Review of Max Design 2010
by Tom Livings - www.tomlivings.com
3ds Max Design 2010 is the latest offering in the Max series from Autodesk. I'm looking here at the progression made from the last couple of versions. If you are a new user or you are looking for a 3d modeling software to buy, this is probably not the review for you. The question this review addresses is: Is this a worthy upgrade?
Let's first establish my background. I currently use 3ds Max 2008, V-Ray and Windows XP 64-bit. I'm a traditionalist and new things scare me. I've been using Max Design 2010 for about a month on 'non-emergency' work and new projects and this has been my experience thus far:
First impressions: The installation is easy. The toolbars are different but familiar and the layout is the same with no grand departures. I decided to test hardware and software by opening my most bloated Max file. Weighing in at a whopping 353mb, 6.5m faces + proxies, 3ds Max opened it with ease. The file spins well in shaded mode and even manages a couple of frames shifting through elevations in the viewing cube. Whether this is testament to the GTX 280 or extra swagger in Max's new viewport coding, I'm not sure.
The viewport anti-aliasing is excellent. So far, no complaints. It's a good start for the faint-hearted Mr. Livings.
• Global Quality Knobs
• Interactive Lighting Analysis
• Linear Color Space Workflow
• Multimap Shader
• Review Enhancement
• Material Explorer
The global quality knobs appear to be something that was grafted over from Revit. These sliders hang under the render window and provide automated adjustment of the medley of settings for fine-tuning mental ray. It makes it easy to run off drafts/tests or more refined renders. Under the hood knowledge cannot be abandoned though, I feel these sliders (essentially presets) are fairly rudimentary tools. An experienced user may use them in place of their own render presets, they may not. For a new mental ray user however (like me), they will be invaluable.
The Interactive Lighting Analysis and Review Enhancement both take advantage of the capability to render exposure control live in the viewport. I think labeling them as separate new features is cheating little. If you are working in a 'mathematically correct' manner (IES lights, daylight system, photometric exposure etc.) then this development is awesome. I have always thought I was doing something wrong when my viewport was a blown out white or a black mess. Turns out I wasn't, but now my viewport is impressively close to the render, as I'll show in an example later. The lighting analysis tool is merely a technicolor isotropic representation of the light values in the viewport. Helpful for some, but it smacks of being a by-product of the engine behind the Review Enhancement. The user defined values are also a little arbitrary in comparison to the real-time response of the Smooth+Highlights hardware shading mode (to which the Review Enhancement refers).
The multi-map shader is helpful, but it's really a light-bulb moment that should have been implemented a while ago. Anyone who uses Soulburn scripts (thanks to Neil Blevins) has had at least a version of this functionality for a while. Multimap enables multi-sub object material control at map and/or diffuse color level in the material editor. This is helpful for assigning repetitive materials that need slight individualism in each object. Tiles for example. The Autodesk preview uses MR Proxy trees. Good example.
Listing Linear Color Space Workflow as a feature is maybe misleading also. It is just a different implementation of saving gamma settings which are still manually controlled by the user. However, the gamma settings are now saved with the file. If you don't yet know anything about gamma, I'm afraid you
will still have to go away and do some reading as it's not push-button yet...
Autodesk have not really made a big deal of the new material explorer, but I think it's a welcome addition. You'll find it under the Rendering tab. It's just a spreadsheet of what materials are where, how they are displayed, texture size and a couple of other useful stats. It's good to have this easily to hand.
Graphite modeling tools: Someone once told me that max modifiers have 'DJ' names (DJ Spline, DJ Turbosmooth, DJ Morpher etc.) True to form, there is a new modifier sub-set called 'Graphite'. Personally, I like my tools to have descriptive names, but they seem to have gone for a crowd-pleaser here. I'm going to be honest, I haven't really had time to absorb the full function of these tools. They are probably the most foreign object that appears in the new Max and it will take time for them to precede muscle memory. They look promising though and there's plenty to choose from. Sub-object modeling is something that deserves more of a front seat, especially when you look around at the competition (Modo and Mudbox come to mind).
One big plus in the graphite toolbar is that there is a more visual representation of the tool function (i.e. I always get 'loop' and 'ring' confused, but not anymore). The tools also sprout a detailed description of their function and possible uses on rollover – great way to learn the uses, both new and old. I would recommend viewing an online video available at the AREA from Shaun Hendricks: Step Tools Movie which outlines the new step tools for cleaning up bad landscape data meshes.
On a negative note, I've heard the complaint that some tools have been omitted from the new toolbar. As a result, you may end up working from two interfaces and subsequently just relax back into the traditional modify panel approach. There are a couple of new sub-object modeling tools, but they seem quite minor.
The new features are great. None of them are ground-breaking, more a natural progression towards streamlining more work-intensive procedures. But they will speed your workflow as you reach for them more naturally over time. Viewports supporting MR Exposure has to be my favorite.
I don't think the MR engine has had any work done under the hood for this version, but the new preset sliders are a welcome addition, especially to an estranged user such as myself. I can't believe I haven't looked at this piece of kit for around six years. I should have. It's unrecognizable in production from the version shipped with 3ds Max in 2004 that I last used. For stills, it's as good as V-Ray. Scratch that, it's better than V-Ray. I'm going to switch, even though all my libraries etc are V-Ray-centric.
Someone once said to me that if you can use one render engine, you can use them all. That has always been true in a conceptual sense, but now the difference between V-Ray and mental ray has really come down to a few details. The inclusion of MR Proxy has further narrowed the debate on functionality and speed. Multi-pass rendering just seems to have a couple less steps to it and the distributed rendering is easier to set up. The A+D shader swings it for me. I haven't even looked at an MR shader in eons and straight out of the box this one is winner. The below images required a lot less post-production than if I rendered it with V-Ray. I didn't even touch the levels. I applied depth of field and noise using DOFpro and added the vignetting. I tried my usual color tricks but I actually preferred the straight render.
One aspect I'm not qualified to speak about is animation, because I haven't tried it. What that mainly comes down to is speed by optimization. And that requires more experience with the render engine than I currently possess.
Ease of use.
I think a lot of people in our industry are worried about push-button solutions for designers that will render us renderers redundant. This concern is nothing new. I thought I'd put myself in the shoes of a designer who has only a modicum of experience and see what I could do with the generic presets. This is an imported model from Sketchup, A+D preset shaders, MR Sun and Sky, regular camera, MR Exposure 'daytime exterior' preset. I didn't touch the render panel, just used the sliders. Total time was about 30 minutes. Lighting and glass have historically been the most difficult things to render. Here, they are the best elements in the shot. Max Design 2010 is going to be attractive to the architects and low/mid level users.
I really don't think any of the modeling changes are that noteworthy, so I'm going to skip straight to the viewport changes in Max Design 2010. The project here is a fairly traditional boardroom. Its lit using a daylight system (mrSun/mrSky), 3 x portals over the windows and 24 x photometric lights with IES data files.
Image 1: This shows the user interface, note the Graphite Modeling Tools
Image 2: This shows a regular shaded viewport.
Image 3: This is the viewport with hardware shading enabled. Note, this is not really an interactive view. This is called a preview for a reason, the graphics performance would need to improve considerably for this shading to be true real-time.
Image 4: As above, but this just has one IES and the sun active. Note the detail in the IES and the soft shadow on the sun (optional).
Image 5: This is the straight render. It's not very good, but the object here is to demonstrate the similarity between the veiwport preview and the final render.
Image 6: Another feature is the Interactive Lighting Analysis. This is what it looks like.
A rather exciting looking piece considering this is instant feedback in the viewport. Comparing colors to the scale on the right, you can analyze exactly how much light (lx) is going to be striking any specific part of the model. This has useful applications, especially for lighting designers or architects. I prefer just looking at the render preview (as seen in Image 3). However, I may just be revealing my lack of understanding of the true essence of the tool by expressing this preference.
So those are the main improvements that have impacted my workflow in a month of switching to Max Design 2010 from 3ds Max 2008. But I would like to mention some other aspects that have also changed:
• Particle flow has seen improvements, including painting tools, Shape Plus and Grouping tools for subsets of particles.
• Mental Mill Technology is now integrated, which allows you to develop, test, and maintain mental mill® shaders and shader graphs. As the first 3D modeling and animation program to integrate mental mill technology, 3ds Max 2010 gives real-time visual feedback, enabling even novice users to create sophisticated, hardware-agnostic shaders.
• Containers. I did play with containers and I liked them, but I think they are aimed more multiple personnel projects. Works kind of like a hybrid of groups and Xrefs. The creator can define editing privileges, which has obvious benefits in a team environment.
• ProSound Multi-track Audio System
• Mesh-display processing is now multi-threaded, which delivers viewport speed improvement
• OBJ format import has had an overhaul and sports a new interface with a glut of options
• Pro-Optimizer allows more precise control of mesh polycount reduction and supports batch operation
• xView Mesh Analyzer (does just what it says). Highlights potentially problematic parts of the mesh in the viewport at the parameter you choose such as overlapping UVs, duplicate faces, and isolated vertices.
Not much has changed at the core of max. The basic premise and functions are the same. It models the same, has the same render engine and shaders. It also has the same licensing and maybe less than the usual release niggles.
I think Max hasn't fundamentally changed because no-one really wants it to. It works, so why should everyone re-learn it? Beneficial developments are fantastic, but if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Look at AutoCAD; everything they change is greeted with a chorus of groans from the user base. Maybe with Design 2010, Autodesk have listened to their users. Innovation should be instigated from both sides; the creator and the user. The changes that they have brought in are totally justifiable, welcome developments.
Any complaints? Not really. But I'm jealous of one or two other guys in the studio because they have access to better sculpting tools than are currently available in Max. It would be nice to see a fully operational Zbrush inside of Max. I would also like a visual representation of the light size of an area light, rather than it just look like a point light in the viewport, like V-Ray lights operate. I also want floating viewports. The list goes on, but I guess Autodesk can only develop and test so many innovations per release.
But is it good value? Why upgrade? The answer to that is up to the individual artist/company and the myriad of issues they have in making that decision. And that is not me sitting on the fence, users have such different circumstances and usage patterns that only they can decide if the cost benefit is there. All I would say is that the longer I'm working on this one, the older the last one looks. But that always the case, isn't it? I'm happy I am now on this platform. I really like the viewport improvements and it forced me to take a fresh look at mental ray. Can I put a dollar value on the improvements? I'd say about $500. But it costs more than that.
Tom Livings is an award winning freelance 3d artist in Chicago. When he's not busy doing 3d, he's usually drinking or sleeping. He has far too many prestigious achievements to be listed here, but you can check out his other stuff at www.tomlivings.com
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