Product Review: Autodesk's 3ds Max 2011
"we were obsoleting our DOS product with this totally new ... Windows technology, but we wanted to maintain the 3D Studio brand. In a 1995 meeting with Anna Mellilo (our marketing manager at Autodesk), we were struggling with how to do this. On a break, she started talking about her young son Max. I'd been chewing on the name problem in the corner and heard her say "Max" just as I was thinking "3D Studio". So thanks to Anna (and her son), we got our name."
-Gary Yost Interview, maxunderground.com
Built originally as a DOS program 20 years ago, 3ds Max is now the most popular and widely used digital creation tool in the world. Simply surviving as a useful program in a now crowded marketplace is one thing, but to build their best version to date in 3ds Max 2011 is a remarkable achievement. And make no mistake, Autodesk's 3ds Max 2011 is even better than what our Renderosity reviewer Nick Charles called "a whole new user experience" in his review of 3ds Max 2010 last year.
And after a period of relatively slow development, where Maya has taken center stage in Autodesk's stable of CG software, how have they made 3ds Max a more relevant and deeper program than at any point in it's lengthy history? The answer came in January of this year when Autodesk Project Management and Development announced a series of web-seminars to announce their plans for Excaliber (XBR), which is "a restructuring of 3ds Max that is intended to occur over 3 phases." The 2010 version was the first phase and introduced the Graphite Modeling Tools, new Viewport Display and the new Containers system (among many other improvements).
Now, with 3ds Max 2011, Autodesk is moving into their 2nd phase of their XBR development plan by adding several exciting new features, like the Slate Materials editor, the Quicksilver Hardware renderer, a fully integrated Character Animation Tool (CAT), 2D/3D painting with the Viewport Canvas, 3ds Max Composite and a new version of Mental Ray renderer (3.8). Of course, a release like this one has literally dozens and dozens of improvements, and it would take too long to go into all of them, so I'm going to concentrate on these major additions. (Note: for a thorough examination of the new additions check evilsasha's superb coverage in our Renderosity 3ds Max Forum)
What's New in 3ds Max 2011?
• The Slate Material Editor: A node-based editor that sits alongside the classic Max materials editor (which is now called the "Compact Materials Editor"). This makes the complex job of creating materials and combining them much, much easier.
The new, node-based Slate Editor
• Quicksilver Hardware Renderer: Part of Autodesk's effort to move toward a GPU renderer for 3ds Max, the Quicksilver Renderer uses a combination of CPU and GPU to quick render scenes, rather than using the old viewport capture. Part of Quicksilver relies on using advanced shader technology from Mental Images (MetaSL), which was introduced in 3ds Max 2010. While not a ray-traced renderer (like the included Mental Ray renderer), it still allows for fast rendering using Ambient Occulsion, Photometric Lights and Large Screen resolutions.
CPU + GPU = Quicksilver Renderer for 3ds Max 2011
• Character Animation Tool (CAT): Previously a plug-in (from Softimage/XSI), CAT has now been fully integrated with 3ds Max 2011. So, in effect, you have two complete animation systems in the new 3ds Max: CAT and the older, legacy Character Studio (used primarily for biped animation). The benefits of the CAT system are the over 20 bone rigs that come with 3ds Max 2011 and the many preset animation cycles which will make animating quicker. Of course, you can build your own rig in CAT and adjust preset animations, or create new ones with relative ease. One nice extra with CAT is the ability to create and adjust muscles for your character.
The CAT Animation system is now fully integrated into 3ds max 2011
• 2D/3D Object Paint: 3ds Max 2010 introduced the Viewport Canvas, and now with version 2011, Max now has a very high level 2D/3D object paint system. Colors and various patterns can be painted directly onto the 3D object using multiple layers and most tools, like Blur, Doge and Fill. The layers function in Viewport Canvas is extremely effective in managing the entire paint/materials process, including blending layers. You can also export as Photoshop PSD files and refine your image there before bringing it back into 3ds Max.
The fabulous new 2D/3D paint system is a major upgrade
• 3ds Max Composite: Based on Autodesk's Toxik compositing software technology, the 3ds Max 2011 Composite is a fully featured HDR-capable compositor which allows you to composite live action and animation footage using a node-based editor. The UI of the 3ds Max Composite is completely customizable and allows for camera tracking, keying, color correction, motion blur and many other functions, including stereoscopic productions.
3ds Max 2011 node-based Compositer
• Mental Ray 2011 (Version 3.8): Mental Ray is a high-quality ray-tracing rendering application created by Mental Images that is built into 3ds Max 2011. While some features of this new version 3.8 have to be accessed via the control_ghost_settings plug-in, two new features of Mental Ray are standouts: Importons, which help to speed up render speed and quality, and Irradiance Particles, which preserve both the direct and indirect illumination for the rendering process and can be a major asset when used with Importons. The documentation for Mental Ray 2011 is available and is very helpful in working with complex render settings in Mental Ray 2011.
Mental Ray 3.8, the newest version, is included with 3ds Max 2011
Improvements to Workflow and Modeling
3ds Max 2011 has many new additions to the program that improve workflow and help make it easier to model 3D objects. Again, the list is far too large to cover everything, but I did find that making the Command Panel a fly out menu and adding a new UI element "The Caddie" (which follows you around the scene and gives quick access to a variety of modeling settings) very useful additions. Also, there is a very neat "Object Paint" tool which you can use to paint instances or objects (multiple ones, too) like grass or set pieces anywhere in your scene, or on any object. The new "local edits to Containers" makes for improved collaboration, where you can layer local edits on top of referenced content. There's a new Autodesk Materials Library with over 1,200 presets. And, along with full Windows 7 64-bit support, 3ds Max 2011 allows you to save your project to the 2010 release version for more complete integration in a studio setting with multiple users.
I was very surprised to find that 3ds Max 2011 was much easier to work with than I had imagined. After an easy install, I found the interface intuitive and fairly simple. Customizing the UI was a snap, and I soon turned the dark, Adobe-like look into one that was light and easy to read. The concept of "stacking" modifiers for modeling is a smart one and extremely powerful. And, the new "Ribbon" where the graphite modeling tools reside, made it simple to manipulate and shape 3D objects. Animation, Cameras, Lighting, and especially Rendering, are all laid out simply and with many supporting tools located logically. At any time, I could stop and find out where I was or what I needed to do by simply accessing the help menu or one of the foundation tutorials.
3ds Max performed solidly on my quad-core Windows 7 64-bit machine. Renders in even complex scenes where fairly quick. Certainly faster than any other 3D program I've reviewed to date. No crashes or bugs appeared in any of the lengthy work sessions I've had with the program. I wasn't able to test the Autodesk Backburner (network renderer) for 3ds Max 2011, but, from what I can make out in my research, it is working well and is quite useful.
Documentation and Support
I was disappointed to find that Autodesk did not include a simple start-up manual along with the 3ds Max 2011 disc. However, that disappointment quickly turned to amazement when I accessed their 9,500 page manual (yes, you read that right, 9,500 pages) which is available as a separate pdf file, or through your help menu within the program. The manual is one of the best I've ever read and is in full color with excellent reference images and clear, clean writing. Also, when you first start the program, you get an excellent series of intro videos for every major aspect of the program.
Autodesk fully supports the new user with an active website, many free downloads of textures and plug-ins, plus a strong selection of tutorials for just about any level of expertise. The forums at The Area (a specific Autodesk site for all of their products), in particular, are high-quality, no-nonsense forums that address practical questions and quickly turn away troublesome threads. In combination with the massive manual, the video (and html) tutorials included with the program, not to mention the absolutely huge community of people who use Max, both professionally and for fun, you can become proficient in almost every aspect of 3ds Max 2011. I also like the fact that the tutorials are updated to the current version.
Our own 3ds Max Forum here at Renderosity is also active and very helpful. Although the focus is mostly on medium to advanced users, any newbie questions are answered frankly, but without attitude. There are some very experienced users on the forum, so give it a shot if you haven't already.
"Our first priority with 3ds Max 2011 was to make artists more productive in common everyday workflows. We have re-architected core parts of the software, introduced a much requested node based material editor streamlining workflows and added new features, like the painting tools and the Quicksilver hardware renderer, to help customers meet or beat their deadlines without compromising either creativity or quality."
-Stig Gruman, Autodesk vice president of digital entertainment
As Autodesk acquired Maya and Softimage (XSI) over the last five years, development and growth of 3ds Max went stagnant for several years. Not wanting to sell competing products, Autodesk began to refine each of these major CG programs to appeal to specific markets. Maya received a good deal of focus, as it won an academy award in 2003, and has gone on to become the defacto program for the Hollywood film industry and CG schools around the world.
But, starting a little over a year ago, Autodesk set out to re-define 3ds Max and to provide (albeit somewhat late) the updated tools and functionality that competitors like Modo and CINEMA 4D were offering (not to mention their own programs, like XSI). The Excaliber development goals are admirable and very welcome to the huge community of 3ds Max users. Many of the new features (Slate, 3D Paint, Composite) of 3ds Max 2011 put the program back in the driver's seat. And while there still needs to be development to the Quicksilver renderer, and Mental Ray needs to be fully utilized, there's no question that the new 3ds Max 2011 puts the program back in the driver's seat once again, and perhaps expanding beyond the game developers and Architectural modeling worlds where it's been a fixture for decades.
Now, if they'd only develop a Mac version and re-work the old free version (G-Max) and make it available for download...
Pricing and Availability
Autodesk 3ds Max 2011 suggested retail price for a stand-alone license is $3,495. An upgrade from either the standard 3ds Max 2010 or 3ds Max 2010 Design stand-alone versions is $1,745. Autodesk Subscriptions for their yearly upgrade/support program is $495. And in a smart move, Autodesk has combined their 3ds Max 2011, Mudbox 2011 and Motion Builder 2011 into a single Entertainment Creation Suite 2011 for $4,995 (without Subscription) - a savings of approximately 35% over buying each item individually.
And from May 17, 2010 to July 18, 2010, Autodesk is offering up to 50% savings on Autodesk 2011 software to select customers with previous versions of Autodesk products, if you upgrade to a 2011 version and purchase the Autodesk Subscription as well.
There is a 30-day demo of 3ds Max 2011 and 3ds Max 2011 Design (tailored to architecture, design and civil engineering) available, along with a well-written brochure, FAQ and several "what's new" videos.
Autodesk 3ds Max 2011: New Object Paint
Autodesk 3ds Max 2011 (and the Design Version) comes in two flavors: the 32-bit version and the 64-bit version. Rather than reprint the whole list of system requirements here, I'm just going to provide direct links to the Autodesk site where they are listed in detail. I've been using the Windows 7 64-bit version and I've never had a more responsive and fast system response. I highly recommend upgrading to a 64-bit operating system and adding up to 12 Gb of RAM (I'm using 6 Gb at present). You'll be glad you did, I swear.
Be sure to check out the following:
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Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
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