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The History of 3D Studio – Gary Yost interview

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The History of 3D Studio – Gary Yost interview


In this double feature we have the great pleasure to present you with the history of 3D Studio as related by the head and leader of the Yost Group: Gary Yost himself. Gary shares his experiences of more than a decade of 3D Studio and 3DS Max development, along with many unique facts and anecdotes gained from his personal perspective as captain of the ship. In addition, he also takes a look at the evolution, current state and future of the CG Industry. For this occasion we are accompanied by the esteemed collaboration of Spanish artist José María De Espona, who had a prominent role in the creation of art that was used by Autodesk for 3D Studio’s promotion. José María shares the stories behind the production of some of the images that appear in this article, chosen by Gary Yost, which many 3D Studio / Max users will quickly recognize. Join us once again for another refreshing dive into the waters of 3D history.

The Interview

- What first attracted you to graphics software development, as opposed to another field of computing?

I had always been interested in photography and making short films when I was a teenager — at that time I thought that my future was in video or film production.  When the Atari 800 was released in 1980 I saw that perhaps microcomputers would be able to support the creation of “interesting” graphics.  The fact that the 800 had multiple co-processors to handle different graphics and sound functions seemed to indicate that micros were headed towards a fun place to play.  That really sparked my imagination and led me to believe that possibly my interests in imaging could converge with computer tech in the future.  It really didn’t take too long for that to happen… I founded Antic Software in 1984 and then when Tom Hudson showed me his little 3D prototype for the AtariST at Comdex in November 1985, a blindingly bright lightbulb popped on above my head.  Really!  It was an epiphany.  We spent the next 2-1/2 years making the AtariST do things the Tramiel family never dreamed of.

- What made you decide to take Eric Lyons’s offer, jump ship from a comfortable position at Antic, and embark on the development of 3D Studio? What convinced you that Autodesk would be a good company to help bring that project to fruition?

First let me say that developing for the AtariST was a verylimited game.  Our market was small and the lack of expandability was really crippling.  The display supported only 4bit color and I’d been hearing rumors of IBM launching the 8bit VGA display.  Plus, on the IBM there were 3rd party 24bit framebuffers like the AT&T Vista and Targa cards.  And of course the IBM was a commodity market, which had additional benefits of size and expandability.  So when David Kalish and Eric Lyons at Autodesk offered us a development contract after Comdex ’87 it really just seemed the next logical step.  Autodesk was having quite a bit of success with AutoCAD by that time and we felt comfortable with their laid-back experimental philosophy… very non-corporate with dogs in the hallways, weekly beer busts where ideas were shared, and a general good feeling.  Plus it was just across the GG Bridge from SF where I was living at the time, in a beautiful part of Sausalito.  It was a great situation.

A screenshot from the original Solid States 3D prototype

Tom Hudson showed to Gary Yost in 1985

- When did Dan Silva join the original 3DS development group? What unexpected tasks did you find yourselves fulfilling as the project grew over time?

This is an interesting story.  Originally the 3DS engineers were going to be Tom Hudson and Jim Kent.  The thinking was that after creating Autodesk Animator, Jim would start working on the keyframer while Animator was in maintenance mode.  But you know how software becomes all-consuming and of course our Animator users wanted more features, more resolution, etc and Jim needed to get to work on Animator Pro, which ended up being quite an amazing app.

Tom had started work on the framework and modeler/lofter modules in 1988 and by summer of 1989 things were starting to look really interesting.  I had been asking folks at Autodesk if they knew of any engineers who were interested in 3D animation for the keyframer position, and in August I was approached by Walt Spivak, director of product marketing, about his neighbor Dan Silva.  Dan had developed DPaint for EA and literally over his backyard fence had been expressing his boredom to Walt.  I called Dan and asked him if he might be interested in working with a little team on an interesting new graphics project for Autodesk, but I did not tell him it was specifically in the area of 3D keyframing.

So, Dan came into a meeting room with us in September 1989 and we asked him what he wanted to do.  He mentioned two things… one was a resolution-independent paint program and the other was a 3D keyframer.  Bingo.  Dan and I signed his contract at about 3pm on October 17, 1989… just 2 hours before the magnitude 7.1 earthquake that struck the SF Bay Area that day.  I was in Sausalito at the Autodesk offices copying his contract on their Xerox machines during the earthquake.  Those buildings were built on landfill, so you can imagine how much they moved.  It was quite a day.

Regarding unexpected tasks…  After 3DS DOS r1 shipped on Halloween 1990 we started getting lots of user feedback.  It was obvious to all of us that there was gold in that feedback and I built systems to collect and organize it for future versions.  Of course many of the feature requests were “unexpected”, but we took every request seriously and that became the hallmark of our future versions… user-driven features.

- What was the Yost group’s dynamic like? What was a typical day of work like?

Image created with 3D Studio r2 by José María De Espona for Spain’s public TV cultural channel

The dynamic was… dynamic.  We had taken on a pretty hefty responsibility coming from a small Atari software publishing operation and then being tasked to write the “AutoCAD of 3D animation”.You can imagine there was a fair amount of pressure associated with that.  So we worked really crazy long hours.  A typical workweek from 1988-1998 was 90-100hrs, and for the 3 months leading up to a release 110+hr weeks were de rigueur.  Since we all worked out of our own homes and were in long-term relationships, we had enough support to make that possible, barely.  We only took time off after a release shipped, so you can imagine what those 18-month release cycles were like.

A typical workday was just sitting in front of our PCs… for me mostly working on specs (2 days a week with Jack Powell), communicating and running tests.  From the outside it would’ve appeared pretty fairly calm, but internally the pace was frenetic.

- Autodesk co-founder John Walker states in his Information Letter 14 (April 1991): “The very existence of the Multimedia group is an admission of the neglect for Animator after its hugely successful initial launch. If Autodesk had, in 1983, treated AutoCAD the way it treated Animator and 3D Studio after their introduction, Autodesk would not exist today. (…) Don’t touch the product. Just move the price down to where the early adopters can afford it” How was 3D Studio perceived within Autodesk and the company’s Autocad-oriented development strategy? What was the Yost Group’s relationship with John Walker like?

I’m not sure what I’ve done with my copy of Walker’s historical book “The Autodesk File” [see Notes], but that’s a really incisive look at what was going on back then.  I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about Autodesk’s early days.  3D Studio was originally viewed internally as little more than a research project to see if it was possible to achieve workstation-level 3D graphics on a PC.  Once 3DS/DOSr1 shipped and we started getting so much great feedback, the people at Autodesk began to see that a new franchise might be possible.  For quite awhile we were the poor stepchild of the company but we slowly gained more and more respect from the CAD division.  Eventually, once Autodesk acquired discreet logic in the late 90s, Max and the other DCC products began to be seen as a full-fledged franchise in their own right.

Our relationship with John Walker was friendly, and he was a great supporter of what we were doing.  That said, he was stepping out of the day-to-day business of the company by the early 90s and on his way to new ventures.  Most of my favorite memories of John were his show-and-tell moments at those legendary Friday afternoon beer busts.  He’d bring in all sorts of new tech to share with us, including superconducting materials (in supercooled containers) and stuff like that.  John is an extremely smart person… like nobody I’ve known before or since.

- Tom mentions that the name 3D Studio was suggested by Autodesk marketing, along with other possibilities such as “Yost”. Do you recall other possible names that were considered?

Tom’s memory is correct… there was a very surreal meeting in which I had to shoot down the idea of using my own name as a brand for the Autodesk line of DCC products.  The name 3D Studio came about because Tom, Jack Powell and I had previously created a package called Cyber Studio for the AtariST, which included CAD-3D as the primary component, along with some other plugins and 3D clip art.  3D Studio is just a concatenation of the second parts of CAD-3D and Cyber Studio.  3D Studio!

- John Walker recommends in April 1991 to “move the product to Windows as soon as technically feasible”. When and why did you decide to embark on the development of 3D Studio MAX?

Oh boy.  We had a good thing going with 3DS DOS.  Lots of IPAS plugins, great enthusiastic user base and excellent sales.  But there were lots of problems with that architecture and we all knew that we wouldn’t be able to keep our DOS users happy once Windows was capable of supporting large memory via 32bit addressing.  The separate working modules were a huge problem, along with lack of procedural editing and totally modal IPAS plug-ins.  These things drove us (and our customers) crazy by the time we got to DOSr3, and as soon as we found out from IBM that WinNT 3.1 was going to be released summer 1993 we made the decision to re-architect.  The first step was hiring Don Brittain away from Wavefront, where he was chief scientist.  Don was unhappy with Wavefront’s decision not to move to the PC platform and he’d been talking with me about that.  In fact, Don was on the verge of accepting a job at Microsoft and moving from Santa Barbara to Seattle when I came to him in January 1993 and asked him to join our team.  Of course when he found that he could work from his home instead of moving that was a great benefit, and he started working on Max prototypes in February.

Image created with a beta of 3D Studio Max in 1995
by José María De Espona

1993 was a big year for 3DS/DOS too.  We added hundreds of new features while Don was in the skunkworks with the Windows version.  He had some pretty exciting prototypes working by the end of that year and we were all itching to move over and get working.  But there were still some critical features we needed to get into the DOS version before we spent 2 years on the new platform… particularly inverse kinematics.  Remember, we only had 2 developers on DOS and 1 on Max at the time… no extra resources were available.  Fortunately I’d been working with Rolf Berteig on some interesting IPAS plugins (in the area of L-System plantlife) and he was such a joy to work with that I began talking to him about doing a more ambitious IPAS IK plugin.  He jumped right in and that became the heart of 3DS/DOSr4 (well, maybe we should’ve called it 3.5).  It was obvious that Rolf was an intrepid software engineer… he had no qualms going anywhere or doing anything.  During that project we made him an offer to become a full partner and work on Max with us as soon as he was finished.  Once DOSr4 shipped in mid ’94 we had four brilliant and completely unstoppable engineers to focus on Max.

Don had a very solid prototype by that time and we had written a specification for this new app that we code-named Jaguar.  In September we began development in earnest, but we ran into snags.  Our MIS infrastructure was very shaky… we were using dial-up 56Kbaud modems into a server at Don’s house.  The code base was going to get quite large and already in the beginning we began to run into problems with dropped phonelines during source control system updates.  Don was spending all of his time just trying to manage source database corruption problems during October, and by early November we were almost ready to give up.  (For the want of a nail…)

Luckily Gus Grubba, who we’d been working with on Video Post and other aspects of 3DS/DOS and was a great friend, mentioned that a new form of data-communications called ISDN was just coming online.  We all checked with our local telecoms and found that it was available for all of us just that month!  It took a few weeks to get everybody up and running with ISDN but by January 1, 1995 we were flying, rock solid.  Now things really started to move, and the rest is pretty much history.  It only took us 6 months to bring Max up enough to show (what looked like a nearly finished product) at Siggraph LA 1995.  The demo totally blew away the Microsoft/Softimage folks, who had just merged and begun work on XSI.  And the people from Alias simply stood around our booth, mouth agape.  That was my favorite Siggraph ever.  We shipped Max in April 1996, so in all there were only about 15 months of actual development time in r1… quite a feat for 4 engineers with a completely new architecture.

A photo of the Yost Group circa 1995

How did Character Studio authors Michael Girard and Susan Amkraut join development?

Michael Girard and Susan Amkraut were an incredibly important part of all this.  They had met with our product manager in very early 1995 and were then introduced to me.  We showed them what we were doing and they showed us some early Biped tests.  There was a lot of excitement in the room that day and we all saw how interesting it would be for Biped to prove the flexibility of our APIs.  Plus of course Biped was a brand-new way of animating – something that our customers had been only dreaming about… procedural character animation.  Another revelation along the path.  The dancing baby animation actually first manifested as a dancing monkey in our 1995 Siggraph demo, and that totally floored the crowd.  Not only had we launched a new procedural architecture, but there was Biped… a revolutionary way of animating.  It was almost too much for some people.

The Road Runner meets Biped – a drawing by
Chuck Jones dedicated to Michael Girard after seeing his

research on 3D bipeds and quadrupeds

- When and how did the name 3D Studio Max come up?

This was a tough one… we were obsoleting our DOS product with this totally new (and basically incompatible) Windows technology, but we wanted to maintain the 3D Studio brand.  In a 1995 meeting with Anna Mellilo (our marketing manager at Autodesk), we were struggling with how to do this.  On a break, she started talking about her young son Max.  I’d been chewing on the name problem in the corner and heard her say “Max” just as I was thinking “3D Studio”.  So thanks to Anna (and her son), we got our name.  (Although it was ironic that Max did not run on Macs.)

- When did you come up with the concept of integrating the different 3DS modules into a unified modeling/animation environment?

We’d been looking carefully at various workstation-level 3D animation systems all the way back to the 1980s, and were especially impressed by systems from Symbolics and Side Effects.  They provided a level of integration and procedural control that was just so powerful.  At the same time, we wanted to create something that was easier to use.  It was obvious that an integrated environment was what our customers wanted, so that was our paramount design goal.

- What key elements were taken into account when designing Max’s modifier stack? Did you think about pushing proceduralism further?

We certainly were committed to a procedural approach, but even more important was our need to make it robust.  Our biggest design goal was to make sure the stack was going to work quickly and reliably in production.  That inspired things like lazy stack evaluation to make it fast by not doing anything that wasn’t necessary at the time.  (One of the 8 patents that we were awarded for Max was in this area.  You can google it with the search term “3ds max lazy evaluation”… it’s interesting reading and was totally novel at the time.)

The capabilities of the modifer stack improved over time – especially when the development team at Autodesk added the Stack View for r4.  That was an outrageously great enhancement to the stack and I’m sure everyone is grateful for it.A photo from the Autodesk Max launch party during SIGGRAPH 1996, which took place in August in New Orleans. Max had been officially released a few months earlier, in April 1996.

- IPAS, plugins and scripting capabilities have been critical to 3D Studio/Max’s success. Were you involved (or would’ve liked to be involved) in the development of any particular Max plugins? Which plugins/scripts developed for 3DS/Max have surprised you?

Max plugins?  No.  I primed the IPAS plugin pump with my catalog of add-ons to 3DS/DOS because we needed to show people what could be done with a plugin interface.  But Max was so all-consuming that I had no additional bandwidth to put into Max plugins.  Of course I’ve been astounded at all the creative plugins that have been developed over the years, but that was expected… it was why we put all that work into the Max SDK.

- Why did you decide to leave the Max team?

I had been operating under the “deferred-life plan” for about 10 years by 1998, and there were a lot of other things I wanted to do.  Photography was my first passion and I wanted to re-explore my relationship to that, plus my family needed to get out of San Francisco and find a house in a more rural area surrounded by nature.  But the biggest thing that my wife and I wanted was to adopt our second daughter, Ruby (which we did, from China, in 2001).  That has been the biggest joy of my life.

T-Rex model created using the MetaReyes plugin for 3D

Studio DOS developed by Javier Reyes

- What have you been up to since leaving the Max team? Please tell us a little about your work at Mental Images.

After starting up version 2 of our family I began to have some very interesting conversations with Rolf Herken at mental images about how it may be possible to add a 3D backbone to the internet to make interactive 3D possible on a global scale.  His vision led to the development of RealityServer.  I was involved with that on a consulting basis until we began to get serious about the idea of a device-independent rendering language that would solve the myriad of problems with shaders that arose because they were platform-specific.  This was a really meaty problem, and Rolf Berteig had been doing some research in this area.  I came on board officially, brought RolfB into the mental images fold about four years ago and the results have been tremendous.  Max now ships with MetaSL language support along with the mental mill editor, and that’s tremendously satisfying.  MetaSL is now being used by major Hollywood studios and will be integrated into many other DCC and CAD apps in the near future.  You can read more about mental mill, MetaSL and RealityServer on the mental images site.

Beyond that I’m raising a beautiful daughter and love the work I’m doing with my personal imaging work.  I’m going to start teaching photography to middle-school students next year, which is really exciting for me.

- What is your current perception of the CG industry? How has the industry changed since you started developing 3D Studio, and what role do you think 3DS had in those changes?

Hmmm….  Consolidation.  When I started it was a highly fragmented industry with hundreds of different small software entrepreneurs developing lots of creative tools, healthily competing with one another.  Now of course the Big Three are all owned by Autodesk, and that’s certainly changed the competitive dynamic.  Also, when I began doing this many of these tools were very expensive… in the tens of thousands of dollars.  We began the trend of cost-reducing professional tools, but that got out of hand for awhile – sort of a commoditization of the market.  Customers started to expect an awful lot of functionality for a very low price… lower than the costs of actually developing this stuff.  And that put a lot of great engineers out of work.  Many have since moved on to other industries.  So there’s been a brain drain due to this low-cost price expectation and I feel partly responsible for that.  Those high prices in the old days weren’t sustainable though, and it was one of the reasons consolidation happened.  Perhaps this was all part of the process.  Who knows?

- Why do you think 3D Studio / Max has become the widest selling 3D software for almost 20 years?

It’s the same reason why the Swiss Army Knife is still so popular.  We wanted to make a tool that could be used by anybody to do anything.  It was a lofty goal but the market proved that we succeeded.  And I attribute that success in great part to the stellar design and engineering work of Tom Hudson, Dan Silva, Don Brittain and Rolf Berteig.  Plus we had a real human being on our team to vet all of our designs… Jack Powell.  Without Jack our work would’ve ended up as a bunch of arcane tools, usable only by true mutants.  There are lots of other people who we’re indebted to as well.  Mark Meier, Gus Grubba, Jamie Clay, Martin Doudoroff, Kyle Peacock, and many great people at Autodesk (and elsewhere) who took the ball and ran with it in such creative ways.  Max is a huge team effort and never would’ve been possible without this gestalt of imagination that blossomed at that particular place and time.

The famous Max Temple image by José María

De Espona holds some hidden surprises

- Do you feel that the graphics field is as exciting as it was 10-20 years ago, or has innovation basically slowed down these past few years?

Sure, it’s always going to be exciting.  The goal in 3D computer graphics is to pretty much play God within the silicon.  Nature is an awesomely complex system and the attempt to simulate the universe  is a never-ending quest.  You can see what James Cameron has done with Avatar as a great example of a good signpost along the road.  The mocap is very close to perfect, and the rendering is getting better and better.  (Actually the potential is there now for the rendering to be purely photorealistic in such a film, instead of the cartoony quality that we see now.  It would just take much more time and be even more expensive.  That’s coming soon.)

I always used to say at our big yearly user events at Siggraph that any specific release of 3DS was a finger pointing at the moon.  And who knows?  One day we might actually walk on that moon.  We’ll see.

- What are the most interesting developments that you see coming up for the future of CG?

For me, the most interesting work is in this area of making all DCC and CAD apps work together in the field of rendering.  A shader you create on any platform is renderable by every MetaSL-compliant hardware and software renderer on the planet, and it’s future-proofed so that it’s renderable for all time.  That’s my particular niche right now, and I love it.  And on a larger front, the concept of making interactive 3D a ubiquitous part of the Internet experience is a super challenge that we are making great strides towards.

Of course there are a lot of other developments coming up, but most of them are going to be evolutionary updates to existing technologies instead of radically new ideas like MetaSL and RealityServer.

- You mentioned choosing the name Cyber Studio for Antic’s software because the company was creating tools for “graphiker pilots to voyage into their imaginations”.  How has the profession of CG artists evolved from the early days of 3D Studio to these days?

The word Cyber was originally derived from the Greek root Kubernetes, which means “helmsman” or “ruler”.  I chose to use Cyber for our tools just after reading William Gibson’s seminal work “Neuromancer”, which launched the concept of Cyberspace.  Our dream was to help make that possible.  Little did we know at the time how challenging that would be.  So, how have things evolved for CG artists?  The tools are certainly better and more complex.  This has led to more and more specialization in the field.  I used to envision these tools as being so general purpose that anyone would be able to design and build characters and sets, then animate and light them and we’d all be Renaissance-level creators.  That jack-of-all trades dream is still only available to a relatively small group of very creative and special individuals.  I have always had the utmost respect for them, and their work always inspired me to go farther creating better tools.

- You participated and saw the birth of many socially-oriented CG activities and trends. How has the net changed 3D related social activities and CG software development?

How?  In pretty much every way conceivable.  The Internet has made it possible to share ideas, which creates a synergy that nourishes creativity in unpredictable ways.  The early versions of the net made it possible for us to use Compuserve as a place for our customers to meet and tell us what they wanted. That was key to our success.  Now it’s possible to share everything… the net is the fertilizer for the global organism that we’re constantly creating with our minds.

- What one piece of advice would you give the team currently working on Max in Montreal?

Keep listening to customers but always focus on reliability.

- Any interesting or funny anecdote that you recall from 3DS / Max development?

The night before submitting our Jaguar specification to Autodesk in 1994, I was completely exhausted.  I had to go to Kinkos to make a bunch of copies of it, and on the way I took my wife out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant in SF called Ton Kiang.  After dinner, they brought us fortune cookies and my fortune read “Your future plans are going to succeed.”  I took that over to Kinkos, taped it to the back page of the spec, and the rest is history.

- Have you ever felt tempted to become the head of the Max development group a second time (sort of like Steve Jobs’ return to Apple)? If so, what would be some new directions you’d like to bring the software? Would you develop it as cross-platform software, for ex?

A gift from Gary Yost to 3D Studio users – some

recent photos from his imaging work

No. Been there. Ken Pimentel, Shane Griffith and their team at Autodesk have done a fantastic job continuing to grow Max. That has allowed me to happily move on to new projects while feeling that our “baby” is well taken care of.

We made the decision not to go cross-platform because of our small size.  Autodesk themselves had originally been highly cross-platform with AutoCAD, but it caused so many headaches that they shut that down to focus on Windows.  It’s the old story about spreading yourself too thin.  It’s extremely challenging to support multiple operating systems.  That said, we’re multi-platform at mental images and although it adds many dimensions of complexity, the tools now exist to be able to manage it.  It’s a necessary evil for us in the component software business.

- Any particular images or short films created with Max that you enjoy especially?

I’m not too current on all the work out there, but as Tom noted in his piece, I have to bow to Alex Roman for his masterpiece “The Third and the Seventh.”  That’s exactly the type of work that would’ve spurred us on to much greater heights in the past.  We fed off that kind of outrageously amazing stuff.  Without it, we never would’ve had the energy to push as hard as we did.  My Dad was an architect, and he would’ve been absolutely floored by seeing what Alex did with Max.

- Anything you’d like to mention to readers that we haven’t asked you about?

Hmmm…. Just that I want to thank all the Max users out there for being such good sports.  You pushed us when we needed it, and you also cut us some slack when we had to move on.  I’m grateful for all of it.

I had a tradition back in the old days of writing a haiku poem to accompany each of the weekly releases during our beta periods.  It was a fun way to end a hectic week and it brought a little sense of peace into our crazy lives.  While working on this interview for you I came up with this one to sum up my feelings on this winter day.

Twenty years later.

The rain still falls. The sun shines.

We remember friends.


About the Author:

Omid Ghotbi امید قطبی the manager of beautiful Mind Animation Group Company. born in iran-kerman and grow up in Ahvaz and now living in Tehran. work in many field such as art university master in esfahan art university and "naghshe jahan" university, Tehran art university, Parse animation company, Beautiful Mind Animation company, "Honarnamaye Parsiana" Game company, work on many great project as Hotel "Takhte jamshid (Kish)" and Hotel Toos (mashhad) and great animations and movies like "Asmani baraye setare", Tehran Metro, Iran art Musium, "Sang va Neyrang", "Safar be borje hamood" and more plane,work with many 3d software like 3ds max, Soft image XSI, Maya, VUE, MotionBuilder ,Mudbox


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