Version 7 of 3ds max has maturity and solid performance that’s reflected in the look and feel of the interface, one that takes full advantage of whatever OpenGL and/or DirectX 9 video card is installed. If your video card is limited, max 7 offers excellent software-only 3D previews. Experienced max artists will like the subtle interface improvements, and those new to max will find that the interface doesn’t get in the way of learning.
Character Studio Now Included
For artists who have been eyeing 3ds max but haven’t yet made the investment, the big news is the inclusion of Character Studio. Once considered the "must-have" plug-in for 3ds max, even back when it was called 3D Studio Max, Character Studio is the essential plug-in for character animation.
Character Studio consists of three components for controlling an animated character or characters: one for skeletal and IK control (Biped), another for muscle and skin deformation (Physique) and one for multiple character control (Crowd).
Biped is a generic, pre-built, customizable rig for human-like characters. It serves as a foundation for almost all character skeletons, and can be used straight out of the box or can be configured with additional legs or arms for quadrupeds, for example, or other characters, such as birds, whose knees bend in reverse.
Character Studio is an excellent launching point for building skeletal rigs for animation, but rarely will the stock rig be used without tweaking. Each component can be scaled and tweaked depending on the character’s physical proportions and animation needs.
For getting that sense of bulging skin and six-pack abs, you need a good personal trainer, or at least Physique. Wrapping skin around a skeleton and having it deform correctly has always been challenging, but modern tools like Physique ease the process. Physique allows a max animator to wrap 3ds max bones, or Character Studio’s Biped bones, with a character’s geometry and applies the movements of the underlying bones to the geometry. Using Physique, geometry deformation can be tweaked to allow for proportional bending, creasing and bulging, giving a character the flexibility needed to look real.
Crowd, the third component of Character Studio, manipulates large amounts of data in the form of character models and their associated behaviors. Once a character is built and animated, Crowd is used to replicate and apply behaviors to the character, such as walking, running or flying, making it easy to create a swarm of bees or a platoon of attacking aliens. There are, of course, performance variations involved in crowd simulations, depending on the complexity of the character or number of characters to be animated, but the underlying engine for Crowd in this new release is notably faster than earlier versions.
Mental Ray 3.3: Photoreal Rendering Improvements
Mental Ray, the alternate render engine included with 3ds max, has been improved in several ways. In version 3.3, a sub-surface scattering shader now provides a way to render elements like realistic skin, thanks to its ability to simulate light penetrating the upper layers of an object and illuminating it from within.
Global illumination, the effect of light bouncing off objects in a scene and lighting other objects, has also been improved by simplifying its user interface and adding Photometric Lighting, making it physically accurate.
Scenes employing both sub-surface scattering and global illumination will need extra time to render. It’s difficult to quantify the degree of impact because all scenes are different in size, complexity, number of surfaces affected, number of lights involved, etc. If your project requires realistic output and the scene length is more than the average 30-second TV spot (rendering approximately 900 frames at several minutes per frame can really add up), consider setting up a render farm using Backburner (it’s included with 3ds max) or farming it out to a service bureau.
If you’re still clinging to bad memories of max’s early render engine, maybe it’s time to revisit the program. The render engine has come a long way over the last several revs and, with the inclusion of Mental Ray, rendered frames look as good as anything seen on the silver screen.
Scene Management Improvements
Creating an array of objects can often be a process of trial and error, but in 3ds max 7 the array tool has been improved dramatically with the simple addition of a Preview button. This is one of those little things that make a huge difference; imagine setting up a scene of a stadium interior, and using the array tool to create the chairs. Without the ability to preview, too much time can easily be wasted trying to configure the arrangement of the chairs. The Preview feature not only facilitates production, but invites experimentation. Now that’s cool.
User Interface Improvements
3ds max 7 includes an abundance of tweaks and new items to the user interface. It’s now possible to copy and paste object materials from one object to another, making it easy to consistently "dress" objects. "Quick Align" and "Clone and Align" under the Tools menu are welcome additions, as is the ability to use MPEG movie files as animated textures.
A new toolbar lets you switch instantly between up to three rendering presets, and toolbar buttons for dialog boxes are now toggles, staying depressed and turning yellow when the dialog box is open. Also, many of the dialog boxes are now resizable, and there is a shortcut for toggling the visibility of all open dialogs (CTRL+~).
Buy It Now?
If you’re deciding whether or not to upgrade to max 7, and you don’t yet own Character Studio, the upgrade fee is a bargain in light of all that’s included. Even if you already own Character Studio, the upgrade to 3ds max 7 is worth the cost for the new version of Mental Ray and the numerous other improvements.
For new users, 3ds max 7 is no small investment, and all options should be weighed. If you need a multi-platform 3D app, you can rule out 3ds max. If money is a factor, consider that 3ds max costs more than the $2,000 for Maya’s base package, which also gives you a choice of three platforms forMaya. It also costs slightly more than the $3,000 for Maxon’s CINEMA 4D Studio bundle, available in either a Mac or Windows version. However, buying into 3ds max gives you safe passage into a very large community of users, a vast array of third-party plug-ins, a name that clients recognize, a tool that’s used throughout the gaming development community, and one powerful software package.