Understanding the Main Tools in 3D Studio Max

This is the main tool panel that you will use to create, edit, and control the objects in your scene; it’s located to the right of your interface, with tabbed groupings. The tools found here give access to the various settings that control the behavior and shape of an object; they are set up with the subsets top, object buttons below, and then expandable editing sets for the settings of the objects below that.

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Main Tools and the "Create" Panel

3DSMax 1.3.1
"Create" Panel.

This tab gives you access to every in-scene object that 3DSMax will let you create; it, like the others, is broken down into smaller subsets, accessible by the buttons at the top of the tab.

  • Geometry: Represented by an image of a sphere, selecting this subset lets you draw any three-dimensional geometry. The default is Standard Primitives (box, sphere, etc), but using the dropdown menu you can select Extended Primitives, Compound Objects, Particle Systems, Patch Grids, NURBS Surface, and Dynamic Objects.
  • Shapes: Represented by a shapes icon, this subset gives access to the drawing tools for flat, 2D objects: Splines (circles, rectangles, etc.) and NURBS curves.
  • Lights: Subset represented by a “flashlight” with the tools to create light sets: Target Spot, Free Spot, Target Direct, Free Direct, and Omni. The dropdown menu for this subset contains only Standard types.
  • Cameras: Represented by a graphic of a camera, this contains the camera types: Target and Free. The dropdown menu for this subset contains only Standard types.
  • Helpers: The icon for this subset looks like a small tape measure, and like a tape measure the tools contained within are useful to the construction of your scene. The dropdown options for this subset are Standard (dummy, tape measure, compass, etc.), Atmospheric Apparatus, Camera Match, and Manipulators. You may see other options here if you have certain plugins (like Reactor or Shag Hair).
  • Space Warps: This subset (represented by an icon depicting several waves) lets you create forces and other environmental factors in your scene. The dropdown options include Forces (motor, push, vortex, etc.), Deflectors, Geometric/Deformable, and Modifier-Based. Like the above, you may see other options if you have additional plugins.
  • Systems: This subset, whose icon depicts two gears, lets you create complex systems with the push of a few buttons: bones, sunlight systems, full biped systems, and ring arrays. The dropdown menu for this subset contains only Standard types.
  • The last in the four panels displayed above is merely an example of the selection dropdown menus on the various subsets. This one displays the options available on the Geometry subset.
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"Modify" Panel

3DSMax 1.3.3
"Modifier" Panel.

You’ll be using the tools on this panel more than any others when modeling; these tools control your shape’s appearance by applying modifiers to its polygons; anything from meshsmooths (smoothing the surface through iterations of polygons) to extrusions (drawing out one or more faces) to bends and tapers (literally bending or squeezing your shapes) and much, much more. There’s a default set of eight of the most commonly-used buttons, but you can customize it to display whichever tools you prefer.

The easiest way to get to the majority of the modifiers, however, is through the dropdown menu listing every modifier available. Once you’ve selected a modifier, the window below will display the shape/object you’ve selected and a hierarchy of the modifiers applied to it. Below that, the expandable editing panels let you change the settings of how they affect your shapes.

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"Hierarchy" Panel

3DSMax 1.3.4

You’ll find this panel useful once you’ve set up hierarchies of objects (linked objects) or linked bone systems; you can set their behaviors in relation to each other, and to the scene, using the three tabs.

  • Pivot: Adjust the pivot points of objects, including how the move/rotate/scale tools affect them (such as setting them to affect only the pivot points affect the object only, or affect the entire hierarchy), which will change the results of using those tools; you can also set the alignment in relation to each other and the “world”, or change whether or not changes made to a “parent” object affect that object’s linked “children”. This is key to “forward kinematics” (a method of animation where you move things in a straightforward fashion, one pivot-point at a time).
  • IK: Here you can control your IK (inverse kinematics) settings. IK is an animation method that can control the behavior of an entire chain of objects at once, as though they truly were attached and affected by each others’ forces (for example: if you pull on a human wrist, the wrist alone will not move; it will pull the forearm with it, which will, in turn, draw the upper arm, then shoulder, then body behind). We’ll talk about this in more detail in a separate lesson on IK.
  • Link Info: This subset is very simple; it lets you either lock or unlock movement, rotation, or scaling on an axis, and determine on which axes motion, rotation, or scaling is inherited.
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"Motion" Panel

3DSMax 1.3.5
"Motion" Panel.

The options here are more tied to the animation of your shapes/objects than the forms of the shapes themselves. (Another is Track View, which is something we’ll discuss later, but the two act as alternatives to each other.)

  • Parameters: Here you can assign a controller to your motion (such as position, rotation, or scale), create keys for those controllers, or edit your key frame information to set motion to ease into a key, ease out of a key, or various other settings.
  • Trajectories: This lets you view the path an object travels over time, and use that visual to control the path.
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"Display" Panel

3DSMax 1.3.6
"Display" Panel.

This controls the display of objects in your scene. You can hide, unhide, or freeze objects or groups of objects at your discretion. You can also change how they're displayed/in what form or change viewport characteristics.

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"Utilities" Panel

3DSMax 1.3.7
"Utilities" Panel.

3DSMax utilities are actually plugins to the program and can be accessed via this panel to accomplish various useful tasks.