Search form

The New Maya Sets Sail

On February 1, Alias|Wavefront is beginning to ship their latest animation software, Maya and Maya Artisan. Max Sims is here to tell us how it compares and what we can expect from this new tool.

Bingo, a software demonstration project created by Chris Landreth using Maya, will be screened at SIGGRAPH '98. Courtesy of and © Alias|Wavefront.

On February 1, Alias|Wavefront is beginning to ship their latest animation software, Maya and Maya Artisan. Maya runs on Silicon Graphics hardware with R4000 or higher processor, 24-bit graphics and OpenGL native preferred. Maya will perform significantly better on current generation hardware, i.e. Silicon Graphics O2 and Octane. Sometime after it will run on Wintel/NT, as well as the forthcoming SGI "Visual PC."

Alias|Wavefront's position and ubiquity in the high-end animation market responded to customers needs by listening and designing for their production paradigm. Their aggressive technology agenda and desire for character animation lead to opening up the tools even more so than Power Animator or Dynamation. On first impression, Maya seems like the amalgamation of TDI's Explore, Wavefront's Kinemation and Dynamation, as well as Alias PowerAnimator. Many of the familiar features are there, but the salient point of Maya is the ability to remap relationships on the fly. The system architecture was written from the ground up for maximum performance. There is no longer 1980s legacy code that hampers development or simple features like a universal undo.

Three main architectural components of Maya are the Dependency Graph, MEL scripting and a C++ API. The dependency graph can be distilled to nodes with attributes that are connected. The power of this is the artist's ability to reconnect or remap relationships on the fly. This permits features like animatible construction history or using surface normals to be generated by an entirely unrelated animation. I find this alone brimming with creative challenges. The next most accessible feature is MEL scripting. MEL stands for Maya Embedded Language. It is the command and scripting language that can be utilized for creating a custom UI or repetitive set of commands. I come from an artistic background and see its usefulness but won't get into it as deep as a TD (Technical Director) would. The Maya C++ API permits Plug-in or custom development for proprietary tools.

Production Testing

Alias|Wavefront has developed Maya with two in-house productions. One is Ruby's Saloon done by the in-house development team and expert users. The other project slated to be completed by April for SIGGRAPH submission is Bingo, directed by the Oscar-nominated Chris Landreth (The End). He has recorded Greg Kotis' Disregard This Play from the Neo-Futurists Theater company and will lead a team on demonstrating Maya's capabilities. The clown image shows a new level of naturalistic human representation that Landreth has pursued in his art.

A small group of beta sites, including this author, have been participating in the Maya Development Partners Team. Based on a great deal of beta testing and resulting input, Maya has been through a lot of changes which has resulted in a delay of introduction. However, the stability and changes were worth the wait. Contrary to the beta agreement a great deal of production work has already been done. Dan DeLeeuw of Dream Quest Images is using Maya for the forthcoming Mighty Joe Young. Derald Hunt is currently animating Adventures of Spiderman, a Universal theme park project, using MEL scripting to animate easily Octo's extendible arms and hands. Daniel Hornick and Rob Aitcheson, formerly of Alias|Wavefront, can open up 160,000 frames of motion-capture data and deal with the complete skeletal hierarchy. This would choke any system currently available. Loren Olsen from Rhonda Graphics presented a commercial that involved a very heavy model of the complete city of Phoenix and was able to manipulate it, shading it, in real-time. Rhonda Graphics' spot, Running Scared, for golf company Ping used particles as sprites of grass while a hole eluded the golf ball. Maya production work has also been broadcast on Gene Roddenberry's Earth: Final Conflict.

This natural scene was created using Maya by G. Mundell, P. Roy and M. Kitchen. Courtesy of and © Alias|Wavefront.

Maya Artisan

The second most significant product Alias|Wavefront has introduced is the supremely cool Artisan. This advanced module of Maya permits artists to sculpt with brushes and tools much easier than the tedious pushing and pulling of CVs (Control Vertices). The tools can be used with a tablet or a mouse. In many ways, this gives greater leverage to an artist's ability to draw or sculpt, not to the true techie. The key tools are the sculpt surfaces, paint select CVs, paint weights and MEL script painting tools. The artist is given a circle with a normal to the surface and paints on the actual surface geometry picking CVs and modifying them. The sculpt surface tool pushes or pulls the surface based on the brush settings. The key distinction is that this is not a texture or displacement map but the actual surface. Paint select CVs are the 3-D equivalent of a lasso pick, like in Adobe's Photoshop. Painting weights permit cluster (CV groups) weights on geometry. An example would be: a cape on a character could be set to a heavy weight on the shoulders and a lighter setting at the edges. A wind force would blow the cape by using softbody dynamics whose animation would transfer to the weighted clusters. The real mind-blower is script painting which allows MEL scripts to make custom results. A piece of geometry can be captured and emitted from the brush, for instance, buildings for a city or variable sized trees.

Ruby's Saloon is one of two in-house productions being created using Maya by the in-house development team at Alias|Wavefront. Courtesy of and © Alias|Wavefront.

Workflow Paradigms

The current trend in digital studios is to breakdown the work between specialists to finer and finer categories. At ILM modelers are divided between "hard" and "creature," as well as Modeling TDs. Maya's openness to MEL scripting and the C++ API at first impression tends to favor the very technical, in order to get at the higher level functions. Less technical people, however, are being hired by studios because of their innate artistic skills. Maya programmers can set up a character UI that would leave only key framing and posing slider bars to let an animator just animate. This would hide the inevitable complexity of the matrix of possibilities Maya offers. My personal opinion at first was that the TDs had won the battle between science and art. Upon closer inspection and use of Maya, I feel that even an art school type like myself could use MEL scripting. The standard tools offered are more than enough to accomplish complex character animation. Release 1.0 does not offer all the tools in the entire Alias|Wavefront product suite, therefore my cut of PowerAnimator and 3D Studio Max will still be used for advanced modeling or polygonal tools for games. The backwards compatibility with PowerAnimator 8.0 is excellent with only very minor things changing due to the new architecture.

Animation Features

Maya's first iteration is geared for serious character animation. All the advanced cluster technology from PowerAnimator, sculpt tools from Explore and Flexors from Kinemation are combined in Maya. Lattices, sculpt objects and clusters can be layered and re-ordered. Wrinkle tools and bind skin permit more realistic surfacing for animating models. Overlapping Flexors drive deformations by transformations of one or more joints. It is ideal for animating muscles and skin. Stitch surfaces remove gaps between adjacent surfaces and keep them continuous during animation even when they are deformed. The skeleton and inverse kinematics tools are similar to PowerAnimator 8.5 with handy, direct manipulators.

The Maya F/X package is a combination of Dynamation and PowerAnimator software particles. The best feature is the ability to render on graphics hardware with commensurate speed increase of the graphics board. Display mode controls include texturing, line smoothing, geometry mask, multi-pass rendering, anti-aliasing with edge smoothing control and motion blur using a hardware accumulation buffer. Rigid body dynamics are standard in the base Maya, while soft bodies are in the F/X module. Soft body dynamics are great for cloth simulation or even Jell-O. The particle systems are fully integrated and extensible, therefore the combinations are endless. The rendering is completely rewritten lacking only interactive photorealistic rendering (IPR) and depth of field cameras which are to come in future releases. The unique rendering component is shading networks. Shared textures and materials within shading networks avoid inefficient duplication and can be recombined to make complex results. The hardware acceleration allows artists to see where the shadows will fall precisely and many times faster than in other packages. The graphics performance of SGI's O2 and Octane are fully exploited in this software.

Last Impressions

Maya is a turning point for Alias|Wavefront. It is the first of a truly new codebase that major software companies are starting to release. Autodesk's 3D Studio Max was the first to evolve. The latest version boasts 1,000 new features due to the advanced architecture. Microsoft's Softimage will be next with Sumatra. Maya will hopefully be able to do the same, now that the architecture is easily extensible. MAYA will also come to the NT platform sometime after the SGI version. This is a considerable proposition from a perception standpoint. I still feel that UNIX is more reliable and robust in production, while the O2 platform has excellent graphics and costs around US $6,000. The pricing is comparable to Softimage products though considerably more than Studio Max. By the time one buys all the plug-ins and gets the system running, I feel that the faster interaction with Maya makes up some of the difference. The cost of the capital equipment is not the greatest consideration for a digital studio like mine. The quality of results and the time it takes me or my staff to get it done factors heavily into the equation. On a simple checklist all three vendors have similar features but I still prefer Alias|Wavefront's rendering, aggressive technology advancement and speed of use. The key benefit of Maya is how much faster an artist can get work done. The user interface and hardware shading alone permits me greater interaction with my work. Maya Artisan is the coolest thing I've seen in a long time. It would take days to push and pull CVs to get a character's subtle details. Now, it will take a little longer than drawing it on paper.

The only true complaint is the complexity of having so many tools at your disposal. The big studios that can afford a staff of TDs, programmers and animators will be able to get more out of it than small shops or studios of one. The ability to combine and remap nodes to attributes may be the most daunting paradigm. Excellent animators may not have the time and resources to create higher level controls that are relatively easy to do. As I like to say, "It's easy...Once you know how." Max Sims is the principal of Technolution, a digital studio specializing in entertainment and design visualization. He has written for the Price Waterhouse EMC Tech Forecast, Millimeter, and ID Magazine. He has used Alias|Wavefront products for almost nine years.

Tags 
randomness