Welcome to the first installment of 3D Space. In "Animating Digital Video," (see http://www.emedialive.com/Articles/ReadArticle.aspx?ArticleID=7975, for explanations of key terms), we highlighted some of the key 3D animation tools that target the desktop post-production market and suggested how those tools integrate with digital video editing workflow. Once again, our interest is how these tools specifically assist corporate or commercial digital video work, rather than how they operate independently in game development or architectural design environments.
So, start your engines. And watch out for wheels spinning, sand flying, particles floating, fog passing, snow flinging, and fire rising. We'll start off discussing the tools alphabetically, which, since numbers usually come first, means leading off with discreet's 3ds max.
3ds max 6 is a professional-level animation tool for modeling, animation, and rendering for film, television, and games. However, it also excels in training projects, marketing videos, and design visualization. 3ds max has been used for film and television animation and effects in films that include Thru The Moebius Strip, X2: X-Men United, Quo Vadis, Tomb Raider, Final Destination 2, The Core, and Dr. Dolittle 2. Many of this year's Emmy nominees for special effects used 3ds max.
"Corporations find 3ds max an ideal tool for creating in-house training projects, marketing videos, or anything where they need to communicate an idea clearly and effectively," says Dave Campbell, discreet's 3D industry marketing manager.
"For example, 3ds max can show workers how a piece of machinery breaks down into components, or it can create and animate a logo," Campbell continues. "Here at Autodesk"—makers of AutoCAD, and discreet's parent company—"we have used Max to create our own training videos and to design our corporate branding materials."
3ds max (henceforth, "Max") opens to display four viewports, surrounded by the "tools" and "controls" with which you create ("model") most objects. A viewport can display a scene from the front or back, left or right, top or bottom. It can also display different angled views, such as perspective, user, light source, or camera. Each viewport can display in a wireframe mode or several different shaded modes. You can also import bitmap images as viewport backgrounds, to imagine how your model will work in a finished scene, and each viewport can have its own background.
Max places your most frequently used tools close to your fingertips, and the available tools shift to help you create or edit the type of object you're working with and the type of viewport that is active. For example, the Camera viewport displays different buttons than the Perspective viewport.
You can float any tab on the tab panel into an individual toolbar, or dock it to the sides. You can customize tabs and toolbars. Also, right-clicking calls up context-based "quad" menus that provide (customizable) relevant choices for the type of object you are hovering over.
"Safe frames" show you the "safe" areas of your output file in the viewport, even if your output is at a different proportion than your viewport. VCR-like playback controls let you play your animation in the viewport. The Time Configuration button opens a dialog that lets you control Time and Playback. Here you change the length of your animation or define the active time segment. You can rescale time segments to speed up or slow down a motion. Auto Key mode lets you set keyframes automatically, or you can set keyframes manually.
In its default window, Max does modeling and prepares models for animation. Preparations include texturing (attaching skin to the body) and setting the body to move, using such tools as inverse or forward kinematics. Max lets you create a set of bones for any character, add more joints, and then attach an "IK (inverse kinematics) system" to define that object's range of motion. You can even add fins to the bones to aid in texturing.
Max's polygon modeling tools include Grow and Shrink, Repeat Last, Constrain Translation to Edges and Faces, Insert/Remove Vertex, Extrude Edges, Connect Edges, Outline Polygons, Extrude Along Spline, Remove Unused Map Vertices, and support for shaded faces. Modifiers let you stretch, twist, and add complexity to simple shapes.
Character Node lets you define any given group of objects as a "Character." You can then store an entire character's animation data, and save or load animation data and movement. You can also re-map animation between characters.
Skin Pose lets you tweak Inverse Kinematic and deformation settings, even after fully animating a character. Progressive Morphing allows non-linear morph interpolation. You can also add extra interpolation steps between morphs.
Max's Dope Sheet Editor is a graph representing keyframe layout that helps you manage animation timing. You can move, scale, retime, load/ save, or copy/paste keyframes, including "soft" keyframe selections. Max provides several systems to perform your actual animating, including Inverse Kinematics, Forward Kinematics ("pose to pose"), Spline Inverse Kinematics, and Keyframe Animation. The reactor extension creates realistic, physics-based animation (in which objects crush, bounce off, and interact with each other as their counterparts would in the "real" world), with a preview mode that lets you test interactions without rendering. In addition, every numeric "spinner" or slider in Max can be animated. If a value changes, Max can animate it.
Max also has "controllers" that let you procedurally layer different ways of controlling any object. For example, use standard position and rotation controls to animate where a plane flies and how it rotates. Then, add a quirky jolt—say, as the plane hits wind sheer—using your mouse, joystick, or mechanical glove. Have Max trace that movement and then blend it into your original animation path. For example, Jim Henson Productions uses such a special device to drive its Muppets, and the program accepts data from that device to "drive" Kermit in Max. The "Muppeteers" never set a keyframe; they just perform. Max calls that "performance animation."