3D Studio Max  - Quick Tutorial Outline
Sam Buss - Winter 2000, revised Spring 2001

This page is obsolete as it describes an old version of 3D Studio Max.  I have recently prepared a version of this tutorial for Version 5 of 3D Studio Max.  This can be accessed from http://math.ucsd.edu/~sbuss/CourseWeb/Math155B_2004Winter/3DStudio5.html.

This is a quick, informal outline of some features of 3D Studio Max 2.5. To use these notes, you will need to try out the suggested activities and possibly use the online help as well. The goal is get a basic familiarity with its features and capabilities, as representative of 3D modelling programs in general.

For Math155B, I will write up several short assignments that require you to learn and use some of the basic features of 3D Studio. Mostly these assignments will consist of going through the tutorial notes, understanding everything in the tutorial outline, exploring further features as suggested in this outline and answering the questions included in this outline. Some sections are labelled as "optional" and may be skipped, especially on a first reading.

Purchasing documentation for 3D Studio is probably unnecessary. These notes, and the online help, will probably be enough, since you are probably quite computer-literate and able to figure out features by trial and error. In addition, there is documentation in the PC lab, chained to a desk at the front of the room. To help me learn 3D Studio, I am also using Teach Yourself 3D Studio Max 2 In 14 Days, by Kakert and Kalwick, which you may borrow occasionally.  As you read through the notes, do not just follow the instructions exactly as written, but instead experiment with features and buttons and try to learn how things work on your own.

I expect you will take 2-3 hours to work through these notes, after which you should have a good idea of many of the basic modelling features of 3D Studio Max.   Particullarly relevant to the course work is the ability to create splines. 

Getting started.

Look for 3d Studio Max under Kinetix from the Start Menu.  Only about 10 or 11 computers have 3D Studio Max installed.   These are in the last two rows of the room -- also, the instructor's machine in the back half of the room has it installed.  You should check for the presence of 3d Studio Max under the Start Menu before logging in, to make sure the software is installed on that machine.

Navigating the tool bars and menus.

After you start 3D Studio, you will see the following windows and groupings of menu and panels.

Note carefully the layout of axes in 3D Studio: it is different from what you expect. In particular, the perspective view window has the x-axis pointing right, the y-axis pointing away and the z-axis pointing up! Note that this is different from the two standard ways to lay out the axes, it is still a right-hand coordinate system. Warning: the axes in the different orthographic views are named differently in the different views. That is, each view has its own x,y,z coordinate system.

By the way, you may be happy to find out that 3D Studio Max supports a huge number of UnDo commands!  There is an UnDo button on the IB, and it is also available under Edit on the MB, and as Control-Z.

When you want to restart from scratch, choose Reset under the File menu on the MB.

First constructions.

We start by building a simple 3D shape and moving it around.

  1. Choose the Create tab from the right panel RB. Under that choose Geometry, then choose Standard Primitives from the pulldown menu. Pick a sphere as the type of primtive object.
  2. Click and drag in the top view window to create the sphere. Note how the radius changes as you drag the mouse. Release the mouse botton at the desired radius.
  3. From the IB (icon bar) choose the Move icon (arrows in four directions). Click on the object to select it and move it in the top view window, and then the other windows. Drag up and down to change the position of the object.
  4. Trying creating another primitive object, such as a cylinder. You now have to set both the radius and the height of the cylinder. The radius is affected as before, the height is set by further moving the mouse up and down and then clicking at the desired height.
    How is the orientation of the cylinder affected by which window you start in?
    Try moving the cylinder around your scene.
  5. Select the sphere (to select an object, you click on it -- sometimes you need to first click the Select button on the IB).  Then choose the Modify tab from the RB. Scan down the right panel contents (use the hand to push the panel contents up) until you find the Parameters section and then choose the Not smooth option. Try adjusting the number of segments. You might wish to try the same for a torus too.
  6. Experiment with the rest of the Standard Primitives. Some of these, such as the cone and tube have three values that need to be set with mouse control (as compared to the one value for a sphere, or the two values for a cylinder).
    Each time you create a new object, 3D Studio chooses a new color for the object and default material properties. These properties can be changed of course.
  7. (Optional) For people who do not like to use the mouse or need more precise positioning than is obtainable with the mouse, there is Keyboard section in the RB under the Standard Primitives which allows you to set the dimensions of objects by keyboard entry.


There are various tools available for positioning (translating), rotating and scaling objects.

  1. Select one object from your 3D scene.
  2. Choose the Move button from the IB. Experiment with how the X, Y, Z and XY constraint buttons on the IB effect the Move functionality. Note the little origins and red axis representations that appear in each orthographic view window, and how they correspond to the allowed movements.  Note that the axes X, Y and Z are represent different directions in each window!!!
  3. Choose the Rotate control from the IB. Repeat the corresponding experiments for rotating an object, similarly to what you did for translating objects in the previous step. It is important to note the different naming conventions for the three orthographic views.
    Rotations typically occur around a distinguished point (not always the center!) of the selected object. This can be changed in a couple ways. The default is that rotations are around the Pivot Point Center --- this is controlled by a pull-down icon menu in the IB. The pivot point is often at the bottom of a geometric object.
    Another useful option is the Selection Center (available on the same pull-down icon menu), which causes rotation around the center of the currently selected object(s).
  4. Choose the Scale control from the IB. Try scaling an object. What kinds of options can you discover for scaling objects?
  5. You can select multiple objects at once by either using the Rectangular Selection button from the IB (a dotted square is the icon), or by using Control-Left clicks with the mouse. This allows you to move, rotate or scale multiple objects at once. Try it out! Especially fun: try selecting two objects and rotating them, first with Pivot Point Center and then with Selection Center.


Now we discuss how to control your view in the four view windows. Changing a view (unlike the transformations discussed above) does not change the position of objects, it just changes the camera position, i.e., the viewer's position and orientation. The views are mostly controlled by the array of icon buttons in the lower righthand corners of the screen (on the BB).

  1. Select a window, by clicking in it (see the outline of the window highlighted when it is selected). Choose the Pan button (with the hand icon). Click and drag in the window to pan left/right and up/down.
  2. Use the Zoom button (magnifying glass icon) to zoom in or out from a window. Dragging the mouse up and down controls the zoom.
  3. Try using the Zoom All windows icon (magnifying glass in front of four squares), to zoom all four windows simultaneousle.
  4. Zoom Extents allows you to center an object in the window and allows you to zoom towards or away from the object. It is a little confusing (at least to me!) to use this. The Zoom Extents icon botton is a pop-up icon list: selecting the icon with the little white box turns on Zoom Extents. If an object is already selected or is selected afterwards, then the view point is shifted so that the object is centered. Dragging the mouse in the window then zooms towards or away from the object.
  5. The next icon button to the right is Zoom Extents All which combines the functionalities of Zoom All and Zoom Extents.
  6. Figure out how to rotate your view point in the perspective window. Start by choosing the Arc Rotate button from the BB. You should be able to rotate around the scene, as well as to change your view azimuth (i.e., the angle above the ground x-y plane from which you are viewing the scene).
  7. The Maximize Window button toggles the currently selected window between full screen view and the initial four window view.
  8. (Optional) More view options are available. Try right-clicking on the label in the upper lefthand corner of a view for more options. Also check out the MB item Views and then Viewport Configuration....

Cloning, Mirroring, Array Transforming (Optional topic)

Cloning means forming an exact copy of an object. Mirroring is similar, but makes a mirror image copy. Array transforming makes multiple copies translated or rotated at regular intervals.

  1. To clone, use the shift key while Move-ing an object, or by selecting Clone from the Edit menu in MB. You will get a dialog box asking whether you are making a copy, an instance or a reference of the object. (Choose copy usually, the other two set up mechanisms for changes to one object to affect other copies of the same object.)
  2. To mirror an object, choose the Mirror button from the IB and the click on the object to be mirrored. A dialog box will ask for the mirror axis, and information similar to the cloning dialog box.
  3. (Optional) Investigate array transforming on your own if you wish. Use the Array icon button on the IB to get started.

Aligning (Optional topic)

Aligning means lining up vertices or points or normals, etc., of one object with a vertex or point or normal, etc., of another object. To start aligning two objects, first select one object, then choose the Align button from the IB, then choose a second a second object. A dialog box will appear with options on what points to align and on what axes to align them.

Another way to get precise movements is to first click the Move or Rotate or Scale icon button to select it, and then right click the same button. You get a dialog box that allows you set the exact parameters for the transformation.

The use of Snapping will line up vertices on a grid. The SnapToggle button on the BB can be used to turn on snapping and select the snap mode. (Try 2D snapping which snaps two coordinates of points which lie on the active construction plane or 3D snapping which snaps all three coordinates of points.) In addition to snapping to x,y,z grid points, you can arrange to snap to vertices or pivot points or many other options.
I have not yet understood all the features of snapping, so if you investigate this further, please explain it to me and/or the class.

Splines, lines and other shapes

We now try out methods of generating 2-dimensional paths, including polygonal shapes, spline curves, n-gons, and other paths.

  1. We start with making a path consisting of straight lines.  Choose the Create tab on the RB.  Just below, pick the Shapes icon, then the Splines option from the pulldown menu.  Below that, choose Line under Object Type.  Go to one of the orthographic view windows, and give quick mouse clicks (with the left button) to place vertices that are connected by straightline segments.  Use the the right click button after the last vertex has been selected.
    If you accidentally clicked and dragged when you picked a vertex, then something else happens --- see item 3 below about creating Bézier curves.
  2. In addition to lines, there are a number of other paths that can be created: try out Circle, Arc, Text, Ngon, Star, and Helix.  Look down the RB for how to set and adjust parameters for these paths.
  3. Now go back to creating lines.  But now, when you place a vertex, click down and hold the mouse button down, and drag with the mouse.  This creates a Bezier curve vertex --- the direction and distance of dragging controls the derivative of the Bezier curve at that vertex (and we know how to get control points from the derivative, under the assumptions of continuous first-derivatives, i.e. C1-continuity).
  4. To see the control points of the Bezier curves, do the following: Create and select a Bezier curve. Then choose the Modify (RB) tab and then Edit Spline.  Click on a vertex in the spline.  You will see the vertex and, as green boxes, the adjacent control points.  Select Move off the IB, and then the vertex or its control points may be moved by clicking and dragging to the desired position.   Experiment with this. What is the effect of changing the direction of the control point vector (the vector from the vertex to the adjacent control point)?   What is the effect of changing the length of the control point vector, by moving the control point further from the vertex?
  5. You may right click on a vertex and get more options for modifying a vertex, such as changing it from a corner to Bezier vertex and vice-versa. Try out the Bezier Corner type to make non-G1-continuous curves.  The rest of the shapes under splines (such as Circle, Arc, Text and Helix) may also be editted as Bezier curves.
  6. One more thing to try: when editting a spline,  choose Subobject: Segment on the LB.   Select a segment on the curve and try moving it.   Also, try rotating it.

Extruding, Lathes, Lofts

Extruding means to sweep out a surface perpindicularly from a curve.

  1. Select a spline or other path in an orthographic view. 
  2. Choose Modify from the RP. Then select Extrude.   Type in the extrusion distance in the RP.  Note the options to leave the ends capped or uncapped.
  3. If the extrusion is uncapped, you will probably want to improve the viewing of it, by selecting the object, right clicking, choosing Properties from the pop-up menu, and then turning off Backface Culling.

Lathes provide a tool for forming a surface of rotation around a central axis.

  1. Draw a curved spline going generally up and down, in the front view window.  Choose the Modify tab (RP) and then Lathe.
  2. Try changing the axis of rotation between Min, Center and Max.   (on the RB).
  3. For a non-standard axis of rotation, select the SubObject button (RP), and then move the visible yellow axis line in the view window.

Lofts provide a method of moving a "shape" along a "path".

  1. Make, in an orthographic window, a largish star and a similar size spline curve.   These shapes will be paths.
  2. Also make a small star and a small rectangle.  These will be your shapes.
  3. Select on of the paths (from step 1). Choose Create (RP), then Geometry, then Loft Object, then Loft.  Then click Get Shape, and select one of the shapes from step 2.  Observe the results.
  4. Using Get Shape and Get Path and then an appropriate curve, you can change between different paths and shapes easily.
  5. It is possible to transition smoothly between different shapes.  Try this by selecting one shape, then using the Path Parameters to set a shape at other points along the path.  For instance, in addition to the first shape at the beginning of the path, set another shape 100% of the distance along the path (i.e., at the end).
  6. It is possible to edit the shape and path even after they have been used in a loft and have the changes affect the lofted surface.

Spline curves and NURBS curves

We first investigate B-spline curves.  3D Studio calls control points, "control vertices", abbreviated CV.  It has two basic kinds of splines: ones which use control vertices (control points) as usual, and ones whic interpolate specified points.

  1. Choose Create (RP), then Shapes, then NURBS Curve.
  2. Then click on CV Curve to start forming curves specified with control vertices.
  3. Click with the left mouse button to place control points.  Notice how the path is formed.  Click with the right mouse button when the curve is finished.  Note the curve interpolates (usually only) its endpoints.
  4. If you place the final endpoint close enough to the first endpoint, you have the option of making the curve be closed (i.e., a loop).
  5. Now form a Point Curve.  Note how the points are interpolated.   Also: look closely and you will see that the property of local control is lost, however, the choice of interpolated points does not make a large effect on the distant part of the curve.

Now we try editting a curve.  You will also have the chance to weight points, i.e., use rational B-splines.

  1. Draw a CV Curve as in steps 1-4 above. 
  2. Choose the Modify tab (RP).  Down below click SubObject and select Curve CV from the pulldown list next to it.
  3. Select one control point on the curve (make sure the activated Selection button is the one with a single red dot on it.)
  4. Change the weight of the point in the RP.  Observe how the change in weight affects the curve.  Do you understand what is happening?
  5. Now choose Insert, and try inserting a new point.  Note that it affects the shape of the curve. 
  6. Now choose Refine, and insert a new knot position along the curve.   Note how a new control point appears and the close by control points are shifted.   This is using a knot insertion algorithm.  The curve is not supposed to change: only the position of  the control points changes.

NURBS Surfaces

First, we show how to create a NURBS surface by manually placing control points.

  1. Select Create (RP), then Geometry, then NURBS Surface.
  2. Select CV Surf to make a surface controlled by control points.   Click and drag with the mouse botton in an orthographic view window to make a flat array of control points.
  3. Choose the Modify tab on the RB.  Select SubObject: Surface CV. Select a single point from your flat on view.  Hit the space bar to lock in your selection (an icon on the BB indicates that that the selection is locked).  Use one of the other windows to move the selected point.  Hit the space bar to unlock your selection.
  4. Repeat step 3 for several control points and observe the surface that appears.  You may wish to set the properties of the surface so that the backfaces are not culled (under Properties) in the pop menu that appears when you right click on the surface.
  5. Look for the Selection bottons with red dots.  These allow you to select a row of vertices, a column of vertices, a row and column, or all of the vertices at once.  Try this out.

Second, we look at how to form a Nurbs surface from two spline curves.

  1. Make a single B-spline curve, say going more-or-less in the direction of the y-axis.
  2. Choose Modify, then (at the very bottom of the RP) look under Create Curves.  Add a second B-spline curve, also more-or-less parallel to the y-axis.
  3. Choose SubObject, then Curve.
  4. Select one curve at a time (the two curves are now subcurves of a single B-spline curve.)  Move them independently so that they are roughly parallel and separated from each other.  We will place a surface between them.
  5. Under Modifer Stack, click Edit Stack, then Convert to NURBS Surface.  We now have a Nurbs surface that consists of two separate curves.
  6. Down under Create Surfaces, select Ruled.
  7. Choose first one of the curves and the other.  You should get a surface stretching from one curve to the other.

There are many other more sophisicated ways to autmatically form spline surfaces from a collection of spline curves.  Check out the methods of 1-Rail Sweep, 2-Rail Sweep, U-Loft, UV-Loft if you want to investigate these.  Other options include lathing and extrusion, etc.  U-Loft joins together multiple crossectional curves (in the direction of the  u axis only) into a single surface.  UV-Loft uses crossectional curves in both the u and v directions (they should intersect appropriately).  1-Rail Sweep is similar to U-Loft but uses also a  boundary crossectional curve in the v direction.  2-Rail Sweep uses crossectional curves on both boundaries in the v direction.   The online help shows pictorial examples of these.