Software: Autodesk 3ds Max
By Audrey Doyle
Choices: everybody's faced with them. But while some choices are difficult to make, others are a cinch.
When Media Arts & Animation student David Cumbo had to decide which 3D application to use to create an animated short film for his senior class project at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh (AIP), he says his choice was easy: without hesitation he chose 3ds Max. That short film, called Fragile, turned out so well that Cumbo used it as his demo reel. And last summer, when the AIP submitted the demo reel for consideration in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' 31st annual Student Academy Awards competition, it made it all the way to the finals.
Today, the 22-year-old aspiring independent filmmaker continues to use 3ds Max for 3D modeling and animation. And he wouldn't dream of using anything else. "3ds Max wasn't the only software we could use at the AIP, but it was the best, in my opinion," says Cumbo. "Unlike other 3D software, 3ds Max has a comprehensive toolset specifically for artists.
"It's challenging enough to create convincing character animation. Having Character Studio built into 3ds Max simplifies the entire character animation process and delivers realistic-looking results quickly and efficiently. I use 3ds Max today because I can get my work done faster than I can in anything else."
As an animation student at the AIP, Cumbo was required to learn both 3ds Max and a competing 3D modeling and animation application. "But in that other software, I was spending more time trying to learn how to do things than I was spending actually doing those things. It interfered with my ability to just be creative," Cumbo says.
So, when it came time to work on his senior class project, Cumbo turned to 3ds Max. "When I was working on Fragile I was taking a full class load, so I had little time to teach myself complex techniques I had never done before," he recalls. "3ds Max was the logical choice because you can do everything with it. And the lighting tools especially are amazing. You can get great results without having to work through a steep learning curve."
And as Cumbo explains, lighting was critical in Fragile because of the mood of the piece. Playful and whimsical, but at the same time bittersweet and somewhat dark, Fragile is an abstract adventure into the mind of a four-year-old boy who is trying to deal with his older brother's recent death. Approximately 7½ minutes long, the dreamlike animation shows the children playing together, donning masks and exploring make-believe, abstract landscapes. At the end of the animation the older sibling tucks his brother into bed and hands him his cherished stuffed bunny. "The animation doesn't have a moral, and my goal was to relate to kids, not adults," Cumbo explains. "It's common for a child faced with a death in the family to blame himself for the death. The animation is meant to show what goes on in the mind of someone who is too young to explain what he's thinking and feeling."
To create the backgrounds and other objects in Fragile, Cumbo used a combination of the poly modeling tools and splines available in 3ds Max. He modeled the characters in 3ds Max and animated them in Character Studio, the advanced character animation option for 3ds Max.
Cumbo says that although he encountered a few challenges while creating Fragile, none of them was too complex for him to handle in 3ds Max. For example, Cumbo worked on Fragile throughout this senior year, and during that time his modeling and animation skills progressed. "Right in the middle of production I wanted to redesign the character models because I wasn't happy with how they were looking," he says. "But I had already completed a substantial portion of the animation." He encountered a similar issue when building the backgrounds. "I would look back at the older details and not like what I did."
With most other packages, Cumbo would have had to redo the animation. Not so with 3ds Max. "Using the same skeleton setup I could import the existing animation into the new character models," he says. "And because there are so many ways to model in 3ds Max, I could get the look I wanted for the backgrounds with no fuss. That really helped me out a lot."
As noted earlier, another challenge concerned lighting, but Cumbo says the advanced lighting tools in 3ds Max saved him a lot of time and hassle. "I didn't have to do secondary and tertiary lighting to get the soft, dreamlike look I wanted," he explains. "I got it with just primary lights. That's another reason I like working with 3ds Max. I could focus on my art and not get bogged down with the technical details of dealing with bounce lights and so on."
Once the animation was finished, Cumbo rendered it using the scanline renderer built into 3ds Max, which he says worked perfectly. "I did render tests with some third-party renderers and found the scanline renderer in 3ds Max looked just as good," he enthuses. "It has radiosity tools built right in, a feature which major competing software packages have yet to catch up with."
Today, Cumbo is busy working on a three-minute pilot for a full-length animated feature he plans to pitch. Although he can't talk about the storyline, he has plenty to say about 3ds Max and how it's helping him with the pilot. "I'm using version 7 and it blows me away," he enthuses. "The materials are amazing. And so are the modifiers, especially the Skin Morph modifier, which allows me to position the joints in a skeleton wherever I want them and edit the mesh in real time, and it will automatically interpolate between the original and new positions. It's hard or impossible to do this in other software. But with 3ds Max, not only can you do it, but you can do it super-fast."
With 3ds Max, Cumbo has achieved positive results both in and out of school. He adds that Academy Award aspirations, although encouraging, do not drive him to succeed. "When I started Fragile, I wasn't focused on awards. I was focused only on the quality of the storyline and the aesthetic design," he says.
"3ds Max let me do that," he concludes. "I plan to use 3ds Max for all the films I work on."
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