fits smoothly into the max pipeline and can easily substitute for the standard renderer.
Mental ray provides a number of advantages to max users, such as excellent global illumination, motion blur, depth of field, and programmable shaders. Third-party mental ray shaders can be used with max. Discreet bundles a few of the more popular ones, including Lume Tools' glass, water, and glow shaders. I loaded a few of my own mental ray shaders into the software and they worked great.
Mental ray offers max users yet another excellent renderer, and allows it to be used alongside other mental ray-based applications, such as Softimage and Alias Systems' Maya. Max supports the export of .MI files, so mental ray renders can be sent to existing render farms.
Discreet also has been busy updating other parts of the rendering pipeline. The standard renderer now supports command-line rendering to integrate better into large render farms. Creators of high-resolution imagery will appreciate support for HDRI files. And 3ds max is bundled with a Macromedia Shockwave exporter to help those developing for the Web.
The second major addition to 3ds max is Particle Flow, Discreet's new event-based particle system for 3ds max. Offering explicit controls over particles and their behavior, this system is powerful and deep, though fairly easy to learn. Particle Flow is one of the best particle systems I've seen.
On the modeling side, patch modeling has been updated significantly, making it easier to manage complex assemblies. One feature is Blobmesh, a nice metaball implementation that allows any piece of geometry to become a blobby surface. While it might be used for modeling, the surfaces do not hold textures well, so it's best used as a special effects tool, and Blobmesh surfaces are a perfect complement to particle flow for creating fluids.
Character animators will be happy with the new skinning tools. The Skin modifier is improved and now supports mirroring. This trait is great for character animators who can skin one side of a character and have the envelopes mirrored to the other side, cutting the work load in half. The dope sheet has been rewritten for speed.
Game developers will appreciate the new vertex paint tools. It works much more like a traditional paint package and now supports up to 99 layered map channels. A new floating tool box provides quick and constant access to paint tools and layers, including 16 different paint layer operators.
Overall, Version 6 is a great update for any 3ds max user. Mental ray offers one of the best rendering solutions available, and Particle Flow is terrific for anyone doing special effects work. These new features, combined with many other enhancements, make 3ds max one of the most robust packages on the market today.
George Maestri is president of Rubber-bug, a Los Angeles-based animation stu-dio specializing in character animation.
Minimum System Requirements: Windows 2000, NT, or XP; Intel-compatible processor at 300mhz minimum, 128mb of RAM and 300mb of swap space minimum