3DS Max 2011 has been around for a while now and one of its new features was the updated interface for the material editor - the Slate. This is a move towards a node-based system; something that a lot of other software (Maya, XSI, Blender, Shake, Fusion, Nuke etc) has been running for a while and a method that is generally considered to be an efficient and intuitive one...but is it?
Well the old material editor in Max had a couple of problems - the need to reset material slots if you went over 24 mats always annoyed me, as did the way you had to click through everything to get to the 'deep' settings on complex materials. One big thing it had in its favour though was familiarity; I had been using it for about 10 years so, despite its quirks, I knew what I was doing with it...and then along came Slate.
I have to say that I found it an uphill struggle at first, the very different look and feel to everything was quite off-putting and my first reaction was that it didn't really add anything productive to your workflow. After a day or so of perseverance though I started to see the benefits and haven't looked back since - and what makes it so good? Well as I said I found it a bit tricky to get to grips with at first (and a number of colleagues still can't see the point of moving away from the old system) so I thought I'd go through some of the things I've picked up and some of the key features from my perspective:
That first issue with the old material editor (now called the 'compact material editor') about running out of mat slots is now gone as the working space you have to place your materials on is huge. Using the new available space it is now possible to create hundreds of mats in the same place; although in terms of organisation that might get confusing. To combat the confusion with complex scenes you have the option of creating new workspaces to keep things organised, these just sit at the top as tabs for you to flick between.
The layout of the Slate when I first opened it wasn't quite to my liking, but fortunately if you click onto any of the standard windows and drag them around you will see some highlighted positions, drag the selected window to the position you like and drop it there. A feature I really like is the option to add a custom material group which you can drag all of your most commonly used items into, this saves a lot of time as the choice from the standard drop down menus you start with can be a bit bewildering, having a custom set to choose from is far easier.
Everything at a glance.
This addresses my previous comment on dealing with complex materials, the new node based view means you can see straight away what the setup of your material is. No clicking through channel upon channel of mats and sub-mats to find out what's going on, everything is just there to see. Another benefit of this is that if you use the same map in multiple places you can just drag the wire out from it to multiple slots/materials at once - it's basically the same as instancing but is a much neater way of doing it.
There are also a few other really useful little things in the Slate; the option to load all scene materials onto the work area at once is handy as are the node/child layout options (the option to re-sort everything vertically can be very useful if things start getting a bit complicated), the navigator window and the search functionality built right into the Material Map Browser window. I really love the way matlibs work now though, you just click on the arrow to the left of the search bar and select 'open material library', select one and it opens above your custom set and you can drag mats onto the work area; when you're done just right-click the lib and close it. You can also open scenes as matlibs by changing the 'Files of type' drop down in the Open window - this is very useful as you can get quick access to previously used mats without having to add them to a custom library.
One thing with the Slate is that it takes up a lot of screen space, it is lovely to use with a dual monitor setup (it does really need an entire screen in my opinion), working on one screen is of course possible but it's a bit cramped and I found myself having to constantly resize and move the window to see what was going on...the title of 'compact' for the old material editor is apt indeed!
Personally I think the Slate is a big improvement over the old material editor and, as my first experience of a node-based system, I have indeed found it to be efficient and intuitive. I would say it is a great addition to Max, hopefully development will continue and new features will be added to improve the workflow of material creation even further.
You can also download free 3d max models.