IT MAY NOT START A REVOLUTION, BUT IT DELIVERS ON PRODUCTIVITY
Recent releases of some major 3D programs just don’t deliver the WOW! factor that they once did. Not long ago, every release introduced at least one exciting tool, such as subdivision surfaces, global illumination, and cloth and fluid simulations. With so much fabulous technology already under the hood, the current trend in releases just tweaks existing tools to increase performance. While 3ds Max 2009 delivers some significant improvements and updates, that WOW! factor is missing.
Autodesk continues to improve character animation in 3ds Max with modest Biped enhancements. Biped was designed to animate characters with two legs, so animating most animals was a challenge. However, the new Forefeet option modifies the behavior of the hands so that they can behave like paws. Also improved are character pivot options, which permit more complex character motions. Even with these improvements 3ds Max lags behind sibling Maya and competitor Softimage|XSI in character animation. However, unfortunately, there are no plans to incorporate the revolutionary Nucleus nCloth solvers found in Maya into 3ds Max.
Though 3ds Max is an excellent modeler, its core modeling tools have not changed in the last few releases, thus slowly creating a modeling gap. Programs like modo, from Luxology, feature innovative subdivision surfaces and edge modeling workflows not found in 3ds Max. As a result, Autodesk users are opting to do their modeling elsewhere.
Though 3ds Max has no digital sculpting tools, Autodesk’s acquisition of Mudbox points to a bright future for 3ds Max users. However, at this time, Mudbox has to be purchased separately. With SIGGRAPH announcements coming soon, the hope is that Mudbox’s tools will eventually be incorporated into 3ds Max.
UV mapping in 3ds Max is not easy, but is getting better with minor improvements to the Relax and Pelt Mapping workflows. The new UV Spline Mapping option to Unwrap UVW modifier purportedly makes it easier to UV map tubular objects. In reality it adds another level of complexity to what should really be a simple UV mapping task.
Materials, Lighting and Rendering
The most significant improvements in 3ds Max 2009 are in materials, lighting and rendering. A personal favorite is the revised Composite Layers interface in the Material Editor, featuring Photoshop-like, stackable layers with blending modes, opacity, alpha masks, and color correction, making it simple to quickly build complex shaders. The new mental ray ProMaterials are a series of readymade but editable materials for common architectural surfaces like glass, concrete, paint and so on, and the new mental ray Production Shaders facilitate complex environmental lighting.
Hardware-accelerated OpenGL and Direct3D supported
The Standard lights have been replaced with new Photometric lights that simulate the properties of incandescent, halogen or fluorescent lights of varying wattages. Now you can simply and accurately light a room, street or anything else with the tell-tale characteristics of specific lighting. I really like the dedicated lights for indoor lighting (good call, Autodesk), as outdoor lighting simulations have for some time been accomplished with sun and sky lights and HDR maps. The Skylight systems in 3ds Max 2009 debuts two new models, CIE and Perez All Weather, the latter of which lets you import actual weather data to recreate accurate outdoor lighting simulations.
The new Reveal rendering system, with its iterative workflow, dramatically speeds up rendering, especially when experimenting with scene properties. For example, once a render has been produced iterative allows you to select and re-render specific areas of the render. With the Subset Pixels option checked, you can quickly re-render selected scene objects. Now you don’t have to re-render the entire scene to preview changes.
The mandatory mental ray 3.6 enhancements in 3ds Max 2009 are once again geared toward improved performance and control. For instance, by caching object data, mental ray Proxies make it possible to quickly populate a scene with instances of a still or animated object. New options for better control over Final Gather settings are also delivered by mental ray, and maps and an improved BSP2 simplifies rendering acceleration.
Last but not least in 3ds Max 2009 is Autodesk’s new ViewCube and SteeringWheel standards for viewport and camera navigation. The ViewCube and Compass make it easy to orbit around a scene, especially when modeling. The SteeringWheel has all the tools necessary for moving the camera in scene or creating walkthroughs.