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What's New in Rendering for 3ds Max 2018

Hagerman & Company

Along with the release of 3ds Max 2018, we are happy to announce the 1.0 release of our "MAXtoA" Arnold plugin for 3ds Max 2018, a major milestone.

Model courtesy of Evermotion, and rendered in MAXtoA 1.0.

MAXtoA is the Arnold renderer plugin for 3ds Max. After four beta releases to the Solid Angle website, we are now including MAXtoA with the install of 3ds Max 2018. This document refers to the newest MAXtoA build 812 available on the Solid Angle. site.

An Update is Available for MAXtoA for 3ds Max 2018

Since this plugin is under continuous development and available separately from 3ds Max, you can now download directly from the Solid Angle website the newest version of MAXtoA with the very latest version of Arnold. It is recommended to update the plugin that ships with 3ds Max before editing scenes and to always use the latest plugin available to ensure feature support. Visit the Downloads page or click this link.

Top features for MAXtoA 1.0

  • The latest Arnold version 5.
  • Volumetric effects with OpenVDB support
  • Atmospheric effects
  • Procedural (proxy) objects allow scene interchange with other Arnold plugins.
  • An extensive array of built-in Arnold professional shaders and materials.
  • MAXtoA supports 3rd-party shaders compiled for Windows and Arnold 5.
  • Easy Image-Based-Lighting workflow with separate Environment and Background capabilities.
  • Arnold Properties Modifier allows you to control render-time effects and options per-object.
  • Arbitrary Output Variable (AOV) support for compositing and post-processing.
  • Depth-of-Field, Motion Blur, and camera Shutter effects.
  • New VR Camera.
  • New easier-to-use layered "Standard Surface" with Disney compatibility, replaces the Arnold Standard shader. 
  • The "Arnold Material" is now "Map to Material".
  • New melanin-driven "Standard Hair" shader with simpler parameters and artistic controls for more natural results.
  • Full support of 3ds Max Physical material and legacy maps.
  • Supports Photometric lights for easy Revit interop.
  • All-in-one Arnold light supports textured area lights, mesh lights, Skydome and Distant light sources.
  • New Portal mode for Quad and Skydome lights for improved sampling of interior scenes.
  • New Roundness and Soft Edge options for Quad and Spot lights.
  • Improved sampling for Quad and Cylinder lights.
  • Scene Converter preset and scripts for upgrading legacy scenes.

The Arnold 5 new features are detailed on the Solid Angle website, along with the features in MAXtoA 1.0. In this blog post, I'll highlight some of the new features and the new workflows in MAXtoA we'd like to highlight.

Using Legacy 3ds Max Maps

One of the first things you may want to do if you are exploring Arnold with your existing scenes is to turn on the "Legacy 3ds Max Map Support" checkbox, found on the System tab of the Arnold render settings:

When enabled, the longer description shown above will appear below the checkbox. Within MAXtoA this option allows maps such as Noise to function, however, this is not optimal and changing some values when ActiveShade is running may cause unavoidable issues.

This option is provided to allow you to more easily play and explore in Arnold with your existing scenes, however, as you adopt Arnold in your own workflows it is recommended to transition your maps to Arnold-specific equivalents. This will give improved performance and stability, and also allow you to better utilize the Procedural system and also exchange data with other 3D apps.

New Scene Converter Functionality

When opening legacy 3ds Max scenes you may see a new message pop-up on your screen:

As the message says, you will get this warning if the mental ray plugin is not installed and you open a scene that contains legacy mental ray or Iray features. mental ray is no longer provided with 3ds Max 2018 and beyond, and you can read more about that here.

If you choose to open the Scene Converter you can inspect the list of missing plugins before choosing to convert. You'll see highlighted text and an "expand..." link that lets you view the list:

The default ART preset allows you to convert some mental ray-specific features to newer render-agnostic features such as the Physical Material and Photometric light. The Scene Converter can optionally remove any invalid features from your scene and can also replace some missing features with default types.

For instance, if you open a V-Ray scene and don't have V-Ray installed, the Scene Converter will change the missing materials to a default Physical material. Without the V-Ray plugin the Scene Converter can't access the parameters of the material, but by replacing the missing material you now have a good start at using the scene in another renderer.

For most scenes all you need to do is press the Convert button on the lower-right of the dialog box.

New Light and Material Conversion Scripts for Arnold

New with the MAXtoA plugin (the 1.0.1 or newer version available on the Solid Angle site) are conversion Presets and scripts to help convert your scenes to Arnold-specific lights and materials.

In the Scene Converter, click on the Open Preset File icon in the upper-right. Then choose the "Arnold", "Physical to StandardSurface_Preset.ms", or the "Photometric Lights to Arnold Lights_Preset.ms" file. The Arnold preset includes the same conversions as the default ART preset, along with the options to convert Physical materials to the Arnold Standard Surface material, and Photometric lights to the Arnold Light.

The Standard Surface and Arnold Light scene converters perform the same conversion that is automatically performed by the MAXtoA scene translator when it sends the data to Arnold. You can use these scripts to allow you to access the finer controls and additional features found in the Arnold-specific elements.

Arnold Materials and Maps

In Arnold 5, shaders can now return a new data type called "closure". In 3ds Max the change has caused some shaders to appear now as materials instead of maps as they did before, and some scenes that used earlier MAXtoA versions will not load the now-missing maps. You will need to manually replace the items if this occurs.

The Arnold Standard shader, for instance, has been replaced with the Standard Surface material, and the Standard shader will not work in your scene. The old Standard shader also required the use of the Arnold Material in order to apply it to an object, whereas the new Standard Surface returns a closure and appears in Max as a material. This means it is directly usable on an object and the Arnold Material is no longer usable. The Standard shader is deprecated and you can replace the Arnold Material with a new Standard Surface material. If you are using other Arnold surface shaders you will need to use the new "Map to Material" utility material for Arnold, which is a replacement for the Arnold Material.

Note that not all things that appear as materials (return closures) are meant to be applied to an object, like the new Atmosphere Volume. You can do it, but it has no atmospheric effect. A lot has changed in Arnold 5, so take some time to explore all the new and changed features outlined in the online documentation, and familiarize yourself with the maps and materials.

You may also notice that some Arnold maps and materials are in new categories in the Material/Map browser, and there is no longer a "built-in" category:


The New "Standard Surface" Material

As mentioned, with Arnold 5 they have retired the old Standard shader and has replaced it with the Standard Surface material. When you look at the parameters for the Standard Surface you may notice that it looks like the native Physical material in 3ds Max. We were delighted that the initial designs from Solid Angle a lot like the Physical material, and worked closely with the Solid Angle team as the new material evolved.

Because of their similarities, the Physical material that is native to 3ds Max works perfectly fine in Arnold 5 and translates transparently into the new Standard Surface material at render time. A good way to explore how the Physical and Standard Surface may each benefit your work is to use the new Scene Converter preset for "Physical to Standard Surface" to convert your scene's Physical materials and see how the Standard Surface works in your scene.  I often will select a single object with the material that I want to be converted and use the "Apply only to the selected objects" option in the Scene Converter:

This lets me switch just the elements I want to play with at the time. Creating a shift-move clone of a material in the Slate material editor also makes it easy to restore the material if yo need to.

There are a few key differences and benefits to each material, which I'll outline here. The general documentation for Standard Surface is found here.

Bump Maps vs Normal Maps

You'll see that the Coating settings are the same as Physical, except that the Coating Bump in Physical is a Coating Normal (Bump) setting in the Standard Surface. To use this setting with a typical bump map then you first need to feed it through an Arnold Bump 2D shader:

This is also true of the Bump input in the Physical shader vs the "Normal (Bump)" input of the Standard Surface; a true normal map can be used directly, but a simple bump map must use the Bump 2D shader.

If you use the Physical material, then the Bump 2D shader is automatically added to a bump map before the material is converted to a Standard Surface and sent to Arnold. The Physical material would need a "Normal Bump" shader in order to use a normal map, so the need for conversion shaders is not uncommon.

The Scene Converter script to convert a Physical Material to Standard Surface will add the Bump 2D as shown above.

The Standard Surface material also has a Tangents option (in the Special Features section of the Standard Surface) which is not available in the Physical material.

Displacement with the Standard Surface

In previous versions of MAXtoA, the Standard (or other) shader went into the Arnold Material and then onto objects. The Arnold Material had inputs for the shader, Displacement, and Bump, and is now replaced by the "Map to Material" material which does not contain Displacement or Bump options.

To use displacement on an object you can either use the Physical material, where displacement is automatic, or you can use the Arnold Properties modifier and the displacement settings found there. Arnold will use the Displacement Default Subdivision settings in the Geometry, Subdivision & Hair roll-up in the Arnold Renderer tab of the render settings unless you specify subdivision in the Arnold Properties modifier.

Indirect Contribution and Emissive Materials

With the Standard Surface material, you have settings for Indirect Diffuse and Indirect Specular, which aren't present on the Physical material. When using the Standard Surface as an emissive material you may want to set these values to 0.0 and use a Mesh style light to produce illumination from the object in your scene. This should render faster and produce more controllable results. A Mesh light can also be textured for additional effect:

Alien model by Wayne Robson. Spacepot concept by Zap Andersson, rendered in MAXtoA 1.0.

The Standard Surface is a nice upgrade from the Physical material for those looking to take advantage of additional features and finer control in Arnold 5. 

Arnold Light Improvements

The Arnold light now has two improvements to improve the quality and feel for your renderings. First, for the Quad and Spot light types, you now have a Roundness value. For a Spot, the default is 1.0 and the spot is round - moving the value to 0.0 makes it a square. For the Quad light the default is 0.0 and increasing the value will round the edges until the light becomes an ellipse. The Quad light also has a Soft Edge value with a default of 1.0. Decreasing the value will sharpen the appearance in reflections:

The other improvement is the sampling for the Quad and Cylinder light types; if you had previously had high sampling values for either light shape, you may try reducing values to speed your renders.

Atmospheric Effects

The Environment & Background settings now include a Scene Atmosphere option:

With Arnold 5 this is a material and not a map. When the button for Scene Atmosphere is pressed you'll see the Material/Map Browser - the only two valid materials that ship with MAXtoA for atmosphere are the Atmosphere Volume and Fog materials.

Be aware that you will be able to apply other materials, but they will not function.

New Motion Blur and Global Shutter Behavior Options

You now have better control of Motion Blur settings and can allow Arnold to respect settings defined in the Physical Camera. We've also added global settings that allow you to control the shape of the motion blur via a Box (default), Triangle, or the user-adjustable Curve option:

The new option allows you to control the shape of the motion blur

Global Geometry, Subdivision and Hair Settings

MAXtoA now includes global settings for controlling Subdivision, including default subdivision for displacement, and settings for rendering hair primitives (Arnold Curves).


When using hair in your scene you need to add the "Hair and Fur" effect into the Environment & Effects' Effects tab, and set the Hairs option to "mr prim". This will render the hair as Arnold curves and the global settings will work as expected.

Alternatively, with the Arnold Properties modifier, you can control Subdivision per-object, however, the modifier does not have a Dicing Camera option.

Arnold Licensing and Using Backburner

Arnold renders watermark-free within the 3ds Max 2018 UI without needing or using a separate Arnold license. For network or command-line (offline/non-interactive) rendering, you will need a separate Arnold license to render watermark-free. Licenses are available directly from Solid Angle.

So, as long as Max is up and you are working in it interactively, then Arnold doesn't use or need a separate license to render without the watermark. 3ds Max has the Batch Rendering tool (Rendering -> Batch Rendering) and also State Sets that allow you automate the rendering of multiple views of your scene within an interactive session. For command-line or network rendering (Backburner, Deadline, Cube, Royal, etc) then you will need a separate Arnold license to remove the watermark. 

With 3ds Max and the included Backburner applications, you can render on a nearly unlimited number of machines without needing additional licenses of 3ds Max or Arnold. However, you will need additional Arnold licenses if you don't want a watermark on your Arnold renderings. There are no limitations to Arnold rendering beyond the watermark.

For Backburner, Arnold and the MAXtoA plugin works like any other renderer. You'll want to ensure that all machines have the same 3ds Max updates and the same version of MAXtoA - these are separate things. MAXtoA shows as its own application from Solid Angle in your Add/Remove programs menu, and can be updated or even removed independently of 3ds Max. 

If you want to ensure that only licensed machines render your images, there is a checkbox in the System tab of the Arnold settings that allow you abort a render if there is no license available, or skip the license check altogether:


Other Fixes and Enhancements

A tremendous amount of work has gone into upgrading the plugin to support Arnold 5, and also to improve our MAXtoA codebase for high stability and the fastest speed possible, especially in ActiveShade. You'll definitely want to give ActiveShade a good try - we've found it to be very fast even on older machines

Be sure to check out the FAQ and Release Notes for Arnold 5 on more information on the core along with the MAXtoA documentation for specifics on settings. Happy Rendering!

Article written By Jennifer OConnor and first published In The 3ds Max Blog.