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Autodesk 3ds Max Turns Twenty | Media & Entertainment

The story of 3ds Max software starts in 1988 when Autodesk teamed up with the Yost Group to create 3D Studio, a new kind of 3D animation software. Yost and his team had a vision of making 3D animation accessible to everyone, taking it out of the rarefied environment of ultra-expensive Sun and SGI systems and bringing it to the PC. When we published the first version of what would become 3ds Max, we had no idea just how far that program would come, nor the amazing voyage it would take us on. But here we are today celebrating the software’s 20th Anniversary. It is clear that the contributions 3ds Max has made to the computer graphics industry are immense. Here is the story of how 3ds Max revolutionized the entertainment industry:


It all began with The Yost Group, pioneered by Gary Yost, who had begun a project in 1998 called THUD, named after the project’s sole developer, Tom Hudson. THUD was not a complete animation program, as it only covered modeling and rendering; however, it evolved into a fully functioning 3D animation application once Dan Silva joined the team and introduced keyframing. THUD then became known as 3D Studio, the first fully 3D animation system for the PC platform.


omb Raider. Image courtesy of Exmachina Core Design Ltd.

After two years of long days and sleepless nights, Autodesk, in collaboration with the Yost Group, was ready to release 3D Studio. On Halloween of 1990, the first ever affordable and integrated 3D modeling, rendering and animation system was released. 3D Studio could perform right out of the box the way other more expensive and more complicated animation systems could, but it sold for only $3,495 while all other alternatives cost upwards of $10,000. The price point completely revolutionized the industry as it gave more people the opportunity and ability to learn and create in 3D. 3ds Max had changed the game and the course of entertainment history.

Battlefield Earth. Image courtesy of Computer Cafe.

The software was quickly industry approved and in its early years many Hollywood films including “Johnny Mnemonic” and “The Craft” used 3D Studio for their special effects. The software was also used to create legendary games, including “Tomb Raider” and “World of Warcraft”. During these years many landmark features were introduced, and with each release 3D Studio became more and more capable and competitive in the industry.

Empire of Ants. Image courtesy of Microids Canada.

In 1994, Autodesk announced 3D Studio version R4, nicknamed the “Plug-In Release,” as almost all new features were offered as Plug-ins. There were still only three developers working on the project, but part-time the team was also involved in a top-secret project that would push the 3D Studio revolution to the industry forefront. This project, code named “Jaguar,” was what would become 3D Studio Max — the first 3D animation program to work on a Windows 32-bit platform and feature real-time animation in the viewport. It was another game-changer.

3D Studio MAX was announced in 1995 at SIGGRAPH — the annual computer graphics and technology conference in LA, where 3ds Max will be celebrating its 20th Anniversary over 15 years later. 3D Studio MAX was then the highlight of the conference, with ground-breaking features such as Undo (a new concept at the time) and significantly increased speed and flexibility for animators.


Image courtesy of Swiss Interactive.

The first major film to use 3D Studio MAX for visual effects was “Lost in Space”, a movie that broke the digital effects record for total number of animated shots, all made possible with the new speed and efficiency in 3D Studio MAX.

In the years leading up to 2000 when 3D Studio MAX would become 3ds max, many new features were added. These included Character Studio, the program responsible for the Dancing Baby featured on Ally McBeal, as well as advanced modeling capabilities and network rendering, which increased rendering speeds immensely.

Visualization of a proposed restaurant design. Image courtesy of Neoscape Inc.

In 2001, “Fifty Percent Gray” was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Animated Short category. This was the first film created with 3ds max that was nominated for an Oscar, but it certainly wouldn’t be the end of the software’s Oscar career. Since then, 3ds Max has made itself a regular at the annual ceremonies, helping create a number of Academy Awardnominated and winning movies, including “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “The Hurt Locker” and “Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty.”

In addition to Academy Award-winning films, 3ds Max has also been used to craft record-breaking games. “The Sims”, released in 2000, was created using a blend of 3ds Max and Maya software and became the world’s best-selling PC game of all time. “Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell”, released in 2002, leveraged 3ds Max to achieve critically acclaimed lighting and animation quality. Blizzards’ “World of Warcraft”, another game created with 3ds Max, became the Guinness Book of World Records’ title holder for most popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game in 2004. “Halo 1” and “Halo 2”, released in 2001 and 2005 respectively, also broke records for game sales. 3ds Max is a leading toolset for the games industry and its appeal is obvious.

Though I have focused mainly on Entertainment in this article, a look back on the last 20 years of 3ds Max wouldn’t be complete without highlighting some of the amazing design visualization work that has been done with the software. 3ds Max has empowered numerous architects, engineers and designers to make more informed decisions, tell their design story and win more work.

For example, Steelman Partners landed the Las Vegas Sands Macau project just two minutes into a five-minute visualization the company had created with 3ds Max to showcase how its design for the casino/hotel would look when it was built. A few years later, Parsons Brinckerhoff used the software to visualize the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle as a means to pull together different design elements and to find potential problems with the design before the project was launched. More recently, an immensely talented 3ds Max artist, Alex Roman, created “The Third & The Seventh” a stunning, fully CG animated piece that illustrates architecture art from a photographic point of view. The imagery looks so real, you won’t believe it’s CG!

This is what the 3ds Max 20th Anniversary is all about, celebrating the achievement of our customers and the technological advancements that helped make those film, game, television, architectural or engineering marvels possible.

Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell. Image courtesy of Ubisoft.

Over the next few months Autodesk invites everyone to join in the celebration. The festivities will kick off with the launch of a celebratory microsite on the AREA — Autodesk’s digital entertainment and visualization community — that will feature a historical timeline and the work of 3ds Max customers from around the world. Then at SIGGRAPH LA, where 3ds Max was first launched, free 3ds Max Anniversary t-shirts will be given away to attendees wearing old 3ds Max apparel. Autodesk will also be sponsoring the annual Blur party in honor of two decades of 3ds Max. There will be much more to come after SIGGRAPH, as we enter the 21st year of 3ds Max and approach 3December, where the festivities will come to an end.

After all, the 3ds Max 20th Anniversary is also about the future. As we celebrate the last two decades of 3ds Max, we are honoring the huge advancements we have made as an industry. And as we look back in amazement of how far we’ve come, we can’t help but look toward the future as well, to imagine how far we’ll go from here.

Happy Birthday 3ds Max!


With close to 20 years experience in management and technology, Marc Petit leads Autodesk Media & Entertainment as Senior Vice President. In this role, Petit manages the Media & Entertainment division and guides the development and marketing of Autodesk’s leading 2D systems and 3D software solutions, including Autodesk Inferno, Flame, Smoke, Lustre, Toxik, 3ds Max, Maya, MotionBuilder and Mudbox.