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Maya 6 Review

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Maya 6 Complete and Unlimited offer goodies such as a new intuitive Bin organizer, mirroring function and a revamped Trax Editor. All images © Alias Systems Corp.

Maya 6 Complete and Unlimited offer goodies such as a new intuitive Bin organizer, mirroring function and a revamped Trax Editor. All images © Alias Systems Corp.

Alias has released their new version of the Maya Complete and Maya Unlimited packages for the OS X, Windows, IRIX and Linux platforms. As usual, I will be skewing my review a bit toward game development, but I will be exposing as many new features as possible. Lets touch on some game dev-centric tools and move on to other new features later.

Bin Organization in Hypershade

I will begin with the new Bins in Hypershade. Maya can now organize complex scene shaders with a new, intuitive Bin organizer. An artist can now create a bin from the selected shaders, or create bins from scratch and add or subtract from them as they see fit. This really makes Hypershade a more powerful tool in that tons of shaders will not make for an overwhelming library anymore. Shader bins can then be named by the user for greater organization. One subtle but great function is that you can have shaders exist inside multiple bins. This means that you can create really powerful sets of shaders based on model, location, color, etc. Unfortunately, the scroll wheel still does not zoom in/out while viewing the Hypershade window and, additionally, I would like the ability to use a context sensitive right-click to select shaders directly and append them to existing bins. Currently, all bin-work needs to be done on the left-anchored bin panel.

Soft Modification Tool

While the Soft Modification tool is pretty interesting and very fun, I am having a hard time finding a real-world application for it. The basic deal with the Soft Modifier is that you can quickly select a portion of your model and then by adjusting the sphere of influence, pull or push the mesh in a very similar (though less powerful) way as the traditional Sculpt Deformer. This is similar to some of the new tools in Luxologys modo, where the power is cool and clear, but when do I use it? I can see that if I have made a head or other organic shape, and am feeling blasé about it, I could quickly apply the Soft Modification tool and radically change the structure of the face to possibly come up with something fresh and fun. This tool is a lot more powerful on a highly tessellated mesh rather than a lower poly game-type mesh.

Hypershade using Bin Arrangements. All screen captures courtesy of Ryan Lesser.

Hypershade using Bin Arrangements. All screen captures courtesy of Ryan Lesser.

Smooth Proxy Mirror

The Smooth Proxy tool now contains a mirroring function that allows the modeler to mirror the form on the X, Y or Z axis. This is good, but the especially cool thing here is that you can choose Full Mirror or Half Mirror. The full mirror creates a standard smooth proxy on the flip side with your main mesh in x-ray mode. You can then edit the main mesh and the smooth proxy follows suit. The Half Mirror mode is the one that I really like, where one side of the mesh stays at the original tessellation, but the flip side gets the smoothing. This just has a certain clarity that the standard Smooth Proxy does not have.

On the other hand, the Smooth Proxy tool reminds me of my continuing dissatisfaction with the Maya interface, which overall I find unattractive and too text/number heavy. Plus, there is a general lack of preview function along with a waste of dialog box real estate space. It really should be more artist-friendly.

Trax editor shows both animation and audio data.

Trax editor shows both animation and audio data.

Trax Editor

The revamped Trax editor is a really nice interface to Mayas non-linear animation editing. Trax has been re-architected to become the focal point for animation within Maya, allowing easy manipulation and re-purposing of audio and animation data, motion capture, expressions, etc.

Scaling, moving, re-directing, re-targeting, grouping and trimming in Trax is a breeze and the interface is ultra simple. Now, multiple audio clips can be imported to Trax and played together or one at a time. Unfortunately, only .wav and aif are supported on the PC, while .mp3 is accepted on the Mac.

Retargeting and Redirecting Character Animation

Maya 6 has new character animation tools that in many ways mimic some of the functionality of 3ds maxs Character Studio. Retargeting is very simple in both use and concept, but very powerful upon execution. You can quickly and easily transfer animation data from one skeleton to another and it will adjust in proportions based on the new target skeleton. It is important to note that the skeletons must have the same naming conventions and skeletal structures.

Redirection is a fun tool in that it makes moving already complex animation sets in new directions extremely simple. For example, you can animate a car drive-cycle or biped walk-cycle and let it rip. Then just choose redirect and plot the pivot and amount to turn and the object flawlessly redirects itself without impacting the animation. Now, there is an issue with a little slidy-ness and moonwalk, since it does not adjust weight placement and center of gravity, but there are workarounds for that.

New Image Formats and Integration

Maya 6 is finally catching up to and in some cases surpassing 3ds max in its image handling capabilities. Maya now supports layered Photoshop files and allows the user to utilize either the merged layers as an image or have access to any of the individual embedded layers. Maya also allows the export of a material to PSD, including a Texporter style uvw map wireframe as one of the Photoshop layers. On top of this, Maya now supports both .png and .dds formats.

Web Integration

Like 3ds max, Maya 6 now has the ability to render a Web page within one of the panels. In general, my team uses this feature (in 3ds max) to generate Web pages filled with texture source for quick texture use; however, Maya one-ups 3ds max in that you can incorporate MEL commands into your Web pages as hyperlinks allowing users all sorts of flexibility. In fact, if you are dissatisfied with Mayas interface, or just want to create a panel for your team that has graphical support unavailable in Maya, just make a Website using your HTML graphics and the MEL commands and you are ready to go. These panels can be opened alongside the 3D windows or torn off to become floating panels.

Selective Pre-Loading for References

In game development, one issue that level artists are consistently faced with is the overwhelming 3D files that they have to work within and maintain. This gets compounded if you have multiple artists on the same file, or, additionally, level designers plotting out their objects as well. Mayas new pre-loading setup for references works well to ameliorate the problem by allowing artists to set up references to objects in other Maya files, and upon load, choose what they want or do not want to load into the scene. In the case of large files, this allows you to quickly load what you need and ignore the rest. For multiple users, objects can be organized under contributors names and they can load just their segments.

Polygon Modeling Advancements

Unfortunately, there is a gaping hole here. Since as far back as I can remember (Maya 1 or 2), there have been really no poly tools created for Maya. It seems that perhaps Alias rested on its laurels with the fact that they have an amazing bevel/extrude tool and a very good cut tool but some serious thought needs to go into this area. Almost every other 3D package has more sophisticated polygonal modeling tools. This is a shame, since Maya blows away most competitors when it comes to animation, dynamics, effects, etc. For $1,999 (Maya Complete) or $6,999 (Maya Unlimited), there should be a pretty amazing modeling set. Unless you find some plug-ins made by third party sources, there is no way to model using edgeloops, one of the most popular methods of modeling these days. Heck, you can go download Wings3d (www.wings3d.com), one of the best modeling packages out there, for FREE! Alias needs to catch up in this regard.

These are really all the new tools and features that have been released in Maya 6 (Unlimited) that relate to game development and a few extras that do not. In addition to these tools, Alias has made significant advances on some other complex systems. The new Hair in Maya Unlimited is, for lack of a better term, breathtaking. I have never before seen such an amazingly complex system look so good with little to no effort. In mere seconds (literally) you can generate long, flowing locks of hair that are fully dynamic and collidable. Using the optimized Interactive Playback function, you can watch your new, dynamic hair in motion in realtime. You will be amazed at the renders too. This quick technique results in renders that are just amazing. While Hair is not something that I will need in my realtime applications, this is the new feature that really knocked my socks off.

Hair Tools after just 15 seconds of tweaking.

Hair Tools after just 15 seconds of tweaking.

Hair Tools

In addition to Hair, there have been advances made in Particle Deformers (the ability to use standard deforms on particle systems), Dynamic Curves (use of the Hair system to generate non-hair dynamic shapes), mental ray integration and Paint Effects (they are now available on polygonal objects.

Conclusion

Maya 6 is an extremely powerful tool in many ways and each rev makes it even stronger; however, I do think that this release is not much of an advancement in some key ways. My big hopes for the next release are that the interface gets revamped and reconsidered and the poly editing tools get seriously flushed out. However, for those looking for a generally flexible, high quality, dynamic 3D environment, Maya is still one of the best packages that money can buy.

Ryan Lesser teaches animation at his alma mater, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). His animation company (Mammoth Studios) has worked on projects for Phish, Sony, MTV, De La Soul, Madison Square Garden and others. Since 1999, Ryan has served as art director at Harmonix, a Playstation2 and Xbox videogame developer. Here he has helped produce award-winning games such as Frequency, Amplitude and the Karaoke Revolution series. Ryan also maintains a Providence, Rhode Island-only underground music site, lotsofnoise.com.

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