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3ds Max: Animation Features Worth Knowing

Written by Tom FronczakFebruary 22, 2011
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3D Studio Max is the software behemoth that arguably has cast the largest shadow in the industry year after year for the past decade, but the competition sure has become dramatically closer in recent years. Despite the quickly evolving market, 3ds Max continues to fight for the throne and still boasts top of the line 3D capabilities for each of its many professional media uses. Animation is no exception.

3D Studio Max has been used in countless movies, games, and television shows that we’ve all enjoyed in the past, so if you want a reliable program then 3ds is a great place to start. However, as with all animation software, it’s worth noting that the program itself isn’t the most important thing to know; the principles are. All 3D software should be viewed as nothing more than a different tool to help you get the same job done, with many programs being perfectly acceptable. It’s great to find out which one you like best but different employers use different software, so it’s likely that over the course of your career you’ll be asked to learn a few different animation programs. Try them all and have fun! Here are some of the best things 3ds Max has to offer for animators:

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Key Frame Timeline

For basic animations this is the standard tool that couldn’t be simpler. Give an object its X, Y, and Z key frames at 0 seconds, then move it and lock in its 3 new key frames at some other spot on the timeline, click play, and watch the scene play out. It’s the bread and butter that all the other animation features in 3ds Max use, so the quicker you learn the foundation, the quicker you can learn the advanced ways to create your animation.

Curve Editor & Dope Sheet

Even though the 2D principle of “tweening” frames still applies, the best part about 3D animation is that you don’t have to draw out every single frame. Tell it where to start and where to stop and let the software fill in the blanks for you. Keep tweaking the middle outcome to your liking, but if you’re adding keys for every single frame then you’re not using 3ds Max to its full potential. This is often where the curve editor comes into play.

The advanced timeline displayed in its interface allows you to perform complex trigonometry with the simplest of clicks and drags on its graph. Instead of plotting out every step of an animation you can quickly let math manipulate the movement and acceleration speed while letting the animation loop as a preview of your tiny edits. You’d be surprised how much easier it is to deal with spatial animations on a 2D graph as opposed to a linear timeline. The extra dimension also helps your memory since it can be confusing when looking at dozens of old animation keys spread across a flat line that you haven’t worked on in a few days. Not to mention it also lets you add actual notes to the graph!

Once you map out the exact path you want you can dive even deeper by tweaking more tangents to add more finesse and smoothness. Along the way to completion the dope sheet is also interchangeable so that you can follow or set exact storyboard and camera guides.

Character Studio

No amount of fancy timeline tricks will let you produce elaborate 3D character animations without first setting up a character! This can be a lengthy and challenging process, so the character studio was added as a quicker way to jump right into the advanced animations you’re aiming for. A biped body of rigged bones exists in one click and the sub-interface comes with plenty of helpful options like footstep placement, trajectories, motion flow, rubber banding, scale stride, and a long list of other noteworthy modes.


For the more advanced animators there’s inverse kinematics (IK) and forward kinematics (FK). These are most essential when moving an object that’s attached to several other objects, such as a hand that’s connected to an arm, or a piston that’s connected to a pump and a set of gears. It doesn’t matter if your needs are organic or mechanical, they both bring many different tools to the table to help you achieve the realistic motions you need for a scene.

Unlike with character studio though, you’ll often need to “skin” and “rig” your object or character by adding bones to it that don’t get displayed on renders but help you assign exactly how much or how little each bone controls each nearby object’s movements when rotated. This can greatly elevate your character animation quality, but great skill and patience is required! Many studios have different staff members that handle this for their animators.

Physics Engine

Some scenes in nature are nearly impossible to animate authentically, or are downright a waste of time to work on when it’s far quicker to just let math take over. For this, 3ds has a “Reactor” physics engine, which uses the Havok Physics software. This phenomenal tool lets you assign objects as soft or rigid bodies so that you can give them weight and friction. Then you introduce forces or gravity to the scene and watch as they all interact flawlessly. Simple scenes that can be created in a matter of minutes are flags blowing in the wind, ragdoll bodies falling through air, or solid objects colliding with others and reacting accordingly. It’s one of the most powerful tools an animator has in 3D Studio Max since it offers the most results in the least amount of time.