A visual history of 3ds Max

Do you remember which version you first tried?

Autodesk’s 3ds Max is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The 3D modeling, animation and VFX tool has been through a number of incarnations – you might also know it as 3D Studio or 3D Studio MAX.

As I did for Nuke, I thought it would be fun to run down a history of 3ds Max in visual form, including both videos and imagery from the past three decades. Of course, there have been so many key contributors to Max from the very beginning through to today – this breakdown is not intended to be an exhaustive account of the software’s development.

Follow along as we go back in time with the 3D application. I’d be really interested to know which version of 3ds Max you might have first started using…


Filmmaker Gary Yost and his engineering team at the Yost Group create a 3D Studio prototype. The new project was code-named THUD (after programmer Tom Hudson).

For a fulsome look back at the pre-history of the tool, check out these interviews with Gary Yost and Tom Hudson at CG Press. There’s also this look at the Atari-related origins of 3D Studio (via a tool called ‘Solid States’ that was created for Atari 8-bit machines and written in BASIC).


On Halloween, 3D Studio for the disk operating system (DOS) debuts. It was published by Autodesk. The app initially included four modules (Shaper, Lofter, Editor and Material Editor), and then a keyframing module.


Yost Group, 1994. (L-R) Don Brittain, Tom Hudson, Rolf Berteig, Gary Yost, Jack Powell, Dan Silva.

3D Studio R4 introduces aspects that foreshadow 3ds Max’s heavy plug-in architecture and marks the beginning of the third-party development community surrounding the software.


Autodesk renames its multimedia division to Kinetix. 3D Studio MAX is the division’s flagship product. ‘Baby cha-cha’ goes viral, setting off the dancing baby animation craze. It was released in Autumn of 1996 as a product sample source file (sk_baby.max) with Kinetix’s Character Studio, and later found resurgence in an episode of Ally McBeal.

This year Autodesk releases 3D Studio MAX on the Windows 32-bit platform with real-time animation in the viewport. 3D Studio MAX R1.1 also introduces the inclusion of network rendering and the SDK, which opens the door to new plug-ins.



MAXScript makes its first appearance with the release of 3D Studio MAX R2. The computing language allows users to build tools on top 3D Studio MAX. MAX R2 was one of the largest releases in the history of the tool. Lost in Space is the first film to use 3D Studio MAX R2 for VFX. Tomb Raider II is released this year, in which cut scenes heavily utilize MAX.


Discreet 3ds Max 4 hits the shelves, incorporating features gained through Autodesk’s 1999 acquisition of Discreet Logic, including the biped character studio that remains in the software today, an extensible character animation architecture, advanced game development tools, extensive rendering productivity with Active Shader, and more.

Short film Fifty Percent Gray, made with 3ds Max, is nominated for Best Animated Short Film at the Academy Awards. The first Halo video game is released, also created with the aid of 3ds Max.


As the Mental Ray renderer gains traction among animation, VFX and game development professionals, Discreet 3ds Max 6 releases with Mental Ray support, among other new features like Particle Flow for particle simulations, which extends the product’s use for procedural animation.

Les Triplettes de Belleville, an animated feature made partly with 3ds Max, earns two Oscar nods, while Final Destination 2 shocks moviegoers with a massive auto crash set off by logs flying off the back a flatbed, an iconic shot created at Digital Dimension with 3ds Max.


3ds Max 8 advances the software’s integrated character animation toolset (CAT) beyond Biped, enabling artists to create creatures with advanced rigging tools. The release also featured developments in motion mixing and motion retargeting, hair and fur, cloth, modeling and texturing, UV pelt mapping and DirectX and .fx support.

Gopher Broke from Blur Studio, a big user of 3ds Max, is nominated for the Best Animated Short Academy Award.


64-bit support arrives for 3ds Max with the release of 3ds Max 9, allowing artists to more easily work with large data sets, while reducing the volume of rendering passes required.

3ds Max is used to visualize the new One World Trade Center using data from AutoCAD and Revit, and show off the largest domed structure at the time, the Dallas Cowboys Stadium.


Autodesk launches 3ds Max Design 2009 for architecture, engineering and construction (AEC), a separate release from 3ds Max 2009 for animation and VFX. The releases feature a new ProMaterials asset library for simulating real-world surfaces, biped enhancements, new UV editing tools, improved OBJ and Autodesk FBX file format import and export and recognized scene-loading technology.

3ds Max takes home a Technology and Engineering Award in the Category of ‘Visual Digital Content Creation Tools and Their Impact’ from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.


3ds Max’s Nitrous Viewport comes with the release of 3ds Max 2011 and 3ds Max Design 2011. The new feature makes it possible to generate imagery from the viewport that more closely mirrors the final render while also accelerating render times.


3ds Max 2013 and 3ds Max Design 2013 deliver interactive rendering experiences for more iterative look development with ActiveShade support in Iray; a new render pass system.


Increasing demand from artists and studios prompts the release of a new Populate feature in 3ds Max 2014 and 3ds Max Design 2014, making it easy to animate walk cycles and crowds for a more authentic look. The release also included expanded support for third-party plug-ins among other viewport performance enhancements.


Python scripting arrives in 3ds Max 2015 and 3ds Max Design 2015, a release that also allows users to create more authentic assets using massive datasets captured with point clouds in an era when the technique of scanning real-world objects for modeling reference is catching on.


3ds Max 2016 brings it back to “One Max,” rolling features for both AEC and M&E into a single product, and introduces a new node-based Max Creation Graph toolset, support for non-destructive animation workflows in XRef, OpenSubdiv support, a new Design Workspace and on-demand template system, a new Camera Sequencer and more.


3ds Max 2018 debuts with features that address customer feedback including Smart Asset Packaging, customizable workspaces, Blended Box Map, MAXtoA 1.0 plug-in and Data Channel Modifier, motion paths for visualizing animation as a Bezier trajectory in the viewport and Max to Autodesk View (LMV) translation cloud services.


Autodesk M&E embraces open source with 3ds Max 2019, adding Open Shading Language (OSL) support and improving the Alembic workflow. The release also includes a built-in Bifrost-based fluids system with presets for typically used fluid types, file I/O, MCG, and 11 new spline tools.


3ds Max 2020 alleviates common detail modeling bottlenecks by introducing updated features for creating best-in-class chamfers procedurally and animation upgrades for generating previews from the viewport, along with better interop with CAD models, and more out-of-the-box procedural textures. Overall stability and performance enhancements also accelerate the content creation process.


Autodesk 3ds Max 2021 introduces new tools for Texture Baking and Install, improvements to the Viewport and enhancements to Substance tools, ProSound and SketchUp import. Installation and rendering is made faster, while 3ds Max Python 3 us now set as default Python interpreter.

Autodesk also just released today 3ds Max 2021.1, which continues on a number of these enhancements. For more information on all the new things in 3ds Max, you can check out the 2021 public roadmap.

So, looking back at all these releases, which one did you start with? Leave your thoughts in the comments.