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REVIEW • May 21, 2001

3ds Max 4 Reviewed

by Ben de Leeuw

Discreet 3ds max 4 is a serious upgrade that pushes the modeling, animation, and rendering program to new levels of character animation and user customization. In the new release, discreet focused on improving and expanding existing features, rather than introducing new ones. The strategy has led to a plethora of generally useful functionality enhancements, instead of a host of new toys that you almost never use.

Internal development for 3ds max has been less than consistent. An all-things-to-all-users strategy by discreet resulted in an increasing number of features that didn't work quite well enough. Release 4 reverses that trend with a vengeance. The internal development for 3ds max 4 resulted in great improvements to existing features like inverse kinematics (IK), and truly useful new functionality like Parameter Wiring. The new features provide a lot of power that is easily accessible and can be combined to bring even more power to the animator. Under the discreet banner, 3ds max has finally matured into the professional animation package it claims to be.

The Dino skeleton shows both the new Parametric bones and the new History Independent IK. The white lines between his hip and ankle show individual IK chains.


Without a doubt, the most significant improvement to 3ds max is in the character animation department. After years of lagging behind in basic character tools, 3ds max leapfrogged the competition—at least in some areas.

The new IK system is functional, stable, adjustable, and easy to use. Written by the same guy who did the IK system for Alias|Wavefront Maya, 3ds max now sports some of the latest and greatest in IK. For starters, IK is now a plug-in, which means you can select between multiple IK solvers. Three solvers included with 3ds max 4 are History Dependent IK, the system from 3ds max 3; the limb solver, included as an example of an open source IK plug-in; and the new History Independent IK, for character animation. In the History Dependent system, the IK solution for each frame is dependent on the frames before and after it for its solution. This is okay for a 30-frame animation, but in a large animation of, say, 3000 frames, the calculation for IK solutions at frame 2987, which had to take 2986 previous frames into consideration, was massive and unstable. The new History Independent IK computes each frame's IK solution individually, so it is as fast at frame 2912 as it is at frame 1.

The new IK system has fine-tuned preferred bend angles and the swivel manipulator for joint angles. Individual IK chains can overlap each other to create complex skeletal systems, and you can now switch between forward kinematics (FK) and inverse kinematics on the same skeleton. An FK subcontroller allows you to suspend the IK control and animate with FK keyframes. Periods of FK can exist contiguously with periods of IK, giving the animator ultimate control—IK for quickly animating and FK for fine tuning. AN IK for FK pose feature lets you use IK to create FK keyframes.

IK chains can also be combined with the new Constraints feature. Control of an object by another object, once handled by special controllers like the Look At controller and the Attachment controller, are now handled by the more flexible Constraint system. Most of the seven Constraints offer weighting between multiple targets. In the case of a Path constraint that means you can select multiple paths and weight the object's position between the different paths. With two paths, a weight of 50 on each would keep the object aligned between them, where a weight of 100 on one and 0 on the other would result in the object traveling exactly on the fully-weighted path.

The Path Constraint dialog shows how the new constraint system allows for weighting between goals.

New Manipulator objects offer you configurable on screen control for objects. Manipulators exist in the viewport rather than in a control panel, giving animators immediate access to controls. The Wire Parameter function lets you wire any parameter or parameters to a Manipulator as well as to each other. Parameter wiring can be one or two way, and allows expressions to modify the connection. The combination of Parameter Wiring, Manipulators, visual Max script and other user defined controls lets users create complete, interdependent systems of animation in 3ds max, without needing to be a coder.

Along with improved IK comes a new approach to bones. In 3ds max 4, bones are parametric, geometric objects. That is to say, bones have geometry and parameters that allow you to create a skeleton that corresponds volumetrically to its skin and can be rendered. Interaction with the environment and even other characters can be animated with the skeleton alone, eliminating the need to deform skin in realtime. Bones are now more a class, or state of objects, as any hierarchy of geometry can be used as bones. Skeletal hierarchies can also be refined now, breaking any bone in the chain into two or more bones. Squash and Stretch has been added to bones, though combining this with IK requires a lot of set up.

The Skin modifier has been improved greatly, to the point where it is a functional Skinning option. It still feels a bit clunky however, and doesn't offer some of the slicker features of discreet character studio physique or Digimation Bones Pro. It does have one new feature that sets it ahead of the competition; the new Angle deformers allow you to define a Mesh deformation driven by a joint angle. This is similar to features in Physique, but much easier to use. Furthermore, while Physique creates parametric deformations, the 3ds max 4 Morph Angle deformer lets you reposition vertices at a given joint angle and drive it as a direct Vertex deformation. Skin now supports Twisting, saving envelopes, and excluding bones. Bone influences can also now be visualized in shaded mode, vastly speeding up the process of tweaking.

Flex has been upgraded to support soft body dynamics and springs, improving on the results seen with the previous version. While far from a serious soft body dynamics approach, Flex does allow for the creation of convincing simple soft body dynamics, even simple cloth.

Another clever new feature is the Point Cache modifier. It allows the vertex animations of an object or character to be collapsed and stored on a disk. This frees the processor from calculating the animation for that object, so when working in a scene with multiple characters you can store the animation of a character while you work on another. The stored character's animation will playback onscreen in Max, but since it plays off disk it doesn't use many resources and the processor can devote itself to the character you are currently working with.

The slider manipulator gives you a Heads Up Display style control that appears in your viewport.

And finally for you serious animators ... 3ds max Trackview now supports full Bezier spline editing (and there was much rejoicing). This means you now have full control of position and curve of keyframes in the Trackview Curves mode. Fully editable curves allow for easy fine tuning of animation through direct manipulation of the keyframe values.

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