Basic keyframe animations

They key thing to remember about animating in 3D Studio Max is that it needs you to have turned on an animation mode before you can begin making key frames. Otherwise you are simply moving objects to a new position.

This IS something that you will do at some point. Especially when weighting a skin for an object you will often activate and deactivate a key mode repeatedly on purpose. Sometimes you will move an object to change it's natural state, sometimes you'll move an object to animate it, sometimes you'll move an object such as a bone to test the weight deformation without the intention of leaving the bone at that position. It will be up to you to remember when to turn on a key mode.

Manual keyframe animation

To key an animation manually. I should really have pictures here. I'm sorry.

  1. Select "Set Key" from the timeline menu at the bottom of the screen.
  2. Move the current time indicator in the timeline to the position of the new key frame.
  3. Arrange the object you want to animate.
  4. While the object(s) to be animated are STILL SELECTED press the Keyframe button (The large icon of a Key).
  5. When you are done animating make sure to click "Set Key" again to exit animation mode.

You must do things in this order. If you try to arrange an object being animated before you advance the timeline then you will simply lose the changes you've made when the object realigns to the nearest keyframe you've previously made.

The Auto Key method

Using the auto key option in 3DS Studio Max is simple.

  1. Instead of "Set Key" click the "Auto Key" button in the lower timeline area.
  2. Adjust any object you wish. If there are not keyframes for the current selection at this point on the timeline they will automatically be made. Or if they do exist any new adjustments will automatically overwrite the old.
  3. When you are done animating make sure to click "Auto Key" again to exit animation mode.

As you can see the process is much, much simpler than the manual approach. It requires a more cautious approach however. Make sure you are moving ONLY the objects you want to have key frames added to. You will screw this up at least once. Don't beat yourself up over it.

Below is a generic table of commonly used keyboard shortcuts and actions while keyframing in 3DS Max.

Action Keyboard Shortcut
Create a Keyframe at the current timeline position K
Select a Keyframe Left Click on the Keyframe
Delete a Keyframe Press "Delete" while a Keyframe is selected 
Move a Keyframe Left Click and drag the Keyframe horizontally
Duplicate a Keyframe Hold "Shift" while clicking and dragging on a key
Change left extent of (compact) timeline Hold CTRL and ALT while clicking and dragging the left mouse button
Change right extent of (compact) timeline Hold CTRL and ALT while clicking and dragging the right mouse button
Shift the entire (compact) timeline Hold CTRL and ALT while clicking and dragging the middle mouse button.

Hierarchical animation

In 3D Studio Max the hierarchy can be easily viewed on the left side of the screen in the default workspace. Most objects will not be "hierarchal" (have parent / child relationships) by default but the same window that simply lists objects will also show these relationships when they are used.

In Max this palette window is known as a "Scene Explorer". If a Scene Explorer window is not visible to you then you can create one by selecting "Tools > New Scene Explorer..." from the main menu.

We say "a" instead of "the" because you can actually have multiple Scene Explorers in Max. Re-enacting the same command will make a new explorer so that you can see multiple parts of the object list at once. This might be helpful for complex scenes with many, many objects.

Like many windows in Max a Scene Explorer window can be docked, undocked, and moved around by dragging the small control bar at the top of it.

Motion Control

Motion control is achieved in 3DS Max via the "Curve Editor" window. You can either click the Curve Editor icon in the main toolbar or select "Graph Editors > Track View - Curve Editor..." to bring it up.

The curve editor window will have a smaller version of the scene explorer on the left side and a lined graph taking up the rest of the view. This mini object list doesn't just list the objects in the scene however, it lists the various keyed properties of the objects as well. You can isolate which object properties are currently visible within the curve editor by simply clicking on the property in the list.

Just as with other aspects of max you can see multiple properties at once by "Ctrl-Clicking" the properties one at a time. This can help when comparing the positions of keys in an animation.

Helpful Concepts

As mentioned in the general reading the "ghosting" mode to see previous frames can be turned on by selecting "Views > Show Ghosting".

Further settings for the ghosting mode can be found via "Customize > Preferences > Viewports Tab". The "Ghosting" section has options for how many ghost images will appear, how spaced out they are, and whether or not they'll appear before and/or after the current frame.