The difference between Maya version 1.0
and the latest version is profound. The first version Alias|Wavefront released felt very esoteric and was difficult to understand and learn – especially to those who had never used high-end 3D software before. Alias has progressively improved things and the latest incarnation of Maya is by far the easiest version to use and learn.
A lot of effort has been spent in helping new users feel comfortable with Maya the first time they begin using it. Maya 4 features new interface enhancements that smooth out the learning curve, and make interacting with the application as intuitive as possible. This is something that Maya has always fallen short
on, with much cheaper 3D packages often being much easier to use. Yet, there’s no reason why a high-end package by definition should be difficult to use, and Alias is doing a sterling effort trying to prove this.
All tooled up for 3D
The first thing you notice after firing up Maya 4 is that the Tool Box has been rotated 90-degrees and is docked at the side of the screen. Below the usual move, rotate and scale tools in the Tool Box is a new Views palette. Used to quickly configure the workspace, it has six buttons for instant access to the most common view layouts including Four-View, Perspective plus Outliner, and Hypershade plus Perspective.
Also revamped are the docked interface elements, such as the time slider and channel box, which now have a small knurled bar that closes them when clicked. To get an interface element back you can right-click on any of the other visible knurled bars for a pop-up menu. They look like you should be able to drag them to dock an element to a new potion of the interface but Maya doesn’t let you do this at the moment.
The layer bar has been removed, redesigned and placed beneath the channel box. A row of buttons in the status line (a strange name for something that doesn’t provide you with any ‘status’ information; the help line does this) shows and hides the channel box and layer editor – and there’s a bar that separates them that you can drag to expand either portion of the palette to full size. Layers have checkboxes for visibility and template/reference toggling, and render layers likewise have a checkbox for render visibility.
Maya’s grid has been improved with better default colours and thicker origin axes. You can also display numbers for the grid divisions, either along the grid edge or along the origin axes – a good idea. Wireframe colours can be specified for every object independently, though there appear to be only eight colours available. A new feature in the Show menu, Isolate Select, lets you ‘solo’ a selected object in a scene, hiding all the others so you can concentrate on the one object without a cluttered workspace. However, if you have an object selected, you can’t isolate it in component mode, all objects including your selected one are hidden.
The interface layout is an improvement, though it looks a little less neat than before. However, it provides more space vertically, whereas in previous versions when lots of interface elements were active, the 3D views were compressed.
Selection points of view
A lasso selection tool has been added that makes selecting a large number of points easier and more intuitive. Selecting in Maya, however, still seems a little awkward. It can be tricky to not select through an object to the points, edges or faces on its opposite side. In order to avoid this, you must use the Paint Select tool, and Artisan component. While it works well, Alias should provide an option in the selection tools to select only visible components, or perhaps add a raycast selection mode as in Softimage|XSI.
There have been changes elsewhere, too. The Hypershade looks much cleaner and has a split pane layout separating scene materials from the work area. Down the left side is a pane that lists all the available shaders and utilities in a scrolling list. The Hypershade panes also have tabs for switching to different views – you can customize these, and add your own. The default tabs list lights, cameras, textures and materials separately. This makes working in the Hypershader clearer, much like the way the Multilister works.
Another addition to the Hypershader is the library, which holds numerous shader presets provided by Alias. There are three categories: building materials, food, and glass. While not a vast selection of materials it’s better than nothing (which was the previous situation). Finally, Alias has added a button on the status bar to launch the render globals dialog.
Though each of these features seems small as a whole they have a cumulative effect, and the Maya experience feels greatly improved for it.
Maya have instant results
As we’ve mentioned, the ease with which new users can learn Maya take a large chunk of this version’s focus. To help further, Maya 4 has a better online help system that features a section called ‘Instant Maya’ containing quick start tutorials. These are ultra-basic tutorials that demonstrate the fundamentals of Maya including simple NURBS and polygon modelling, sculpting surfaces, smooth skinning, and keyframing. General online help has been improved too, and is more comprehensive, well-written and easier to use – one of the better systems we’ve seen.
Rendering has not been one of Maya’s strong points; at least that’s been the general perception with products like RenderMan and Mental Ray stealing Maya’s thunder in this department. There have been numerous enhancements in the renderer to improve things notably when using bitmap textures. A new filtering option, pre-filter, produces much better image using an enhanced filtering technique. This helps to reduce aliasing and artifacts, especially for bump maps. Bump mapping is also better as a rule in Maya 4. Bumps are now much sharper and cleanly defined, especially on surfaces at oblique angles. Maya 4 fixes a problem when textures that were extremely non-square were used, they now render without blurring.
Tessellation has also been improved. Thankfully, you can now set render tessellation options for multiple selected NURBS surfaces whereas this could previously only be done surface-by-surface, which was a pain.
Numerous rendering effects have been added in Maya 4 including Shadow attenuation for transparent objects, translucence, chromatic aberration, and light absorbance. A neat feature is the surface thickness attribute. This renders transparent objects created from a single surface with thickness, useful for creating glass objects without having to actually model the thickness with double walls.
Lights have two new attributes – emit diffuse and emit specular – for creating diffuse-only and specular-only lights. This is a feature most other programs have had for ages, but Maya now has as default. Likewise, you can now specify whether an object casts or receives shadows during rendering.
Maya’s animation is excellent, and for learners things are getting easier here too. Now when you animate an object you can use the Trax non-linear editor straight away. Before, you had to define a Character set, add the attributes from the object you wanted to animate using the Trax NLE, and then you could create a Trax clip. This Character set is created automatically when you choose to create a clip in Trax – a vast improvement.
The Paint Texture tool has been renamed the 3D Paint tool and is fully integrated with Artisan. You can paint onto an object in 3D using simple brushes or Paint Effects brushes. You can also load a greyscale bitmap to use as a brush profile. Any greyscale image will do, so you can easily create your own custom ones: useful for adding dirt and grime to objects.
Creating animations using IK is a godsend in many situations, since you can animate a chain using only the end joint. However, there are times when forward kinematics is the best solution. New in Maya 4 is the FK/IK switch, which lets you enable and disable IK on a joint chain without things going pear-shaped. The IK/FK switch can be animated so that it can conveniently be turned on and off over the course of an animation. When IK is turned off using this switch, all the joint rotations are keyed at that point in time allowing you to animate them using FK. Maya performs some other tricks under the hood to ensure the transition is seamless.
While Maya has a powerful dynamics system, for many animators a simple jiggle is all that they need, and setting this up using Softbodies can be quite complex. Alias has therefore added a Jiggle deformer to Maya 4 that lets you add secondary animations, wobbles and such, to characters as easily as adding a non-linear deformer. Once added to your object you can use the Paint Jiggle Weights tool to specify exactly which portions of your model should jiggle and which should stay put.
The overall impression we got of Maya 4 is of a package that’s become friendly and easy to use. It’s a far cry from the original beast that was version 1.0, and this should please the many CG animators that have been wary of such a powerful and complex program as this.
Thankfully, Alias has taken all this power and moulded it into a package that’s as soft and cuddly as Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator. Well not quite, but it’s getting there. Maya is just as deep and powerful as ever, but offers a streamlined workflow for greater efficiency. Seasoned Maya professionals will likewise gain for the improved layout and better tools, and the ease-of-use aspects certainly don’t retract from the customization or scripting power that is on tap.
The bottom line is that Maya holds onto its
position at the top of the 3D animation tree. It’s expensive, and it’s deep, but for 3D professionals that need a toolset that’s flexible, fast and efficient, Maya 4 is still difficult to beat.