PRODUCT: 3DS Max
Now in its 12th iteration, the aging 3DS Max 2010 has received a facelift.
Its more refined, homogeneous interface sports icons that are bolder and more unique. No longer dithered, they integrate into the interface better. A distinctive Max logo represents the new file menu, streamlined and iconic, accompanied by a quick access mini toolbar.
These interface enhancements extend into the viewport. The XView Mesh Analyzer tool functions entirely in viewport, highlighting problem areas in a polygonal object from face orientation and overlapping faces to isolated vertices. It's a smooth workflow that expands on such previous solutions as the STL Check modifier. As with XSI's ICE, xView brings multi-threading to the non-rendering toolset in Max, and also shows the development team's willingness to approach fundamental issues in refreshing new ways as Luxology has done with Modo.
Like Modo, 3DS Max adds 3D painting via the new Viewport Canvas tool. It's an effective, simple tool with custom brushes, blending modes, an automatic setup mode for assigning UV coordinates, and Photoshop interoperability. The clone tool is especially remarkable as it shows the cloned element within its interactive icon.
Ultimately it fails to rival Modo's paint workflow or other 3D paint tools, as this is a literal canvas. When painting commences the canvas is frozen, disallowing viewport or object transformations until paint strokes are finalized. An undo/redo function avoids any major issues, but the workflow is hampered, more so as I found painting insensitive to fast movement, resulting in stippled paint rather than a continuous stroke.
The viewport is also the beneficiary of realtime ambient occlusion and supports proper tone mapping, accounting for gamma correction in a linear workflow. One grave omission to the enhanced linear workflow is the ability to save all float channel render elements into a single EXR file as in V-Ray.
Extending the workflow beyond Max's fabled modifier system is the new Graphite Modeling Ribbon, an upgraded integration of the plug-in Poly Boost. This toolbar shares the same interface as the new file menu, an equal mix of icons and text with extensive tool tips to aid newcomers. These uber tool tips even incorporate imagery for clarification purposes. It's all very slick, adding a variety of functionality to speed workflow, from dot loops that select every other edge, to growing a selection from the perspective view or repeating the last command. Modelers will also appreciate the UI's persistence in fullscreen expert mode. However, assigning hot keys is a laborious task, a key assignment option should have been directly integrated into the Graphite UI. As with several other UI elements added in recent versions of Max, notably the Select By Name window, the ribbon suffers from an initial load delay upon first use, something Autodesk must address.
Another recipient of workflow enhancements is the Mental Ray renderer. As with the highly customized Arch + Design shader, Max's integration of the renderer continues to add unique usability components over the competition, including Global Render Knobs to quickly tune global illumination & sampling. Max also finally adds a node tree shader editor, well... sort of. The standalone program, Mental Mill (Artist Edition) now accompanies every license of Max for visual creation of custom MentalRray shaders. These MetaSL compatible custom shaders can then be used via the DirectX shader, offering an accurate in-viewport depiction. 3DS Max is the first of its peers to include it.
While a node tree shader editor remains non-existent within Max itself, no surprise given the sheer inefficiency of its schematic view, the new Material Explorer offers a much needed overview of material application within a scene. It feels incomplete. You can see thumbnails of bitmaps, yet viewing the bitmap still requires accessing the shader in the material editor. Material Editor syncing exists, yet selecting a material in one won't select it in the other.
The Material Explorer may underwhelm, but the new Multi/Sub-Map shader certainly doesn't. Finally you can assign up to 20 varying colors and maps to a single material parameter based on ObjectID, Material ID, Smoothing Group or Random assignment. Traditionally, such an operation would have required up to 20 different materials. Unfortunately, this feature is not yet compatible with the V-Ray renderer.
Perhaps the most intriguing enhancement to workflow is the introduction of Containers. A collaborative system — not to be confused with Maya's containers — that builds on traditional grouping and x-refs. An artist can have an inherited container in their scene, a car for example, and see the changes to that car as another artist works on it. Apart from the collaborative aspects, containers allow users to simplify and manage complex scenes, an aspect Max sometimes struggled with compared to Maya.
This attention to collaboration extends into other areas, for example TDs can now lock animation tracks, preventing animators from busting rigs.
Other favorites include an anatomical hand for bipeds, a quad polygon conversion modifier and the integration of Orbaz Particle Flow Tools: Box 1.
What most impressed me in 3DS Max 2010 is the updated OBJ importer. During the development of 3DS Max 2009, I contacted Autodesk and submitted a two page document on desired improvements to OBJ translation. The issues were not over the quality of geometry conversion; sufficient familiarity with the translation nuances guaranteed a perfect transfer. Rather, the problem resided in an unclear import interface and slew of post import steps that greatly decreased efficiency. Unit presets in addition to vertex scale, a pragmatic 30 degree default autosmooth option, pivot centering, etc. Autodesk addressed every single one of my suggestions. That's customer responsiveness!
Oliver Zeller is a Partner/Creative Director at design collective NAU in New York City. NAU (www.nau.coop) focuses on spatial-oriented design, catering to architecture, events, advertising, film and games. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.