WB's Guide to the Basics of Animating in 3DSMax

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Getting started on Animating in Max.

This tutorial does not cover modeling, UV mapping, texturing, or compiling. It is only for beginning animators to understand and get comfortable with using 3D Studio Max.

Also, if you ever get confused about what I might be talking about or can't find where a button is then check the screenshot. So many questions can be answered with just that single scrennie, so take a look before posting. Thanks!

So you just got 3D Studio Max (we'll just call it Max, for short) and the first thing that you see when it loads up is a huge, scary interface with more buttons and options and junk than you can even comprehend, and if you're anything like me then you're probably thinking that it ain't gonna be easy to learn this. Well, you're right. I will be completely honest with you right now: animating is hard, and you will not get good at it over night, over a week, or even over a month. You must practice and more importantly, you must have a commitment. Animators are a rare and dying breed, and there’s a reason for that. However, I’m going to keep being honest with you: you can animate. Do not let a failed first try discourage you, and don’t stop animating if it’s what you have a passion for. With that said, let us begin.


Scene – The entire file you’re working on, that has all your models and frames and everything in it.

Viewport – The different “windows” that you view the scene from.

Frame – A unit of time in animation, where things change slightly so that when played back in rapid succession it gives the effect of motion.

Key Frame – A frame where you change something specific. Max will then automatically fill in, or “tween” the frames between your two key frames to make the animation smooth.

Mesh – The group of pieces that make up your model.

Model – The 3D object as a whole that you generally animate, such as a gun or knife.

Bone – Basically what it sounds like. It’s an invisible binding that keeps 3D things together. For example, if you’ve got a hands model and you want to move the wrist around, then bones are what keep the fingers attached to the wrist so that they move with the wrist.

Clipping – When a 3D object passes through another one like a ghost. There will always be some clipping in your animations, but do not make it visible or obvious, and it’s generally best to avoid it if you can.

If you look in one of your viewport windows, one of them should say “Perspective” at the top left corner. If it doesn’t then right-click on whatever it does say there, and go to View > Perspective.

For people with mouse wheels, hold down the middle mouse button as well as ALT, and drag your mouse around the viewport. You can now magically fly around! Cool, huh? If you let go of ALT and hold down only the middle mouse button then you can pan around.

Also, you can scroll on your mouse wheel to zoom in and out of your scene.

For those of you without a mouse wheel, you can click Arc Rotate button at the bottom of the screen and just click and drag around on your viewport to zoom around like that.

Get comfortable navigating like this. You’ll be doing it a lot. You can also use the other 4 viewports to see your scene from different angles, which is useful especially in modeling. If you don’t like having the tiny view ports to work in then you can click the Maximize Viewport Toggle button at the bottom right corner of the screen and it’ll make your selected viewport (outlined in yellow or red) take up the full screen. Click it again to go back to using 4 smaller ones.

Also, one thing many people underestimate is the keyboard and all the shortcuts in Max. Instead of having to drag your mouse everywhere and click on a million things to get a window to show up, you can simply push a button! Common ones you'll use a lot are P (switches to Perspective view), L B and T (for Left, Bottom, and Top view), and C (for Camera view, which shows you what the animations will look like in-game). Also, sometimes you might accidentally bump keys and your scale tool no longer seems to show up on a selected item, or the rotate tool's sphere doesn't appear on a selected item. You probably pushed X, which toggles that on and off. Push X again to turn it back on.

*Special thanks to Loyen_ for some of the keyboard shortcuts!*

First thing you’ll want to do is go to the DevHub here on FPSB and download one of the many fine models for us to use. I strongly recommend choosing one like this knife that is already UV mapped (meaning it’s already got the 3D surfaces cut up and glued onto a flat 2D image for skinning. You can tell because it’s usually got some gay little colors on it, but that’s beside the point).

Then you'll also need to download the model for the hands (link).

When you find a rig you like, open it in Max and you should see the hands kind of floating there. You will then want to go to File > Merge and find the file of the knife model we downloaded a minute ago. A box should pop up with a list of all the components that make up the knife. Select them all, then click OK. If it’s huge then use the scale tool to scale it down. Remember to use the inner-most yellow triangle when scaling things down, because it scales the selection as a whole instead of just on two dimensions. Get it to about the right size so that it would fit in the hands you’ve got on your stage.

If your knife model is a blank white texture, then press M on your keyboard and a window with some weird spheres should pop up. Find the UV map file of the knife (usually a .jpg or something) and drag that image file from whatever folder it is in directly onto on of those spheres. The sphere should now be covered with that image file. Then just drag the sphere onto the model, and with a little luck the model should now magically have the UV map texture applied to it. If you’re having trouble then let me know specifically what you’re doing.

Honestly, there is little point in me actually typing out a tutorial on how to animate. You need to actually see how it’s done, and to do that you need to download either DaEllum’s VTMs (here) or Jennifer!!’s VTMs (here). DaEllum is for users with a little more experience navigating in Max and assumes that the viewer knows a few things beforehand. Jenn’s are not as thorough but are great for beginners. Plus they’re hilarious, so I strongly recommend watching Jenn’s VTMs first, then going to DaEllum’s.

On a side-note, you’ll need the .SMD Exporter tool for 3DS Max for when you’re all finished and ready to prepare your awesome new animations for compiling. If you have Max 9 or higher then you will want to get this exporter from WunderBoy, and if you have any versions previous to Max 9 then you will want to get this exporter by CannonFodder instead.

The timeline is the bar beneath the viewport(s) that looks a bit like a ruler with some numbers on it. It shows you all the frames in your animation, and shows you the key frames for each object you have selected. When an object is only rotated between two key frames then you get a green key frame. If it gets moved (up, down, left right, forward, backward, diagonally, whatever) then the key frame is filled red. If an object is both rotated and moved in the same frame then the key frame will be half red and half green. If an object gets scaled (made bigger or smaller) then the key frame turns blue. If an object has all three transformations applied to it on the same key frame then the key frame will have red, blue, and green parts.

It’s important to note that transformations can occur between multiple key frames. What I mean is that if on a key frame on frame 1 you have a box, then frame 10 is a key frame where the box gets moved up a bit, so that frames 2-9 show the tween of the box moving up, and then on frame 20 you do not move the box but rotate the box 90º then it will start rotating from the first frame even though frame 10 is a key frame because frame 10 only acts as a key frame for an objects position, not rotation or scale. Make sense? Well don’t worry, it will eventually.

You can also change around some settings in your timeline, like how many frames there are and how fast they play, but clicking on the Time Configuration button next to the timeline.

When I animate, I like to have the Auto Key option selected (the button turns red and the bar above the timeline turns red too). This means that when you make a change on a frame, it automatically makes that frame a key frame and only changes what’s on that frame. If Auto Key was not selected then if I rotated something in frame 10, it would rotate it the same amount in every frame.

I also like to animate by changing things every five or ten frames, and let Max fill in the gaps with its smooth tweens. This way you get a nice and fluid animation. If you tried to make a key frame on every single frame and animate each individual frame that way then you’d get a very choppy animation, plus you’d spend ten times as long doing it. Let Max do the work for you, trust me.

Try going through the motions yourself and observe how things move naturally before you start animating it.

Pay attention to all the details, big and small. Especially details like individual finger placement and pose.

Do not scale your hands. The bones are unbreakable, and if you scale them then the mesh will still stay the same size and it will make the hands and arms look like they belong to an anorexic person or something.

Do not try to move the fingers with the Move Tool. Again, the bones are unbreakable, so you should only use the rotation tool on the fingers. You can, however, use the move tool on the wrist and shoulder bones.

Do not animate the whole thing together. Instead, break it down into the draw animation, the reload animation, the fire animation, etcetera, and save them as individual .max files.

Do not stop animating even if you get confused or frustrated. It is difficult, but it can be done, and you’ve got everything you need right in front of you. All that’s left is your commitment.

This tutorial was just to help those who want to learn to animate get off to a decent start. Don’t cry about how “oh, it’s too simple” or “like omg dewds, he dusn’t knew wut hees talkeeng aboot omg omg omg” because you’re missing the point of it entirely, and more importantly, I don’t care.

I hope this cleared up some questions people had. And with this tutorial, I hope to see some new quality animations on FPSB real soon. However, animations are a lot like skins in that your first attempt probably won’t be great or perfect, so please don’t submit it. Just put it up as a WiP, get some feedback on how it can be improved and perfected, and then only submit something when you’re confident it’s perfect and there is no possible way to make it better.

With all that said, good luck, have fun, and don’t ever stop trying! :D


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    Report post
    5 years ago:
    > **Posted by LEGE7VDARY**

    > fantastic tut -WildBill-, also the hand rig link is broken. just saying. anyways totally influenced me to try animating.

    Fixed, but it's only Jenn's rig. =/
  • Kuij avatar
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    5 years ago:
    fantastic tut -WildBill-, also the hand rig link is broken. just saying. anyways totally influenced me to try animating.
    Wannabe Animator
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    6 years ago:
    Amazing, thanks mate :D !


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    6 years ago:
    Posted by FPSKim

    I was messing around with the keyboard shortcuts and now the timeline shows only 1 frame and I was wondering how to put it back to normal.

    click on the Time Configuration button in the very bottom right-hand corner of 3DS Max and set the start time to 0 and the end time to however many frames you want your sequence to be and it should then display all of those frames on the timeline.

    if not then lemme know and we'll get it figured out :)
    Want realism? Go play outside.
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    6 years ago:
    I was messing around with the keyboard shortcuts and now the timeline shows only 1 frame and I was wondering how to put it back to normal.
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    6 years ago:
    Posted by rockrebel

    I use 3DsMax 10 and I cant find File... I alredy looked at the screenshot ! Nothing !

    If anybody's wondering, you can merge models in 3DS 2010 by going to the little teal Autodesk symbol (which is basically the "file" button) and pressing or hovering over the import option, and then merge is the second sub-option.

    Phew. That was kind of long...

    Oh yeh.
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    6 years ago:
    Thank You for helping me ;) and of course everyone who want to start animating :)
    Polska krew avatar
    Polska krew
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    6 years ago:
    Posted by shortez


    Could You upload these one more time ?

    FPSB doesn't seem to want to save any edits i make, so try this link for now. thank you for pointing it out to me :)
    Want realism? Go play outside.
  • BrainCollector avatar
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    6 years ago:

    Could You upload these one more time ?
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    7 years ago:
    How do i enable first person view and how to enable the 3ds max 2010 to show css textures ?


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3D Animation
Difficulty Level
Beginner Difficulty


Date Added
8 years ago
Jun 6 2008 @ 7:16pm UTC
Date Modified
3 years ago
Jul 15 2013 @ 9:30pm UTC


9.9 Expert+

Ratings Breakdown

Overall 9.9 16 9 to 10

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