12:33:00 AM

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A Guide to Computer Animation for tv, games multimedia and web by Marcia Kuperberg


Article Focus:
Mike Kroes takes a look at A Guide to Computer Animation for tv, games multimedia and web by Marcia Kuperberg. This book is in the Focal Press Visual Effects & Animation series.

As video, animation, and multimedia professionals, you Creative Cows have a broad and varied background. To do the magic that you do in your everyday work, you have had to learn a lot of stuff. You may not consciously think about it anymore, but you've covered a lot of ground along the way.

This book is the summary and survey of all you've had to struggle through to get where you are today. Marcia Kuperberg, not surprisingly a teacher, looks at the big picture and tries to break it down into all its little pieces.

This is an interesting book in a lot of ways. First off, it is a visual treat. Lots of beautiful pictures, illustrations, and examples make this fun and easy to follow. Then, there is the approach the book takes. It is written with those who know nothing about the process of animation in mind, and starts at the beginning with a history of animation (animation--not computer animation) and a discussion of its roots. It then takes us through a number of almost step-by-step descriptions of the actual creation of computer animation--a scene for output to a film or video, or the design of a game character and scene, and the making of animations for the web or other "new" media. There are case studies, there is a discussion of narrative and characterization, and there is a chapter of project briefs, self-tests, tutorials and resources.

I liked the approach of this book. Though Marcia Kuperberg gets the author credits, there are sections written by other experts as well. Rob Manton handles the section on technical constraints of the various media, Martin Bowman does the section on animating for computer games, and Alan Peacock takes care of the section on new media and multimedia. Taken as a whole, this approach allows the book to cover a lot of ground intelligently, and from the point-of-view of working professionals.

One of the things I really liked about this book is the notion that there are certain core principles which are important for the animator to be familiar with and that those principles can then be brought to the project you are working on--no matter what hardware or software you are using. For example, in the chapter called Techniques and Stages of Creating 3D Computer Animation, Kuperberg begins by discussing what I would call the thought process and mind-set stages of the work. Pointers on dealing with the client/customer, scheduling work, doing research and thinking about the most efficient way to make models are important to the project as a whole, and they are transferable knowledge. No matter what the specifics of your project are, these are things that can help you tackle it confidently and can save you a lot of time and trouble.

Only after discussing these issues does Kuperberg go into a step-by-step look at how she created every item in the final scene. She talks about alpha channels, mapping texture bitmaps, and tiling. She puts the whole scene together and discusses lighting. She talks about the most effective use of the camera, the lenses, camera movement and paths.

What a great resource for people new to the world of computer animation. The overview of the process will be a real eye-opener for those people who thought computer animation was just sitting at the computer and drawing images. While the book is not designed to make you an expert in all areas of computer animation, it will go a long way toward pointing out the areas of expertise involved, and perhaps remind the student of areas that need more study.

The next two sections of the book follow pretty much the same approach--Animation for Multimedia and New Media, by Alan Peacock, and Creating Artwork for Computer Games: From Concept to End Product by Martin Bowman, both assume little or no knowledge of the subject, but they provide an overview of the whole process. In the case of Bowman, the section even includes a discussion of career options and what employers in the computer games industry are looking for.

The case studies from actual industry projects are very useful, too, in providing an overview of the actual process once you get out of academia and into industry. These are fun "how-tos" from people who do this stuff every day, and obviously know what they are doing.

The next section of the book is a look at storytelling and characterization. This is an important aspect of animation that is not a part of most books that teach specific animation tools. Once again, starting with theory and moving to specific, Kuperberg explains the narrative process and tells the reader how to take an idea and follow through with a narrative, write a synopsis, and translate that into both script and treatment. She talks about storyboarding, movie-making terminology, narrative structures, and the importance of characterization. Along the way she hits on the concepts of design, facial expression and lip synch.

The book's closing chapter, Project Briefs, Self-Tests, Tutorials and Resources really brings home the fact that Marcia Kuperberg is a teacher. Since the book is essentially a survey of a whole industry, Kuperberg realizes that some discussion is necessarily brief. Here is a list of questions for each chapter (gauge how much you really learned), projects to help your understanding and reinforce your learning, tutorials, and resources to point you in the direction of more information. This is especially useful to the person trying to make some sense of the animation industry on his own. I was interested to see how many of the resources listed are websites or magazines that I refer to regularly, or books that I already have on my own library shelves. Having "lived with" this book for the last few weeks, I find that I really enjoyed reading and referring to it. As a teacher of video production and a student of animation, I find the approach a very good one, the content very helpful, and the writing and illustration very good. As a creative professional in the animation field, you won't find anything new here, though you might find inspiration in some of the techniques and illustrations describing approaches you don't ordinarily use. If you are someone starting out in animation, or someone who wants to learn about animation from some other discipline, you will find this a great book. As an overview of an industry, from history, through technical constraints and conventions, through cross-platform techniques, and including planning, design and creative considerations, this book is unparalleled.


12:21:00 AM

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Evoluent Vertical Mouse


Article Focus:
It starts as a slight twinge in the shoulder, or a prickle in the wrist, a dime-sized knot in the forearm or a tingling somewhere up and down the arm. Whatever the symptoms, the cause is usually the same - RSI or repetitive strain injury or its widely publicized brother, carpal tunnel syndrome. In this article, John David Hutton takes a look at the new Evoluent Vertical Mouse. It could be the answer to protecting yourself from carpal tunnel and other strains.

Friends in computer-related industries, particularly graphics industries, spend an inordinate amount of time on their computers. Actually, that's being gracious. Pasty-white skin, eyes akin to dark, moist cave-like basements, offices or cubicles, these computer-loving souls have worn a mouse-arm groove in their wooden table where they work so incredibly much. It's inevitable something happens that halts that stoic, ever-loving desire for computer work.

It starts as a slight twinge in the shoulder, or a prickle in the wrist, a dime-sized knot in the forearm or a tingling somewhere up and down the arm. Whatever the symptoms, the cause is usually the same - RSI or repetitive strain injury or its widely publicized brother, carpal tunnel syndrome. Several factors aid in developing this condition, from posture and the kind of office furniture used, to the type of keyboard and mouse available. Perhaps the largest culprit of RSI is the mouse and that will be the focus of this article.

For more information regarding carpal tunnel syndrome, refer to links such as this.

A company called "Evoluent" has developed what's called a vertical mouse - not the first in its industry although arguably the best. This mouse is basically a normal 5 button optical mouse (a "true" 3-button mouse with thumb button and scroll wheel / button) but standing on its side so as to allow the user to hold their hand in a "neutral" handshake position while in use. This allows much less strain on the wrists and forearm (and less pressure on the shoulder ultimately) and perhaps just as importantly, offers a different position on the hands and wrist than what normal keyboarding subjects you to.

Today I'm reviewing the Evoluent VerticalMouse 3. It has a long and interesting story spanning more than thirteen years and multiple designs to get version 3 to where it is today.

Installation is a snap of course, like any other standard mouse, once you plug it in windows installs it. And like many other non-standard mice, their "extra" features don't function until you install the mouse drivers. The driver was downloadable from their website (www.evoluent.com) and installation was quick, no reboot required. Once installed its software functions are similar to that of other mice, but perhaps offering more in the way of programmability in its buttons. I've included screen captures below to illustrate what its menu looks like, at least in the version I have installed (v. 3.7).

One note is that this mouse doesn't like to be plugged into the PS/2 connection (even if you use the USB to PS/2 adapter). This may be particularly important to those of you using KVM switches or if your CPU resides in another room than your keyboard & mouse do (using PS/2 to ethernet cable extensions to make the run between the two). What I'm getting from the documentation is that there may be intermittent problems and the software drivers will not function correctly. If you don't have the option of plugging this mouse into your USB port, this will be a big concern. However, I currently have a normal belkin 3-button optical mouse plugged into my PS/2 and they seem to be co-inhabiting quite happily. I did see mention in the included literature to uninstall any previous mouse drivers you have before installing this, so it's possible that your PS/2 mouse drivers may conflict (if you have any other than the default loaded). A quick call to their tech support line may provide an answer you're looking for.

Compatibility: PC has full functionality with the installed drivers, Mac has basic functionality but button programmability is available through a shareware driver at usboverdrive.com, Unix is not compatible, Linux has 5 buttons in XFree 4.0.1 or higher and Knoppix Linux 3.9 or higher without a driver. This was grabbed directly from the evoluent website, visit often to see updates on your OS.

Here are some highlights of the driver set:

The windows driver’s first screen gives you the option of reprogramming each of the 5 buttons to your liking. It will give you over 50 options to reprogram with.

Also, an option exists to program the buttons by application.

Choose among 3 pointer speeds selectable by a mouse click or keyboard shortcut. This is a very cool feature that will allow you to switch to a higher dpi instantly for those fine tuning moments.

My regular PS/2 mouse seems to be peacefully co-existing with my new vertical mouse.

This offers click lock and auto click functions. Click lock will simulate a depressed mouse button after you’ve already clicked to make dragging a less arduous task.

Auto click will click (or double-click) an item for you if the mouse is hovering over an item.

An interesting feature, this window allows you to configure reminders to both stop and start work.

A requirement of RSI symptoms is to continue repetitive tasks over a prolonged amount of time. Short, frequent breaks help tremendously with repetitive-related injuries.

On to perhaps the most important feature of the mouse is the feel. Repetitive mouse-clicks, movement and twisting on top of a slab of wood all day is bound to present problems down the road, so it was important for this mouse to "feel" good to my aching limb and joints as well as be easy to use so my productivity didn't drop. I noticed a positive difference almost immediately. It was definitely more comfortable than the standard mouse position and I seem to adapt to the "new" position rather quickly. For giggles I loaded up my 3D shoot-em-up (Quake) and promptly got my backside handed to me so clearly I'm not as accurate with it yet as I am with my normal mouse, at least not yet. :-)

I really love the buttons - they're not too easy to click but not hard enough that I have to move my mouse to push them. It's obvious great care was taken in its design as a mouse standing on its side could encounter problems applying pressure to only one side of the unit. I went back to using my old PS/2 mouse that was still hooked up to see if my arm could tell a difference (it could) and the buttons actually seemed a bit harder and more arduous to press. 'd concluded from this that in only a few hours operation my arm and hands had adapted to the vertical mouse that quickly.

One other especially important note about the buttons, at least especially important to me, is that this is a "true" 3-button optical mouse with a thumb button and a scroll wheel. A real 3-button mouse (not two buttons and a scroll wheel) seems in short demand nowadays and it's particularly sought after by those who build and design 3D work, in my own case using Autodesk's Maya software. Not only am I getting a great mouse with all the buttons I need, it's good for my arm and wrist as well. I think 3D artists and editors in general will find this interesting as the middle mouse button often has its own function in their software (it zooms in and out of the timeline in my editing software Velocity, which is something I do -very- often in conjunction with the pan tool for my long form editing work).

The fact that it has an accuracy cycle button on the very bottom (recessed to prevent accidental pressing of course) is a handy feature. With an accompanying light that changes its color depending on the setting, you can set your mouse anywhere from 800 dpi for those smaller monitor setups to 2600 dpi for large 2 to 3 monitor setups where a lot of screen real estate must be traveled to achieve the same motions (or a large canvas needs traversed in order to paint or draw). I'm using 2560 x 1024 screen res on 17" monitors (below average these days) and I'm using the 2nd to lowest setting, the 1300 dpi - once again color-coding this so I know.

It is wired which may or may not be a disappointment to those of you who like battery-operated mice. I don't. Battery mice tend to be heavier which aids in hand and arm problems (defeating the purpose of this mouse) and also tend to require their batteries replaced often.

Even if you don't currently experience problems in your back, neck, shoulder, forearm or wrist and fingers from a repetitive stress problem, this mouse should be a consideration for your next mouse purchase as a preventative maintenance measure, as well as a great true 3-button, 5-button programmable mouse for 3D and graphics work. A computer graphics or video career can put us behind the desk for the next thirty to sixty years. For most of us, it will be our full means of support. Products like this will help us take care of our most valuable tool while providing some variety in an otherwise repetitive and stressful environment.

According to the website, you have 30 days in which to return the product if you don't like it (of course, amazon or another dealer may have their own stipulations). I encourage you to take advantage of that option and see for yourself whether or not this is something that might help you!

Feature Request:
One feature request I personally have are with the software drivers. For one, it should fully support Macs out of the box. I'm not a mac user, but even though the mac platform has risen to become useful in other areas, it's still best known and most widely-used in the graphics and video industry. Macs not only come with a standard, twist-your-arm mouse, they often offer only one mouse button. Having an ergonomically-friendly, multi-button mouse should prove extremely useful on the mac platform, particularly for those 3D users who have an even more limited number of true 3-button mice to choose from. Secondly, 'd like to see this mouse supporting menus, popping up at the touch of a button to add even more capabilities to the 5 programmable buttons. This is a similar function to the logitech keyboard menus that can pop up when programmed. I hit the F6 key for example and a custom but simple menu comes up, asking if I'd like to open Sony Sound Forge or Vegas, Adobe Audition, ProTools, etc. This would offer a greater range of movement savings by keeping the mouse and still performing tasks, rather than running a program or function directly from a mouse click. This is admittedly not as common a function in mouse drivers but something I wouldn't mind seeing.

Although listed at $80 on the evoluent website, it appears as though you can get them for $60 or so on amazon.com. If you keyword search "evoluent" under the electronics option, you'll see several mice come up, including a left-handed version as well as some older verticalmouse 2 mice, keyboards, wrist supports, etc.


12:19:00 AM

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3ds max 5 Fundamentals


Article Focus:
Author/Animator Michael Hurwicz examines 3ds max 5 Fundamentals by Ted Boardman. This book is published by New Riders. An update of Boardman's previous book on 3ds max 4, this book is primarily a series of excellent tutorials covering the fundamental elements of 3ds Max 5. It also covers general principles, workflow, tips and traps. Highly recommended.

If you're a beginning/intermediate 3ds max user and you'd like to take some lessons from a master, I highly recommend Ted Boardman's 3ds max 5 Fundamentals. It communicates the fundamentals as well as a lot of juicy little extras, but always in a step-by-step fashion so you never get overwhelmed. Clear writing, an easy-to-follow layout, and ample figures make this book about as painless a way of learning 3ds max 5 as I've seen.

(Note on the figures: Although they're printed in black and white in the book, they are on the accompanying CD in full color. This can be very helpful when you're trying to get an idea what a project should really look like.)

The book is basically 450 pages of tutorials covering many of the basic techniques that a 3ds max animator might use every day. The author especially tries to focus on new features, such as the new Editable Poly editing features, global illumination and radiosity renderers, and new keyframe animation techniques.

Boardman provides not only technical how-to details, but also suggestions for optimizing your overall workflow. For instance, he notes that set designers often build a façade for outdoor shots and then several interior scenes on a separate sound stage. He illustrates how this approach can work with 3ds max 5.

One of the things that I really like about this book is that the author tells you not only what to do, but also what not to do. For instance:

  • Activate a viewport by right clicking in it. If you left click, you could accidentally select and transform an object.
  • Scale objects using the Xform modifier, which can be applied at any point in the object's stack. Avoid the scale tool, which 3ds max always applies at the top of the stack, and which can yield unexpected results if modifiers are added or changed after applying it.
  • "Groups occasionally cause odd behavior, with no clear-cut explanations. Named selection sets and the new Layers tool offer similar functionality with no ill effects."

Boardman is not afraid to talk about 3ds max's weak points, a necessary preliminary to helping you work around them. For instance: "The buildings are not casting shadows, even though shadow casting is turned on for the Sunlight system by default. This is because of bogus settings in the default Sunlight system that you must change before it will work correctly. This is a source of much frustration for new users who quickly abandon the Sunlight system."

I also like the fact that Boardman not only tells you how to do things, but how to do them efficiently, both in terms of time and in terms of computer resources. For instance, he discusses how techniques like lofting, which create 3D objects based on 2D shapes, save both computer resources and modeling time. And did you know that an omni light is actually composed of six spotlights and can take six times as much memory, too? Because of this, Boardman points out, omni lights should be used conservatively.

The topics that are left out of the book are wisely chosen, as well. For instance, NURBS and Booleans can be a bit flaky in 3ds max. Boardman avoids them. Character animation using bones/skin or biped/physique, although a common technique, is more appropriate for an advanced text. The author doesn't touch it.

The only thing I don't like about this book is the price. For a less-than-500-page introductory-level book, it is fairly expensive: $45 list. Of course, you can get it for about 30 percent less than that online. Anyway, it's worth it.

All in all, highly recommended. Four and a half Cows.


12:12:00 AM

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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.


12:07:00 AM

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MAXScript 101


Article Focus:
Author/Animator/Musician Michael Hurwicz looks at MAXScript 101, a training DVD by John Wainwright, the creator of MAXScript and determines that this is one of the best video-based training courses of any kind.

John Wainwright's MAXScript 101 training DVD is one of the best video-based training courses of any kind that I have run across. John is the original creator of MAXScript, so his credentials as a MAXScript geek are impeccable. However, excellent geeks are not always excellent instructors. John is both. On every essential point -- content, organization, presentation, production values -- this DVD is first-class.

I'm not going to try to summarize the content: (Click here for a detailed synopsis.) I will say that the DVD covers a lot of territory for a 3 1/2 hour course. By the time you've gone through the DVD, you should be able to tackle scripting most of the basic things you can do interactively in 3ds Max . Not that you'll know all the details of the code -- you won't -- but you'll know how to proceed to build the tool you want. This is particularly true because of the MAXScript Listener, which records most of what you do in 3ds Max and displays it as MAXScript. This makes the initial steps of building a script a no-brainer much of the time. The rest of the job often consists of wrapping some generic code around the function-specific code the Listener gives you. The basic coding skills that this DVD gives you can really go a long way in combination with the Listener.

3ds Max includes some good beginning MAXScript tutorials (based on John's own introduction to the early releases of MAXScript). So, for $95, what will this DVD give you that the free tutorials don't?

Basically, I find the DVD easier to absorb and follow, both for getting the "big picture" architecture of MAXScript and for detailed code explications. A big part of this, I am sure, is just John's ability to explain this stuff in terms I can grasp. It's also partly because of various kinds of visual aids that are difficult to duplicate in written tutorials. At its simplest level, this includes the mouse cursor pointing to things as John refers to them. I find this incredibly helpful. In addition, when John talks about a particular code block, he is able to highlight it and even label it. (See the figure below.) And then when he talks about the relationship of that code block to another block, he can draw an arrow from block to block.The same holds true when talking about something in a viewport.

These kinds of visual aids can also help when presenting overview material. One small example is the overview of rollout construction, what order things have to come in and why. (See figure below.)

The DVD intertwines theory, demonstration and detailed code explication very effectively. First, John will present an overview of a code example, along with some succinct, rigorous discussion of relevant MAXScript architecture. Then he'll run the code so you can see what it does. Finally, he dives into the code itself and talks about how it works line by line and block by block.

You can try to follow the same strategy with written tutorials, but it's a bit like trying to put together your first tricycle from the instructions in the box, as opposed to letting Mom or Dad help you. If what you really want to do is ride your new trike, take the help. You'll put together the next one all by yourself, and the skills you pick up will transfer to bicycles, motorbikes, cars and trucks.

There are two areas in which the written materials have it all over the DVD:

  • First, the written materials are up-to-date. The DVD dates back to Max 5. For the most part, this really doesn't matter: The basics haven't changed. However, I am sure an updated version of this course would contain some changes, to reflect improvements in recent versions of MAXScript. For instance, the DVD mentions persistent global variables. As of Max 8, these are recommended against, in favor of scripted Custom Attributes.

  • Second, the written MAXScript reference is searchable. The DVD is easy to navigate for a DVD, but when you're looking for some specific information, it's still much faster to search the MAXScript reference.

Ultimately, the written materials and the DVD are complementary. For actually learning the basics of MAXScript, I bet that most people will have an easier time with the DVD. As a reference, for updates, and for more advanced topics, the written materials are necessary.

I find that video tutorials are the best way to absorb most computer-related topics, especially in the early stages of learning, I doubt you'll find a better one than this for MAXScript.


12:00:00 AM

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Model, Rig, Animate with 3ds Max 7


Article Focus:
Author/Animator/Musician Michael Hurwicz examines "Model, Rig, Animate with 3ds max 7" by Michele Bousquet. This slim volume covers the entire process of creating a 3D character animaton, from modeling to rigging and animation. It is very step-by-step in its approach. Although the subject matter is intermediate, even dedicated beginners should be able to follow along. Highly recommended.

Michele Bousquet's Model, Rig, Animate with 3ds max 7 offers a gentle introduction to the mysteries of character animation for beginners and intermediate 3ds Max users. It covers everything you need to know to model, rig and animate a low-poly character. Bousquet sticks to the basics, not stretching for anything fancy or showy. But what she does cover she covers in a methodical step-by-step fashion, with all the cautions and tips you need to get the job done. If you want to skip any steps (and you probably will if you are much beyond the beginner stage), intermediate work files on the CD allow you to start at any point in the workflow.

Bousquet really holds your hand through the whole process. For instance, within the first ten pages of the book, she devotes a whole page to practicing selecting polygons, and another couple of pages to practicing extruding and beveling. I imagine a lot of readers will skim these pages. Still, they do emphasize the point that getting your basic skills down, while not necessarily glamorous, is important.

Even these elementary pages contain some good tips, such as the use of Arc Rotate Selected (as opposed to plain old Arc Rotate) to keep the mesh from disappearing offstage when you rotate the view. In general, the book has a lot of useful tips: Again, nothing amazing and unheard of, but essential things you might not know or might have forgotten.

There is a lot that is not in this book, which is only 250 pages long, even with large type, lots of margin and generous line-spacing. (It's very easy on the eyes, by the way -- no eyestrain with this one.) Sometimes Bousquet gives a nod to the missing topics, mentioning speech animation (lip synch), for instance, in a section of a few paragraphs. Other topics, such as Character Studio or biped, don't get so much as a mention. (However, watch for Bousquet's "3ds Max Animation with Biped," expected in early 2006.)

Although the book retails for $40, "like new" copies were on sale for as little as $18 plus shipping when I checked amazon.com. Even though the book is highly focused as opposed to encyclopedic, at those prices it's an excellent value.