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Maya Entertainment Creation Suite 2011 Review: Killer Productivity

Brad Clark reveals how Maya, MotionBuilder and Mudbox work better together.

The latest bundle of Maya, MotionBuilder and Mudbox keeps artists in the creative flow more quickly and seamlessly than ever. All images courtesy of Autodesk

With the Maya Entertainment Creation Suite 2011 you still get Maya, MotionBuilder and Mudbox all under one license along with Maya Composite and Matchmove. While the last release was criticized by some as just being a bundling of software with seemingly slim improvements to the core software, Autodesk did not skimp this time around.

The latest release of the 2011 Autodesk products -- Maya, MotionBuilder and Mudbox -- gives us fresh new user interface updates and some killer productivity enhancements. For me, the biggest improvements are the improved workflow between the separate software using the latest update of FBX file format and lots of speed improvements to existing tools along with some big new features.

Maya 2011

While I will not go in to every new feature in Maya 2011, let's start with the most visible. Maya got a totally new user interface using the QT platform, allowing for drag-able and dock-able windows, realizable splitters to adjust window size and a darker color scheme. Previously coding a custom user interface with MEL was limited and lacked a fast visual tool to design with, but using QT Designer you can quickly create complex tool Uis and even dock them right in to the main UI.

New to Maya 2011 is the Human IK retargeting solver, previously only available in MotionBuilder and as Game engine middle ware. This is great news for animators that are not able to always go to MotionBuilder in order to map or retarget animations between characters. For people new to the tool it can be a bit difficult to learn with the current UI but once you get past the learning curve and use it a few times, then you will be hooked.

Enjoy a consistent, enhanced user experience on all supported platforms with an updated user interface that offers a fresh new look, dockable UI elements and more.

Animators that need to quickly create new animations from existing motion libraries or to create prototypes game assets from existing move sets, will find it a great help. Because you can control so many of the retarget parameters live and non-destructively it's easy to  experiment with the resulting animation until it looks right on the new character, saving lots of hand fixing later.

On the scripting front, the script editor has been improved with syntax highlighting finely and auto-completes recognized commands and object path names if you enable the options. While python was introduced as a scripting option a while back, many users found it lacking and the guys at Luma Pictures created PyMel to improve and speed up using python in Maya. Many technical artists wanted to use PyMel in their pipelines but couldn't do so easily because it was not installed as part of Maya and there were questions about support among other issues. Autodesk wisely took care of this by working closely with the creators of PyMel in order to both improve the PyMel project and to have it installed with Maya as a default.

More quickly and easily reuse, correct, and enhance motion-capture and animation data with a new non-destructive retargeting using the Autodesk HumanIK (HIK) libraries.

The last area of major improvement for Maya 2011 that I am going to review is the long overdue update to the skinning and deformation tools. For example, you can now copy and paste skin weights and using the new Hammer Weights tool, average out the weight value based on the surrounding weights. While previously I had to use many different scripts to speed up skinning, having the tools integrated right in to Maya is a big time saver.

Other improvements include being able to easily select and mask areas to paint weights directly within the paint weights tool. Previously users had to first exit, switch to component mode select verts and then relaunch the paint weights tool.  The influence list has been vastly improved with sorting, filtering and pinning all speeding up the often times tedious task of weighting a complex skeleton. And Dual Quaternion skinning has been added to fix collapsing mesh points in areas like wrists and shoulders, along with the ability paint a mix map between regular linear skinning and DQ skinning, giving you needed control over the effect.

One other new skinning choice is the Interactive skinning tools that use capsules to quickly define how the skeleton will influence the mesh without relying on weight painting.  Because the capsules are volumes the weighting information is not tied in to the vertx ID like regular skinning, allowing for changes to models without breaking all the weighting.

MotionBuilder 2011

With MotionBuilder, realtime animation has always been its strong suit but they have somehow made it even faster for large scenes and heavy characters by utilizing the GPU for skinning and blendshapes.

The story tool, while faster with each past release, finished getting moved into the core display code and can now take on heavy edits with ease.

An expanded animation layer tool set in MotionBuilder offers new capabilities to rename, mute, solo and merge layers.

Animation layers are not new to Motionbuilder but this release they have been rewritten to better match the Maya animation layers. In upgrading the layers, they have been moved out of the fcurve window and giving their own floating UI giving quick access to edit and work with the layers, including setting the weight, changing between additive and override and organizing them like you can in Maya and in the MotionBuilder story tool.

Materials and texture handling in FBX and Motionbuider2011 have been vastly improved. The update allows for more complicated shaders and per face texture map assignment to be supported. Having often had characters with 3dmax Multi-Sub Object shader on them, it was always difficult having to redo the texture just for export to Motionbuider, and now we don't have to, thanks to the latest FBX update.

While there are many other updates covered on the Autodesk site, the last thing I have to mention is that MotionBuilder now opens and saves directly the latest FBX format. Before MotionBuilder 2011, the FBX file saved out of Motionbuilder was different than what was exported from Maya or other FBX supporting applications and you were forced to keep track of exported FBX files separate from MotionBuilder FBX files. You also then had to use a separate importer to load them. This seems like a tiny thing, but after lots of confusion and frustration, it is now as easy as File Save, File open and I am very happy about that.

Mudbox 2011

The 2011 version of Mudbox was not left behind in this update, getting powerful new texture brushes, posing and skeleton tools along with Hotkeys or Maya, 3ds Max and Softimage users to speed up ease of use. Also some review tools have been added allowing for quick turntable animations and high resolution screen recording for both sharing techniques and providing video feedback.

The new bone and posing tools that are going to be great for collaboration between character modelers and rigging. A low-res mesh can have a skeleton added and skinned up, then handed off to Mudbox and detailed out, allowing the modeler to test the mesh as it deforms and hopeful catch issues early on before final rigging has been done and animation begun.

Quickly and easily deform and pose models in Mudbox to change their design, access occluded regions, present them for approval or prepare them for map extraction.

Last year I wrote about the really great plug-in from Wyane Robson called Mudwalker, that lets you move your model with one button click, between Maya and Mudbox. This year Autodesk added this feature built directly into both Mudbox and Maya. While the Mudbox2011 feature works right out of the box to send the files to Maya2011, the Maya option -Export Selected to Mudbox is by default grayed out and requires the user to figure out why that is. The docs tell you "In order for this option to become available, you must set the location of your Mudbox executable file in the Maya Settings/Preferences > Preferences in the Applications section." While easy to do, it has some room for improvement and should be enabled out of the box as it is in Mudbox.

For those that still want a bit more streamlined version or are using a mix of older software, the Mudwalker plug-in is still available from http://www.mudboxhub.com/

One of the exciting features for 2011 is vector displacement for creating images to use as stamps and stencils, allowing not only up and down values but also curves and bends like horns and other cool twisted shapes. This lets modelers create libraries of images that can recreate complex shapes on to new models as if you had sculpted them out of the surface from scratch.

While these new vector displacement maps are really cool, they can't be used outside of Mudbox2011 for rendering by default. Enter Wayne Robson again and his amazing and free Vector displacement shader for mental ray. You can download the shader at http://www.psychocore.com/. There is a version for whatever application you have running mental ray like Maya, Max or Softimage.

Wrap Up

Maya Entertainment Creation Suite 2011 is a great set of software that is hard to beat when bundled together like this. While not all the tools are perfect yet, the amount of features and improvements are worth the upgrade. Just for the time saved in sending files between the software will cover the cost. As more and more features are shared between the Autodesk software, using the right tool for the job becomes almost transparent and just about all artists know how important being in the creative flow is. Now you can stay there while jumping almost seamlessly between software and working faster than ever.

Brad Clark teaches the art and science of character rigging and is a mentor and co-founder at www.RiggingDojo.com.

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