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REVIEW: Autodesk 3ds Max 2012

Excalibur (XBR) Finally Wields Its Rewards in an Improved Viewport and Dynamics Engine

For the past several releases of 3ds Max users have been teased with what the Excalibur (XBR) project had in store for the future of 3ds Max. The full impact of XBR is now clear in 3ds Max 2012. The upgrade has a completely new viewport system and a new dynamics infrastructure that may rival Maya's Nucleus.

Nitrous Power

The most important update in 3ds Max 2012 is the new Nitrous Accelerated Graphics Core, a new viewport system that improves performance and display quality. Nitrous is not simply tweaks to a bloated viewport system. As part of the XBR push to streamline and update 3ds Max 2012, it is a complete re-engineering. Nitrous harnesses the computing power of multiple core workstations and high-end GPUs to manage and display massive datasets in the viewports faster. With Nitrous, the data in each viewport is crunched separately from all other computing processes, thus providing users with fast working environment.

Easily the best new feature in 3ds Max 2012, the Nitrous Accelerated Graphics Core delivers blazing fast performance with massive datasets, real-time rendering effects in the viewports and non-photorealistic options.

To put Nitrous through its paces, I loaded a heavy model composed of hundreds of parts and about two million polygons into 3ds Max 2011 and 3ds Max 2012. I used a mid-level Quad-core Dell workstation with an nVidia Quadro FX 4600 graphics card for testing. After several trials a definite pattern emerged. In 3ds Max 2011 it took at least three minutes to cache the model. Once the model was displayed the worst part was that camera rotations or mesh edits caused painfully slow redraws. In contrast, 3ds Max 2012 loaded the model almost instantly and scene changes or mesh edits (in Realistic mode with soft shadows and ambient occlusion) were smooth and in real time. The viewport performance difference between 3ds Max 2011 and 3ds Max 2012 is like night and day.

With Nitrous, effects that could only be seen after rendering can now be previewed right in the viewports. Nitrous supports effects such as ambient occlusion, high quality shadows, better transparency, and tone mapping. Nitrous provides artists with the ability to focus on the composition of a scene in real-time via immediate previews, instead of having to wait for time consuming renders. Maya 2012 features a similar viewport system dubbed Viewport 2.0. However, unlike Viewport 2.0, Nitrous does not support effects like depth of field and motion blur; maybe it will in the next release.

Nitrous' stylized effects, seemingly an afterthought, are intended for non-photorealistic effects. However, natural media such as colored pencil, ink and acrylics are in reality badly simulated, often having little to no similarity to the real thing. Further, there are no parameters to refine the non-photorealistic effects.

Easier UV Mapping?

UV mapping is a tedious and thankless job and previous versions of 3ds Max didn't offer up much to make things easier. 3ds Max 2012 features a revamped Unwrap UVW modifier. My question remains: Does the new UI and new tools really make UV mapping less mind numbing?  

The overall look and feel of the Unwrap UVW modifier (editor and command panel) has been updated and reorganized (seen in photo at top). New colorful icons are easier to see and the layout has been redesigned to accommodate regrouping of existing and new tools. For example, existing commands that were part of the menu bar, like Relax, have been grouped with new relax-related tools and are now available in the UI. Also you can find new tools for packing, scaling and aligning UV clusters in the new rollout Arrange Elements.

The Unwrap UVW modifier also has replaced the old Pelt mapping workflow with a newer one called Peel. The Peel rollout in the command panel features new seam creation tools. Point-to Point Seams is the best of the bunch. Once seams are selected the Peel Mode command instantly unfolds the selection. Even better in vertex mode the new Pin tools lock selected UVs so that you can easily reshape UV clusters in a relax-type workflow. You can also add new seams on the fly with Edit Seams. Unwrap changes are updated immediately while you remain in Peel Mode. Unfortunately, the new seam selection tools don't appear to have a mirroring option.

So is UV mapping in 3ds Max 2012 actually better? For 3ds Max users, yes. However, the UI is still cluttered and the workflow far too complex for newer users. In comparison, Luxology modo features a robust UV mapping (unwrapping) system that can do the same job as Unwrap UVW but which is much easier to use and has far fewer tools to tinker with.

Better Graphite Modeling

Modeling in 3ds Max took a giant leap forward with the introduction of the Graphite modeling tools in 3ds Max 2010. The Graphite modeling tools provide modelers with an updated subdivision surfaces workflow and retopology tools. However, in 3ds Max 2012 the retopology workflow got better with the new Conform tools. Once a new basic mesh has been created over the mesh to be retopologized the Conform tool can "shrink wrap" the new mesh to the original. Of course this works best with a new mesh of sufficient resolution. The Conform tools also feature tools to tweak the new mesh at the sub-object level.

Since 3ds Max 2010 the modeling tools have been consistently improved. In 3ds Max 2012 the Graphite Modeling tools introduce new Conform tools that make it easier to retopologize assets.

The retopology tools in 3ds Max 2012 are very good. For example, 3DCoat features an awesome automatic retopology workflow that creates surprisingly accurate quad meshes with very little input from the user. But there is still room for something better.

Smarter Texturing

Right up there in terms of importance with the new Nitrous viewport system is the Substance Smart Textures from Allegorithmic. Substance Smart Textures gives you a library of 80 resolution independent, parametric texture and noise presets that can be used as is or as a starting point from which to create an almost endless array of materials.

Substance nodes output all your necessary maps, such as diffuse, specular, normal, bump and displacement. Each substance node features parameters to control the look of the texture. For instance, a node for a brick wall will have parameters for Age, number of bricks in the X or Y axes, depth, and so on. You can use Substance Smart Textures for just about any texturing job, but they are specifically useful in architectural visualization. All 3ds Max renderers support these smart textures.

Improved Dynamics

3ds Max has consistently delivered top-notch dynamics animation, but Maya has always done dynamics just a bit better. The animation gap got even wider when Maya 8.5 introduced nCloth, the first module to the Nucleus Unified Simulation Network. Nucleus was and still is a paradigm shift in dynamics simulation. Unfortunately for 3ds Max users, nothing in 3ds Max ever came close. The new MassFX Unified System (replacing Reactor) in 3ds Max 2012, however, promises a brighter future.

The first MassFx module of solvers out of the gate is Rigid-Body. With Rigid-Body dynamics, simulation is as easy as using the default gravity, assigning dynamics to an object, maybe tweaking a few parameters such as density, friction, and bounciness and watching the fast, accurate solvers do their thing in real time. Rigid-Body also features a workflow for "modeling" that lets you replicate, for example, a field of boulders.

Simpler Rendering

3ds Max ships with iRay, a new rendering engine from the makers of mental ray. iRay is a high-end global illumination renderer that creates hyper-realistic photo imagery by accurately simulating the physical attributes of light. But unlike other render engines iRay creates realistic renders without having to tinker with an endless array of settings. Some experience with mental ray settings is helpful, however.

iRay, from mental images, promises to free up artist from the drudgery of endless render settings by producing high-end, physically accurate, realistic imagery with less fuss.

Also new to 3ds Max is support for vector displacement maps from Mudbox (or ZBrush). Unlike raycast (grayscale) displacement maps, which can displace only along the normal, vector displacement maps can displace along all three axes. Combined with the one-click interoperability with Mudbox, a 3ds Max scene can be sent to Mudbox for high-frequency sculpting, with undercuts and overhangs, and then be faithfully reproduced back in 3ds Max using vector displacement.

Unfortunately, this version of 3ds max does not support Per-face texturing (Ptex). Ptex is Disney Studio's open source texturing method that requires no explicit UVs and instead assigns textures (texels) to each face on the model. So far in the Autodesk stable of suites only Maya 2012 and Mudbox 2012 support Ptex. Surely 3ds Max is not far behind.


1 Comment

Categories: Review, Technology

  • To-mos

    They still have pelt mapping its right next to the other peel options in the modifier stack. What are they talking about it being replaced?