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October 2014
Issue: November 1, 2006

REVIEW: AUTODESK 3DS MAX 9

By: Oliver Zeller
"Create stunning 3D in less time." Autodesk's slogan for 3DS Max 9 is not mere marketing hyperbole. This is epitomized by Max's display performance. It's not immediately apparent since standard wireframe performance is roughly equivalent to 3DS Max 8. Switch to Smooth Shaded, with or Without Edges, and immediately the improvement is beyond belief. A dense five-million-polygon Mazda RX-8 model that slowly sputters along in Max 8 on an Nvidia Quadro FX 4500 using DirectX, OpenGL or Nvidia's Maxtreme driver, now spins around in all its glory at over 180 fps.
In wireframe, the Mazda RX-8 clocked in at a rather pathetic 1fps, though Max 9 alleviates this sluggish performance with a highly efficient hidden line wireframe option. On the downside it ignores object colors, but it's a small price to pay.

Autodesk doesn't cease their bold display performance there. Soft selection, mesh and polygon editing are all significantly faster. Those lacking sufficient physical memory can use bitmap proxies to maintain efficiency. This enhanced interactive performance has even resulted in the shift of hair styling from a separate window directly into the view port with impressive results.

YOU CAN'T BE SERIOUS

Almost a footnote in the enhancement list for 3DS Max 9 is the dynamics simulator, Reactor 3. In addition to the Havok 1.5 physics engine, it now integrates Havok 3.2, producing faster rigid body simulation and enhanced multi-threading. Reactor was used to drop rocks into infinity pools for the Visual Effects Society-nominated Mezzo commercials. One test scene from that project using 3DS Max 8 or the Havok 1 solver from Max 9 took six minutes and 32 seconds. Havok 3, one minute and 44 seconds on a quad processor workstation. A second test scene took 36 minutes and 17 seconds using the dated solver. Havok 3 generated the animation in only six seconds. Further tests indicate Havok 3's unfathomable speed gain is not a fluke.

Reactor's Fracture Function perfectly complements the new integration of Pro Booleans & Pro Cutter, previously available as plug-ins from nPower Software. The combo efficiently produces highly realistic breakage simulations. Due to their inherent problems I usually avoid Booleans, though this isn't a necessity with Pro Booleans. This remarkable tool is even capable of maintaining quad polygons during Boolean operations for subdivision surface application.

LAYERED ANIMATION

For everyday use, layered animation is the most vaunted addition to Max 9. Beyond superior animation control, animation layers offer greater efficiency and more design flexibility. Case in point: camera direction for a series of commercials by Neoscape involved dozens of camera set-ups. Dealing with such a burdensome amount of cameras, often variations of each other, became an inefficient exercise. Using animation layers, animated camera variations could have been logically grouped with one camera.

Animation Layers are presented in a consolidated toolbar. In addition to copying, pasting, hiding and revealing layers, layers can also be mixed on an infinite scale, ideal for quickly tweaking or exaggerating motion. A convenient toggle offers the ability to see animations only up to the selected layer, though considering its usefulness it should have warranted its own button on the toolbar.

RENDER TIME

Part of 3DS Max's sustained success in recent years can be attributed to the plug-in renderer V-Ray from Chaos Group. Max's integrated Mental Ray renderer takes a cue from V-Ray's ease of use with a revamped Final Gather system featuring less cryptic terms, quality presets, visual feedback during the FG computational phase and point interpolation determined with a single value, avoiding the more complex radius system. I especially appreciate photon merging for optimizing areas of unnecessarily dense photons and the FG Density multiplier to combat splotchiness around edges.
Expect to tweak these new indirect illumination settings to avoid longer render times from scenes developed in Max 8.

Mental Ray's new found ease of use is exemplified by the physically correct Arch+Design material. Autodesk best describes it as monolithic, though numerous templates from Frosted Glass to Glazed Ceramic allow for undauntedly fast material prototyping. Don't be misled by the presets, this material incorporates DGS and BRDF control, ambient occlusion, a shader-based fillet effect, displacement, anisotropy, etc. Unlike the DGS material, Arch+Design allows final gather control on a per material basis, vital for decreasing the noise on soft reflective surfaces without adversely influencing render times of the entire scene.

32- AND 64-BIT

On the 10th anniversary of 3DS Max, it's appropriate that Autodesk has released both 32-bit and 64-bit versions. Prospective users should be aware that Max 9 64-bit is treated by Autodesk's network rendering manager Backburner, as a completely different version to its 32-bit counterpart. Max 9 64-bit cannot be used in conjunction with Max 9 32-bit servers on renderfarm nodes.  For a vast number of studios and independents, this means maintaining both versions on 64-bit workstations.

Scenes saved in Max 64-bit will load in the 32-bit program, though minor issues can crop up. This can adversely effect procedural elements or create subtle render differences. Scenes from earlier versions may produce altered geometry or fail to load. Collapsing or tweaking the modifier stack corrects this.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Beginning with a lengthy .NET framework installation, my first impression of Max 9 was disappointing, but that changed when I experienced the software's enhanced interactive performance and increased workflow. This iteration may ultimately be considered one of the best in the 3DS Max pantheon.