It is not really a fair comparison between these two programs because they are in such different leagues. Regardless, I thought I would write for a bit about the two 3D programs I have spent the most time with and just some of their interesting differences.
When I was in highschool, this really cool friend of mine showed me 3D studio max. I was really fascinated with it but did not get a chance to really jump into using it until I took classes in College. My first thoughts where that the user interface looked kind of technical and bit bland. I remember at that time when my friend showed me 3DS Max, I was working with a program called Animation Master which I thought was really cool.
Here are some short animations I made from around that time..
Actually it still is a really cool program and fairly easy for a beginner in 3D compared to a program like 3D studio max. It is fairly inexpensive as well, and if you want to get started with making animated characters in 3D it is totally worth the money.
Here are two more animations I made a few years later..
Animation Master was well suited for creating characters in its time, although by today’s character animation standards it has not proven to be innovating as much and keep pace with the industrial strength programs such as Max, Maya, Softimage, C4D, but the software is coming from a small startup company and they are selling it for a really low price. One of the main advantages Animation Master had over many of the other programs was the way it dealt with creating a 3D surfaces with a different sort of approach.
A 3D model is made up of lots of little polygon triangle that are attached at the edges creating organic shapes from these little polygons requires some advanced tools and knowledge. In Animation Master, you create surfaces by connecting vector splines, which are naturally set to a smooth interpolation. This means that the surface created with splines, will have a naturally smooth quality to it by default. The spline surface is still created with polygons, but they are invisible to you completely. Connected polygons tend not to be smooth actually by default, instead they can have a very faceted or jagged look when viewed up close. You can increase the number of polygons that make up a surface, and you will have an illusion of a smoother surface.
Here is a link to check out Animation Master from Hash, Inc.
AM has a lot of wonderful tools for making characters and animating them, it is perfect for telling short stories with characters. You can make characters talk using imported sound files, you can blend between animations and walk cycles, and smartskin is a really great tool for making joints look natural when they deform. Easily creating proper looking deformations of a 3D characters joints when they bend is something that is still not easy to setup in some professional grade software like it is with smartskin in AM. Often times, complex rigs must be created which take more time.
AM has features which allow you to blend your models with photographs and video, so if your a photographer and looking for a way to begin blending some decent 3D into your images it might be a great fit. The greatest downside for new users to AM is that your 3D models will often tend to have a very cartoon like feeling until you become really skilled with the modelling tools. This is because objectss are almost always naturally smooth and organic by default. It is really ideal for making cartoon like 3D characters. You can make somewhat realistic humans too if your willing to spend a lot of time on it, and you can still create somewhat mechanical models, but the software is lacking in something called parametric tools.
3D Max is a parametric modelling program, that means you can create objects and affect a variety of parameters about them to achieve a shape you want. For example, you create a sphere by clicking a button, then adjust a ticker control to increase or decrease the radius of the sphere. Once you create a primitive model, such as a box or sphere, you can then convert it into a shape which you can edit arbitrarily.
In other words, you can add or remove polygons to the shape you created as you like forming it into new and more complex shapes. Polygon Box Modeling Technique, is a method of starting with a box primitive, and splitting and cutting and reforming the box into various shapes from a spaceship, to an alien monster, to a human being. One issue though is that because the objects are made of polygons, they do not have smooth surfaces by default. They have faceted surfaces, and you must apply a modifier to smooth the surface. This is usually done by increasing the number of polygons creating the surface until it seems smooth.
It has lots of tools now for creating organic models such as 3D characters as well as it can create buildings and mechanical objects a bit faster and more accurately. The recent addition of CAT ( character animation tools ) to 3D max is really awesome allowing you to create some decent animation and very quick rigging for animation. There are some amazing plugins which have come about to create all kinds of sophisticated effects, but you can be sure it is not cheap. You can also create some pretty neato particle based effects using the built in particle flow systems.
One other thing that is pretty cool about 3D studio max is that it has built in access to the scripting language of the program. So you can create your own scripts with special features that can speed up your work, or allow you to do complex things a lot faster. The software is a lot more expensive, but you can generally produce greater results.
Every year, 3D Max is getting new additions built in. Every year it gets better along with all the other autodesk products such as Maya, Softimage. Animation Master it seems has reached more of a plateau in that they are not really adding too many impressive or useful new features it seems at least from what I can tell of the feature list and what I remember last time I used it. Animation Master was steadily improving in the years I was beginning in 3D and it was amazing to see it evolve. It seemed for a long time that they were adding in one impressive feature after another, and all of it was really exciting stuff like real-time rendering, cloth, and hair systems.
One of the issues with spending a lot of time in animation master, is that if you decide at some point you want to work in a more professional application with more advanced features, you will have to almost start over with what you know. All the major 3D programs are built with similar concepts, but they all work very differently and have a different layout. They all have different ways of doing things. Other programs use parameter based model creation a lot more extensively, and they have a very different approach to many things which will take time to get comfortable with if your used to AM.
I definitely would recommend it for a young kid or teen who wants to get into 3D character animation on the super cheap, as you will definitely learn about many of the most important concepts about 3D that will carry over to many programs. However again because of its unique way of going about things you will have a ton to re-learn when you transition to something like 3DS Max and so if you can afford one of the better programs, in the long run it might be better since you could become comfortable working with complex software earlier on.
I can say that Animation Master is really a great solution more for a hobbyist than a professional. The main reason I say this is because it does not have anywhere near as much 3rd party involvement or interest. A few groups were developing plugins for AM around the time I stopped working with it, and some of these plugins were really cool, but not many other good plugins came about.
Another important thing for those to consider who like the idea of working in video games some day, AM is not anywhere near as widely used for games as 3D max, if at all. Many games over the years have been built with 3D max.
With programs like 3DS Max, there are a number of plugin options. There are plugins to create realistic trees, to render your images more realistically, to create better characters, and just about everything you want to do. There are plugins to simulate fire, explosions, and smoke, liquids, and dynamic effects. All kinds of great stuff. Not to mention that there is already an extensive collection of scripts using the built in maxscript editor which are available that are quite useful. You can find all sorts of neat tools and time savers, and just a ton of useful things.
The way that scripting is integrated, it allows for technical 3D artists to create amazing effects and tools, which is why Max is one of the top programs also used in film visual effects. Technical directors can achieve some pretty awesome results, but it takes a lot of time to get good with Maxscript if you are not a programmer.
Maxscript in my experience is sometimes a bit inconsistent the way it works compared to how it is defined in the manual as well which is confusing for a beginner. I don’t feel the documentation is written so that it is easy to understand how to use the code examples in the help files and they do not give nearly enough good examples in the manual of code snippets. For example there have been times when I have had to write two similar lines of code just slightly different and it makes no sense why this is required when the two lines should have the same syntax.
Animation Master does offer a scripting option I believe, but it never seemed to be as easy to jump into as max script to me. In the past they used to put an emphasis on their latest features being added but it looks like now they do not list the full set of features on their website anymore.