Of the top 3D modelling and animation packages, 3DS Max has been the most widely distributed. However, recent price drops from its competitors have left it looking rather expensive – so it’s imperative that Discreet’s latest release justifies its price.
And there’s good news – with version 5, the company has finally answered criticisms about its rendering quality. Radiosity – the effect of light bouncing from one object to another – has been added at last. It adds a new dimension of realism to a render, and lets users illuminate scenes with the minimum of lighting.
Radiosity adds massively to the render time of a scene, however, so Discreet has introduced texture baking – where it’s possible to render the radiosity settings just once. The result is fused into the textures of all objects, so you don’t have to do that time-consuming work again. This is useful for games producers who want interesting lighting effects, and for anyone wanting to cut render times for their work.
In addition, users now have a series of extra, more realistic lights for a render every bit as good as that produced by NewTek’s LightWave, or Alias|Wavefront’s Maya (see page 38). The exception is that 3DS Max still doesn’t have caustics.
Cartoon rendering and a translucency shader provide two new effects – both impressive in their own right. The Advanced Lighting Override Material lets objects create light in a scene – so users can create glowing objects, neon lights, or bright TV screens.
A few enhancements to the animation system have been made. Max got IK spot on in the last release
– but the new spline IK added this time round does
a better job of animating tails, tentacles, and rope objects. This is because it lets users create movement along the entire length of a bone structure, rather than just at its end.
The Set Key mode for animation is a simple addition, letting a keyframe be added only when the user is finished setting up the positions of objects. It’s useful if you’ve a character, for example, where many adjustments are required to pose the figure, and you don’t want to set the keyframe until you know it’s correct.
Character animators will also be happy to see
the new Character Assembly – a grouping system designed to allow users to treat a character, plus
its bones and mesh, as a single entity. Users can load
and save animation for the whole figure, then move
it around as desired.
Max’s dynamics are now top of the line thanks to the inclusion of the Reactor plug-in. This contains soft- and solid-body dynamics, as well as simple cloth and liquids. It’s one of the best systems on the market, and brings the package onto a level with Maya and LightWave (although the cloth and liquid simulations are not as advanced as they could be).
The new curve-editor lets users look at any animated function as a graph, and alter it quickly and easily. This avoids the problems often associated with interpolated animation, where objects overshoot, or values animate out of control where long gaps are left between keyframes. This is a great advance on the dialog boxes the package relied on before, and makes a difficult job much easier.
There isn’t too much new look-&-feel wise, but the move, rotate, and scale gizmos are now easier to manipulate, and there’s a new lasso selection tool.
A new start-up splash screen gives information
on keyboard shortcuts, and the Named Selection Sets dialog lets users quickly navigate complex scenes. These improvements will make Max faster for expert users, and easier for beginners. There’s also a colour display on all sub-object levels for the increasingly important soft-selection tool – which allows users
to move vertices, faces and edges around, while smoothly deforming the areas around them, so
you don’t end up with creased and broken models.
Subdivision-surface tools have been improved, with new features, and an extra interface added for an additional way of approaching your work. The new hinge extrude tool is even more flexible than the one introduced in Maya 4.5 – it lets users create corners and joints extremely quickly. You can also extrude along a spline, allowing appendages to be instantly created and edited.
A major workflow enhancement and time saver is the mirror modifier. This lets users create symmetrical objects, such as creatures, by modelling one side, while the other side takes care of itself. The important feature here is that you don’t have to build the model, then mirror it – the finished model can be seen at all times.
The new UVW unwrap feature will be a major boon to anyone working with complex meshes. This simple tool maps any object without smearing, offering a flat map onto which you can paint textures. Max was overdue for this kind of tool, which is essential for accurate mapping.
Morphing can now be done progressively – so users can now morph a hand opening, for example, without the mesh distorting by creating in-between morphs of the fingers in certain positions.
There are lots of new tools in this release, and they’ll be of interest to most Max users. The price hasn’t changed, though so the application will have to work hard to maintain its wide user base. That said, this is a bigger upgrade than either the recent Maya one, or the latest LightWave release.
3DS Max has always been one of the fastest ways to create 3D models, and, thanks to its dynamics and radiosity boosts, its animation and rendering are now top-rate, too.