Autodesk has unveiled 3ds Max 2016, the latest update to its industry-standard modelling, animation and rendering software, at NAB 2015, alongside new versions of Maya, Mudbox, MotionBuilder and Flame.
Despite a lack of pre-release hype, 3ds Max 2016 looks to be one of the strongest updates in recent years, adding a new node-based tool-creation system, a new physical camera, and Alembic and OpenSubdiv support.
Top of the list of new features in 3ds Max 2016 is the Max Creation Graph (MCG): a new node-based environment for content creation and tools programming, intended to be accessible to less technical artists.
In the promo video above, senior software developer Christopher Diggins describes MCG as a “very bold” alternative to traditional “black box” modifiers.
Instead, MCG enables users to create their own custom tools by wiring together operator nodes. “With creation graphs, any artist can look at a tool, open it up … and rewire it,” says Diggins.
Despite the obvious similarities, MCG isn’t an implementation of Softimage’s ICE visual programming toolset within 3ds Max: an issue discussed by Diggins in a blog post on Autodesk’s AREA community site.
Instead, the set of available operator nodes seems to be primarily geometry-related, with the examples shown in the video covering the creation of procedural geometry and scattering objects across a surface.
The graphs themselves can be packaged for export and shared with other Max users, opening up the possibility for many more users to create and distribute their own custom tools.
The XRef system for referencing objects from other 3ds Max scenes has also been updated, improving stability and adding support for “non-destructive animation workflow”, as shown in the video above.
According to 3ds Max product manager Eddie Perlberg, a referenced character could be “running in one file, jogging in another. Changes made in the source file will automatically be inherited in their local scene.”
Users can also publish animatable parameters, for quick access directly in the modifier stack.
New rendering options
In the rendering toolset, 3ds Max 2016 introduces a new physical camera, co-developed with V-Ray creators Chaos Group, including standard options such as Shutter Speed, Aperture, Depth of Field, and Exposure.
The built-in iray and mental ray renderers have also been updated, with iray getting a new irradiance render element for rapid feedback on illumination levels in a scene, and support for iray section planes.
Iray’s Light Path Expressions have also been extended to enable users to isolate objects and lights into render elements based on their layer name.
Mental ray gets a new GPU-accelerated ambient occlusion render element, and support for Light Importance Sampling, for cleaner results on complex scenes.
And like AutoCAD and Revit, 3ds Max 2016 also includes built-in cloud rendering via Autodesk’s A360 platform.
OpenSubdiv and Alembic support
The features introduced in the subscriber-only 2015 Extension 1 release also make their way into Max 2016, including support for Alembic and OpenSubdiv and enhancements to the ShaderFX shader-authoring toolset.
Both have been extended since their debut: Alembic now has a new playback caching system – and, according to a user comment on CGPress, “re-timing, arbitrary channel import, multi-UV export [and] particle export”.
OpenSubdiv gets a neat-looking view-dependent adaptive subdivision system, which automatically reduces the number of sub-ds shown according to the distance of the geometry from the camera, increasing performance.
Adaptive subdivision is supported both in the viewport and in final-frame renders.
In the animation toolset, two features introduced in the 2015 Extension 2 release make their way into 3ds Max 2016, in the shape of the new camera sequencer and dual-quaternion skinning.
Previously only available via third-party tools like XRayBlendSkin, dual-quaternion skinning avoids ‘bow tie’ artefacts when deformers are twisted or pivoted, particularly in a character’s wrists or shoulders.
Another feature from Extension 2 to make its way into the 2016 release is the new templating system.
Templates enable users to create custom start-up configurations complete with preset environments, scale units, lighting set-ups and render settings, and share them with collaborators on a project.
One Max to rule them all
Another major change in 3ds Max 2016 is that it now comes in a single version: the old separation of the software into entertainment-focused standard and arch viz-focused Design editions has been scrapped.
Instead, users choose the Classic or Design settings on initial installation, then customise the toolset on an “install what you need, ignore what you don’t” basis.
Autodesk attributes the change to new interactive visualisation workflows blurring the boundaries between the two market sectors, and to the decreasing need to ship a complete installation on physical media.
But if you do work in visualisation, you can use the new Design Workspace introduced in 3ds Max 2015 Extension 2, which streamlines access to common layout, modelling, texturing, lighting and rendering tools.
Users can also import Revit .rvt and SketchUp .skp files directly; and data interchange with non-Autodesk tools like SolidWorks and Pro/Engineer has been improved.
Multi-touch support, other smaller features
Other new features in 3ds Max 2016 include support for multi-touch navigation on Wacom’s Intuos5, Cintiq 24HD and Cintiq Companion pen tablets, as well as touch-enabled Windows 8 devices.
There are also a number of ‘SURFS’ (Small User-Requested Features), listed in full on the AREA blog post.