Marking Maya's 10th anniversary with the release of Maya 2009, Ellen Wolff chats with Autodesk's Kevin Tureski about the key highlights of the ubiquitous 3D animation software.
Autodesk's Kevin Tureski remembers the night five years ago at the Motion Picture Academy's Sci Tech Awards dinner when he stepped up to receive a statuette for the development of Maya. In just five years' time, Maya's 3D animation software had become ubiquitous in the film industry, employed for animating photoreal characters such as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. At the time of the Oscar presentation, Tureski was head of Maya engineering at Alias|Wavevront. He accepted the award alongside company president Doug Walker, and like a true Canadian hockey fan, the Toronto-based Tureski likened the achievement to "winning the Stanley Cup."
Maya's Sci Tech Oscar (technically, an Academy Award of Merit) put Tureski's team in rarefied company. Since 1930, little more than three dozen scientific and technical achievements have been honored with this level of recognition. Pixar's RenderMan has garnered a statuette, but that went to key scientists behind the software. Maya earned the Oscar for Alias/Wavefront as a group, which was unusual.
But as Tureski observes, "The Academy committee saw that there were so many talented people who contributed to Maya. It represents hundreds of man-years of development."
In the five years since earning that Oscar, Maya has continued to build its reputation as the 800-pound gorilla of 3D-CG for motion pictures. Weta Digital's work on King Kong, ILM's Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy and Sony Pictures Imageworks' Spider-Man franchise are among the recent examples of Maya's prominent position at digital effects studios. Since being purchased by Autodesk in 2006, Maya has enjoyed the major marketing muscle and R&D support to extend its influence, and the company is marking Maya's 10th anniversary with the release of Maya 2009. This latest version builds on key areas of functionality that the software has been known for, including lifelike animation through Maya Muscle, and simulated effects like smoke and spray through Maya nParticles. In the evolution of Maya, you can see a through-line for the evolution of 3D-CG itself.
Maya was built on a technical foundation laid by two seminal CG software companies from the 1980s, Toronto-based Alias Research and Santa Barbara-based Wavefront Technologies. Alias and Wavefront separately had been honored with lower-level Sci Tech Awards, and the companies' purchase by Silicon Graphics led to the creation of Alias|Wavefront and the unveiling of Maya 1.0 in 1998. Based on the Sanskrit word for "illusion," Maya was launched on the SGI/ IRIX platform, the preferred hardware of the major visual effects houses at the time. A Windows NT version followed, foreshadowing the trend towards creating high-end 3D-CG on personal computers.
Tureski remembers all of this personally. He joined Alias in 1987 and became director of engineering for the company's Power Animator software. Tureski recalls that the philosophy that guided his group back then -- and which continues today -- was to work with artists who could "road test" their software during its development. A favorite artist was Toronto-based Chris Landreth, a 2004 Oscar winner for his Maya-animated short film Ryan. Tureski recalls, "Chris Landreth had worked with us previously to create The End with Power Animator." The End earned an Oscar nomination for Landreth and led to an even more ambitious piece of character animation -- a surreal short called Bingo. "That was really the test piece for Maya 1.0," explains Tureski, who co-produced the festival-award-winning film. The face and muscle animation of the lead character and the atmospheric effects in Bingo presented a level of realism that was a calling card for what Maya could do.
"Chris worked from 1996 to 1998 on Bingo," explains Tureski. "It proved that Maya was truly capable of being used the way that our movie customers were going to use it. We wanted to do that ourselves before releasing Maya, to prove that it could be done." And Tureski notes, "We've continued to work with Chris. We're working with him right now on a short called The Spine." (This film is currently slated for release in early 2009 through the National Film Board of Canada.)
Tureski, who's currently director of product development for Autodesk Media and Entertainment, has continued to lead the development of Maya, and possesses a deeply informed perspective on how Maya figures in production pipelines today.
When Maya arrived on the film industry scene a decade ago, the idea of using such a high-end animation tool for previz would have seemed extravagant. Today, with Maya capable of running on personal computers, Tureski reports that a lot of users create previz in Maya. "It's affordable. Maya Complete is 2,000 bucks and you can run it on a laptop. A 'Maya Ninja' can take it on-set and just bash stuff out."
Tureski cites companies such as Halon Ent. and The Third Floor as examples of those who are taking advantage of Maya as a previs tool. "Firms like that can really make the production pipeline much more efficient, because previs provides a good understanding of creative intent. You're really solidifying ideas of camera blocking or character design. You can use Maya to previsualize characters at low res and then build them up, and we do see a bit of that. But predominantly it's an efficient way of locking in an idea."
This is an area of the typical production pipeline where Tureski believes Maya is especially well-grounded. "I think if you look back at Maya 1.0 we had quite a legacy with Alias Studio Tools and Wavefront's Advanced Visualizer. Those were very capable as surface modelers, so we had a quite high bar to hit in terms of modeling. I think Maya was able to draw upon those technologies and we were able to bring the market really a complete solution for modeling from day one."
"We've continued to build from there with subdivision surfaces," adds Tureski. "We pushed hierarchical sub-d surfaces really hard, but we found that our customers said, 'Just stick with the sub-d surfaces themselves. That's the way we want to work.' So that's where we've ended up putting most of our effort."
One of the things that the Maya team is proudest of is the variety of animation that's been created with the software. Tureski cites as an example how Sony used Maya both for the cartoon characters in its Oscar-winning short The Chubb Chubbs!, as well as the more realistic character animation in the Stuart Little films. "What we're trying to do is to enable studios and individuals to make animation that's as realistic as possible, or -- in Chris Landreth's case -- as unreal as possible."
From Tureski's perspective, a major advance in the tool's use for character animation came in 2007 with the incorporation of Maya Muscle (a system originally developed by Comet Digital and acquired for Maya). This software was designed to allow animators to generate life-like muscle and skin motion, and incorporate wrinkles, skin sliding over bone and a variety of subtle secondary motions.
The ability to simulate environmental effects like water, smoke and fire have been high on the wish list of Maya users, particularly those that create vfx for motion pictures. Making digital versions of physical phenomena that look real on the big screen has never been a trivial task, and Tureski notes that the Maya team has addressed that challenge since its inception. "It goes right back to Maya 1.0. We've built on the legacy of Power Animator and we were able to bring in the dynamics toolset of Wavefront's Dynamation. In fact, we were able to leverage the language engine from Dynamation. That gave us the initial functionality and a framework for simulation."
Tureski stresses that the Maya team has continued its R&D efforts with tools such as nCloth and nParticles. He also points to the Sci Tech Award presented this year to Jos Stam, Duncan Brinsmead and the Autodesk team behind Maya Fluids, which recognized their contributions to research in fluid simulation. "There's really difficult math involved in this challenge," observes Tureski. "And Jos is one of the few world-class researchers outside of the production houses who can handle that. But the other challenge is to present this technology in an accessible way to our customers. I think there's a lot of things that our customers can do because we've got a unified framework for simulation."
While Maya was designed with an integrated rendering capability, many users over the years have elected to port to other software packages for rendering --such as Pixar's RenderMan or mental ray from NVIDIA's mental images. Tureski acknowledges that RenderMan "has had a lock on film animators." And Pixar's MTOR (Maya to RenderMan) tool has certainly facilitated that. "For those who use RenderMan with Maya, great interfaces do exist," Tureski says.
The mental ray renderer has actually been part of Maya since 2002, but Tureski explains, "With Maya 2009 we have really raised the bar with our integration of mental ray 3.7. In previous versions the integration was not as complete or as fluid as it ought to be. We put a lot of effort into this release to bring that up. We hope that people who don't have a PhD in rendering can use this." Autodesk projects that with Maya 2009 it will be possible to render a single HD image with full motion blur and full displacement maps in less than seven minutes -- with 10 render passes for a creature-type shot. Tureski observes that the usefulness of Maya for rendering will --by necessity --remain variable. "It really depends upon what someone is trying to accomplish. One of the things that we've had for quite some time is essentially a renderer-agnostic philosophy. Because Maya is used in different ways in myriad industries, our customers need to choose the renderer that's best for them."
A key aspect of Maya's use in film production has been its extensibility, which has allowed studios to write countless plug-ins to create custom effects. Maya's open architecture enables studios to add their "secret sauce" by writing MEL (Maya Embedded Language) scripts, and that's become a widely adopted approach over the past decade. Unlike the closed, "black-box" systems of the past, the openness of Maya to customization supports what veteran visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund has called "the democratization of creativity." Tureski agrees. "What we've done is try and provide a system -- and Maya has been referred to as a graphical operating system -- that is flexible. If something wasn't in Maya you could make it and put it in."
Even Maya's graphical user interface can be customized, which means one animator's screen might not look anything like the screen of a colleague at the next desk. "We've seen configurations of Maya where the interface doesn't look anything like Maya at all," laughs Tureski. "For the film Dinosaur, Disney had a set of scripts called Mug Shots that completely changed the interface, and made Maya accessible to stop-motion animators. They could take Maya and create a very specific, task-oriented work flow." But Tureski is quick to add, "At the same time, we don't want people to have to extend it. People should be able to rely on Maya to run a production from end to end."
A measure of Maya's influence over the past 10 years can be seen in its spread across hardware platforms. While Maya was first available on the IRIX platform, and then Windows, within a couple of years customers demanded it for computers running Linux and the Macintosh OS. When it became available for Linux, developer Linus Torvalds described it as the most complex 3D graphics application ever to run on his operating system. For those in the visual effects community who were shifting their hardware purchases from IRIX to Linux machines, porting Maya to Linux represented a key move. Tureski remembers the turning point, which came in conferences with members of the Visual Effects Society. "I remember a meeting where they ganged up on us to port Maya to Linux. It was relatively straightforward, but that wasn't a trivial task." While the installed base of Linux users is not that high according to Tureski, they are influential customers in the field of visual effects.
Maya for Mac also represented a key move, since, as Tureski explains, "There was pent-up demand from the Mac community for a professional 3D app. The other thing was that we could get into more educational institutions because Macs are huge in education." A personal learning edition of Maya was introduced in 2002 with an eye towards the educational market. So it's probably not surprising that Student Academy Award-winning CG films today are frequently animated in Maya.
The Road Ahead
As Maya enters its second decade, Tureski expects that the continual challenge will be "to bring new functionality. One mountain that we've been climbing for several years is threading, and taking advantage of the compute power of the multi-core, multi-CPU machines that are available today. Threading is the way that the world is now, so we need to do that in order to provide animators with the performance they require. We have a number of top-notch people who are working hard on threading more and more aspects of Maya, and while we've been making great progress there's still a long way to go."
Another big mountain that Autodesk is helping us climb relates to the convergence of games and films. We're seeing more and more use of real time game engine technology and we have to make sure that's carried through in things like previsualization, for example. The convergence of games and film -- creatively as well as technologically -- is an area that we're paying a lot of attention to. If you look at the quality of game images today they're blowing away the stuff that was in theaters 10 years ago -- when Maya began."
Ellen Wolff is a southern California-based writer whose articles have appeared in other publications, including Daily Variety, Millimeter, Animation Magazine, Video Systems and the website CreativePlanet.com. Her areas of special interest are computer animation and digital visual effects.