Primitives in 3DS MAX

The vast majority of interactive features in 3DS MAX are found in the small area of the screen shown to the right. Take note of the double row of buttons across the top of that region of that section.

The top row allows you to pick different modules within the program, which are, in order of appearance left -> right:

Creation, Modification, Hierarchies, Animation, Display Settings and Utilities.

The of these (Create) is selected by default. Among the possible choices below it are different classes of elements that can be created. The default selection is "Geometry"; this is another term for "3D objects". The other categories in order of appearance are:

2d Shapes, Lights, Cameras, Helpers, SpaceWarps, and Tools.

When you start the software, the panel should look like it does to the right. If you’ve been experimenting with the different features discussed above, choose the pull-down menu "File / Reset".

  1. Take note of the 10 buttons listed here – these are the "standard primitives", which will be found in any 3D program (with the possible exception of the teapot <g>). Since many modeling projects begin with a primitive, we need to understand how these work.
  2. No really. There is a lot more to a sphere than just a ball. Make a sphere, and note that the panel below the primitives buttons opens up, and the panel to the left shows up.

"- Creation Method", "+ Keyboard Entry", and

"- Parameters". These symbols mean that that button is a "rollout" button. Click on the to see what they do. Note that clicking on a "-" bar "rolls up" the section of the panel below it, while clicking on a "+" unrolls a panel section.

  1. Try out "Slice On" by turning it on, and then changing the "Slice From" and "Slice To" values – rotate the perspective view to see what impact this has,
  2. Change the "Radius value to change the size of the sphere,
  3. Try decreasing the "Segments" value to change the detail level of the sphere,
  4. "Base to Pivot" moves the objects pivot point to the bottom edge of the object instead of the middle.
  5. "Generate Mapping Coordinates" will not cause any visible change in the viewport -- it is used when texture mapping (we’ll get to that another time).

Important Hints:


  1. …and that was just the sphere tool. Try out each of the basic primitive types: Sphere, Box, Cylinder, Cone, and so on. Experiment with changing the various parameters in the "parameters" rollout for each object type. Remember to pan and orbit the views often, so that you can see any changes that occur because of the change you make.

  2. STOP! Go back, and make sure you know about each type of "standard primitive", and how to create and edit each one.


  3. The next gadget in the "Create" panel is very important. The "Shape" panel contains some other, very important, elements – to wit, it allows the creation of such very important items as "splines". <insert spline explanation here>.

All of the objects created in this section share a common attribute: they are invisible to the camera! They can, however, be used to generate visible geometry through several types of operations.

First, let’s get comfortable with at least one or two types of these spline tools:

  1. Choose "Line".
  2. Left Click in the front view, release your mouse button, move, and then left click, release and move again. A straight line should be generated.
  3. Now move to a new location, and hold down your LMB while dragging. As you do so, a curve will form around the point you first clicked on – what you are doing is defining the handle positions for a "knot" – this is very similar to the line tool in Adobe Illustrator.
  4. Continue to make knots (click and drag, and/or click) in various locations within the front viewport, and make a shape something like the one shown here. Yours need not be identical to this one – just make a simple shape with some sharp corners, and some round ones. To finish, close the loop by clicking (as if to make a new knot) on top of the first point you made.
  5. After you have closed the loop, try out some of the other spline tools. The Ngon and ellipse tools are very handy, for instance. Note that every type of shape has corresponding rollouts, including "parameters", which allow you to edit various aspects of the shape.

Remember, these shapes are still invisible to the camera. Before we can go any further toward making them into geometry, we need to understand the "modify" Panel.


The "Modify Panel" is accessed by clicking the tab next in line beside the "Create" tab.

This is probably the second most important panel; it is used constantly by most users, because:

  1. Changes can be made to objects after they have been created: they can be edited at a point, polygon, or knot level, etc. (i.e. at a "sub-object" level).
  2. Objects can have their original parameters (height, width, segments, slice, etc.) altered.
  3. "Modifiers" can be added – that is, objects can be bent, twisted, tapers, smoothed, and otherwise altered into more complex shapes.

Note: In older versions of 3DS MAX (and therefore in many tutorials, which is why I mention it) the "Modify" tab looked different – it was a red "Three Mile Island" gadget with a line through it – go figure.

Before you can use the features of the Modify panel, you need to have one or more objects available to edit:

  1. Using the various methods discussed on previous pages, create at least one spline object (something like the one on the previous page would be nice), and at least one geometry object (a sphere, cube, etc).
  2. You might want to quick render (<f9>), to prove to yourself that some objects are visible to the camera, and some are not.

    Note: Rendering helps you see what you really have in your 3D world! The four preview windows show only a "preview" or "real time render" of the 3D elements you have created – to see a "real" version at any time, press <f9>. <f9> generates a "quick render" in 3DS MAX (and in Lightwave’s Layout, but that’s another story) – after the "quick render" is displayed, close the resulting window, and get on with your work. Quick render as often as you like.

    Clicking on a different view will cause the render to be made in that view. Usually, you will want to render in the perspective view, or through a camera if one is present. Make sure the perspective view is selected, rotate it around so you can see what you have (alt-MMB), and quick render with <f9>.


    Close any quick render windows, and let’s get on with it…

  3. Click on the Modify Tab, and the display should change to look something like the image shown here. Note that the name of the last item you made is probably displayed under the rollout labeled "Modifier Stack". This is the currently selected item; if nothing is listed there, and the "Modifier Stack" button is ghosted, it is because you have no object selected.
  4. Try selecting a different object (assuming you have made more than one, as advised above) by choosing the "Move" tool from the Main Toolbar (remember last class?). Note that when you choose a different type of object, the Modify panel changes to reflect the features of the new object.

The Modify Panel is divided into three main areas.

  1. The "add a modifier" area at the top of the panel which has about 10 buttons showing, and dozens more hidden in the "More" button.
  2. The "Modifier Stack" (see below "Parametric Stacks Explained"), where we can edit various elements of the box, and alter the previous steps we took in creating it).
  3. The "parameters" rollout, which might look familiar, since it is the same as the parameters rollout for this object type is when we created objects earlier on.


  1. Now we will extend one of the splines we

made before, and make it a renderable shape. Select

the spline curve object you made a page or two ago (if you don’t have one, go make one, and then return to this step) and then click "Extrude" from the "Modifiers" List near the top of the "modify" Panel.

If the extrude tool is not available it is usually because you don’t have a "shape" selected (you can’t extrude geometry), or the button has been "put away" by a previous user. If you don’t see the "Extrude" button, make sure you have a line, ngon, or other "shape" object selected, and if you still don’t see it, look in the "More" list.

  1. Once you have clicked on the "Extrude" button, the spline should become "solid" in the viewports - -try increasing the "amount" spinner in the parameters rollout. This is now a renderable geometry object.

Extrude is only one of the many modifiers available in this panel. We will look at a few more, but this is an area you should familiarize yourself with. Try out the various tools – esp. the modeling tools such as bend, taper, noise, MeshSmooth, and so on.

Parametric Stacks Explained

There are two essential philosophies of workflow in 3D design (when it comes to applying changes to a 3D element. These are often referred to as "Parametric" and "Explicit". 3DS MAX is a "parametric modeler", while Lightwave Modeler is an "Explicit Modeler". Er, most of the time, anyway.

What is the difference?

Explicit modelers make changes to models by changing them. ‘Nuff said.

Parametric modelers (eg. 3DS MAX) make changes to objects by storing the request for a change in a "command list" or "history" (in 3DS MAX this list is called a "Modifier Stack"). The commands in the stack are applied "in real time" to the object – this means that you can go back to earlier stages and make changes with ease.

Pluses: Having a parametric stack is like having a better undo/redo feature. For example, say you start with a sphere, and model a head: you get the model half-built, and decide you needed more / less points in your model – you don’t have to throw the model away and start over! Instead, you can simply return to the "sphere creation level" in the stack, and drag the segment slider up; then when you return to the most recent level in the stack, the changes will be magically applied.

Minuses: There are two unavoidable hazards associated with parametric modeling: 1. Overhead. Parameter stacks are interpreted in real time by you computer, and they can become very complex as your model gets more sophisticated. This can greatly reduce productivity if not properly managed -- we'll look at stack management later.

2. Order of application. There are some interesting pitfalls that result from applying modifiers "in the wrong order".

Bottom Line:

Parametric Stacks are cool. From a productivity standpoint, the jury is still out, but they do sometimes come in very handy (when they aren’t getting in the way) by allowing the user to "go back a few steps" and make a change…

On the other hand, Explicit modeling makes for a speedy workflow, and a less temperamental modeler… and this is often worth the minor inconvenience of not having the history stack available…