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Edit Review: Autodesk 3ds Max 2008

Dec 1, 2007 12:00 PM, Reviewer: Franklin McMahon

Do-it-all 3D program takes better advantage of your workstation’s power.

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Autodesk 3ds Max 2008

Adaptive Degradation offers Autodesk 3ds Max 2008 users a choice on what gets rendered in the viewport and what does not. This allows speedy work on specific areas without the entire scene redrawing and dragging the frame rate down.

Autodesk continues to advance the 3D program 3ds Max, now 3ds Max 2008. This new version focuses less on amazing new features and much more on performance and workflow. If you've used Max, you know the power was already there to do just about anything (think of it as the Adobe Photoshop of 3D). But for 3ds Max 2008, Autodesk has found room to make some great leaps in usability, as well as some incremental toolset improvements.

The increased HD resolution for broadcast, film, and next-generation game-console production has pushed the complexity of scenes up exponentially. Interacting with thousands or tens of thousands of objects and polygons can create a steep performance dip for some 3D programs. Max 2008 combats this with its new Adaptive Degradation system, which allows you to select exactly how fast a frame rate and refresh rate you need to maintain your own interactive creativity.

A slider allows you to set the distance from the camera at which objects will be redrawn. If you have an entire city drawn, but you are working on only the building in front, a quick adjustment will de-prioritize redrawing the back buildings. You can even set degradation based on an object's number of pixels — say, force objects smaller than 200 pixels to lowest priority in redraws. Other options include toggles for never degrading the selected object, degrading to default lighting, and never redrawing after degrade; there's even a setting that lets you type in the minimum frame rate per second that must be maintained during work. All of this lets you create a very interactive workflow, and it gives you pretty much complete control by allowing you to choose how interactive you want the scene display.

One new toolset I love is the review mode, which now allows realtime shadows as well as Mental Ray material previews right from within the viewport. A result of increased GPU optimization and Autodesk's programwide performance improvements, review mode lets you toggle on shadows in two modes: fast shadowing for approximate previews or high-quality per-pixel shadowing for more accurate representation. There is also a new sun/sky mode that allows realtime depiction of the sky at a specific time and location. Want to see what your scene looks like in Dallas at noon? Click to set it. Having accurate skies and shadows before even rendering helps tremendously with previsualization of dramatic scenes. Even cooler, there is now realtime support for standard Mental Ray materials in the viewport, so you can move lights interactively and see a preview of the shine or matte finish of Mental Ray-mapped objects.

Speaking of Mental Ray, Autodesk has made improvements to this render mode for the 3ds Max 2008 version. There's greater accuracy in shadow details, including better rendering of object color as it affects nearby shadows. Also new is the Sky Portal tool, which can provide outdoor lighting for indoor scenes. I created a test scene with an interior room and a large window on one side. Instead of creating an entire lighting scene for outside, I was able to simply drag in a sky portal object and place it outside the window. This facilitates much speedier render times and beautiful lighting results, and it also supports HDRI-based lighting effects.

The last version of 3ds Max had a fairly basic exposure system that was intuitive, but it did not provide much depth. As a photographer, I was surprised and pleased to see a whole new photographic exposure UI. Now you can adjust your scene's exposure based on options such as film speed, shutter speed, and F-stops (aperture). You can also adjust the highlight burn, midtones, shadow depth, and color saturation. My favorite part is the Kelvin slider. In photography and in video, I often think in terms of white points — not just for correct balance but to throw scenes off balance selectively for dramatic effect.

In fact, for my client work, this new exposure system seems very promising. My work typically involves a mix of real-world photography textures and 3D, and now I'm able to track the EXIF metadata for my photos and transfer those settings into Max's photo-exposure tools, allowing much more accurate synchronization of information. Having all these photo tools now in Max allows me to integrate client images into client 3D projects much more seamlessly with precision metadata matching for lots of creative options.

Object management gets a productivity boost with the new 2008 Scene Explorer, which offers an almost Excel-like spreadsheet overview of all the objects in your scene. Especially handy with scenes containing thousands of elements, this hierarchical view lets you interactively filter, sort, search, link, hide, and delete objects independent of what is or is not selected in your scene. Not only can you create, save, and edit multiple Scene Explorer windows during the same project, but the columns can also be configured so you can add and delete as many columns as you wish. If you want to dig deep, this Scene Explorer interface is SDK-extendable and supported by Max's scripting, so the tech dude at your boutique can go to town creating a Scene Explorer dedicated and adaptable to your ongoing projects.

Speaking of scripting, this new version of 3ds Max debuts the MaxScript ProEditor. Honestly, I am happy using the hundreds of features and thousands of options in the standard Max interface without feeling compelled to dive into scripting. However, if you want to go deep, this new script editor offers a pro interface for creating scripts that can automate parameters of the program — or go as far as customizing the entire 3ds Max interface.

Max also offers a lot of new smaller features that are worth mentioning. Sub-object previewing now allows you to easily select and work on small sections of large objects. You can now render directly to a texture and define it as a preset. Support for DWG and FBX formats has been improved for better data transfer between Revit Architecture 2008 and AutoCAD 2008. And this is the first version of Max to officially support Windows Vista (both 32-bit and 64-bit), as well as DirectX 10.

Autodesk has continued to refine an excellent program. Of course, with any program of this scope, jumping in as a new user can be daunting. The interface is nicely designed, but it offers a dizzying mix of options and submenus. The program does offer some brief video tutorials, but these fast-paced snippets offer little beyond the bare basics, much of which you may figure out anyway. The online help offers much deeper and extensive text-based tutorials, but it would be nice to get more video on some of the advanced features in the box. Autodesk has always worked toward creating a community for its users, even revamping its message base/network site, The Area (check it out at, so there are places to get help.

This new version is really focused on usability and performance enhancements, mostly geared toward hardcore producers and videogame developers. Thankfully, video producers and creative media artists can take advantage of all the new speed and options — even though it may be a while until you hit any sort of performance ceiling. This new version feels fast and snappy running on a Intel Pentium Extreme Dual Core 3.2GHz with 3GB RAM and an Nvidia card, and the addition of realtime textures and shadows makes 3D creating a very interactive and rewarding experience. The software has always been rock-solid and responsive for me, and this new version continues that tradition.

Max has always had a robust feature set and a great amount of third-party support, so know that anything 3D-wise you can possibly think of you can probably do in Max. The price is a bit steep, and this program won't be for every shop, but I can attest that the program is worth the money. If you offer any kind of 3D services, 3ds Max 2008 is a fantastic program that, after you surmount the initial learning curve, lets you create just about anything you can imagine.


Company: Autodesk

Product: 3ds Max 2008

Assets: Adaptive Degradation helps maintain your interactive creativity, a new review mode buttresses the improved Mental Ray rendering.

Caveats: As always with Max, a fairly steep learning curve.

Demographic: Houses that need the power to do it all with 3D animation.

PRICE: $3,495 (FULL); $1,395 (UPGRADE FROM 3DS MAX 8); $795 (UPGRADE FROM 3DS MAX 9) PRICE: $3,495 (FULL); $1,395 (UPGRADE FROM 3DS MAX 8); $795 (UPGRADE FROM 3DS MAX 9)

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