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3ds Max 7 Courseware and Training DVDs


Over the last couple of months, I have gone through seven DVDs, one CD and two books worth of 3ds Max 7 training materials and courseware, and thought I would briefly share some of my impressions for the benefit of others who may be considering purchasing them.

One of the DVDs, "3ds Max 7 New Features and Production Workflow," is a typical video-based tutorial, where you see the computer screen and hear the instructor's voice, but do not see the instructor: It also comes with a book.

Fundamentals and Beyond Courseware is a book of tutorials written by Discreet and published by Focal Press, with an accompanying CD.

The other six DVDs are "Master Classes"--videotaped sessions from SIGGRAPH 2004, in which an expert holds forth for an hour and a half on a topic such as rigging, materials or lofting. Basically, these are step-by-step tutorials. They alternate video of the presenter with video of the computer screen. They have other common characteristics, too:

  • They all contain some great "tips, tricks and traps".
  • They all come with sample max files, allowing you to try the techniques yourself.
  • The presenters are good at what they do. They know the technology, can use it skillfully and present it cogently and clearly.
  • Though the level of technical gee-wizardry varies somewhat among the sessions, they all earn the name "master class." The material presented goes well beyond the basics.
  • In order to get into advanced material in such a short time, presenters have to assume a lot of knowledge on the part of the audience.Thus, presenters may sail quite quickly over some aspects of the material they are demonstrating. This can lead to bumps in the road when you try to repeat what they've done. Of course, working with the DVDs, you can stop, replay, and try things out immediately in max.
  • The videos appear to have been only very lightly edited. They come complete with presenter boo-boos, dead ends, mysterious problems that never get explained, and even a computer crash. (Presenters were using a pre-release version of 3ds Max 7. In some cases they played it safe and used 3ds Max 6.) All this amounts to wasted time.
  • The video quality is not the best. Even with my display resolution set at 800x600 pixels to maximize the size of the video image, I often had trouble reading text on menus, rollouts or in MAXScript files, or seeing what presenters wrote on the large flip-chart easel pads they used. This does not have to be a show-stopper, since you can generally figure things out with the sample files and 3ds Max itself. But it makes it harder to follow the flow of the explanations.
  • Along the same lines, I sometimes found questions from the audience difficult or impossible to hear or understand, even when played over a superb sound system. And the presenters only occasionally remember to repeat the questions.

Chris Harvey, who presents the vehicle rigging master class, makes up for many of these problems by including a complete step-by-step video-based tutorial on the DVD. I'm sure this was a lot of work for him, and for me it doubles the value of the DVD, because here there is no rushing, no mistakes, and excellent video quality,.

Similarly, Ted Boardman (who presents two of the master classes, one on lofting and one on materials) includes Microsoft Word files covering the same material as his talks in full detail, complete with screen shots. Again, lots of work for him, tremendous value for the student.

If you do get these DVDs, do not fail to consult these materials if you are feeling lost or having any trouble practicing what the "master" preaches.

3ds Max 7 New Features and Production Workflow

3ds Max 7 New Features and Production Workflow is a DVD of tutorials, accompanied by a book and is also published by Focal Press. It covers many of 3ds Max 7's new features, with a dollop of Combustion thrown in at the end. The topics covered are:
  • Modeling a Cape and a Pendant (with editable poly and reactor cloth)
  • Materials and UVs
  • IK/Scripting
  • Animation
  • Assembly, Lighting, and Rendering
  • Rendering and Compositing (with Combustion)

Modeling a cape and pendant

There are close to 90 movies on the DVD, and I'm guessing three to four hours of material. Along with this, you get a 410 page, 5" x 7" book, which gives you all the tutorials from the DVD in printed form. The book is a great resource when you want to go back and review a particular point--much faster to flip through pages than to scrub through movies. (Now if only the book had an index!) The book is also a great place to take notes as you go through the tutorials. Though it's a fairly small format book, there's plenty of white space on most pages for that purpose.

The tutorials are very well done. In addition, they're strung together into a single project, so that you get an education in production workflow, as well as individual techniques.

This DVD and book are a solid value for $89.

Executive Producer: Roger Cusson
CD Production and Capture: Michael McCarthy
Courseware Content Lead: Pia Maffei
Content Creation: Paul Neale, Chris Harvey, Jim Robb, Lynn Hannough

Click here to purchase from amazon.com

Fundamentals and Beyond Courseware

Unlike all the other materials discussed here, 3ds max 7 Fundamentals and Beyond Courseware is not video-based instruction. It's a 790 page book with an accompanying CD. The CD contains the sample files you need to work through the tutorials in the book.

"Fundamentals and Beyond" works equally well as supporting materials for classroom instruction or for self-instruction. Pound for pound, it is definitely the best deal of all the materials I looked at. It covers animation, camera animation, inverse kinematics, 2D shapes, modifiers, compound objects, lofts, low poly modeling, materials, maps, lighting (including both basic lighting and global illumination techniques such as radiiosity), rendering, scene assembly, some MAXScripting, dynamics with the reactor plug-in, and particles (including both basic particles and Particle Flow),

All that for $50. Again, this is a solid value. It really does go "beyond," by the way. I suspect that even most experienced max users will find plenty of the new and useful nuggets of information in this book. I know I did.

Roger Cusson managed this project. Pia Maffei is the lead author.

Click here if you'd like to purchase this book through amazon.com.

Master Class Rigging Bundle

There are three master class DVDs devoted to rigging: Character Rigging with Character Studio (Pia Maffei and Al Howe), Advanced Character Rigging with 3ds Max (Sergio Muciño) and Vehicle Rigging with 3ds Max (Chris Harvey). Each of these is available individually for $49, or you can buy them as a bundle for $120.

Pia makes extensive use of a NullHelper object developed by John Burnett, an extremely useful little object that makes it easier to do character skinning in troublesome joint areas such as elbows and knees. Pia shows you how to use the NullHelper to minimize the need for adjusting weights on individual vertices. Instead, you can just stick with the much easier process of manipulating envelopes around bones.

One little tip, for those who get this DVD and need to find a place to download the Null Helper plug-in: Pia says on the DVD that you can get it from the footools.com site, but when I went there, I found a message, "The contents of fooTOOLS are no longer available. Apologies for any inconvenience this may cause." It should say they are no longer available at this site. In fact, below the message, you'll notice that there are links to four other sites. I got the Null Helper plug-in from one of them, www.maxplugins.de. Later on, I noticed a "Download Null Helper" link on the "Scene Files and Resources" page of the DVD; this link leads to the same site.

The other subject Pia covers in some detail is the Motion Mixer in Character Studio. This is a really powerful tool that allows you to work with character animation sequences in much the same way you work with video clips in a non-linear editor (NLE) like Adobe Premiere or Sony Vegas Video.

If you work with Character Studio and are looking for a faster workflow than weighting vertices, or if you have not gone into the Motion Mixer too much and would like to see some of the cool tricks you can do with that, this class will take you where you want to go.

One thing I will mention is that Pia has some stiff competition in the tutorial book that comes with 3ds Max 7. The book contains over 150 pages of material on Character Studio. Around 30 pages are devoted to the Motion Mixer, an extensive tutorial complete with sample files and screen shots--all for free!

Still, I do believe that a video tutorial is a much easier way to absorb the information. Pia is a great teacher. And I don't believe you'll find anything on the NullHelper anywhere in Autodesk's documentation.

The advanced character rigging class, taught by Sergio Muciño, probably presents the most complex material of any of these classes. Sergio has developed some devilishly intricate rigs with brilliantly simple controls. I have spent many an awed hour on his site trying to figure out what the heck he is doing. This class brought me a few steps closer to that goal. I am convinced that the results he achieves are worth the effort it takes to wrap your head around his methodologies.

Speaking of his site, it's well worth paying it a visit if you want to immerse yourself in his style of rigging. There are some free tutorials there, and even though most of them are out of date (nothing past 3ds Max 5 in the character rigging section, for example), the basic principles have not changed.

Sergio, by the way, uses 3ds Max 6 throughout his master class.

The less-than-stellar video quality is particularly troublesome in this class, because Sergio uses a third-party plug-in, Marsel Khadiyev's Scene Manager, for managing his objects in 3ds Max. As a result, there are some unfamiliar elements in his user interface, and it's harder for the student to use past experience with 3ds Max to deduce what's going on. (You can install Scene Manager on your own system. It's a free plug-in, and should work fine in 3ds Max 7, though I never tested it.)

The complexity of the material that Sergio is trying to get across cries out for extra supporting materials, such as a step-by-step tutorials. Beyond the sample files, there is not much on the DVD in the way of extra materials for Sergio's master class. The DVD does include an OpenOffice.org (SXW) word processing file (which Microsoft Word seemed to think might be a simple Chinese document). I downloaded the OpenOffice.org suite (64.2 MB), installed it and opened the file. It turned out to be a four-page document providing some high-level discussion of rigging in general, but no step-by step instructions.

However, the extensive character rigging tutorials on Sergio's site to some extent amount to support materials for this DVD, because they cover many of the same basic techniques. Given that fact, I did find myself wondering whether students shouldn't just go to his site and save themselves 50 bucks. For one thing, however, the material is not exactly the same, and the rig for the master class is generally a bit more complex and gee-whizzish then the ones on his site. Also, he doesn't provide sample files on his site. Probably most importantly, I found it invaluable to see his rigs in action, with running commentary from the master. It's just a completely different way of learning. I find it much easier to absorb material through the video tutorial, even though it is less complete and methodical than the step-by step online tutorials. Using both approaches together really works well for me.

By the way, speaking of supporting materials, "Inside 3ds max 7", by Sean Bonney, has a bonus chapter by Sergio on the accompanying DVD: 110 pages of advanced rigging, corresponding closely to what's on the master class DVD. I highly recommend it.

One of the sample files on the DVD (the one with the arm rig) has a MAXScript error in a script controller, which generates an error message as soon as you open the max file. And the function that controller implements (clavicle auto-rotation) doesn't work. Sergio gave me a fix for this problem.

By the way, Sergio also uses the Null Helper, as well as the PEN Attribute Holder plug-in. You can get the latter at Paul Neale's site. (Again, I chased around the web a bit to find this. Now, you don't have to.)

Finally, Chris Harvey's class on vehicle rigging is awesome. The techniques he demonstrates have the potential to speed your work up by orders of magnitude, both in modeling and animation. The resulting rigs are easy to work with and can add subtle realism to your animations.

Chris' most impressive material focuses on rigging tank treads. If you happen to need to do this, and you don't already have an excellent approach to the job, get this master class DVD immediately!

Chris Harvey's tank treads

I found myself going "Wow!" repeatedly as I "sat in" on Chris' class. Moreover, I found that (especially with the help of the video tutorials on the DVD) I could actually achieve without too much difficulty the effects Chris demonstrates.

Chris' class does require you to dive into MAXscript at almost every turn. Chris really makes that pretty easy for you, especially with the help of the extra tutorials on the DVD. That being said, if you are allergic to MAXscript and have made a definite decision never to use it, this DVD is not for you.

Ted Boardman

Ted's main occupation for many years has been initiating a wide variety of clients into the mysteries of 3ds Max and 3D Studio VIZ, and his abilities and experience show up clearly in his master classes. Though his models typically have a fairly low wowser quotient, his methodologies are elegant and have wide applicability. He is also good at pointing out how you might apply the techniques he demonstrates to various kinds of situations.

His class on lofting is particularly useful for creating ramps, sidewalks, railings, or almost anything architectural. He shares several cool little tips that make working with lofts easier and/or give you better results. For example:

  • Turn off 'transform degrade" in the Skin Parameters rollout for your loft, so that transforming the loft in shaded viewports does not degrade its display.
  • Turn on vertex ticks in the properties for the loft shape, so that you can see the vertices in shaded viewports.
  • If you're going to use two different shapes on a loft, make sure they have the same number of vertices. So, for example, if you have a six-sided shape in a loft (which also means it has six vertices) and you want to continue the loft with a circular shape, use a circular six-sided NGon rather than a circle (which would have only four vertices).

Similarly, in his class on materials, Ted doesn't aim for or achieve any marvelously spectacular results. He does provides dozens of useful tips that most 3ds Max users will be able to apply over and over again. Falloff, gradient and ramp maps, composite and blend materials, masks, using distance blend to get rid of pixelation sparkles in distant objects--this class will help you achieve more interesting and/or more realistic surface characteristics for your 3ds Max objects.

Ted does go fast sometimes, skipping steps or leaving a particular task only partially done, assuming you will be able to complete it on your own based on a few words of instruction from him. If this assumption turns out to be wrong in some cases, don't forget the Word documents on the DVD. They may be able to help you.

Texture Mapping

Pia's class on texture mapping focuses largely on the Unwrap UVW feature. Although I had used this feature a fair amount and found it quite useful, this class drove home to me that I was exploiting only a small percentage of its potential. There's some good material on how to set up Unwrap UVW when you are going to do a render to texture. There's also an interesting demonstration of using a checker pattern to make it visually obvious where and how your material is being stretched on your model, so that you can correct it. .I think I'll be going through this DVD several more times, to really absorb its riches.


3ds Max 7 New Features and Production Workflow and Fundamentals and Beyond Courseware are solid values.

I must say that the video quality issue on the Master Class Rigging Bundle annoyed me, slowed me down and caused me some eye strain. In the end, though, I found that I could always determine what was going on.

I also asked myself whether the money might not better be spent on training materials that minimize wasted air time better than these master classes do. However, for the classes that come with significant supporting material (Ted's and Chris'), I feel that those materials compensate for any wasted time. The same pretty much holds true for Sergio, even though that supporting material wasn't specifically created for the master class and is on his website or a book rather than on the DVD.

In addition, to a great extent, the material presented is unique to the presenter. You might be able to get more minutes of instruction per dollar from some other training materials, but you would not be learning the same techniques. This is probably most true in Sergio's case, but it applies to the others as well, particularly in the area of rigging. To some extent, studying advanced rigging is like studying music or painting: You apprentice yourself to someone whose work and style you admire. Ultimately, that's the whole idea behind a master class.

My final conclusion is that the master classes will deliver fair value for $49, if I'm willing to dig it out of them.

Great "tips, tricks and traps"
True master-class level material
Sample files
Excellent presenters
Extra supporting materials (when present)

Master classes assume knowledge that you may or may not have.
Nonproductive time in master classes
Technical issues such as less-than-stellar video quality and inaudible audience questions in master classes

Bottom Line
Good training is seldom cheap or easy.

I give this product 4 1/2 out of 5 Cows.

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