Gene Deitch continues the hairy tails of eventually not making Charlottes Web.
Just a few weeks ago, Discreet released its new 3ds max 7 package. As with most of my reviews, I have taken the time to try and integrate the objects into my daily workflow so as to give you a more complete sense of how the tool holds up. Since I am a game developer, this article will slant toward game development. Lets begin with Normal Mapping:
For the past couple of years, there has been a ton of talk about normal mapping. For those of you that have not heard the hubbub normal maps are, to oversimplify, much better than bump maps. Normal mapping uses brightness and color to create a sort of height map with lighting/normals information imbedded in it. Recently, 3D tools have been catching up, trying to get a decent normal mapping pipeline into their toolset. 3ds max 7 now has a very simple, efficient way to create and use these normal maps and has not only supported it at render time, but also fully supports in-viewport rendering (using DirectX 9) of your Normal Maps.
While normal maps can be made in a variety of ways (adding geometric detail to your model through polymodeling, bringing your low-res model to ZBrush, etc.) 3ds max has finally incorporated a decent meshpainting toolset called Paint Deformation. Simply up-res your model and use Paint tools such as Push, Pull, Relax and Revert to quickly and intuitively sculpt detail into the model. This new, hi-res, high detail model can be used to render a Normal Map which can then be applied to your original low-res model. This technique yields excellent results, making low-poly models look exceptionally hi-res, even with dynamic lights moving across the surface of the model.
Since its inception, the Editable Poly toolset has been the number one toolset for most modelers. Unfortunately, most 3ds max users had already become accustomed to the max way of modeling, which usually includes a multi-layered modifier stack. Many users were disappointed that there was no Edit Poly modifier that could be shoved into the stack once or twice, moved around, used in conjunction with other modifiers, etc. Well, guess what? Tada! Here it is. Discreet responded by making the new Edit Poly modifier, which allows a ton of controllable, in-stack parameters for use with any model.
While on Editable Poly, lets look at some of the other new improvements. The Vertex paint tool has been upgraded. If you recall from my review of 3ds max 6, I had taken issue with the vertex paint blur tool, in that it was universal instead of paintable. Discreet pulled through again and now the blur tool is pressure sensitive and paintable! Much better. The Adjust Color function is now nice and condensed and there is a new floater for your color palettes. There is still one major thing missing here that I have called attention to in the past animated vertex colors. I really find it hard to believe that in the past two or three releases Discreet has still overlooked this powerful feature. With so many users embedding extra information into vert channels, one would hope that they could be animateable (as in Maya, for instance).
Some other key Poly features are still missing too. Why is there still no Slide tool? Where is the clean Edgeloop Eraser and why doesnt the Cut tool stay active while rotating the viewport? (I have written a max plug-in that can be downloaded free.)
On the up side, though, there is now a Bridge function in the poly toolset that allows the user to model parts of a model and then connect them very quickly using Bridge on their open borders. Without seeing it in person, it is hard to get a sense of how cool and useful this tool is. Thanks to such parameters as Bias, Taper and Twist, it is possible to create clean, convincing geometry without hand building. It is also important to note that this tool does not need the borders to have the same amount of verts. As you can see in my illustration, it handles the transitions really well.
A new addition to the Poly toolset is Preserve UVs, which is a plain as it sounds. This is a great tool in the production pipelines since so many times an approved art asset needs reworking later down the road. Typically mesh changes would result in a loss of UV coordinates but not anymore. By checking this option, you can now make significant changes to your mesh without losing your UV information. Thats right add or delete verts, scoot edges around without losing the texture mapping that you spent so much time perfecting.
Next is the Skin Wrap modifier. With the advent of the new tool Skin Wrap, Discreet has really made a huge step in the right direction. Skin Wrap allows the artist to take mesh A and quickly align it with mesh B and use the skin weighting from mesh A to set the weights for mesh B. In video game production, this means that an artist can skin a hi-res mesh, dupe it, turn the dupe into a low-res LOD and in seconds have the entire new mesh skinned and weighted with near perfection. Once you have applied the Skin Wrap modifier and adjusted it to your liking you can hit the Convert to Skin button, which applies a Skin modifier above the Skin Wrap. Once this is in place just delete the now unnecessary Skin Wrap and you have a well-skinned LOD in moments. Pretty cool. There are lots of applications of this tool. You can easily make alternate skins or outfits for a character and in seconds have it totally set up. Additionally, you could make accessories and/or clothes and place them on a character and Skin Wrap makes quick work of them.
UV editing took a few steps forward with this release too. An especially helpful advancement is the inclusion of in-viewport rendering of UV seams. These green lines show up in both the UV editor and the viewport to help the artist visualize where their mapping clusters fall in 3D space, without the need for test grids or other such maps. In addition, a few smaller enhancements were added as well. You can now use both relative and absolute transforms when using the type-in (or slider) abilities of the uv editor. Until this release, Max only used absolute, so if you selected a bunch of UVs and tried to slide them around using the sliders, they would all conform to the same coordinate. Now, they shift but stay in relative positions to where they began. You can also now use Edgeloop select inside the UV editor (um why is there no Edgering select?), which is a great timesaver for selecting UVs, as is the new paint selection function.
Navigation controls received a tune up too, most notably the addition of a First Person Mode similar to PC video games. While I can imagine that to some, the first person camera might seem like a silly addition, this is another area where Discreet is really keeping an eye out for the game developers. When my team of level artists were shown this new navigation mode during a 3ds max 7 intro, the sighs of relief were easy to appreciate. This camera mode is a real plus for those of us making large, interior levels where first person camera is both really intuitive (to the PC gamer) and also a bit easier to navigate with in these level-based 3D files.
Materials, Rendering and mental ray have also been a focus for Discreet with this release, and for me the most exciting part of this is the inclusion of Sub-Surface Scattering (SSS) materials. 3ds max now has a handful of shaders for use in simulating SSS, the most accessible being the SSS Fast Skin material. In the accompanying images, you can see the results of about five minutes worth of work. In the first one the object is using the SSS Fast Skin material right out-of-the-box. The second one has a few minor tweaks to some of the sub-dermal layers to create a more wax-like surface. If you have seen the new Pixar movie The Incredibles, then you have seen how cool SSS can be.
Discreet has also improved a ton of small workflow and usability features that they call grab bag features. While not full-fledged features, these grab bag fixes really make a big difference. Now windows are resizable, there are checkboxes to toggle off warnings for good, floating windows are toggleable, selected vertex colors are more easily readable, the Cut tool no longer leaves extra visible edges, Paint functionality is now included in object selection, Quick Align and so on. There are also pages of new, smaller features such as Turbosmooth and Object Display culling that are too numerous to list here. Check the discreet Website (www.discreet.com) for a full set of new features.
While I still think that 3ds max needs a facelift in the UI department (see modo and ZBrush), the functionality and usability of this package is getting better and better. As a game developer, almost every addition to this version of 3ds max is useful on almost a daily basis, which is not something I can say for other recent software package releases.
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 at Harmonix, a Playstation2 and Xbox videogame developer. Here he has helped produce award-winning games such as Frequency, Amplitude and the Karaoke Revolution series. Ryan also maintains a Providence, Rhode Island-only underground music site, lotsofnoise.com.