|A CreativeCOW Book Review
Eastsound, Washington USA
©2009 Michael Hurwicz and Creativecow.net. All rights reserved.
Creative Cow Leader Michael Hurwicz looks at three books on 3ds Max (two new ones based on 3ds Max 2010, and one based on 3ds Max 2009) and finds each useful in its own way.
Looking to improve your 3ds Max skills? Just got 3ds Max 2010 and want an experienced guide through some of its new features? Here are three books that could help. Two of them (How to Cheat in 3ds Max 2010 by Michele Bousquet and 3ds max 2010 Bible by Kelly L. Murdock) are new and based on 3ds Max 2010. The third (3ds max Modeling for Games by Andrew Gahan) was first published in August, 2008, and is based on 3ds Max 2009; but it's an excellent book, and since the publishers tell me they don't plan to update it for Max 2010, I recommend you look at the existing version.
How to Cheat in 3ds Max 2010
Of the three books, How to Cheat in 3ds Max 2010 by Michele Bousquet is the one I'd most recommend for a beginner, for two reasons:
First, it is very visual: Perhaps 60-80 percent of every page is visual material: screen shots of the 3ds max 2010 interface, illustrations showing you how your project should look at a particular stage of evolution, or conceptual drawings to illustrate a point all in full color. When it comes to learning 3ds Max, seeing is often the key to understanding. Just saying "Use the ProOptimizer modifier to bring the poly count down ..." can still leave a beginner casting about trying to remember exactly how that is done, and feeling a bit lost in the dark. Showing the result in the 3ds Max interface (see figure below) provides a huge hint and a feeling of security when you see that what you've done looks like the screen shot.
Below: The ProOptimizer modifier in the Modify panel (upper right of figure)
Click figure above for larger version
Each lesson is exactly two pages long. This has some definite advantages: For one, you can set the book up in front of you and see the whole lesson, without having to turn pages. It also forces the author to stay very much on topic, so that there is usually just one very clear task that you are trying to accomplish. Keeping each topic short also means that the author can cover a good number of topics in 230 pages.
On the other hand, there is only so much complexity and detail that can be communicated in two pages. The author overcomes this limitation to some extent by continuing a single project over several lessons. Still, overall, the book focuses on the quick and sometimes the "quick and dirty" as opposed to the intricate and detailed. Not that "quick and dirty" is always to be disparaged. As the author points out in the introduction, if you have delivered quickly, and your client (or boss) is happy, it's hard to find a downside. It's easy to get carried away with perfectionism and details that are invisible in the final product. This book is a constant reminder not to do that.
Despite the compact format of the lessons, How to Cheat in 3ds Max 2010 does not confine itself to the simplistic or trivial. It gets into some advanced features such as the UVW Unwrap modifier, normal mapping, and how to configure lighting for best results using the Mental Ray renderer. Still, the two-page format for each lesson does impose some restrictions on what can be attempted. Even when advanced topics are broached, it is usually with a fairly straightforward example, and touching on only a limited number of options.
In addition, the necessary compression of this format often leads the author to show the interface and describe what you need to do, but not in a step-by-step "select this radio button, then click this button" fashion. Instead, you get something like, "Set up this type of effect on the Effects tab of the Environment and Effects dialog by adding Lens Effects and making an omni light the source of the effect." Even though this is accompanied by a picture of the interface correctly configured, beginners may at times benefit by consulting the 3ds Max documentation or by looking for a more step-by-step tutorial (perhaps in the 3ds Max Bible). In addition, don't neglect the accompanying CD, which, in addition to containing all the textures and models you'll need to complete the lessons, has starter scenes, final scenes and animations.
Despite some inherent limitations, this is a great book which delivers exactly what it promises: a raft of techniques for producing some impressive results with a minimum of futzing and fretting. Click the link below to purchase:
How to Cheat in 3ds Max 2010: Get Spectacular Results Fast
3ds max 2010 Bible
At first glance, 3ds max 2010 Bible by Kelly L. Murdock might appear to be the polar opposite of How to Cheat in 3ds Max 2010 -- and to an extent, that is true:
Where How to Cheat is slender, Bible is a door-stop. Where How to Cheat focuses on the twenty percent of knowledge that will save you eighty percent of the pain, Bible attempts to leave no stone unturned (an impossibility in 3ds Max, but Bible achieves a reasonable facsimile in 1248 pages including 38 pages of index alone not to mention a bonus chapter or two on the DVD). Where How to Cheat is ablaze with full-color illustrations and screen shots, Bible's visual material is black and white, and there is much less of it proportionally.
(Note: Though the introductory material for the book promises color versions of the pictures on the DVD, that is not the case. The DVD does provide a full searchable PDF of the book, which is useful, but the figures are in black and white.)
On closer examination, though, 3ds max 2010 Bible is not just an exhaustive reference. For one thing, it starts with a 126 page section on "Getting Started with 3ds Max" a small book in itself, aimed at familiarizing the reader with the 3ds Max interface. The section starts right off with a fun example, "Landing a Space Vehicle."
Below: A page from the "Landing a Space Vehicle" tutorial
Click figure above for larger version
In fact, the first five sections of the book comprising nearly 600 pages are aimed at beginners. This is a change from the previous nine editions of the book, which put both basic and advanced information on a particular topic (such as materials, lighting or animation) in one section. The idea of the new organization is that novices can proceed front-to-back through the book with less danger of getting overloaded with too much information in the early pages.
Throughout the book, the author balances teaching new skills on the one hand with cataloguing and explaining Max's rich capabilities on the other. The reader acquires skills by working through the numerous short step-by-step examples, and gains both basic and deeper understanding by reading descriptions which, in terms of page count, far outweigh the tutorials.
The author often exhibits a real talent for making basic concepts clear. For instance, here's the beginning of the section on "Understanding Maps":
To understand a material map, think of this example. Cut the label off of a soup can, scan it into the computer, and save the image as a bitmap. You can then create a cylinder with roughly the same dimensions as the can, load the scanned label image as a material map, and apply it to the cylinder object to simulate the original soup can.
Very basic, and I think very clear and intuitive even to someone who has never heard of a material map before.
However, more advanced and much less intuitive material often follows hard on the heels of the basics. For instance, immediately following the above paragraph comes a section on "Different map types" that starts like this:
Different types of maps exist. Some maps wrap images about objects, while others define areas to be modified by comparing the intensity of the pixels in the map.An example of this is a bump map. A standard bump map would be a grayscale image -- when mapped onto an object, lighter colored sections would be raised to a maximum of pure white ...
I suspect most beginners have fallen off the bus by this time.
If you were only going to buy one book on 3ds Max, this might be it. With dedication and persistence, you could theoretically go from know-nothing status into some moderately advanced territory using this book alone. However, I think you'd spend an awful lot of time plowing through material you didn't really understand. Realistically, you'd probably be interrupting to try some hands-on in Max, read the documentation that comes with the software, search a forum to see if anyone else has ever had the same question that is puzzling you, and so on.
Comments on Amazon.com include "not for novices" and "of course this book isn't for beginners". Despite the author's often successful attempts to accommodate the beginner, I have to agree. The real strength of this book is its comprehensive nature. It covers numerous topics (e.g. dynamics, animation controls, inverse kinematics) that you would otherwise have to go to multiple advanced, specialized books to find. Here they all are in one place, at a price that makes the book an excellent value. (List price is $49.99, but you can find it online for under $32.)
So, I recommend Bible with some reservations for brave, dedicated beginners, but more so for intermediate users with a desire to widen and deepen their knowledge and skills. Click the link to purchase: 3ds Max 2010 Bible
3ds Max Modeling for Games
Even though this book does start simple and move into increasingly complex examples, I'd say it's basically for someone who wants to achieve professional level skills. Many of the examples / tutorials are quite lengthy, difficult and complex, and it takes some real dedication to work your way through them. The rewards, not surprisingly, are commensurate. Lots and lots of full color illustrations and the author's precise attention to detail make learning a lot easier.
I don't always agree with the author's approach. For instance, in chapter 2, in which you model a fairly simple oil drum, the author makes extensive use of Booleans (operations that add, subtract, and intersect objects). Booleans have long been one of Max's least reliable features, often producing flaws that can be hard to fix and easy to miss until it's too late (and you have to start over). Booleans would probably win the prize for Max's most avoided feature, with good reason.
Booleans do give the author a perfect excuse for warning you to save your work often, and for including a section on "Fixing Your Mistakes". It's all a good learning experience, but I would not want to leave readers with the impression that Booleans are the best way to accomplish the relatively simple modeling tasks described in this chapter.
By the way, 3ds Max 2010 does have some new features designed to make Booleans more reliable and easier to work with. For instance, I am told that the new Quadify modifier in the ProBooleans toolset makes subdivision and smoothing work a lot better on objects created using Booleans. The new Merge Boolean operation also sounds interesting; it allows you to combine objects using Boolean operations but still retain the modification history of each object so you can correct problems later on without having to start from scratch. Unfortunately, 3ds Max Modeling for Games doesn't say anything about these improvements, because it's based on Max 2009.
All that being said, on balance, this is an excellent book for those who have the dedication to work through it. It gives you step-by-step-by-step instructions on how to create some quite complex models, taking you to a level of detail and specificity that the other two books reviewed here, for instance, do not begin to approach. It dives deep into every phase of the workflow for creating models for games, from reference photos to rough modeling and detail modeling, to applying textures and maps. It also has some good suggestions about creating a portfolio and interviewing.
If you want to work as a 3D modeler in games industry, this is definitely a book to own. It's also a good one for any intermediate modeler who yearns to go to the next level. Click the link below to purchase:
3ds Max Modeling for Games: Insider's Guide to Game Character, Vehicle, and Environment Modeling