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The grand-daddy of 3D design – a steep learning curve leading to serious power.

If you are serious about working in 3D, and money is no object, then you can take your pick of the absolute top-end packages such as Maya, Lightwave and the granddaddy of them all 3ds max. 3ds max has a pedigree stretching right back to the pre-Windows days of 3D Studio which brings with it both major advantages and serious drawbacks. Of the drawbacks the biggest has to be the working environment which is intimidatingly technical and smacks of the program’s ancient DOS heritage overlaid with numerous interface features grafted on haphazardly over time.

Compared to the logical and streamlined Cinema 4D, the learning curve is precipitous, but the underlying approach to modeling is broadly similar. From the Create menu or Create panel you choose from the wide range of provided 3D and 2D object presets, including in the latest version 6, a wide range of ready-to-use architectural objects such as walls, doors and staircases. You then non-destructively sculpt these objects into their final form primarily by using the commands in the Modify menu or Modify panel, say adding an extrusion or lathe effect to a 2D curve.

Modeling in 3ds max is based on comprehensive tools and modifiers.

The major difference is that 3ds max takes the non-destructive modifier approach to a completely different level. To begin with, with almost a hundred modifiers to choose from, just about every modeling need is catered for from squeezing and stretching to adding random distortions, ensuring symmetry, creating a shell and, crucially, directly editing the object with 3ds max’s exhaustive modeling tools. And there’s no limit to the number of modifiers that can be applied to the overall object and to local selections within the object. Of course advanced control like this is nowhere near as intuitive as Carrara’s hands-on editing or Cinema 4D’s simple object hierarchies but the power and control it unleashes is incredible as it means that all parameters of your object can be fine-tuned at any time right back to the original starting shape. It’s also ideal for animation.

It’s a similar story when it comes to controlling the appearance of your models. In many ways the combination of Material Editor and Material/Map Browser is an excellent example of how not to design a transparent and user-friendly interface. Examples of complexity include the fact that certain materials are incompatible with different renderers and the difficulty involved in just repositioning an applied texture map. Again though the complexity leads to power: by targeting particular renderers it’s possible to achieve advanced effects such as translucency; while the need to apply a UVW Map modifier to control texture placement opens up advanced capabilities such as the ability to animate textures.

3ds max offers amazing control but at the cost of complexity.

And, while there’s nothing like the intuitive direct 3D painting or artistic rendering offered by Cinema 4D’s BodyPaint 3D and Sketch and Toon modules, 3ds max does offer some unique creative features of its own such as the recent addition of multi-layered vertex painting which enables effective real-time formatting for games developers. In addition 3ds max provides most of the other capabilities that Cinema 4D offers as extra modules already built-in with the newly incorporated market-leading Mental Ray taking care of advanced rendering; the Particle Flow system handling event-driven simulation of complex particle systems such as explosions; and the Reactor 2 dynamics engine letting you simulate complex physical phenomena such as how body joints, clothes and fluids move. And for even more advanced work, discreet offers character studio 4 (£841 inc VAT) for advanced non-linear character animation including crowd scenes, while combustion 3 makes a natural partner for advanced compositing.

More than this, where there are still gaps in the functionality that discreet offers, 3ds max’s longstanding position as the industry standard means that it’s almost certain that a third-party developer will have stepped in. For example to fill the artistic NPR rendering role there’s cebas Computer’s finalToon, while you can use Right Hemisphere’s Deep Paint 3D to take care of direct 3D painting or even BodyPaint 3D as Maxon sensibly provides a plug-in to let it work with the industry leader. It’s not just add-ons. With its naturally full support for the most common exchange format, the old DOS-based 3D Studio’s 3DS mesh, you’ll also find plenty of ready-to-use content too (though otherwise file import/export options are surprisingly limited). And of course there’s also the benefits of a vast community of users to tap into too.

In many ways as the longest-standing, most powerful, most controllable, most extensible and most popular application, 3ds max fills the same industry standard role for 3D graphics as Photoshop does for 2D. However while the choice of Photoshop as the best application for bitmap editing is almost a no-brainer, 3ds max certainly isn’t the right choice for all users – or even most. For simple jobs and for those users for whom 3D is always going to be a sideline rather than their main business, Carrara Studio 3 is the best entry-level solution, while Cinema 4D provides an excellent mid-range option with a natural and powerful upgrade path. However if you need maximum modeling power from the offset and are willing to tackle the learning curve, 3ds max has to be on your list.

Ease of Use
Value for Money

ratings out of 6

System Requirements: Pentium III 500MHz, 512MB of RAM , 500MB of hard disk space, Windows 2000 or XP, 1024x768 display, CD-ROM.

Tom Arah

September 2004

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