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3ds Max 9 Review: Focusing on Speed and Stability

Alain Bielik takes on the mission of uncovering the secrets behind the visual effects of Stormbreaker. Includes QuickTime clip of Baseblacks vfx work in the films climactic rooftop sequence!

Speed and stability are the focus of the new 3ds Max 9. Now it can fully handle most meshes, animations and rigs that you can throw at it.

This month, Autodesk has released a new version of its flagship application, 3ds Max, available for $3,495 (or $795 for an upgrade). For years, 3ds Max was one of the two biggies when it came to game development, feature films, television, etc., along with Alias' Maya. Now, of course, Autodesk owns Maya, too, through its acquisition of Alias.

At about 10 years old, 3ds Max is at a maturation point where new features are taking a bit of a back seat to performance enhancements. Though there are still many new things that artists might hope to see in this or future versions of 3ds Max... the focus this year is speed and stability. Autodesk knows that it now part of a suite of tools that professionals and hobbyists use, and that it needs greater interoperability with regards to file formats as well as the ability to handle data from applications with radically different benchmarks. For example, ZBrush has become a standard part of many artists workflow and those single models tend to be up in the realm of multiple millions of polygons. Up until now, those models would only make their way into 3ds Max by cutting it apart and bringing only fragments into it. With the new enhancements to the software, 3ds Max can now fully handle most meshes, animations, rigs, etc., that you can throw at it. This is true of the 32-bit version of the application, but even more so with the new 64-bit version.

Unfortunately, I do not have access to a 64-bit PC or 64-bit Windows, so my review will be based on first hand info about the 32-bit version and only second hand information about 64-bit. Fortunately Autodesk is shipping both versions on the same disk (though they warn that they are not completely interoperable). After installing the 32-bit version of 3ds Max, I quickly opened up a head model that I sometimes use as a personal benchmark test. The head that I used is a poly model made up of about 20,000 polygons and 10 or so objects. On my modest four-year-old, king-of-its-time, dual Athlon 2 Ghz PC with 2 gig of RAM and a NVIDIA GeForce 4 Quadro 3ds Max 8 runs this pretty well even with hair on and a Turbosmooth of 1 or 2 bringing its poly count to between 50,000 and 100,000 polys. In 3ds Max 9, I can easily go up to four iterations of Turbosmooth bringing me to around 600,000 polys while still running at a frame rate that allows me to easily work on the file. At around five iterations my old-timer PC starts to become unworkable. One interesting think that I noted is that I still retained fast framerates while working in edges-showing mode, but when I selected the object (which as far as I can tell just turns the selected object's edges white), I lost a lot of framerate. I saw 3ds Max 9 running on a Dell M80 laptop today and there were files open with millions of animating polys in them and they were fully workable no matter what mode the artist was in. I have been told that on the 64-bit setup scenes with 50 million polys or so are still very manageable. This means that displacement painting, soft selection, edgeloops, etc., can be worked on in high-resolution.

Hair and fur have made a large leap in usability in this revision. All of the functionality of the tools and the interactivity has been integrated fully into the 3ds Max viewport and Quad menus. Courtesy of Ryan Lesser.

As I mentioned earlier, speed and stability were the main highlights for Autodesk this time around, but there are a group of bona fide features that have been implemented or improved in version 9. For starters, animation has new functionality. There are now "Animation Layers" that allow the artist to separate parts of an object/scene's animations into layers that can be hidden or show very easily to improve workflow. This layer interface is very similar to the standard 3ds Max layer interface so it should be nice and comfy for most artists. There is also a sort of "shy" button now, similar to After Effects, which allows you to hide unwanted nodes from the Track View allowing easier animation and selection. Biped animation also benefited from some new bells and whistles (or bug=fixes... depending on how you look at it). You may now move keyframes to precede existing keyframes and even go into