Up to now, most of the really high-end 3D animation packages have been available only on Windows and Linux. Mac users have been under-supported. The release of Maya on the Mac, then, is a welcome step forward. Many would say, that Maya is the top package of choice for those in the TV and film effects industry, so it’s rather surprising that it’s never appeared on the Macintosh before.
The first thing to note about this release is that it isn’t all it could be. While it’s pretty much identical to version 3.5 elsewhere, Version 4 is the current release for Windows and Linux platforms, and it’s available in three different configurations: Maya Complete, Maya builder (a cut-down version for game developers) and Maya Unlimited (with extra features for effects houses). If you’re on the Mac, you currently have Maya Complete, and that’s it. Alias is working hard to close the gap, but it’s still a significant one.
On opening Maya, you quickly realize just how powerful the package is. Within a few minutes, you’ll also realize that the learning curve is going to be steep. If Maya is your first jumping-in point for 3D work, you’re likely to feel like jumping out again pretty quickly. Luckily, three disks of tutorials and documentation await you, offering a pretty thorough tour of the package. Once you get used to the three-button mouse you’ll need to navigate the 3D views, the spider’s web of options that appear when you right-click, and the concepts involved in 3D creation and animation, you’ll be well on your way to producing excellent results.
3D modelling tends to improve gradually rather than in massive steps, and Maya is usually near the forefront of it. Subdivision surfaces, NURBS and polygons are all well featured, and you can model with speed and confidence.
Painting is an important concept. You can paint various attributes directly onto 3D objects, and you can also sculpt the shape of your object with a paintbrush. In addition, Maya Paint Effects, lets you paint using various natural media as well as real 3D objects. This is a powerful – although sometimes slow – tool that can be useful in all kinds of work. Other packages haven’t implemented painting in such a powerful way so far.
Once you’ve created your objects, you’ll want to get them moving. Non-linear animation editing is one of the features just creeping into 3D animation. The idea here is that if you’ve an object with several key animations repeating in different circumstances – like a character walking or performing a fighting move, or a planet orbiting its star – you can make these animation elements into blocks. These blocks can then be copied, looped, or sequenced to create any combination of animations very quickly.
Dynamics is also well implemented in Maya with good collision detection, and the ability to work with hard and soft objects in a realistic way.
In short, with Maya you can produce some stunning effects, and have access to some of the best 3D tools on the market. Rendering in Maya is of high quality, although it’s not as fast as it could be.
By getting onto the Mac before its main rivals, the package should gain some advantage: learning a 3D package is a major undertaking, and designers tend to stick to what they know once they’ve taken the first step.