George Maestri tests out the latest edition of Maya from Autodesk to figure out the significance of the new particle systems, layered animation, modeling and stereoscopic image rendering.
Maya is obviously one of the more powerful and ubiquitous 3D packages around. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the software and Maya has come a long way since its inception. Maya is used just about anywhere people need to visualize things in 3D, from major motion picture studios that create characters and visual effects, to design studios that create realistic images of new products; to scientific laboratories that need to visualize their work. This year's release of Maya offers a wealth of new features, including some very nice particle systems, layered animation and some handy modeling tools.
As with previous versions, Maya comes in two different levels. The first, Maya Complete, has all of the modeling, animation, character rigging, vfx and rendering tools needed to create terrific images. Maya Unlimited goes above and beyond with additional tools such as fluids, nCloth, nParticles, as well as hair and fur.
Maya's history goes back beyond its 10-year anniversary; in fact, it goes back another decade to Alias and Wavefront, some of the first commercial 3D software available. In the late 1990s these two companies merged and a few years later, the result of that merger was a new package called Maya. Eight years later, the company changed names again. This time, Autodesk purchased Alias and people wondered if the company would once again merge two packages into one, this time Maya with Autodesk's 3ds Max. The release of Maya 2009 is an indication that both packages will continue as they have, but there is definitely some more cross-pollination between the two. Overall, it seems like Maya is the tool for larger and more advanced productions because it seems to be at the forefront of new features and technology. This does become a little intimidating for new users. I've always found Maya a bit harder to learn than other 3D applications.
In the modeling arena, Maya has taken a few cues from 3ds Max's toolkit. One of the nicest new features is the soft selection tool, which is a feature that was a long time coming for Maya. The tool gives you the ability to select part of a model and have the selection fall off over a user-defined distance. The tool is very useful for modeling organic objects, but also can be used in animation. Additionally, Maya's new symmetrical modeling feature allows for much easier sculpting of characters, while the new merge vertex feature gives a simpler way to stitch polygonal models together. Taken together, these tools help make Maya a much better polygonal modeling package.
Another area of cross-pollination is in the area of texture mapping. Maya's UV editor has been reworked to be a little more Max-like, which is probably a good thing. One of the nicer features is the improved ability to interactively unfold models. This makes matching the surface of a model to a texture much easier and more efficient. A new smooth UV tool also helps iron out wrinkles in the way a texture maps to a mesh.
Character animators will appreciate the new Maya Muscle tools, which help you create life-like muscle and skin motion. Muscles can be created as a way to deform the mesh of a character's skin, which takes character animation beyond simple mesh and skeleton deformation tools. Muscles are added to a character using the Muscle Builder or Muscle Creator, which let you create, sculpt and orient muscles in order to create convincing character rigs. You can create muscles by growing them out to a surface, mirror muscles from one side of a character to the other, and control the muscle shape as it contracts and relaxes. The virtual muscles can bulge and flex as a character's skeleton is animated and the mesh of the character's skin can stick or slide across the muscles to create deformations that create realistic stretching and wrinkling. Maya muscle is an excellent way to give your characters an added dose of realism.
Animators will also appreciate Maya's new Animation Layering feature, which has a very simple Animation Layer Editor located in Maya's Channel Box. This interface gives you all of the tools and options you need to create and manipulate animation layers. Animation layers let you create and blend multiple levels of animation in a scene. You can create layers to organize new keyframe animation, or to keyframe on top of existing animation without overwriting the original curves. It makes tweaking animation much easier. You could take a standard walk cycle, for example, and add in the hand and facial motions needed for dialogue over the top, making it much easier to edit.
For final output, Maya now has the ability to render stereoscopic images and create stereo cameras. With the new trend in 3-D movies, this will be very important for the feature film world. Another important feature is a new multi-render pass rendering method. This gives artists the ability to render an unlimited number of render passes, and then group them into render pass sets. Using the multi-render pass feature, you can reduce the need to use individual render layer passes, thus reducing render times. If you work with complex multi-layered compositions, rendering may also be several times faster. Multi-render passes also allow you perform scene segmentation at render time.
Finally, Maya 2009 also has some new workflow tools, most important of which is a new feature called Assets. These allow you to take the complex series of nodes that make up complex objects such as characters and vfx, and combine them into simpler objects called containers. You can flag containers as a certain type and then use those types to limit what assets a specific artist can see using Views.
Overall, the changes in Maya 2009 are very much worth the upgrade. The new muscle feature makes character rigging a lot more robust, and the new nParticles are going to give special effects artists a lot more flexibility and power. These updates certainly keep Maya at the forefront of digital animation and vfx.
George Maestri is an animation director and producer. He is currently the president of Rubber Bug, a Los Angeles-based animation studio. He also teaches animation at Otis College of Art and Lynda.com.