well i have been busy moving out of my apartment, and trying to find another job.
sorry about the late reply iniside, I dont know if you will actually see my answer but might as well.
I've been working in Maya, so I dont know the parallel with max but for the actual branches i just made some cylinders and manipulated them. i duplicated them around and changed them up until i had some results i was happy with.
Since it just gets baked down into a texture it didnt matter if it was just geo behind other geo. nothing really had to be welded together or anything.
For the needles I used the 3D paint effects tool, it just lets you paint down shapes. So i worked up the shape of needle i wanted and painted it on the branch. You can also change the texture of them, which was useful for creating some gradient maps.
Then i baked out a normal map, gradient maps, color. and just comped them in photoshop.
Anyway, been busy with other things, but wanted to keep up with 3D (im kinda limited until my new computer arrives next week)
so ive been playing around with this:
realtime Maya viewport.