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April 2014
Issue: February 1, 2005

REVIEW: DISCREET 3DS MAX 7

By: By Oliver Zeller

Discreet's venerable flagship package arrives for another round, catering to its entire user base, from film & broadcast to game development.

3DS Max has long espoused an architecture focused on flexibility, providing broad options to accommodate user styles and project demands, though occasionally at the expense of efficiency, tool completeness and stability. Version 7 appears to be the most stable version yet and makes another concerted effort to improve workflow efficiency from a streamlined version of the Meshsmooth modifier, Turbosmooth, to object display culling for dynamic, automatic geometry hiding.

Gladly, increased efficiency has also been bestowed on the duplication tools. The array tool is now preview capable, a feature I only wish had been present while working on a Cingular commercial pre-viz. The similar clone & align allows alignment and replacement of objects over selected placeholders. A link to destination toggle is especially beneficial when grouping cloned objects to dummy placeholders. It's a shame a spray paint duplication tool akin to the Spray Master plug-in and native in other programs, wasn't added to complement clone & align.

More efficient polygon modeling tools and tweaks are also prevalent, joining the long awaited arrival of the edit poly modifier. Preserve UV's saves valuable time if a mapped mesh needs fine tuning, enhanced with UV seams clearly indicated in the viewport. The new bridge tool really shines, offering not only a standard bridge between facing or opposing polygons, but also twist, segment amount and taper functionality.

Despite an increasingly robust edit poly modifier, key native features are still lacking. Especially multi-slice/edge loop insertion and edge loop removal with immediate vertex deletion, in the vein of LightWave's Bandsaw and BandGlue.

Plenty of skin and animation toys

The animation department receives some strong improvements beginning with the inclusion of Character Studio 4.3. An overdue move by Discreet with the decreased prices and potent character animation capabilities of Softimage|XSI, Messiah: Animate, and Alias Maya and Motionbuilder. Unfortunately, Max's nonlinear animation tool, motion mixer, is still restricted to biped use in Character Studio.

In character animation, poorly deformed joints from skeletal rigging have remained a constant issue. Expression-driven morphs provided an effective solution. Max 7 has implemented this technique in an easier to use modifier, skin morph, with automated morphing based on a user-definable bone angle.

Skin morph is united with two helpful indirect deformation modifiers, skin wrap and skin wrap patch. Skin wrap allows a simple proxy object to deform a more detailed mesh. The latter uses a parallel patch surface like a spline guide for mesh deformation.

The new reaction manager, provides a one-stop solution for using reaction controllers, Max's equivalent to set driven key where the animation of one object drives another. Within the reaction manager window, separate states of the slave object are listed and reaction threshold values are editable via numeric fields and a motion graph. In comparison to the sparse Maya set driven key manager, the reaction manager is very convenient, removing the need to switch between other oversight tools. The ability to assign reactions to modifier specific settings is especially commendable, though hopefully object render controls, particularly visibility, will be included in a future release.

A parameter editor & collector also makes its debut, offering a fast method for creating custom animation controls. These new and improved managers and editors bring a glaring omission to the forefront. A spreadsheet like scene manager is needed to handle object properties and all key attributes quickly, en masse and within the entire scene context.

Renderer boost

Max 7 receives a Mental Ray renderer upgrade to 3.3, featuring streamlined integration and a more accurate global illumination system, with photon number and distribution based on light intensity rather than uniformity. This upgrade is accompanied by new Mental Ray shaders, ambient occlusion and feature-rich subsurface scattering. In preliminary tests, subsurface scattering was relatively fast with variant shaders geared toward speed, physical accuracy and skin. The latter offering three-layer epidermal, subdermal and back surface simulation.

Ambient occlusion however would have been far more practical for the default renderer versus Mental Ray. There is a lesser likelihood of Max users wishing to use a limited global illumination alternative with the Mental Ray renderer, compounded by the high cost of additional Mental Ray render licenses. At least this is somewhat offset by the added multi-processor capable, render to texture support of Mental Ray.

Perhaps the most discussed and hyped new feature of version 7 is the well-executed support of normal maps. Normal maps fill the void between bump & displacement mapping and are a particular boon to the games industry.

Normal mapping takes the normal of a polygon and transforms that information into pixel data. In addition to elevation data in a bump map, angle data is encoded using RGB color channels. Optimally, this requires the construction of a high-resolution mesh to transfer into a normal map using the new projection modifier, versus texturing alone. To help facilitate the native creation of normal maps, Discreet has added sculptural mesh deformation and soft selection painting tools akin to Maya's Artisan.

Conclusion

3DS Max 7 remains a competitive package in all 3D graphic-related fields, retaining its strengths and solidifying other areas. Its flexible architecture allows for extensive plug-in renderers, which have matured well, from V-Ray to Brazil, giving Max a distinct strength. Nonetheless, new users may find it difficult to warrant the higher purchase price against chief competitors, XSI Essentials, Maya Complete and LightWave.

This dilemma is partially offset by an annual subscription plan, offered to existing owners at a significantly lower price than a new version upgrade. The shortened 12 to 14 month development schedule makes this subscription enticing and cost effective.