Quality Content with Max Plug-ins
I’ve watched Autodesk 3ds Max® evolve over a decade through development, user input, sweat, and tears (a few of my own anyway). Reaching its digital arms across earth, 3ds Max has plugged designers into the tools necessary to materialize a universe of global imagination. In this article, I’ll introduce three 3ds Max plug-ins that can help you produce high-quality content in a short period of time. The tools are V-Ray, CityTraffic, and Forest Pack Pro.
V-Ray streamlines visualization using advanced shaders, dynamic simulation, global illumination, and more. Used in films, games, and by architects and designers, V-Ray contains one of the most sophisticated rendering engines available. Ultimately hijacking Max's own engine, it provides us with nitro-charged versions of our projects in an extremely short amount of time. To introduce VRay I’ll walk through a procedure to set up a basic exterior-style scene using VRaySun, VRaySky, and VRayPhyCam.
Figure 1: Basic rendering without VRay
Let’s start the 3ds Max scene with two standard primitives that are located in the menu bar under Create or on the Create tab in the Command panel. The first object we’ll add to our scene is a plane 30 meters by 30 meters. Next, we’ll add a sphere with a five meter radius. We’ll want to increase the resolution to ensure maximum quality by changing the sphere segments from its default to 100. Place the sphere on top of the plane.
Next, we’ll add a VrayPhsCam. The VrayPhsCam can be found by selecting the Command panel, Create tab, picking the Cameras icon, and changing the drop-down below it to VRay, where you will see the VRayPhysicalCam object we want to add to our scene. Select the camera and place it roughly 10 meters from the sphere in any horizontal direction, a meter or so above the ground plane, and target the center of the sphere.
Next we’ll add the VRaySun, which is located on the Command panel by selecting Lights and changing the drop-down to VRay. We’ll want to place the sun roughly 40 meters from our sphere in any horizontal direction and roughly a 45 degree angle vertically and then target our sphere. At this point, a dialog box will appear asking if we’d like to automatically add a VRaySky environment map. Select Yes.
Finally, we’ll need to adjust some rendering settings to take advantage of the VRay system. First, we’ll assign the renderer in the Render Setup located on the menu bar under Rendering. Once selected, the render setup dialog box will appear. Here we will select the Common tab and expand the Assign Renderer group, where we’ll change the Production Renderer to our VRay Renderer.
Next, we’ll want to adjust the Render region divisions for better resolution. Select the Settings tab, and expand the V-Ray System group. Alter the Render Region Division values so that X is five, and Y is five. At this point, we can apply whatever materials we want and render a high-quality exterior style scene with natural-appearing light and shadows.
Figure 2: Sample rendering with VRay
- Think like an artist or photographer. Rendering is basically taking a digital photo or painting a picture. Understanding materials, camera angles, lights, and shadows are key to creating the render you want.
- Learn to color balance. This can be done by comparing images to a reference. To adapt to natural colors faster you could practice with photography. DSLR (reflex) cameras reflect light from objects through a mirror to the person’s eye so they see what will be produced on film. Through dealing with white balance by measuring the temperature of the environment, you will start to notice exaggerated colors more quickly.
- Build a library of the materials/textures/shaders you find and create. Stick with high-resolution textures and keep materials categorized. Add them to your library when you create them—it’s the best time to do it.
- When using lights, add a single light at a time, render, and review the result. Review how each light impacts your scene individually and together, and find the combinations you like best.
- Keep learning. Follow forums, pay attention to the discussions, get training, and don’t take for granted the time professional users invest by sharing their experience online.
CityTraffic animates traffic flow with dynamic calculations and an advanced AI-based system for vehicle movement, automating a task that might otherwise have been impossible.
The process to create simulated AI-based traffic flow with CityTraffic is simple. It begins by adding splines centered on our roadways. Using 3ds Max’s autogrid snap system, we’ll want to ensure the splines follow our surface. CityTraffic creators recommend that the spline doesn’t deviate from the surface more than the height of our vehicle’s tire.
After inserting the splines we’ll need to apply the CityTraffic Road modifier, which contains options such as number of forward lanes, backward lanes, speed limit, types of vehicles allowed, widths, and more. If you can’t locate the modifier you might find it by selecting the Configure Modifier Sets icon located at the bottom of the Modifier tab on the Command panel. Depending on the complication of our intersection we’ll need to manually construct a few cross-traffic splines or use the Traffic-Cross modifier to ensure simulated traffic flow occurs at these locations.
Next we’ll need to add parking stalls, traffic lights, bus stops, speed limiters, obstacles, and more. These items can be located by selecting the Helpers icon under the Create tab on the Command panel.
After that, we select our vehicles, which should contain the body and four to six wheels. CityTraffic classifies vehicles into three types: car, bus, and truck—each programmed with specific intelligence. For example, only a bus will stop at bus stops.
Finally, we choose a road surface containing the entire area of the roadway system we constructed from splines, select the frame and animation frame length (starting at a negative value to allow for corrections), and run our simulation.
One additional note to add is that CityTraffic 2.0 contains a much more advanced AI-based system and is not compatible with its predecessor. The new version can be installed in conjunction with the older version, allowing users to continue to access and modify previous simulations as needed.
Figure 3: Simulated Traffic Flow at an Intersection
- Upgrade is free for owners of previous versions.
- Use low-poly models for complicated simulations to reduce calculation and rendering time.
- Save often and create backups at intermediate stages. Depending on the complication of your traffic network and capabilities of your machine, it’s possible a crash can occur that will result in the loss of data.
- Ensure your surface contains your entire road/spline network. If it doesn’t, your vehicles will fall.
- Have fun! A teapot with four spheres can be classified a car.
Forest Pack Pro
Forest Pack Pro is a powerful plug-in that allows us to populate scenes with thousands of proxy objects and render them in a matter of a few short minutes. I consider this one of the simplest plug-ins I’ve learned to use.
Populating a scene is a fairly streamlined process. We start by adding a Forest Pack Pro object. To get to the Forest Pack Pro library we need to select the Create tab in the Command panel, pick the Geometry icon, and change the drop-down below it to Itoo Software. Once completed, the Forest Pack Pro button appears below. By selecting the button we enter the Forest Pack Pro library browser, one of the cleanest and more user-friendly browsers I’ve seen. Vegetation is categorized in multiple classes that are easy to follow such as 2D, 3D, HQ (High-Quality) plants as well as direct links to order more. Once we’ve decided on a Forest Pack Pro object to insert we simply select it and click on the import button at the bottom.
At this point we can insert one or more versions of the selected object. We also have the option to navigate to the Modify tab located on the Command panel where we can duplicate geometry, delete it, randomize transformations, control density, and more.
Figure 4: Rendered Forest Pack Pro objects
- When importing objects, Forest Pack Pro defaults to the Generate option, which requires the selection of a spline or object depending on what we want to do. To place objects individually, change it to the Custom Edit option below.
- Forest Pack Pro can align objects to face a camera automatically by selecting the Auto Assign to Active View option located on the Modify Panel.
- We can reduce the limit of visibility to shorten rendering time.
- Forest Pack Pro Lite allows only up to four scatter areas.
- We must have the Pro version to create our own plant library.