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Software Review – Autodesk Entertainment Creation Suites 2013 Ultimate: 3ds Max & MotionBuilder

Autodesk has released the 2013 editions of their Entertainment Creation Suites. This offers artists and production facilities access to a powerful range of creative toolsets. There are three kits that have been released – the Standard suite, the Premium, and the Ultimate suite. With the Standard you get either Autodesk Maya or Autodesk 3ds Max as well as Autodesk MotionBuilder, Autodesk SketchBook Designer, and Autodesk Mudbox. The Premium Suite additionally contains Autodesk Softimage. With the Ultimate Suite you get all six of the products. I will cover all six products and will break this down into three reviews. The first will cover 3ds Max, and MotionBuilder, the second will cover Mudbox and Softimage, and the third will cover Maya, and SketchBook Designer.

Autodesk 3ds Max is a 3D animation, modeling and rendering software application that is used for simulation, visual effects, rendering, and compositing. There are two versions of 3ds Max – one is for game developers, visual effects artists, and graphic designers working on games, films, and television. The other is for architects, designers, and visual specialists. At the core, the versions are the same – it is the toolsets that are different. My review is based for the former.

3ds Max has been used on films like Fantastic Four and The Dark Knight, and Kung Fu Panda, Animated TV series like Olivia the Pig, and in the gaming industry for games like Assassin’s Creed II and Dance Central. Complete system requirements are located at the Autodesk site.

So what is new with 3ds Max 2013?

• Adobe After Effects Interoperability – will give media design and graphic artists who use After Effects more capability and better interoperability. 3ds Max now sets a higher standard for 2D/3D data exchange. The new Media Sync functionality provides two-way transfer of cameras, lights, null objects, plane objects/solids, footage (including footage layering), blend modes, opacity, and effects; with it, artists can iterate more effectively and reduce rework to complete projects in less time.

• Render Pass System and Photoshop Interoperability – provides greater flexibility when finishing renderings in Adobe Photoshop software. There is a new ability to output renderings in a layered PSD format that retains layer order, opacity, and blend modes. Your Scenes can now be more easily segmented for downstream compositing. A state recorder enables artists to capture, edit, and save the current state, while a visual interface shows how compositing and render elements are wired together to create the final result. Artists can more quickly set up and execute multiple render passes from a single file and individual passes can be modified without the need to re-render the whole scene, enhancing productivity.

• ActiveShade Interactive iray Rendering – enables artists to iterate more effectively by providing an interactive rendering session that constantly updates as changes are made to cameras, lighting, materials, and geometry. By shortening the feedback loop, you can more efficiently fine-tune your scene, making it faster and easier to achieve the look you are aiming for.

• Slate Compositing Editor – gives you the ability to perform simple compositing operations directly within 3ds Max. The schematic node-based interface enables rendered layers and passes to wired together and combined with compositing nodes. The resulting composite can then be sent to Adobe After Effects or Adobe Photoshop for further refinement.

• Nitrous Viewport Performance and Quality – graphics core has received a number of enhancements in Autodesk 3ds Max 2013. You’ll find increased interactivity on large scenes, together with new support for image-based lighting, depth of field, and accelerated particle flow display. In addition, improved support for shadows in large scenes and improved workflows for interior scenes all extend the Nitrous functionality.

• MassFX Enhancements – gives you the ability to enjoy a more integrated and accurate dynamic toolset, thanks to a wide range of enhancements and additions to the MassFX unified system of simulation solvers. There is a new mCloth module that features tearable fabric and support for dynamic ragdoll hierarchies and in addition, improved constraints, better handling of pivot points, and enhanced UI readability help improve overall workflow.

• Tabbed Layouts – provide you with the ability to easily create and switch between a variety of viewport layout configurations, in order to have efficient access to the views required for a particular task. Layouts can include both 3D and extended viewports. Selecting a different layout is as simple as clicking on its icon, or pressing a hotkey. You can also share customized View Tabs with other users by saving and loading presets.

• Customizable Workspaces – lets you adapt 3ds Max to your own personal way of working by selecting from a choice of default or custom workspaces. Each workspace can have individual settings for menus, toolbars, ribbon, and viewport tab presets; in addition, selecting a new workspace can automatically execute a MAXScript. This enables you to more easily configure the workspace to suit your preferences or to fit the task at hand. So if you need to, you can configure one workspace for modeling, and a different one for animating.

• Track View Retiming – allows you to retime portions of animations to increase or decrease the speed. The retiming is achieved by changing the tangency of the existing animation curve. For this, there is no requirement to have keyframes present in the portion to be retimed, and no extra keyframes are created in the resulting high-quality curve.

• HumanIK Interoperability with CAT – means that you can now convert 3ds Max CAT (Character Animation Toolkit) bipedal characters into characters that are compatible with the Autodesk HumanIK solver that is used in Autodesk Maya and Autodesk MotionBuilder software in a single step. These portable characters enable you to transfer existing character structure, definition, and animation between the software packages in order to take advantage of particular feature sets. Animation changes created in Maya or MotionBuilder can be updated back onto the original CAT character in 3ds Max, facilitating a full round-trip workflow.

• Autodesk Animation Store – which is powered by Mixamo, the new Autodesk Animation Store integrated into 3ds Max software provides a simplified 3D animation workflow that allows users to search, customize and purchase motion clips without leaving the application.

Autodesk MotionBuilder 2013

Autodesk MotionBuilder 2013 provides 3D character animation for virtual production. MotionBuilder is real-time 3D character animation that builds on emerging techniques embraced by some of the entertainment industry’s most successful studios. You can acquire, aggregate, and refine data with greater reliability and precision. You can create, edit, and play back complex character animation in a highly responsive, interactive environment and work with a display that is optimized for both the needs of animators and directors.

So what is new with MotionBuilder 2013?

• Live Data Recording to Disk in Story – is a new option that enables motion capture or certain other live input data to be recorded directly to disk, rather than to memory. There is a representation of the data that is added to the Story timeline, where it can be loaded for editing when required. Now, with this option, you are no longer limited by the amount of data that will fit into RAM, but only by the size of your hard disk. This effectively allows you to record take after take in rapid sequence – this also gives performers the ability to act out a scene without interrupting the creative flow. A token system for clip naming helps facilitate integration with asset management systems.

• Heads-Up Display – (HUD) is a new feature that lets you render real-time metadata to the viewer. HUD elements can contain static or dynamic data – text fields, bitmaps, and aspect ratio masks are all supported. You can choose from a number of presets, or add a property reference or relationship constraint from within the scene simply by dragging and dropping it. Additionally, each camera can display a different set of HUD elements. The system is extensible via the MotionBuilder SDK (software development kit).

• Floating Viewer – gives you the ability to view the scene information that is important to you whether you are an artist or a director, in an appropriate context, thanks to a new Floating Viewer. This enables one camera view to be displayed on a separate monitor from the main viewports. For example, if you are an artist, you might be viewing their working cameras on a computer monitor, whereas if you are a director you can view it as the final output on an additional display.

• Broadcast WAVE File Support – enables embedded timecode data to be more accurately interpreted; as a result, video and audio files can be more easily synchronized.

• Story Clip Grouping – enables you to translate, scale, or cut all of the clips in a folder of tracks in a single action. This provides a useful method of making high-level changes to multiple characters at once.

• Video Out – an SDI broadcast video signal is all new in MotionBuilder 2013. This is useful in situations where a genlock reference signal is required. For example, when capturing real-time video output for offline editorial you don’t have to wait for a rendered file.


• Z-Depth Selection – adds a number of new features help artists select objects more easily, especially those with semi-transparency. You can now: toggle a mode that enables you to select through semi-transparent objects with the ability to change the transparency threshold through which selection is possible. This means that you can cycle through objects based on their z-buffer depth and more easily see what‘s selected by hiding objects in front, hiding all unselected objects, or overriding the color of the selected object.

• Audio Retiming – in the Story timeline will enable you to match audio timing with the timing of the animation.

• Performance Enhancements – help increase overall productivity to keep creativity flowing. In particular, this means that scene load time, merging assets from multiple scenes, and selecting objects in a scene with many nodes are now significantly faster.

Autodesk continues to push the limits in 3D rendering and the design capabilities of 3ds Max. This time it begins with a much greater level of interoperability not only among the other products within the suite, but with Adobe Photoshop and After Effects as well. That, added to the customizable workspaces and viewport layouts will streamline your workflow, and make how you work much more efficient.

When you add in the totally new Render Pass System that allows you to quickly setup and execute multiple render passes from a single file and modify individual passes without rendering the whole scene, it makes for a nice upgrade. Include the ActiveShade rendering, the MassFX enhancements and the Slate Compositing Editor additions. You really have a lot of really great new features.

As for MotionBuilder, you have the ability to motion capture directly to disk which means that your dependence on the amount of memory is no longer a concern. The Heads-Up Display, the Floating Viewer, the support for Broadcast WAVE files, Story Clip Grouping and Video Out, are to me the winners for this product. Add on the performance enhancements and you have another strong upgrade.

Next time I will look at Mudbox and Softimage and see what they bring to the table. Until then, you can download a free trial and see for yourself.

About T. Michael Testi

Photographer, writer, software engineer, educator, and maker of fine images.

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