Improve your 3ds Max workflow: animation tools
Paul Hatton shows how to bring your static 3D models to life with the fantastic set of animation tools available in 3ds Max...
Improving your 3ds Max workflow – previous chapters:
Top 10 interface secrets
Better modeling workflow
Handling massive scenes
3ds Max has a plethora of animation tools which make it possible to achieve some very impressive animation results. As I work mostly with architectural animation, I will be focusing on the related tools in that field rather than delving into any character animation, although that is also possible in 3ds Max. We'll be investigating how to set up moving cameras, animating objects as well as a quick look into the new Populate tools that have recently been added to 3ds Max.
The timeline at the bottom of the 3ds Max interface is where you set up the majority of your key frame animation, although we will look at the curve editor later which gives you access to more complex controls. The timeline shows the active segment of time and shows all the key frames for all the objects you have selected. The playback controls in the lower-right corner can be used to playback or move around your timeline.
Navigating the timeline
There are some really handy shortcuts that enable you to navigate quickly around your timeline. Ctrl+Alt+right-mouse-button will extend your end frames. And doing the same shortcut but with your left-mouse-button will extend your start frames past zero. You can also shift the whole timeline along either way by using Ctrl+Alt+middle-mouse-button. To move the cursor to the start and end frames of your active time segment, just use the Home and End keys. Get used to these controls because they will speed up your animation workflow no end.
When creating a video it is important to think about what the output is going to be. All of this can be set up using the Time Configuration tools which can be accessed by clicking on the icon in the bottom-right corner. This lets you set the desired frame rate as well as the start, end and length of your animation. The handiest tool here is the Re-scale Time feature which is perfect if you want to slow or speed up your entire animation, without having to move key frames individually.
Animating with Auto Key
Now let's start animating! The way to think about animating is that for every frame your objects have a defined position and rotation. If you haven't set up any key frames then this is the same for every frame. What we need to do is set the position and rotation of our object to be different at different points in time. Firstly, select your object. Secondly, select Auto Key at the bottom. Then move to frame 50 and move your object to a new position. You'll see a key frame appear at frame 0 and frame 50. Play back your animation.
Animating with Set Key
The second way to insert key frames is using the Set Key button which is located underneath the timeline. The Set Key method gives you a lot more control than using Auto Key because you can try out ideas and get rid of them easily without having to undo your work. Once you have your object in the position you want it and you're located on the desired key frame, hit Set Key and you'll see a key frame appear right on your select frame.
In Out Tangents for new keys
When inserting key frames into your timeline it's important to know that you get different types of key frames. For example, if you are animating a ball bouncing then you might want it to slow down as it hits the peak. You can do this by adjusting the In Out Tangents before you insert the key (although it can be adjusted afterwards). To the right of the Set Key button there is a drop-down list of your options. Experiment with them and get to know the differences.
This was one of the first animation tools that I ever learned. It enables you to do many things, including moving a camera along a spline, which is perfect for walkthrough animations. With your spline and camera created, select your camera and go to the menu Animation > Constraints > Path Constraint. The viewport will then display a dotted line extending from the camera. To complete the operation select the spline. The camera will then jump to the start of the spline. Playback the animation to see the camera moving. You can path constrain the camera target to a different spline if you like.
This type of constraint is very similar to the Path Constraint, but instead of being a movement constraint it is actually a rotation constraint. This is perfect for if you want an object, such as a camera, to always be looking at another object, for example looking at a person. You can set up this constraint in exactly the same way as before but make sure you select the LookAt Constraint instead. If you then move the object that is being looked at you will see your camera adjusting to look at it.
Track View – Curve Editor
This is where we go a bit deeper under the hood. The Curve Editor lets you set up much more complex animations and gives you a huge amount of control to ensure everything behaves as you want it to. Open this up by going to the menu Graph Editors > Track View – Curve Editor. With a key framed object selected you'll see that those key frames are represented in the curve editor too. The interface might seem daunting but just start by selecting the key frames and moving them around. If you right-click on a key frame it will bring up a box which also lets you adjust the In and Out tangents. There is much more you can do with the curve editor so do learn to work with it.
The Populate tools are 3ds Max's solution to large-scale animated crowds. These are perfect for aerial views but leave a lot to be desired when close up. Open the tools by going to the menu Animation > Populate > Populate Tools. Start by creating a flow and then hit Simulate. This will generate crowds on all flows in the scene. You can also create idle areas of people sitting or standing. The tools are easy to use and quick to adjust so definitely keep them in mind if you having sweeping aerial camera views.
Top tip: Frame rate
Make sure that you use the same frame rate in your 3ds Max Time Configuration as you do in your video editing software. If you don't you will get an unexpected overall video length.