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Thursday, May 24, 2012

3ds Max Plugin Review: Swift 3D MAX 4, Converting 3D Models to 2D Vector Illustrations

Product: Swift 3D MAX 4 plugin
Company: Electric Rain
Purpose: Converting 3D models into 2D Vector Illustrations

My boss recently purchased a new plugin for me. It is called "Swift 3D MAX 4." It has many different applications packaged together that do not come standard with 3ds Max. There seems to be some valuable uses for it such as creating export options for .SWF and Flash to make embed-able turntable renders for websites; however, there is a specific application that I am using it for. Swift 3D MAX enables you to take a 3D model, fully textured and lit, and convert it to a 2D Vector Illustration and Illustrator file (.ai) This is what I will be giving you insight on.

Swift 3D MAX works like Mental Ray and Vray in the sense that it is a stand-alone Render Engine. It automatically converts objects, textures, and lighting into a 2D Vector rendition with a few clicks. So far, I have found that when attempting to take a Vray scene and convert it into a Swift 3D MAX (.ai file) scene, the plugin does not seem to be cross compatible; however, Scanline and Mental Ray scenes seem to work fine.

The quality of the results of this 3D to 2D conversion are mixed depending on how complex you want the illustration to be. For example, the results seem to be pretty strong if you just want an illustration using 1-2 shades. The more shade passes you want, the more complex the illustrator file becomes and the harder it becomes to get a satisfactory illustration with this method.

Up to 4 shades seems to work pretty well although the illustrator file becomes quite complex and flat. A major problem I have encountered is when I want to do a full color conversion, or start using gradients instead of just flat colors. When doing a full color conversion, for some reason the wire frame translates into the vector image which looks terrible. The gradient looks okay for the "area gradient" render but it is not the quality my superiors expect out of the work. There is another gradient option for "mesh gradient" which looks great in preview mode; however, the file will not open at all in illustrator making it useless if you need a vector file instead of just a JPG render. Here are some renders so you can see my results for yourself :)

Original 3D/ Vray Render

Single Color Conversion

Two Color Conversion

Four Color Conversion

Area Gradient Conversion

You might be thinking this looks pretty impressive for converting a 3D model into a vector illustration using 3ds Max, and I agree if you are just trying to make illustrations of your 3D models for personal use; however, if you are using this for professional work I do not find the results to be stunning as would be expected if you are getting paid for something like this or if you are trying to sell one of these illustrations for use in a magazine for example. My art director, Bryant Arnold, suggested that I make a composite of all these different styles to see if we can get something that would be satisfactory and this was my attempt:

Composite Illustration

As you can see this composite looks much better than any of the previous renders on their own; however, this took about an hour to put together on top of having to do 9 different renders to achieve this composite and it is still a little shy of the quality we would expect if we were going to sell this illustration. 

The Final Verdict:

None of the above renders have outlines but there is an option to add outlines to the illustrations; however, it tends to make the images look kind of 1980's ish which is not what we are going for. 

The Good: All and all the Swift 3D MAX plugin is a pretty valuable tool for translating a 3D model into a 2D Scalable Vector Illustration and seems to be the best program for this application I have been able to find to date. The render time tends to be pretty low which is very nice. If you are the kind of 3D artist that has no actual illustration skills, this is a great tool for you; however, if you are like me and you are a diverse artist capable of 3D modeling and illustration, just doing the illustration from scratch in illustrator is probably a better option for you to get the best results. On the other hand, if you just want a quick vector illustration and you already have a 3D model of what you wish to illustrate then this can be a quick, decent solution.

The Bad: Some of the more complex illustrations and file formats will not open which makes them useless. Vector files are very complex and unorganized. Illustrations can feel "flat." If you want a top quality illustration, it is not possible to achieve the result unless you composite several files together which kind of defeats the purpose of using this shortcut rather then just illustrating from scratch. 

Keep in mind this review primarily pertains to the plug-in's 3d to 2d Vector applications. If I were going to assign a 1-5 ranking to this plugin I would give it a 3 out of 5. It is a valuable tool for making quick illustrations using 3D models but I just think it can be better. If you are going to pay hundreds of dollars for this I do not think that perfection is so much to ask for. On the other hand, if you want quick, simple illustrations with Clip Art quality made from 3D models this is a great tool. It also comes with more features/ uses then discussed in this review. If you want to check it out for yourself, you can download a trial version: 

This Semi-Truck model was purchased from: 

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