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Issue: October 1, 2010

Autodesk’s 3DS Max 2011

VITAL STATS

PRODUCT: Autdesk 3ds Max 2011
WEBSITE: www.autodesk.com
PRICE: US$ 3,495

  • Slate allows the creation of materials in ways previously impossible
  • CAT offers simple, yet powerful character animation rigging
  • Composite, formerly known as Toxik, is a prominent addition

Autodesk’s 3ds Max 2011:A satisfying upgrade that packs in many worthy additions.

By Oliver Zeller
Partner/Creative Director NAU
New York
www.oliverzeller.com

Max 2011 is a concerted and balanced effort to meet user demands, rectifying past omissions, while introducing more original functionality. Max’s most egregious omission has been addressed with the node-based material editor, Slate, formerly the commercial plug-in NodeJoe. It’s been a long time coming. I recall it being requested in a Discreet conference call during the development of 3ds Max 6. 2011 represents the 13th iteration of Max.

Thankfully, it’s a stellar implementation. Feature rich without being overwhelming, Slate’s streamlined elegance recalls Max’s Particle Flow. Each node features realtime, updated previews, judiciously sized when expanded with a double click, offering a comprehensive depiction of shader development far beyond the vintage material editor. Unlike recent UI inclusions, I found Slate snappy and the revamped material/map browser appealingly presented with seamlessly integrated material libraries and sample slots. This is a vast improvement over its predecessor. Albeit window resizes aren’t retained upon closure — quite frustrating given the sheer amount of material options. Other minor blemishes exist. A discreet binoculars icon expands into a node search field allowing one to zoom to specific nodes, though it only tracks primary material names. Searching secondary titles, all noise shaders, for example, is impossible. Shader management isn’t a problem due to multiple tabbed workspaces. Of greatest significance, Slate allows the creation of materials in ways previously impossible; a gradient ramp can now have procedural shaders or bitmaps injected in place of color at any flag, and all visible in viewport with improved material depiction.

Interface revisions extend to the in context direct manipulation UI. A movable, consolidated and boundary free interface that appears in viewport upon opening settings of modeling tools. It’s remarkably unobtrusive, with a small footprint accomplished by maximizing each tool using contextual reactions. Moving the cursor over a numeric field will cause that field’s icon to change to arrows, where values can be altered with a gestural like click and drag. Meanwhile the UI’s descriptor changes to clarify that field’s operation. Click on another polygon to continue a bevel operation, the interface automatically snaps to the surface. All that’s missing is interface customization outside of scripting.

NEW OFFERINGS

A similar degree of fluid interaction has been brought to characters via CAT (Character Animation Toolkit). A previously heralded plug-in, CAT is animator friendly with an efficiency reminiscent of Messiah: Animate. It excels courtesy of a simple rigging system where locomotive elements, legs and arms, are already defined and can be adapted quickly from a human to a spider. In both those cases, there’s no need to even create a custom rig, as CAT ships with over two-dozen rigs. Procedural footsteps are built-in to the rigs via CATMotion and other essential tools from re-targeting animation to muscles are present.

Most intriguing is the introduction of the Quicksilver Hardware Renderer. Surprisingly feature rich and capable of producing renders at higher than anticipated quality, its debut is unfortunately marred. I encountered three repeatable glitches that resulted in black rectangles or distortions on an Nvidia GTX 285 and 470, both of which fall within the minimum 1GB vram requirements. These should have been caught by quality assurance. Furthermore only certain standard and Mental Ray shaders are supported. Its practicality on the average system, leveraging both GPU & CPU, is evident. Though it’s not entirely ready for production environments, nor does it push hardware rendering as far as Octane renderer. Nonetheless, it shows great promise and while its testing was blatantly insufficient at launch, a hotfix dealing with several issues has since been released.

The latter additions combine to make Max far more effective for previsualization and preproduction; stages that continue to merge with post. SketchUp import supports this notion as Google’s tool is frequently used by designers in film art departments and continues Max’s tradition of superior translation support and execution. Another tool that proves useful for previsualization is the free inclusion on CD of Craft Animation Tools, a series of camera and vehicle rigs. I found the layered, procedural approach of the Humanizer Camera more effective than mocap mouse recording in simulating a hand-held effect.

I’d be remiss to overlook the addition of two small, key features. 2011 now saves Max 2010 scene files. Unique among DCC software, Max scenes have not been backward compatible, unceremoniously forcing users to upgrade even when inconvenient. Mental Ray users also attain expanded multi-channel support for EXR’s, allowing single file multi-pass compositing. Composite, a standalone collaborative HDR compositor formerly known as Toxik is another big addition to Max 2011. The Entertainment Creation Suite adds Mudbox and Motionbuilder at a notable discount, and the recently announced Premium Suite incorporates Softimage, allowing Max users to leverage its incredible ICE platform with added interoperability technology.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Overall, this is a satisfying upgrade, packing in many worthy additions. Though its release feels a little premature. In addition to Quicksilver, I experienced problems after acquiring a new workstation. It became quickly evident that MAX had not undergone testing on workstations featuring multiple six core CPU’s, whose cores double with hyperthreading. At launch MAX wouldn’t even open due to a 16 core limit with the Mental Ray Hair shader, unless the module was declared out of the include files. A hotfix has since been released. Similar high end systems have also encountered serious slowdown under DirectX when hyperthreading is active, rendering MAX unusable. System specific issues with DirectX in MAX even forced me switch to OpenGL, through which I was unable to test the updated Viewport Canvas painting toolset that requires DirectX. This ironically serves as a testament to MAX’s flexibility in that it supports multiple display drivers. Though it also places a spotlight on Autodesk’s twelve month update cycle, a schedule I have not favored since its inception. Despite the development team’s admirable job, Autodesk should perhaps adopt a less harried eighteen month development cycle.