Review: Autodesk 3DS Max Entertainment Creation Suite 2012
Issue: July 1, 2011

Review: Autodesk 3DS Max Entertainment Creation Suite 2012

PRODUCT: Autodesk 3DS Max Entertainment Creation Suite

PRICE: Standard $4,995; Premium $6,495


- Standard includes 3DS Max, MotionBuilder & MudBox; Premium also includes Softimage

3DS Max 2012 has received an injection of Nitrous. An apt name for the new, accelerated viewport graphics core. Combined with optimizations from improved start-up time to a more responsive scene explorer, 3DS Max is once again a pleasure to use.

One cannot understate the significance of Nitrous. Workflow efficiency with complex scenes became so problematic in the previous iteration, I contemplated a shift to Maya 2011 for rendering with V-Ray. Lengthy viewport updates caused severe delays to interface interactivity, where as an identical scene in Maya remained responsive with Outliner or Hypergraph accessible without discernible delay. It’s analogous to updates in After Effects comp viewer bringing interactivity to a standstill, unlike compositing in Nuke. 

The difference in viewport and tool interaction in 2012 is astonishing. Max clearly outperforms Maya 2012’s new Viewport 2.0 in speed and quality on a dual Xeon X5650, 12GB RAM, GeForce GTX 470. Even offering impressive viewport ambient occlusion and area shadows. This produces nominal noise with progressive refinement in the selected viewport, though unfortunately the noise persists when generating viewport animated sequence files. Other Nitrous features include stylization filters, from graphite to pastel; except Maya’s Viewport 2.0 depth of field and motion blur are not present. Performance remained relatively consistent, though particles are abnormally taxing for Nitrous and the V-Ray Frame Buffer is especially slow to respond after interacting in viewport.

Also maximizing hardware graphics acceleration is the integration of Mental Ray’s Iray renderer. Iray is a physically accurate, unbiased renderer in the vein of Maxwell Render, utilizing Nvidia graphics cards with CUDA cores to accelerate rendering.

It vastly simplifies high-end rendering. There’s no flickering, splotches, linear workflow or other technical considerations to master. Mental Ray users will acclimate quickly, as physically compliant Mental Ray shaders are supported in place of the layered BRDF materials common to unbiased renderers. As such, its sophistication doesn’t quite rival Maxwell in spectral algorithms or features. Though its Nvidia CUDA support results in faster rendering times, it also presents an Achilles heel. Limited video memory cannot accommodate complex scenes, forcing Iray to become a CPU-only renderer, and in that capacity I found it slower to resolve noise than Maxwell 2.5.

Iray supports another new tool, Allegorithmic’s Substance procedural textures. Similar to the V-Ray supported Darktree Textures, Substance is the first competitor capable of producing photorealistic procedurals — except these display impressively in viewport, in realtime. A license of Substance Designer must be purchased to create custom procedural textures.

As with Iray’s “push-button rendering,” 3DS Max’s interoperability improvements are spearheaded by the single click Send To feature. Send To begins to fulfill my hope that Autodesk’s acquisitions would result in stronger bridges between 3D software. Using the FBX format, data is sent directly between the 2012 versions of 3DS Max, Mudbox, MotionBuilder and Softimage, and updated dynamically on demand.

Mudbox interoperability is my favorite, with sculpting and painting translated near instantly into 3DS Max, texture and UV data perfectly intact. Sculpted layers can even be translated as morph maps. Synchronicity has its limits though; increasing mesh resolution in Mudbox will see sculpted changes translated to the originally sent lower density mesh in Max. Combined with Mudbox’s ease of use, this workflow further bolsters Mudbox’s usability advantage over Pixologic’s powerful Z-Brush. 

Motionbuilder likewise offers seamless transfers. In one scenario I re-targeted a mesh to mimic another model and rig, clicked the Send To update button and the change occurred flawlessly in 3DS Max. Though on occasion, skinned meshes failed to update with a reposed skeleton. 

The Send To function for Softimage is more limited. It exists solely as a bridge to facilitate the use of ICE particle systems in 3DS Max, transferred as point cache data to a 3DS Max particle flow node. It’s functional, albeit the scene must be initiated from 3DS Max and a reliance on point cache data inhibits workflow between software. Move a particle system in Max, it must be updated in Softimage and then re-updated to Max. While the impressive ICE Lagoa Multiphysics can be used, the new ICE implementation of heralded cloth simulator Syflex, does not translate via Send To. Hopefully such interoperability will be enhanced and given Maya’s propensity for import issues, a strong transfer feature between 3DS Max and Maya should be a priority too. 

Furthering interoperability, many tools are now becoming uniform across Autodesk apps. MotionBuilder and Maya share the same Characterization tool and HumanIK Solver 4.5 and the F-Curve editor is now universal. It’s not a substantial change; tool placement is consolidated and streamlined with a new option to maximize the graph view. The ability to break and unify tangents, providing the user independent bezier handle control, is noteworthy.

The biggest animation update is MassFX mRigids, a new rigid body dynamics simulator. Unlike Max’s dated Reactor, it integrates more tightly via a modifier-based system supplemented by its own menu and toolbar. Reproducing past scenarios in which I’ve used Reactor, for example distributing stones by physics, MassFX results are more accurate, efficient and simpler to attain. Rolling dynamics especially standout and there’s also multi-threading support and PhysX or APEX output for games. In an ill-advised, premature move, the more robust Reactor, which also supported soft body, cloth and rope simulation has been entirely excised without legacy support. 

Many years ago, Autodesk commenced development on a 3DS Max replacement named Nitrous. While development ceased on that project, it’s fitting to see the name carry on in what is the best iteration of 3DS Max in years.