3D Space: discreet's 3ds max
Posted Dec 1, 2003

3ds max 6 ($3495) is a large, powerful product. New features in 3ds max 6 include an advanced schematic view to manage complex scenes by showing the relationships between objects in your scene. Max 6 also offers vertex color painting, design visualization tools, and a particle flow system. Download the trial version at www.discreet.com/3dsmax.

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."

Using Max
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."

Bright Spots
Light a scene in Max as you would in the real world. Set lights with colors and intensity values. Use a cone to define where each light shines. Light types include omni (from one point in all directions), target spot (from one point in a cone), directional (like the sun), and area light (gives soft shadows, like a ceiling fluorescent with a diffuser lens). The program calculates all lighting sources, fall-off, bounce, and color bleeding. The Luminance Brush lets you brighten shadows or tone down overly bright spots. Max automatically adjusts the movement of each object's shadow as it moves through your scene, for all lights except directional.

All lights in Max have photometric data. And some lighting manufacturers have created "luminaries"—3D models that look like a fixture you buy in a store. Those manufacturers post lighting information (photometric data) that describes how that light performs. Drag their data from the Web into Max and you create a light that acts as light does in the physical world.

Not surprisingly, Max offers a wealth of rendering solutions. In addition to scan line, raytracing, and cartoon renderers Max includes its own rendering solution, a hybrid scan-line rendered with selective ray racing. In this mode, Max does not try to raytrace the entire scene, but only what needs to be raytraced to capture the scene. This makes for very fast renders.

During rendering, anti-aliasing algorithms smooth the transitions between pixels, blending the image to make the rendered frame look real.

Finally, Max's network rendering management utility (called Backburner) lets you spread rendering tasks across all the machines in your network. With it, one user recently rendered 1.5 million frames, according to Discreet. Backburner assigns frames to each machine for rendering, saves rendered frames, and even emails a technician's pager if it detects a problem with any rendering.

In addition to handling the most common file types, such as JPEG, TARGA, TIFF, and Kodak Cineon, you can save in Max's own Rich Pixel Format—a 2D image with metadata. Its co-rendering, error checking, and collation of frames let you change a 3D scene without re-rendering. You can apply motion blur, change texture, and even adjust the lighting without re-rendering.

New in Version 6
New features in 3ds max 6 include an advanced schematic view, to manage complex scenes by showing the relationships between objects in your scene. You can see or create the hierarchy between objects, or see which objects share the same material. You can see all the instances of a particular object, or objects that share a modifier. You can manipulate objects here as well, copying modifiers or materials within or between objects.

Max 6 also offers vertex color painting, design visualization tools, a particle flow system, and mental ray rendering software, one of the film industry's two leading renderers, with licensing for two processors. Finally, the MAXScript Listener lets you record commands as you use them, turning them into scripts for later use.

300mHz Pentium 2 or equivalent; 256MB RAM and 300MB swap space; graphics card supporting 1024x768 and 16-bit color
Recommended: Dual Pentium 4 processor or dual AMD Athlon; 1GB RAM and 2GB swap space; graphics card supporting OpenGL and Direct3D hardware acceleration; 24-bit color, 3D graphics accelerator; sound card and speakers; cabling for TCP/IP-compliant network; video input and output devices; joystick; MIDI-instruments; 3-button mouse.