Price: £3,200 plus VAT . Upgrade from versions 2008-2013, £2,240 plus VAT
Pros: Viewport performance increase; Perspective Match tool; better particle system; vector map support; add animated people with Populate; lots of small fixes
Cons: Normal align tool still poor; render element path handling needs updating; can’t use Scene lights in Nitrous viewport on Shaded mode; command line renderer is dated
The strength of 3ds Max has always been modelling for architectural visualisation, as well as other technical fields, so it’s no real surprise to see one of this year’s new features address the arch-viz market directly.
Instead of having to use extra character models to place around your scene and then animate them if required, there’s a new Populate function. When activated all you have to do is draw a path for the characters to walk around.
There are a variety of model types depending on what you need, from rough ideas with stick figures to more high resolution options. You can also create stationary areas for people to mix in, while being casually animated. Like the animation path, you simply draw the areas where you want them to congregate. There are sliders for things like how dense the crowd is and the gender of the figures, so the crowd types can be managed according to the situation.
It's an incredibly useful feature, though there are a couple of points to note. First, the models aren’t that great, so you don’t want close up shots of them. Secondly, scaling people can be problematic and require a MAXScript command to get them looking right.
For exterior scenes, there’s a new feature that matches the perspective of your scene with a backplate photo. You add the image as usual, then go to the Utilities command panel and select Perspective Match. This produces a series of vanishing lines, which can be aligned to the perspective in the photo, with the home grid changing perspective to match it. Simple, but effective.
The feature that will benefit everyone across the board, though, is the Nitrous viewport system. Adapative Degradation tick boxes let you select what will and won’t degrade, and selecting multiple objects is much quicker and easier. The viewport performance has been significantly enhanced, and this is nowhere more apparent than when you duplicate lots of heavily textured characters throughout the scene. Whereas this would start to struggle on previous version, the viewport still remains fast and responsive. A little tweak is that you can cycle through the viewports using hotkeys.
So, on to something that you were probably better doing in Maya – particles. Extension pack options have been rolled up into a new system called mParticles for the Particle Flow system, as part of the Mass Effects Dynamic Simulation system.
Using a drag-and-drop interface to connect, the mParticles are also scalable for film and TV effects using some new data operators. These operators offer quite complex, non-liner control over the particles as they move through the flow. The other bonus is that having created a flow, it can be cached to make it easier to play back. While it’s nice to see this neatly integrated, it’s still not as easy to use as other software packages.
One of the other headline features is vector map support, with PDF, SVG and Illustrator files, where they can be used as textures. With animated page transitions, you can create textures that change over time. The advantage of using vectors is that they can be rendered with crisp and clear details, no matter how much you zoom in, though whether many people will be doing that in practice is another matter. There’s support for AutoCAD software pattern files as well, so CAD illustrations can be made to look animated and a little more visually interesting. While you wouldn’t use this feature for complex visuals, it’s a nice touch to add some animation to architecture or industrial design scenes.
As with any very complex piece of software, there are always areas that need fixing, tweaking and improving. The command-line renderer for batch rendering is pretty archaic, and trying to work in a small area, you can’t mask out the rest of a complex scene like you can in ZBrush. Panning and zooming around a complex scene without selecting an object first is quite crude. Google’s SketchUp does this much better. However, there are always a lot of fixes that go under the general radar, and in this version that includes improving the unwrapping performances, copying material libraries, unified shortcuts with Edit Poly and being able to cancel the auto-backup.
With the viewport enhancement, lots of small feature fixes and tweaks, and some new bigger features aimed at those creating arch-viz more than anything else, this is a solid, if not spectacular, upgrade for 3ds Max.