By Fred Ruckel
Issue: March 1, 2004


The world of 3D animation has played an integral part in creating some of the most complex award winning visual effects ever seen in feature films. No stranger to that arena is Montreal-based Discreet. Although Discreet is widely known for its high-end compositing environments such as Inferno, Flame, Fire and Smoke, they have made great strides in the 3D market. The introduction of their newest product, 3DS Max 6 marks a milestone in 3D technology.

I had the opportunity to put the new version through its paces and stretch its legs, so to speak. Along side my system I also had the luxury of using 3dConnexion's SpaceBall 5000. The SpaceBall 5000 is an ultra sophisticated input device - a.k.a. mouse. This mouse has 12 programmable buttons, all ergonomically placed for ease of use with a center ball for panning and rotating imagery. Without further ado, let's jump into this feature-packed release.

Quality of rendering is always the biggest concern; a full implementation of Mental Ray is undoubtedly one of the biggest new things. Mental Ray allows the user to combine true to life light simulation with full programmability paving the way to realistic lighting. Ray-traced shadows create a realistic look by having the shadows fall off and soften based on distance and position to a light. While it is included in the software, it is costly as far as render time goes. It can easily double or triple a render length. Ultimately the user will need to make the determination if the project at hand requires this amount of detail in the lighting and shading; but what an amazing option to have included. Mental Ray used to cost as much or more than whole application. Those that have already paid for it wont be happy as they may still be paying for it monthly, those new to Max will wonder how everyone lived without it for so long.

Particles have become a commonplace in the 3D environment. The introduction of Particle Flow gives the user ease of use and extreme customization. Particle Flow uses an event-driven framework. Being event-driven means that the particle stream uses dynamics such as collisions, acceleration and time to influence the particles. Max also comes with a bunch of preset effects with simple customizing parameters, effects such as precipitation (snow, rain, mist, fog) and various types of debris are included. BlobMesh is a new tool that allows the user to create blobs that will clump together when brought too close, effects such as mercury, splashing and water globbing are made fairly easy. The effect made famous by "The Matrix" - the dead time effect - can be achieved with significantly less work using the new Particle Flow system.

With every action there is a reaction and to that end Discreet has introduced Version 2 of Reactor. With Reactor, physics are calculated internally without a lot of user input. With pressure on an object you can break it; for instance if a character steps on a stick it will break based on the physics applied. Using constraints you can make a model act as a human or a car tire turn independently.

There are four new types of cooperative constraints; Hinge, Car-Wheel, Prismatic and Rag Doll. Hinge can be used for doors or body joints. Car-Wheel is exactly as it sounds. Prismatic allows you to create a sliding joint like a forklift or a car lift. Rag Doll is a very advanced reactor. It allows the user to literally fly a model of a human through the air and all of the body parts will react based on what it encounters during flight.

Max 6 incorporates High Dynamic Range Images (HDR), which is among the newest of image file formats in the high-resolution world. These images can be used for radiance maps or as a skylight using the colors to light a scene. This format will become the standard within the next few years. I believe Discreet set precedence that they are committed to newer technologies.

When it comes to modeling naturally 3DS Max 6 packs a powerful punch. A new Shell Modifier enables the artist to add a face to any side of the character based on the vertex normals. This is a great tool for robots, space ships, cars or any other motorized models. Meshsmooth and Editable Poly are part of the Isoline display allowing the artist to view the original mesh. The polygon is still subdivided to be as smooth as you like but the user doesn't have to weed through a lot of unnecessary meshes while tweaking.

Characters that are modeled symmetrical can make use of the Mirror Skin mode, allowing the user to work on one half of the model and then apply the skin to the other half. Mirror mode is only available when using the Envelope sub-object mode. The new Relax UV's Dialog command takes any selection of mapping coordinates and spaces them evenly removing much of the manual labor previously necessary.

The schematic view has been overhauled and gives the user a lot of controls on the top level. The ability to control object properties, material, controller, modifiers, hierarchy, wired parameters and instancing is a huge timesaver. You can use scripts and customize the views so you only see the channels that you want to see instead of all the channels, which can be very cumbersome to manage. There are also some options for loading/saving setups and an automatic arrangement of nodes based on the physical scene placement.

Vertex Paint has been upgraded as well. The tools in Vertex Paint are now pressure-sensitive and allow controls over the brush profile to create custom brushes. Instead of being limited to just one layer you can apply the modifier on many layers and use blending modes to apply it. There are 15 blend modes included with the software. These blending modes are the ones we have all grown to love in Photoshop over the years. Unlike the previous versions all painting work is done on the floating Vertex Paintbox. The paintbox dialog box is where the stack (layer) management takes place; this dialog box does not use models. There are 99 map channels to choose from giving a wide range of paint applications.

Lastly the user interface has had some improvements and added features. A new toolbar and menu has been added to bring the reactor controls to a much more convenient user level. The layer manager dialog is modeless making it easier to navigate and can be launched directly from the main toolbar. The addition of color clipboard, camera match, and assign vertex colors are now available in the tools menu, previously only in the utilities menus. The new save copy as function allows you to snapshot where you are and create a file with a new name without overwriting the existing one, yet it does this without changing the current scene name you are working on, really big helper for saving experiments to show a client. The new Particle flow system has access from the graph editor's menu without having to actually select the particle stream, a very handy feature.

So what of my magical 12 button mouse? This is a very unique tool, personally a "must have" for animators. The mere fact that it has 12 programmable buttons is awesome. Add to that that the buttons are placed in exactly the right places to make use of all your fingers without lifting one. The center ball is really cool for navigating around the scene; clients will always want to drive as it makes it feel like a game to them. The really interesting thing is that this mouse is meant for your second hand and works in conjunction with your standard mouse. In a way it almost makes you feel as if you are part of the machine. Scary isn't it. Check it out, you will be glad you did. It will take about a week to get fully acclimated to it and it can work with both left and right hands.

In the end, both of these represent a solid investment with a return on investment practically guaranteed. The only drawback I see is that it isn't and will not be available for Macintosh - PC only. Maya has ported over to the Mac already. Hopefully we expect the same, although there are currently no plans for it.