Oliver Zeller
Issue: March 1, 2008


PRODUCT: Autodesk 3DS Max 2008
PRICE: $3,495
·    Review toolset
·    Mental Ray 3.6
·    Scene Explorer

“Create stunning 3D in less time.” The slogan that accompanied 3DS Max 9 remains with 3DS Max 2008, indicative of its success and failures in this tenth iteration.

At first glance, the new feature set didn’t seem enthralling, but that is a short-lived sentiment as one experiences realtime interactive lighting and shadows, courtesy of the new Review toolset. Manipulating a light’s attenuation, decay, light color and intensity is perfectly displayed in the viewport with shadowing for up to 64 lights. Support extends to Mental Images’ Mental Ray and Chaos Group’s V-Ray lights, even the sun/sky system. Only light sources dependent on radiosity or final gathering lack proper support. Viewports truly come to life using Mental Ray’s Arch + Design shader as material attributes from true specularity to anisotropy are depicted in realtime — an impressive display that exhibits marginal falloff in accuracy compared to final render. One omission I’d like to see addressed is Review’s inability to interpret the V-Ray physical camera exposure settings. Otherwise Review brings new meaning to “painting with light.”

The all-purpose Arch + Design shader also adds self illumination and ambient occlusion support for color bleeding. The latter immensely enhances ambient occlusion’s use as a global illumination alternative. The trompe l’oeil feature of Mental Ray 3.6 however belongs to the Sky Portal. A feature already present in V-Ray, it resembles a rectangular area light, working in conjunction with a sky system to define where exterior skylight enters an interior. The end result: dramatically reduced render times at a higher quality, implemented with greater ease. This system also works in combination with the new Photographic Exposure Control, incorporating real-world camera attributes: shutter speed, aperture, film speed, whitepoint, vignetting and more.


The Review toolset is merely the tip of the iceberg for tools that cater to an accelerated workflow. Adaptive Degradation has seen a significant overhaul, headlined by the new Prioritize Scene Objects slider. Even in the bounding box, the long-time simplest rendition of geometry has been usurped by points when using Adaptive Degradation.

Manipulating large data sets is a far more fluid and interactive affair, aided by faster selection, transformations, grouping, cloning, material assignments and a single UV application across multiple objects. My favorite, the Editable Poly Modifier Preview Selection, allows modelers to select any sub-object element contextually as in Luxology Modo. A scene that proved tedious, even with Max 9’s improvements, is more pleasant to work with.

3DS Max 2008’s accelerated workflow is epitomized by the new Scene Explorer. It also serves as the basis for the oft-used Select Objects window. Given Max’s marketing slogan, it’s ironic the window takes several seconds to open upon first use. Gladly, it’s an anomaly, as Scene Explorer allows far faster selection and navigation of scene contents than earlier iterations of Max and are further supplemented by additional filtering options.

With Scene Explorer, grouped items are now visible without the need to open the group. Unfortunately selecting an item within a group won’t automatically open the group, nor are there group functions within the window. Item properties from object color and polygon count to visibility toggles are presented in the Scene Explorer with more available via a column chooser. It’s not a complete set of options, though useful nonetheless, and well selected as even Viewport Lighting and Shadows are featured.

This new Scene Explorer is reminiscent of the Scene Editor introduced in NewTek LightWave 7. As in LightWave’s Scene Editor, multiple instances of the Scene Explorer can be created. This is more logical in 3DS Max, as the user can define individual Scene Explorer controls using the aforementioned column chooser. However Scene Explorer is an apt term, as to the contrary, LightWave’s Scene Editor allows mass manipulation of almost every item property imaginable. Scene Explorer also fails to categorize columns to its item type. After all, an Edges Only column is useless when only displaying lights. Regardless, it’s a highly welcome tool in the arsenal. But ultimately that’s the problem.


3DS Max has become one of the more costly investments among 3D tools, with its unwavering $3,495 price tag. This can quickly balloon into an initial cost in the mid $4,000 range due to subscription and its prerequisites* increasing the likelihood of local sales tax.

Comparably, Softimage|XSI Essentials has become a complete, robust package at $1,995, incorporating features once relegated to XSI Advanced**.

Max’s continued success in the architectural market and its penetration of film and television is primarily attributable to V-Ray renderer, another $999 cost. While placing considerable focus on the native Mental Ray renderer is admirable, for a large portion of the Max user base, it will go unused.
Yet some key tools users have been clamoring for since Max 5 remain missing. The now ubiquitous node tree shader system is nowhere to be seen in Max. Without plug-ins like Orionflame, Max’s polygonal modeling toolset lags behind Modo or LightWave. Nor are there native volumetrics or ISO surfaces, diluting Max’s strong Particle Flow. Manipulating attributes en masse without scripting remains problematic.

* Annual sub only available via local resellers within 30 days of Max license purchase. $490 cost includes any upgrades released within subscription term. Non-subscription upgrade cost is $800.
* * Softimage|XSI Advanced now only adds behavioral animation & additional Mental Ray render node licenses.

Oliver Zeller is Freelance VFX Artist/ Digital Set Designer based in New York. He can be reached at: