In this fifth of a six-part series, Ellen Besen looks at Oscar-nominees Finding Nemo and The Triplets of Belleville and compares and contrasts their core analogies.
Scouring the Web, you will find most of the 3ds max reviews are either sterile press packet regurgitations or generalized reviews. They do not really dig down, revealing the good and bad points of the new software with a day-to day, in-workplace perspective. I hope to be helpful in this respect by giving you my review based on my use of the software package and how it has fared in its use as the main tool for modeling, mapping, rigging and animating in a game development environment.
One of the most important improvements that Discreet has made to the 3ds max system is within the Vertex Paint toolset. In 3ds max 5, the vertex paint tools were simple and just sort of shabby. While I still think that the new tools are more of a band-aid than a real paradigm shift, they are quite good. In 3ds max 6, once a Vertex Modifier is added to your model, a new floating toolbox opens up with tools that will seem familiar to both the max and Photoshop users out there. The new interface provides very fast interaction with the 3d paint tools (unlike Maya) and the in-viewport 3d painting is really great. Probably the most amazing improvement to the vertex paint system is the Blur tool. Say goodbye to the typical triangular-looking shading that typically plagues vertex painting on low to mid poly objects. Now users can paint their models in a very quick way and a single click of the blur tool smoothes out the paintjob resulting in an incredibly slick, soft vertex color layer. When I say very quick, I mean it. I was amazed at how fast I could just throw down my paint colors, and with a click or two of the blur tool it looked as if I had spend 20 minutes carefully painting.
Features such as this are crucial in todays game development environment. One issue I have is that the blur tool could easily have been a pressure sensitive paint tool that allowed discreet blurring of specific areas. This issue is alleviated somewhat by using another new vertex paint tool, Sub Object Selection.
Imagine blending 3ds maxs sub object vertex select with Photoshops lasso tools for selection and masking. This allows you to quickly select the verts that you want painted and omits the others from the selection. There is also the ability to separately shift the Hue, Saturation and Brightness of each vertex paint layer. Speaking of layers, max now lets you add or delete layers of vertex paint as if they were Photoshop layers. These layers appear in the modifier stack as new modifiers, but the paint toolbox allows you to blend these layers together with blend modes like Multiply, Luminosity, Screen, etc. as well as shift their Opacity. Sound Familiar? That is because these modes have become standard in most image editing programs and now in 3ds max as well. Opacity in a vertex layer is now also animateable, which is a nice advancement but seriously it is about time that 3ds max allowed users to animate the actual vertex color. The Opacity animation can band-aid over some of developers issues, but it is not a perfect fix. Game developers use vertex channels in all sorts of ways, especially during export to their engine. Colors can come through into game as raw color info, transparency, damage areas, etc. One big beef that many people had about the 3ds max5 vertex paint tools was that it was impossible to know what view mode you were in (unshaded, shaded, textured) because the buttons were not toggles and were totally unlabelled. Unfortunately, this is still the case. Discreet... why is it so hard to make these toggle buttons so that we are no longer confused? Recently, the awesome tools programmer at the game company that I work at built a new Vertex Paint Floater for me that fixes the button discrepancy. It rounds out the current improvements nicely. Another beef that I have with the Vertex Paint toolset is that I believe the size of the brush and softness should be controllable in-viewport, with the use of an alt or control-click (similar to Deep Paint). For those unfamiliar, this allows you to hold down alt or control button and drag up or down to change the size of the brush without leaving the 3D viewport.
The UVW Unwrap modifier has also been given some attention. Most notable, the Relax UV Coordinates tool allows users to take knotty areas of UVs (such as nose and eye areas of a face) and with the simple application of the Relax UV Coordinates tool, the UVs start to fall into a clean grid formation. The more you relax the UVs, the more grid-like they become. This is a great tool for my team as previously, many of us would hand tweak these types of UVs. Coordinates on arms and legs can fall into perfect rows for clean Photoshop painting. My main comment here is that this should have been an integrated slider tool instead of a floating dialog that locks out in-editor navigation.
There have not been too many changes to the already-powerful Poly Modeling toolset, except for the inclusion of an Isoline display mode. Isoline viewing is a favorite of edgeloop modelers, as it keeps the important edge structure visible while hiding all of the new edges created by NURMS subdivision. While in 3ds max 6, this cleans up the viewport significantly, there is no speed benefits to on-screen drawing. A big mesh still renders to screen in the same speed whether you are in Isoline mode or not.
When you are dealing with confusing files such as full body animation rigs, a good selection tool really helps. I always tried to make the best of the Schematic view in 3ds max 5, but it was really too clunky to work perfectly. Now, thanks to some big improvements and a cleaner interface, the 3ds max 6 Schematic View has become extremely useful. The most interesting improvements come when working with rigged setups of any style hierarchy. 3ds max 6 now lets you import and save background images as well as projecting the rig into the Schematic View. This means that an artist can render their character to a bitmap, select their rig in 3D, project it into the Schematic (which produces a schematic layout that is basically organized just like the 3D rig) and then import the render as a backdrop for the Schematic. If you have seen any making of footage of the movie The Hulk, for instance, you have seen this functionality (though they were using Maya).
On top of these improvements, Discreet has added the ability to use, save out and reload different Schematic Views, which can be great for either multiple rigs or, say, a view for full body rigs and then a side view for the hands (where there is typically too much detail for a far view of a rig). This is huge for production workflow. There is also the ability to space out the nodes in the Schematic View similarly to the way the new UV Relax spreads UVs. One problem here is that both the Project to Schematic and Space Node tools are scripts that need to be loaded in separate processes. These should have been included in the standard toolset for sure. A small but welcome addition is the ability to save View Bookmarks. Like Adobe Illustrator, an artist can zoom and pan to exactly where they like in the Schematic View, save it off as a Bookmark and then quickly reload it (and others) while working. This allows a user to have just one Schematic View open at a time, but use the Bookmarks to quickly navigate to other rigs or parts of the rig. A nitpick here is that the bookmark, once chosen, should automatically load instead of needing to hit the Go To Bookmark button.
The new Particle Flow and its Particle View are possibly the largest changes made to 3ds max6. The entire system seems to have been rewritten and the interface is awesome with its easy to follow visual listers of particle events. The workflow is amazing now with the ability to use event tests to send different, almost scriptable events to particles within the system. For example, an artist can take a particle system and add a collision spawn test event to the end of the list, which will always test to see if any particle is colliding with objects. Then, by creating a new speed event and linking the collision spawn test to the speed event you can watch the particles adjust their speed upon collision. Just a click on the icon next to each event in the particle lister causes the specific event to turn off. This is a great and immediate way to troubleshoot a misbehaving particle system.
With other improvements to systems such as Spline/Patch modeling, the Layer window, Normals editing, Multires, Reactor, Skin Weighting/Mirroring and more, Discreet has made their already solid 3ds max into an even better tool, not only for video game developers, but for all 3D artists.
3ds max 6 is available for $3,495.
Ryan Lesser teaches animation at his alma mater the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). His animation company (Mammoth Studios) has worked on projects for Phish, Sony, MTV, De La Soul, Madison Square Garden and others. Since 1999, Ryan has served as art director and game designer at Harmonix, a PlayStation2 game developer. Here he has helped produce award-winning games like Frequency, Amplitude and the Karaoke Revolution series. Ryan also maintains a Providence, RI-only underground music site.