Improved app interoperability transforms Autodesk's Maya and 3ds Max 2012 Entertainment Creative Suites into one-stop animation and effects studios. Issue"> TechRevu Autodesk's 3D Multiverse
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Autodesk's 3D Multiverse by David Em
Review by David Em
Autodesk Software  ISBN/ITEM#: Autodesk
Date: 06 September 2011

Links: Autodesk 3Ds Max Homepage /

Improved app interoperability transforms Autodesk's Maya and 3ds Max 2012 Entertainment Creative Suites into one-stop animation and effects studios.

Autodesk occupies a unique position in the contemporary software world. Increasingly, almost every single object you lay your eyes on was at some point touched by an Autodesk product.

Buildings, cars, highways, washing machines, lamps, golf clubs, shavers, sneakers, flat panel TVs, and even the images on the TVs, have almost all been conceived, designed, or produced with the aid of Autodesk's 3D tools for product design and manufacturing, architecture, engineering, and entertainment.

In each of these fields, Autodesk has created or acquired best-of-breed apps that dominate their respective disciplines in a similar way to how Adobe's Photoshop in effect owns the world of 2D graphics. And like Adobe, which has grouped together all their key applications into a set of Creative Suites, Autodesk a couple years ago did the same by creating two Entertainment Creation Suites (ECS), one based around their homegrown 3ds Max software, the other based on Maya, a direct competitor they acquired in 2005.

The Max and Maya ECS Suites are simply astonishing in their breadth and scope. They come in two versions, a $4,995 Standard edition and a $6,495 Premium edition. Those prices may seem like a lot to pay for a bunch of bits, but in fact it's one of the great software deals of all time.

In addition to Maya or Max, both Standard editions include a superb character rigging and posing program called MotionBuilder, as well as Mudbox, a highly intuitive organic modeler. The Premium Editions add the full version of Softimage XSI, which alone used to cost more than the entire suite does now.  

You also get, for free and without any fanfare, copies of MatchMover, which lets you sync up your 3D animations' movements with existing film assets, and Composite (used to be Toxik) to add layers and effects to multiple film and animation elements. Oh yeah, you also get the mental ray image rendering engine that used to cost around three grand all by itself.

A LITTLE PERSPECTIVE

Roughly fifteen years ago, the notion of producing high-end 3D animation and visualization on a desktop was a joke. Virtually all professional work was produced on SGI workstations running Irix, a Unix variant, and boutique graphics hardware that cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. The 3D software that ran on it cost tens of thousands more. Special Effects companies like ILM charged hundreds of dollars for a single frame of film. Creating and rendering a minute of theatrical-quality film could run half a million bucks.

Then came the revolution. Almost overnight, Autodesk released their first version of 3ds Max (then 3D Studio MAX), which ran on comparatively cheap Windows NT boxes. Shortly after, Softimage (then owned by Microsoft) released an NT version of their top-of-the-line Softimage 3D software, followed a couple years later by Maya NT (then owned by Alias). The three were at each other’s throats, competing feature for feature for the affections and wallets of the film, television, and gaming creative communities.

Fast forward fifteen years to 2011. Today Autodesk owns all three applications (Max, Maya, and Softimage XSI), while Irix and SGI have been relegated to the dustbin of history.

WHEN SOFTWARE COLLIDES

It's a mystery to a lot of people why Autodesk now has three world-class software packages in its lineup that all do essentially the same thing.

Similar acquisitions by companies such as Adobe have led to the elimination of competing or duplicative products, but Autodesk has kept both Maya and Softimage XSI alive for several years now.

This strategy acknowledges that switching over to a new 3D app isn't a piece of cake for a studio or an animator already heavily invested in a particular 3D program.  Even at today's prices, the Suites are costly on a per-seat basis, and while Max, Maya, and XSI are similar in their overall capabilities, all three have steep learning curves.

So short of icing two of the products, what's a giant software developer to do? One option is to axe them all and create a brand new one from scratch. In fact, all three products under discussion here -- Max, Maya, and XSI -- came into being as total code rewrites that replaced their predecessors in their respective original developers’ lineup.

For the time being however, Autodesk is opting for a different approach. Rather than gut any of them, the company has committed to continue developing all three while providing enhanced interoperability between them and the related applications in the Suites.

HOW IT ALL WORKS

This solution may not be perfect, but for the time being it works. Thus, for example, a character sculpted in Mudbox can be ported to Maya or Max with a single mouse click, sent over to Motion Builder for rigging and posing, then round-tripped back to the source app for texturing, lighting, and animation tweaking.

With another mouse click, you can import a cached particle simulation of a raging dust storm created with XSI's ICE (Interactive Creative Environment) into Max or Maya, match your CG animation to an HD video background with MatchMover, render the animation sequence in mental ray, and finally color-correct and marry up the animation and video with Composite.

The elephant in the room: Missing from this grand chain of interoperability is one-click import/export between Max and Maya.

THE CHANGING WORKPLACE

Having this level of 3D power on your desktop is phenomenal, but there are still hurdles to overcome if you want to control it.

Apps like Max, Maya, and XSI are very, very deep, and very, very few people are technically competent to perform the myriad 3D functions in these suites at a high level. It's a little like asking a motion picture director of photography to also write, edit, production-design, and post-produce a feature film.

There are a few professionals -- sometimes referred to as "generalists" -- who have a practical working knowledge of most of the parts and pieces, however even a cursory glance at the credit roll on films like Cars 2 or Pirates of the Caribbean shows that most high-level 3D work is performed by armies of specialists such as modelers, character riggers, lighting designers, and digital matte painters.

THE UI IS KING

So while 3D software has been essentially democratized thanks to the incredible hardware and software price drops we've seen over the last fifteen years, taking full advantage of it is problematic for small production houses that don't have the sky-high budgets eight-thousand pound gorillas like Disney can throw at a feature film.

For smaller houses and teams, the future of 3D is less about the software's capabilities -- in this department our cup now runneth over -- it's about usability. From here on out, it's all about the user interface.

Autodesk is potentially in a position to design and deploy a unified UI for all their 3D tools. The company already has a leg up on this with their high-end video and film post-production software, such as Flame, Smoke and Inferno, which share a context-sensitive interface that shows you only what you need, when you need it, without zillions of floating palettes and endless menus and sub-menus.

ON WITH THE SHOW

OK, enough about where it all came from and where it might be headed. Let's take a look at a few of the more impressive new features.

For starters, installing the ECS 2012 Max and Maya suites was a piece of cake. In the case of the Maya suite, installing it turned out to be a good bit simpler than uninstalling the previous 2011 version. Despite having carefully installed Maya ECS 2011 exactly as recommended on a certified workstation, I never managed to uninstall it. After several attempts, I finally decided to let it be and move on. (Thank gosh for high-capacity system disks.)

A possible cause for this issue is that Autodesk now releases new versions of their Creative Suites every twelve months, with the result that fresh updates and hotfixes start arriving within days after the products ship. In the four months since they were released, Maya 2012 is already up to hotfix number four, and Mudbox 2012 is up to Service Pack 3.

These updates and fixes can sometimes be applied in minutes with a few mouse clicks, but other times you have to uninstall and reinstall the entire program. Occasionally the app installers get confused as to where a critical installation file lives.

RADICAL RENDERING

Perhaps the biggest advance in 3D over the last fifteen years has been realtime viewport rendering. We've gone from simple wireframes to shaded surfaces, to textured surfaces, to displaying multiple lights and shadows, to full-on physics simulations. Maya and Max 2012 both have very advanced realtime viewport rendering options. Maya has Viewport 2.0, Max has Nitrous, and both take realtime visualization to a new level.

Nitrous capitalizes on multicore GPUs and CPUs. The viewport threads are separate from the UI's, so playback is very smooth. If you're modeling, you might stick with Wireframe or Shaded  mode, but if you want to visualize your scene with convincing lights and effects, you'll want to switch over to Realistic, which delivers excellent previsualization, especially for game design. Max 2012 also features Quicksilver, a hardware viewport renderer that's optimized for non-photo-realistic (NPR) rendering styles such as cartoons and hand-drawn sketches.

If that's not enough options for you, there's the iray engine from metal images, which progressively renders physically-accurate raytraced images. iray isn't as full-featured as mental ray, but it's much easier to use. You can render an iray scene with a single click instead to the multitude of settings mental ray typically requires.

The iray progressive rendering scheme lets you specify the length of time to render your image, or whether to refine the image indefinitely. This way you can quickly get a rough but accurate idea of what your final scene's lighting really looks like. On the down side, to take full advantage of iray’s speed, you'll need a CUDA-capable Nvidia graphics card with a lot of memory onboard, which is still a pricey option.

Meanwhile, Maya 2012's Viewport 2.0, in addition to being able to approximate global lighting with ambient occlusion, also adds lensing depth-of-field and realtime motion blur to its viewport visualizations. Not that long ago rendering even a single second of motion-blurred film was crazy expensive; this is a giant step forward in the realtime visualization sweepstakes.

TEXTURES ON DEMAND

Both Maya and Max have improved texture creation via Allegorithmic's  procedural texture generator that lets you dial in resolution-independent properties of textures you design yourself.

You can extract a tile-ready JPG from a procedural texture, then roundtrip texture layers with Mudbox. (There's not enough room to get into it here, but Mudbox has some very powerful texturing capabilities of its own.)

PARTICLE CLOUDS, LIQUIDS, AND MORE

Max, Maya, and XSI all have built-in physics and dynamics simulation engines. Max 2012's new MassFX replaces Max's earlier Reactor simulation system, but they seem to have thrown out some body parts with the bathwater on this one, since so far MassFX is more limited than Reactor.

For its part, Maya 2012 has updated its Nucleus simulator with much improved liquids (Splat! Splash!) plus rigid-body simulations with NVIDIA’s PhysX engine (Crash! Smash!). But for my money, the big news is both Max and Maya's ability to import cached Softimage XSI ICE simulations.

ICE is a multithreaded programming language that uses node relationships to create effects. Every node in ICE performs as some sort of operator that can be arranged and connected to other nodes in a wide variety of ways.

Like some other dynamics engines, you can distort meshes, tear cloth, blow things up, and perform all sorts of fun actions with gravity, wind, and other forces. But where ICE gets really interesting is when you start using it with the new Lagoa Multiphysics particle system.

In concert with Lagoa, ICE can turn particles into pools of water, then morph the water into goopy honey, jello, or smoke. You can associate characters with particles and attach flocking behaviors and group dynamics to them. By constraining how particle groups deform in relation to each other, you can rig characters to perform actions such as molding a hand to a ball without having to construct a dedicated rig.

You can control these functions with a very high degree of granularity, and when you're done you can convert a particle cloud into a piece of geometry, or, as mentioned above, export a pre-cached simulation into Max or Maya, making ICE a black box extension to both programs.

THE RIGHT PLATFORM

There are many things to consider when choosing the right platform and system configuration to deploy this class of 3D graphics and simulation software. In terms of the OS, some choices have already been made for you. Maya runs natively on Windows, Linux, and the Mac, but Max is a Windows-only program, while XSI runs under Windows and certain boutique versions of Linux.

Some suite elements such as Maya and Mudbox won't be able to port textures to recent versions of Adobe Photoshop (there are built-in links for this) in Linux, and while the Mac finally has decent graphics cards to support 3D work properly, it always seems to lag behind Windows in Maya feature implementation.

On the hardware front, I tested the Max and Maya ECS 2012 suites with a twelve-core HP Z800 workstation running 64-bit Windows 7 with 24GB of RAM and an Nvidia FX5800 graphics card. This configuration is certified to run both ECS suites, and in fact it performed flawlessly, including when I ran multiple programs simultaneously to test their interoperability.

A lot of the most demanding functions in the suites are heavily multithreaded, so every core you can throw at them measurably improves complex simulations, while mental ray will peak every system core at 100% when it renders an image. In addition to the Z800's twelve CPU cores, the FX5800's GPU has another 240 cores that get put to full use refreshing viewport displays when CUDA is enabled.

This class of system can run you from four to ten grand, but it's what you need if you're designing complex animations and simulations and don't want to spend half your time staring at a screen while drumming your fingers on your desktop.

WRAP

So where does Autodesk go from here? I expect the future will bring more features, even more interoperability, and hopefully more UI integration, but the company's next big move in 3D may come from a completely new direction.

A couple weeks ago, Autodesk released an iPad app called 123D Sculpt that you can model and texture organics objects with in a manner very similar to how Mudbox operates. It’s fun, simple to learn, elegant, and over several hours of use, it never crashed once. If you're reading this article on an iPad, the future of 3D may be in your hands.

In the meantime, Maya, 3ds Max, and Softimage XSI are the most-used commercial animation packages in the business, so if you’re an aspiring animator seeking your first job, or a seasoned vet who wants to stay on top of the game, you probably want one of the 2012 ECS suites in your toolbox.

Both the Maya and Max ECS 2012 suites are Highly Recommended.

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