It only seems like last issue we were looking at Maya 2.5 and now Alias|Wavefront has gone and released yet another version. Maya 3 is the fifth major upgrade to the 3D animation package in three or so years, during which Alias has added tons of new features while at the same time making the program much easier to learn and use.
Version 3 doesn’t have the same long and impressive new features list of previous releases because Alias has chosen to concentrate much of its effort in fixing problems, squashing bugs and refining the workflow. The big features that do grab attention are TRAX and full Subdivision Surfaces integration.
TRAX is basically Alias’ version of Non Linear Animation, as seen in other packages of late including Softimage|XSI. Softimage has been banging on about NLA for years, so Alias’s nonchalant roll-out of a full non-linear animation system is testament to the incredible efficiency of its development team. That they’ve also got the time and resources to rewrite the entire program for Mac OS X is also quite amazing.
In case you’ve been living on Pluto for past few months, NLA is the buzz word of the moment in 3D animation. Basically, NLA lets you create animation without the traditional limitations of keyframing. Some compare NLA to non-linear editing systems, but the similarity is in concept only – editing is not the same as animating. NLA lets you group a complex animation into a single track, which can be layered and blended with other tracks to create composite motion.
In Maya you can blend between poses to create animated sequences, without having to keyframe at all. In Maya you can move a character’s limbs to create a single-frame pose in the TRAX editor then repeat with a different pose. The poses are represented by blocks in the TRAX Editor. You can then create a blend from the end of the one pose to the beginning of the other simply by dragging in the interface just as you would in the Hypershade window.
When you press Play, the character will animate between the two poses. Essentially you’re creating keyframes, but rather than building up an animation in a linear fashion you can block out poses, rearrange them, adjust the rate of blend using a simple function curve and change timing simply by rearranging the positions of the blocks. It works much more like traditional hand-drawn animation, and illustrates that 3D software has come full circle in this way.
This is TRAX at its lowest level, but you can work at a higher level too, converting hand-keyed or motion-capture animation to TRAX sequences. You can take small clips of animations and arrange them into a longer sequence, reusing them where necessary and overlaying them to produce composites. The blocks of animation data can easily be resized enabling you to adjust a clip length – making it run faster or more slowly. Dragging a block with the right mouse button also cycles the animation.
When animation data is converted using TRAX the nature of the original animation becomes irrelevant. This means that hand-keyed and motion capture can be used to animate the same model. This is excellent for retouching slightly dodgy motion-capture clips without having to break out the black leotards and ping-pong balls.
Just like XSI, Maya now gives you the ability to produce libraries of animations that can be reused, though we weren’t able to test in the short time we had the software was whether animation data can be transferred to other models, and if so how well it’s handled.
In previous versions Subdivision Surfaces were second class Maya citizens. In version 3.0 Subdivision surfaces share equal billing with NURBS and polygons meaning they can now be rendered, textured and animated.
Other improvements include a rewritten polygon architecture, area lights, and across-the-board faster rendering. Alias claims a 40 per cent speed bump, which should certainly please everyone, especially those who are was raytracing.
Maya’s never been particularly fast in the rendering department. One area where Maya has suffered is in applying multiple textures to objects. Alias have now made this much faster and easier to set up. You can stack as many textures as you want on a surface and you even have Photoshop-style blending modes.
Alias has made the right decision to focus mainly on ease of use and bug fixing in this release. Over time Maya has become much easier to learn, especially for the non-experienced user. The 3D market is growing rapidly and Maya is fast becoming a standard.
Maya 3.0 is fast, simpler to use and has adopted a fantastic non-linear animation system that brings 3D animation screaming into the 21st Century. As upgrades go, it is packed with the essential ingredients – faster, better and more. Couple this with top-notch Subdivision Surfaces, impressive speed bumps to rendering, especially raytracing, and you have one impressive 3D solution. Now we just need the Mac OS X version.