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3ds Max 2011 Review: Easier Workflow

A Max Master breaks down the latest version of Autodesk's signature animation software.

3ds Max 2011 includes a new material editor, in-viewport modeling manipulations and a video compositing tool. All images courtesy of Autodesk.

Spring means warm weather and the annual release of the newest version of 3ds Max. This year's release, 3ds Max 2011, builds on many of the features that were new in 3ds Max 2010, improving both usability and performance. 3ds Max 2011 also adds welcome features such as a new material editor, in-viewport modeling manipulations, the ability to save a .max scene file that is backwards compatible with 3ds Max 2010 and a video compositing tool.

Material Editor

There are now two choices for material editing in 3ds Max; the well-known older material editor, now known as the Compact Material Editor, and Slate, a new node- based schematic material editor. Anyone who has used the NodeJoe schematic material editor plug-in for previous versions of 3ds Max will instantly recognize Slate, as it is based off of NodeJoe. Slate allows for the creation and editing of numerous materials within one workspace and without having to understand the older Max concept of multi-materials. You can have as many materials within a Slate workspace as you want. You can also mix the different Max material types, mental ray, Max Standard, architectural, within a single workspace.

Slate also exposes the 1,200 new Autodesk Materials that are included with 3ds Max 2011. Autodesk Materials replace the ProMaterials that were introduced in 3ds Max 2010. These materials can be shared with numerous Autodesk products like AutoCAD, Revit and Inventor. Using Slate's integrated context sensitive search makes it easy to find these or any other material within your scene or material library. To help with organizing this wide selection of materials you can create new material groups within the browser to hold you commonly used materials and material parameters for quick reference. Groups can be color coded for easy recognition and you can have as many groups as you need.

Along with the material editor the material browser has been reworked in 3ds Max 2011. The redesign gives it a less cluttered interface and UI that is consistent with Slate.

Having a non-linear schematic based material editor in Max is a welcome addition. Slate is something I have been personally hoping for a number of years now. My material creation and editing workflow is noticeably easier with 3ds Max 2011.

Slate is a new node-based material editor that helps significantly improve workflow and productivity.

Quicksilver Hardware Renderer

If your video card supports Shader Model 3.0 or later 3ds Max 201, you can make use of it to quickly generate high quality renders and animations at blazing speeds. Quicksilver handles all available Max material types. Unlike viewport displays of your scene Quicksilver supports alpha buffer and z-buffer elements, motion blur, static and dynamic reflections, depth-of-field, shadow maps, indirect and photometric lighting effects, ambient occlusion and the ability to render at arbitrary resolutions. While a new generation of animators may no longer be able to learn how to juggle or do amazing yo-yo tricks being able to iterate a scene more before a deadline or to quickly generate a daily for a client are more than enough to offset the loss of those time honored animator skills.

User Interface Enhancements

Starting with the Ribbon interface introduced in 3ds Max 2010 Autodesk appears committed to revamping the 3ds Max user interface. Instead of doing a single release with an entire new and different UI it looks like Autodesk is instead adding or changing a few UI paradigms in each new release of the software. 3ds Max 2011's UI changes are focused on getting the interface out of the user's way so that they can focus on their scene.

The Command Panel, a fixture of 3ds Max since its initial release and a feature that has lineage back to DOS 3D Studio, can now be set to behave like a fly out panel. When it is in this mode it remains hidden off screen until the mouse hits the edge of the screen where it is docked. I normally have my Command Panel set to be two or three panels wide on screen, to reduce vertical scrolling within the panel. The amount of viewport screen real estate that is reclaimed by having the Command Panel hidden, even on a 24" monitor, is quite noticeable.

Much like a personal assistant on a golf course, Max's new Caddies are there to help you make the right editable poly choices without having to lose focus from what you are doing. Instead of having to move over to a floating dialogue window to dial in settings for editable poly tools like Extrude or Bevel the appropriate controls contextually appear within the viewport using a translucent heads-up-display. From a workflow standpoint this behavior is not much different from using the old floating modal dialogs for tool setting entries. The elegance in the system comes from the fact that there is no longer a large opaque dialogue blocking your view of your work. The Caddie display is lightweight and unobtrusive.

Quicksilver is a new hardware renderer for creating high-fidelity previs, animatics and games-related marketing materials.

The Ribbon, introduced in 3ds Max 2010, is now fully configurable. Using a dialogue that is similar to Max's Customize UI dialogue, you can create new tabs and reconfigure or delete existing entries in the Ribbon. The Ribbon is no longer limited to poly modeling tools, any available Max tool can be added to the Ribbon. For any tab on the Ribbon you can now tear it off to create a floating dialogue within the viewport. Finally, the Ribbon can be set to display either horizontally or vertically. All of these new features of the Ribbon let you customize your workspace to suit your needs and to maximize your view of your work.

Object Painting

The Ribbon now sports a new Object Painting tab. Object painting lets you pick a 3D object and paint it into your scene with your mouse. The controls on the Ribbon let you set spacing and scale on all three axis. As the objects are painted into the scene, they can be aligned to any axis of the objects over which they are being painted. Object painting even allows you to paint with multiple objects, either in order of selection or randomly, and paint over already painted objects in the scene. Until you commit your painting the objects are considered live, meaning that you can fully tweak the spacing, scale, and alignment settings. Once you are happy with the settings, you can commit the painted objects to the scene. For terrain work like foliage, grass or placing props like benches or trashcans, Object Paint will save you quite a bit of time.

Object Painting also allows for object filling. For a sub object selection within an object, you can populate a series of picked objects along or within the selected subject. For instance, consider needing to place a series of rivets along the edge of a mechanical piece. By selecting a line on the object and extending the selection out to a ring or loop, you can then pick a rivet object and use the object fill method to place the rivets along that selection. Spacing along the selection is adjusted automatically to accommodate the number of fill objects you select within the Ribbon interface.

Viewport Canvas

3ds Max 2011 brings many enhancements to Viewport Canvas. Where 3ds Max 2010's Viewport Canvas provided basic painting tools and let you paint on a 2D canvas, representation of the current viewport 3ds Max 2011's Viewport Canvas provides a full suite of painting tools, multiple layers and painting either in 3D, directly on an object, or in a moveable canvas that is displayed over the current viewport. With the addition of multiple layers with blending modes, tools like blur, dodge and burn; and the ability to save the canvas as a layered Adobe Photoshop document the new Viewport Canvas is a welcome feature and a great workflow enhancement.

Containers enable users to layer local edits non-destructively on top of referenced content.


With 3ds Max 201, CAT has been thoroughly integrated into the program rather than as a third-party plug-in, an integral part of 3ds Max's animation tools. CAT's collection of modifiable skeleton presets, covering just about any type of animal imaginable, lets you quickly animate characters for your scene. CAT takes all of the grunt work out of creating control rigs, too. Being able to animate in place and to be able to map an animation cycle to an arbitrary path makes CAT suitable for both in-game and cinematic animation work.


Containers have also seen numerous welcome updates in this release. My favorite addition is the inclusion of the Only Add New Objects and Anything Unlocked rules that can be set on containers. Now you can ensure that anyone using a container you created cannot edit it or can only edit items that you have marked as unlocked. This protects your work while also letting others build upon it for their specific scenes. Containers now automatically lock their definitions when you have them open. This prevents accidental overwriting of content by others while you are working within the container. In keeping with 3ds Max 2011's theme of making the viewport informative and useful Containers now show whether or not they are Locked or Editable directly in the viewport. These status updates are also viewable in the Scene Explorer. For me, Containers are quickly displacing XRefs as my preferred way to share common data between different Max scenes and different users. I'm glad to see that Autodesk is continuing to support them.


3ds Max now ships with a modern compositing tool, self referentially named Composite. Composite is based on Autodesk's Toxik product. It is a node-graph- based, HDR capable video compositing tool. It has a customizable user interface that can quickly be tuned to support different aspects of your workflow. It supports all of the expected compositing effects like keying, color correction, blending, tracking, camera mapping and raster and vector painting. All in all, Composite is a capable and easy to use tool. Having it as a free addition to 3ds Max lets you expand your production capabilities without having to expand your budget.

Accelerate modeling tasks with new tools that extend the Graphite modeling and Viewport Canvas toolsets.

Easy Upgrade Path

If you are already using 3ds Max 2010, upgrading to 3ds Max 2011 is simple and non-disruptive. 3ds Max 2011 can use 3ds Max 2010 plug-ins directly. There's no need to wait for a vendor to release 3ds Max 2011 specific versions of your favorite tools. And, as always, MaxScript-based tools will work in the new release without any changes. To aid in transitioning to this version, Autodesk has included a "Save as 2010" feature. You can work in 3ds Max 2011, using all of the new and upgraded features of the package, and save your work out in a format that is still readable and editable in 3ds Max 2010. With plug-in compatibility and the ability to save your work in a backwards compatible format you can choose to either upgrade everyone in your organization simultaneously or in a staged manner. Either way, you will still be able share work and leverage your plug-in collection. I can't remember a previous 3ds Max release that offered as seamless an upgrade path at this version provides.

Autodesk has revamped and streamlined their pricing structure for this release. Upgrades from the three previous versions of 3ds Max will cost 50% of the price of a new license.

Overall, 3ds Max 2011 is a release that refines many existing tools, improves performance, and expands your production capabilities. The additions of 3D painting, hardware-based image rendering, and Composite -- along with the enhancements to the Ribbon, CAT and Containers -- show that Autodesk is still striving to make 3ds Max a world class tool for artists and animators.

Jeff Hanna recently capped off 15 years in the video game industry by serving as the technical art director on Volition's Red Faction: Guerrilla. He works as a senior technical artist at Volition, helping to define and create better pipelines for the artists and improving game visuals. Hanna works with Autodesk and community sites, including, and, to promote technical art and provide tools and tutorials to help others in the industry. In 200, Autodesk awarded Hanna an Autodesk Max Master award in recognition of his contributions to the Max user community.