Know the Basics: 3ds Max Part 4: Animation

Animation mixed with in-camera motion blur brings a real dynamic aspect that would otherwise not be there. 3ds Max's physical camera has a quick and effective motion blur tool.

Animation mixed with in-camera motion blur brings a real dynamic aspect that would otherwise not be there. 3ds Max's physical camera has a quick and effective motion blur tool.

For part 4 of the Know The Basics series for 3ds Max, we take a look at the basic animation tools the software has to offer...

Know the basics: 3ds Max Part 1: Modelling
Know the basics: 3ds Max Part 2: UV Mapping
Know the Basics: 3ds Max Part 3: Material Editor

This is an absolutely massive area which we can only scratch the surface of in the scope of this article. Within 3ds Max you can create incredibly complex animations but for every animator it has to start with the basics and that means key framing! We're going to focus in on the track bar and learn how to set up some simple but nice animations. We may even delve a little deeper to whet your appetite for what is possible.

Step 1: Track bar

As part of the default interface setup of 3ds Max you have something called a 'Track Bar'. It's located at the bottom of the screen and is defined by a set of frame numbers and a time slider. You can drag the time slider along for exact control and you can edit the frames which are displayed in the track bar by going to the icon in the bottom right of the interface called 'Time configuration'.

The track bar displays the current time segment along with any key frames already created.

Step 2: Time configuration

With that dialogue box open you can set your frame rate depending on whether you want a rate which is common to the UK, America or if you want something which is custom. The playback can then be customised to different speeds and the playback direction can even be changed. The final thing I want to draw your attention to is the ability to change the start and end times as well as the length. You can do this using shortcut keys Ctrl+Alt and dragging either left or right directly on the Track Bar.

Set up your track bar to display exactly what you want it to.

Step 3: Re-scale time

Within the time configuration dialogue box, you can also re-scale the time. This is particularly helpful if you realise that your entire animation is either too quick or too slow. By adjusting the length of the animation time frame you can either squash or stretch all the key frames found inside of the track bar.

Being able to re-scale your animation is an absolute life saver.
This simple tools lets you do it quickly and easily.

Step 4: Playback controls

Just to the left of the navigation controls there are a set of playback controls for use with the track bar. These will enable you to play, move to the next or previous frame or even move right to the beginning or end. The speed at which playback happens is dependent on the settings found in the Time configuration dialogue box.

The playback controls are always at the bottom of the interface
so they're easy to access at any time.

Step 5: Key frames introduction

Video is made up of frames, let's say 24 frames per second for example, and in an animation the objects in your scene will have a set location for each frame. This location is depending on a whole host of properties including position and rotation. Now you can imagine animating frame by frame is absolutely ridiculous. That is why there are key frames. These are created at key points and then 3ds Max interpolates the frames in between. Very handy!

Key frames are visible from within the track bar.

Step 6: Creating key frames

There are 2 types of keying, namely 'Auto Key' and 'Set Key'. Let's take auto key first. This will automatically place key frames for you. So let's say you have no key frames yet and a box in your scene. If you go to frame 100 and move the box to another location, you'll notice that it creates a key frame at frame 1 which is the original position and then a key frame at frame 100. 'Set key' on the other hand is a manual process of setting the key frames when you want them. You can toggle between these models using the buttons below the track bar.

Don't forget to deselect 'Auto key' if you've finished animating.
You don't want to end up with unnecessary key frames.

Step 7: Types of tangents

As previously mentioned, 3ds Max will interpolate the frames in between but it needs to know if you want that interpolation to be linear or if you want the first part of the animation to be quicker than the 2nd for example. You have multiple types and the default one can be set by going to the icon immediately to the right of 'Set Key'. This lets you change it to linear or Bezier in or out for example. It's worth changing this to the type that you know you'll create most of the time.

Different scenarios and required outputs will call for different tangent types to be used.

Step 8: The curve editor

Now things get a little more complex. The curve editor gives you more control over how your animation is played back. It's called a curve editor because it gives you precise and advanced control over how the curves between key frames drive your animation. You can open this editor by going to the 'Graph Editors' menu item at the top and selecting 'Curve Editor.

An incredibly powerful tool enabling animators to get really fine control over the movement of their creations.

Step 9: Adjusting curves

With some key frames applied to your object and the curve editor open you'll notice on the LHS that there is a node based list of items. By selecting on these, the editor will display the key frames and curves specific to the selection. To fine tune a curve, select a vertex and right click on it. This will let you change the time of the key frame as well as its value. And finally it'll let you change the tangent for both the way the curve comes into the key frame and the way the curve goes out of it.

Select specific items to narrow down what curves are displayed in the editor.

Step 10: Using Bezier tangents

If you set the in and out tangents to Bezier and close that small dialogue box you'll notice that your key frame now has a blue handle. You can select the end of this handle and move it around. This will adjust the curve and is ideal for when you want to fine tune the play back of your animation. One of the most common uses for this is when you want an object to slow down as it approaches a stop.

Smooth out your animations with Bezier tangents.

Step 11: In summary

As I mentioned previously we really have only scratched the surface. There are a whole host of other ways to animate objects and do character rigging for example. You can even use the built in camera sequencer to perfectly set up cuts between your cameras as your animation unfolds. Another aspect to look into is wiring parameters which enable you to drive parameters based on other parameters. So powerful!

There are better pieces of software out there for animation such as Maya but 3ds Max still has an impressive set of tools.

Top tip: Dummy's and linking objects

If you have several objects that are going to perform the same animation then I would recommend creating a null object, applying the animation to that object and then linking the other objects in your scene to the null. They will become children and do whatever their parent null is doing.

Understanding this simple technique will open up a whole host of animation possibilities.

Related links

Download 3ds Max
Head over to Autodesk's 'Area'
3ds Max tips on YouTube
For more from Paul, check out C A Design Services
Grab a copy of 3ds Max Projects
Know the basics: 3ds Max Part 1: Modelling
Know the basics: 3ds Max Part 2: UV Mapping
Know the Basics: 3ds Max Part 3: Material Editor

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