Best Buy
  • Price: £1,850 (base price)

  • Company: Alias|Wavefront

  • Our Rating: We rate this 10 out of 10 We rate this 10 out of 10

Three-dimensional applications are great at creating objects that are measurable, discrete, solid and uniform. Be it NURBS, polys or whatever, it makes perfect sense to use geometry to create geometrical objects. When it comes to diffuse or transient subject matter, there are other methods such as particles, texture maps and volumetric effects.

Three-dimensional applications are great at creating objects that are measurable, discrete, solid and uniform. Be it NURBS, polys or whatever, it makes perfect sense to use geometry to create geometrical objects. When it comes to diffuse or transient subject matter, there are other methods such as particles, texture maps and volumetric effects.

Foliage, trees, grass and such are generally difficult to recreate using geometry. To get close to the density and realism we expect, even for backgrounds, requires huge amounts of detail, large quantities of data and a fair old whack of time. It looks like Alias|Wavefront has been thinking long and hard about this very problem because it appears to have solved it with Maya 2.5. Enter Paint Effects, a new system for creating all sorts of 2D and 3D effects in Maya.

On the one hand Paint Effects can be used like a traditional natural-media paint system. You have a 2D canvas and 200-odd preset brushes giving you access to pens, oils, watercolours and pastels and so forth, as well as what appear at first to be image-based brushes for creating vines, flowers and leaves. A wrap feature lets you create seamless textures, and some of the brushes have a slight 3D quality, a bump or a drop shadow maybe. Images you create can be used as textures or simply as artwork finishes – though you're not going to buy Maya for painting pretty pictures.

Take the same brush into a 3D view, however, and suddenly the same brush strokes appear in three dimensions. Flowers begin to grow as you paint, trees form, and grass sprouts in front of your eyes. Orbit the view and the objects are actually there in 3D. Render the scene and they cast shadows on each other and scene objects, you can animate objects and characters around them as if they were real geometry and even apply dynamic effects to make them sway in the wind.

You can use Paint Effects in either the main 3D views or within the special Paint Effects panel. This can be either the 2D canvas or a view of the scene in 3D. In either of the panels your brush strokes are displayed as shaded wireframes, which actually provide a good representation of the final effects. In the Paint Effects panel you can also have your strokes rendered in real time, and on a good machine this is very impressive. Huge swathes of foliage can be laid down in minutes, if not seconds, and the result looks like as if it took weeks to do.

Paint Effects is not just for plants and trees, though. You can draw fur and hair on characters: add eyebrows, eyelashes and stubble. If hair is long, it can be animated to flow as the character moves. Each brush stroke is attached to a curve on surface whose cv's can be animated too. This is great for creating, for example a vine that crawls up a wall, or electric arcs that play over the surface of an object.

Though the Paint Effects 3D view is responsive as you draw (because only the current stroke is actually being drawn, the rest of the image is cached), if you alter the angle of view the whole scene has to be recalculated and this does take time.

Though there are around 200 preset brushes, you don’t have to stick with what Alias gives you. Each brush is a combination of over 200 parameters, any of which can be altered and saved as a new brush or even animated.

Maya 2.5 is not just about Paint Effects, even though they do steal the show. Polygon modelling refinements in this release include a new Poly Reduction tool and a geometry-mirroring feature that joins the seam along the mirrored axes. But the program still can’t really compete with the likes of LightWave or Nichimen’s Mirai when it comes to poly-modelling power, simplicity and ease of use.

New Clip Effects have been added in 2.5. Shatter, Fireworks, Surface Flow and Lightning make it easier to produce these effects. Shatter, for example, offers you the ability to break an object on impact into separate shards. The interior can be either solid or shell-like, and each shard, once created after an impact, can either be animated by hand or assigned to react to dynamic forces. Both rigid and soft bodies can be shattered, though the end result will be quite different for each depending on the dynamic system you have set up.

Alias has improved Maya’s rendering too. The IPR (interactive photorealistic renderer) is now multithreaded, and Alias has enhanced the program to take advantage of Pentium III Itanium processors in specific areas.

Unfortunately the NT version of Maya still doesn’t support Apple’s QuickTime video format (the Irix version of the program does, but doesn’t support any or the compressed formats). This is frustrating because the check-image viewing utility supplied with Maya is annoyingly slow for previewing test renders.

Alias has done a cracking job of Maya 2.5. Though some will complain that more effort should have been spent on fixing bugs than introducing new whiz-bang features, it’s difficult not to be impressed by what Alias has accomplished. Even more impressive is the timescale in which these achievements have been made.There are always going to be weaknesses and areas where other 3D programs better Maya, but taken as a whole, Maya 2.5 is a cracking 3D package.