Autodesk Maya is one of the top 3D software packages being used in the industry today. Having the capabilities to fulfill the criteria of any computer generated art, the entertainment field has utilized Maya for modeling, rigging, animation, lighting, compositing, and dynamic simulations to bring to life the most advanced feature film and interactive productions. Add to it the ability to customize and augment the program to support your pipeline and you have a powerful program that can be extended to fit nearly any production’s needs. Anyone hoping to work professionally in today’s computer art industry will profit immensely by knowing the Maya toolset.
The new Autodesk Maya 2012 brings changes and additions of varying degrees across the entire application. The most notable changes come in the form of new plugins, improved animation controls, interoperability, and more sophisticated dynamics functionality. The remaining disciplines within Maya like modeling, rigging, and rendering also receive some changes that are very welcome, but not quite as sweeping as the other areas.
Characterization Tool links bones to this interface to make rigs consistent and provide error reporting.
Ease of Use
Most major 3D software, if not all, are quite robust and try to organize all their tools and interfaces in as logical a fashion as possible. Maya, at first glance, has shelves, tabs, and inputs completely surrounding the viewports that are worked in and, for new users, can be overwhelming. A decent understanding of 3D workflows and how the menus and windows are organized around it will help to greatly reduce the information barrage that most new users experience. For artists that are already familiar with Maya will find 2012’s components only slightly altered (if they like to use the contextual menus to find what they need). As a whole, Maya 2012 remains largely steadfast in its layout and workflow approach to producing 3D graphics.
Keyframed objects can have editable motion trails applied to them so that the animation can be manipulated with a curve.
Viewport 2.0 is a feature first introduced in Maya 2011 and has been updated to handle a more complex scene. Viewport effects like motion blur, screen-space ambient occlusion, gamma correction, and depth of field are all now supported. X-ray and x-ray joint mode can now be seen in the new viewport to aid artists who are trying to make adjustments. CgFx shaders are now supported in the viewport to be used with polygon and nurbs geometry. Reflections can now be changed and updated in real-time and bump maps can be applied and viewed immediately.
Render Passes can be set-up using the node-based system found in the Hypershade. Similar to using render layers, the node render passes allow artists to make connections for a wide assortment of different rendering information like beauty, diffuse, specular, ambient occlusion, etc. What’s different is that now the power of the other nodes within the Hypershade can be leveraged as well as giving a diverse amount of options to enhance, combine, and alter the passes as a group. Render layers can also be mixed in as well to be blended in with the render passes.
Extrude face can now generate a curve that can be used to manipulate the extrusion.
A new texturing solution called Substance Smart Textures is a revolutionary way of procedurally creating textures that appear commonly in various environments. Developed by Allegorithmic, Substance Smart Texture takes a generic material like grass, wood paneling, sand, etc. and allows artist to tweak parameters and designate maps that will be included on the material. An assortment of 80 textures that are included in Maya 2012 are ready tileable, resolution-independent, and can be exported as a bitmap for final render. Smart Textures offers a fast and efficient way to paint your environments without having to paint and adjust maps in an outside painting program.
New Liquid attributes for Fluid dynamics create simulate realistic water situations.
For artists that have the Entertainment Suite, the single-step operability workflow makes jumping between programs fast and fun. Included with the Maya 2012 Standard Suite is MotionBuilder, the real-time character animation software, and Mudbox, the digital sculpting and 3D paint program. The premium edition packages Softimage in the bundle, allowing artists to leverage innovations like ICE and Autodesk Face Robot facial animation toolset. From the File menu, you can establish a connection to any of these programs and with a single click, send the selected asset hurdling back and forth between the two programs. (The closest thing out there to this kind of functionality would probably be Adobe’s Dynamic Link, used for video production.) Any new information is updated and sent along with the asset when you are through. Now artists, regardless of which program you feel most comfortable with, can be free to take advantage of tools found in other Autodesk products.
Curves can now be projected on to polygons rather than applying it to nurbs surfaces first.
Depth of Options
The changes in Maya 2012 seem to touch a wide range of aspects from when you start a new file all the way to final render. The new Project Window offers more control over how Maya divvies up your files and assets by separating the primary and the secondary project folders into 2 different categories. This new organization acknowledges more types of files that have become commonplace in today’s workflows as well as directing similar file types to share a common depository.
New Selection options are available under the Preferences menu. Modifiers handle Maya selection operations by using masks to control what is displayed when you select items. Polygon Selection sets whether clicking the whole polygon face or its center selects the face. Finally, Priority designates which type of component gets chosen when multiple objects are selected. Setting a higher priority for a hard to select component that you use a lot will help speed up your workflow substantially.
The new Project Window helps to organize assets into primary and secondary locations.
A few new tools have been given to modelers in this newest version of Maya that will be very welcome. Curves can now be projected on to a polygon mesh, bypassing the need to do it to a NURBs surface and then convert over. Split Mesh with Projected Curve takes the projected curve and the polygon surface and splits out the shells. The Interactive Split Tool cuts along the surface, but unlike the Split Tool, allows for more freeform shapes and better edge snapping. The Curve option on Extrude Face gives modelers a choice of using a created curve or letting Maya generate a curve in order to base the direction, twist, and taper of the extrusion.
The Transform manipulator has been upgraded in a big way. When doing an extrude face or edge, the Show Manipulator tool has sliders to control thickness, offset, and divisions. Accessible in the channel box as well, these sliders add extra interactivity for the user so that geometry can be dialed in right next to the affected area. Artists have the option of sliding the dials or typing in the settings manually.
The Region Tool scales any selection of curve points in the Graph Editor.
A really cool new manipulator for animating is the editable motion trail. After creating some keyframed positions for your object, a motion trail curve is created along the path of the animation. The motion trail can be manipulated by the curve points at each place a keyframe has been added. This is a much more interactive way of adjusting a performance and getting a visual cue as to the movement of your character.
The Graph Editor has been overhauled as well. Curve points can now be selected and moved with a single left click rather than accessing the move tool first. Adjacent key snapping and Auto Tangent type can be toggled to control the transitions of curves in an animation. “Isolate selected curves” helps to single out a channel so that it can be worked on solo. Region Tool acts like a giant scale tool for whatever curve points are selected. Finally, the toolbar can be switched between the newer, wider layout or the leaner classic type.
The synchronized channel box, graph editor, and time slider found under the channel box menu provide more clarity when animating. By toggling the graph editor and time slider sync, only the channels that are selected in the channel box are displayed in the respective locations. Like isolating selected curves, being able to focus on particular channels helps to speed up the time it takes to adjust your character’s animation.
The new single ubercam camera is used to represent all the shots on a sequence. The Camera Sequencer bakes the camera parameters from all the cameras into one shot, letting animators conserve the camera switches. Coupled with the new Shot Playlist, the parameters for each camera can be edited quickly and efficiently. Some new Playblast options include adjusting width and height resolution for the sequence as well as an Offscreen render option for shots and sequences. Lastly, multi-track audio can be brought into a sequence if you are a Windows or Linux user.
The Craft Animation plugin gives animators helpful shortcuts to very natural looking preset animation and camera moves. Craft vehicles are linked to your automotive transport where the performances are piped through an input device within Maya. Craft cameras also provide added controls and believable simulations that are found in real life that would be very difficult to recreate using traditional cameras in Maya. Using these tools can help animators previs and create stunning final performances that would have taken a large amount of time to achieve by hand.
Selection Preferences allow users to adjust how things are selected and priority when multiple components are selected.
Two new character setup tools are now available to riggers that build rigs using the HumanIK character workflow. The Characterization Tool is a visual means of defining the structure of HumanIK Characters. By connecting your bones individually to the bones in the Characterization Tool, the interface provides error reporting and keeps rigs consistent as they pass through other Autodesk products like MotionBuilder. The Character Controls window is similar to the Characterization Tool except it helps map IK/FK effectors in place of bones. Through this interface, riggers and animators activate certain manipulators based on whether the entire or part of the body are being used. Motion data can be sourced to the character as well as sending the rig and character to MotionBuilder to be tweaked using that toolset.
Dynamics and nDynamics
Several new additions have been brought into Maya 2012 for dynamics artist. Maya now has some preset effects called Effects Assets. These presets can have their settings adjusted and applied to objects within your scene. Effects like explosions, smoke, fire, rain, and fireworks can be dropped to see quick results.
Dynamics can now also be created utilizing Softimage’s powerful ICE interface. Using one-click interoperability, a Maya scene can be sent to Softimage so that artists can leverage ICE’s amazing node-based system of setting up particle and deformation effects. Once finished, the scene with all its effects can be sent right back into Maya for further work.
The Fluid Effects have new Liquid attributes to create more natural effects. New liquid simulation solvers like “Liquid and Air” and “Density Based Mass” offer different liquid methods unique effects. Attributes such as Liquid Min Density, Liquid Mist Fall, Tension Force, Density Pressure, etc. offer impressive water effects that are seen in nature. The playback performance of liquid effects has been improved as well for faster interaction.
nCloth has a few new attributes to extend its amazing cloth simulations. Rigid nCloth Shells can have Rigidity and Deform Resistance applied to individual polygon shells that are part of an nCloth mesh. Local Force and Local Wind attributes apply gravity and wind respectively to individual nCloth objects. Collide Last Threshold makes collision calculation the last step, insuring better collisions in the simulation. Input Motion Drag applies force to an nCloth, calculating between the velocity of the animated mesh against the nCloth object. Finally, thread performance has been improved across the board for all nCloth simulation.
Two powerful plugins have been included with Maya 2012 that will really enhance dynamic simulation. First, Nvidia’s PhysX plugin allows users to take advantage of GPU-accelerated physics simulations. Meshes can have dynamic, kinematic, and static rigid bodies applied to the mesh so that they can be constrained by the PhysX engine. PhysX has been used in over 150 games by more than 10,000 developers and now that same ability can be found within Maya.
The second plugin, which also has ties to gaming development, is DMM, or Digital Molecular Matter. The DMM engine is a dynamic simulator that allows artists to apply real-world material consistencies to their digital counterparts. Glass shatters, wood splinters and metal bends like they would in real life taking into account the amount of force that is exerted against the material. This same technology has also been used in feature films like Sucker Punch to spectacular effect.
A lot of the improvements in rendering have to do with the new features of Viewport 2.0, which has already been touched on. Vertex Animation Cache improves interactive scrubbing of animation and Thread Dependency Graph Evaluation option helps performance by evaluating separate characters in separate threads. Composites can be previewed in Render View and vector displacement maps can be taken from Mudbox and rendered in mental ray. Lastly, Ptex textures can be assigned in a standard Maya network and viewed in Viewport 2.0 for adjustment.
Projected curves on polygon can be used to separate the 2 shells.
Performance in Maya 2012 has been improved in the form of Viewport 2.0, animation, and dynamic simulations as mentioned earlier. Besides improvements while working on the files, the save times for Maya Ascii (.ma) have been optimized to reduce the load time which is evident in files with heavy meshes. In general, Maya 2012 performs just as consistently as it always has, considering the size and the amount of calculation demanded of it on any given project.
Certain areas of expertise within Maya 2012 have received more updates then others and will logically determine the value based on the needs of individual artists. For example, modelers, there may not be enough here to consider an upgrade if you own the previous version, but for dynamics artists, there is a plethora of powerful, new dynamic attributes and plugins that will save you time in the long run. If you are a few versions behind or have never owned Maya, then the value outweighs the cost if you intend to produce some serious graphics for your show or film.
The new Transform Manipulator provides a new interface to adjust thickness, offset, and divisions.
Final Comments Autodesk Maya 2012 builds on an already powerful and robust toolset. The new extensions in dynamics alone will greatly aid filmmakers that would find it too costly or dangerous to create effects practically in their productions. The animation workflow has been optimized from rigging to adjusting performances helping to accelerate production. The interoperability with other software within the Autodesk product line really cuts out a lot of extra steps, effectively speeding up workflow. Almost all aspects of the program have been touched on to varying degrees, so individual needs will guide the purchaser based on necessity. Whether you have this latest version or decide to stay with a version that is one or two iterations back, Maya is still a very important program to learn if you want to stay relevant in this industry. For those that don’t have it at all, it is highly advisable that you check it out and experience Maya for yourselves.
Michael Muwanguzi is a graphic artist and web designer currently living in Los Angeles, CA. Apart from working on print ads, web-related advertising, and 3D design work, he is currently working on new film production work and is designing a 3D adventure game from scratch.