Best Buy
  • Price: 1449 . 650 . 4899 . 900

  • Company: Alias

  • Pros: Photoshop PSD support, better Mental Ray support, much improved non-linear animation and character tools.

  • Cons: HDRI support sub-standard on the Mac, interface could be improved for graphic artists and Web designers.

  • Our Rating: We rate this 9 out of 10 We rate this 9 out of 10

Previous updates to Maya, one of the biggest 3D animation package out there, have seen Alias attempt to make the software easier to use. The company has sought to widen its appeal to include designers and DCC artists not working at the cutting-edge of 3D animation, and to slash the price too.

Alias has been through something of a corporate makeover, dropping the ‘Wavefront’ part of its name and going for a generally friendlier identity. However, on firing up Maya 6 for the first time, there is nothing to differentiate it from Maya 5, apart from the spiffy new splash screen. Though Maya 6 features a number of workflow and interface improvements, there’s not a lot to make it any less imposing for newcomers.

Delving straight into the new features (and it does take some delving) Maya 6 offers integrated support for Photoshop users. No 3D artist would be without a copy of Photoshop for creating textures, and no matter how fancy a painting plug-in might be, most artists will still opt to jump to Photoshop instead. Maya 6 offers a new Photoshop PSD file node that can be used instead of the standard texture file node when adding bitmap textures to your models. This offers support for layered Photoshop PSD files – a massive plus point.

Support for layered Photoshop files immediately creates a much smoother workflow between the two applications, not least because there’s no longer a need to save out a flattened version of your texture file before loading it into Maya. It makes editing easier, too.

Layer support

With a layered file loaded in as a colour texture, for example, you can easily hop back to Photoshop, change the opacity of a layer, its blending mode, even add some Layer Style effects. You just save the file, then hop back to Maya and press the Reload File Texture button in the Attribute manager. Instantly the changes are visible in OpenGL on your model. You can display only a specific layer set rather than the whole composite image too.

As far as we could tell, all layer properties are supported. You can use Photoshop’s Type layers, adjustment layers, and layer masks with impunity.

You can’t access these features in Maya, but you get the flattened version of the multilayered file applied as a texture map exactly as it looks in Photoshop. You can even access the PSD’s alpha channels in Maya. A menu in the node’s attributes lets you choose which alpha channel to use (there can be many), and the result is applied as a transparency mask since the node defaults alphas to this connection when created.

The converse of importing PSD files is to create them in Maya. You can now create a PSD textures when using 3D paint tools for instance. Each channel is saved as a layer in the PSD. It’s neat and tidy, and you can convert a PSD to a Maya Layered shader.

Viewing the results of material editing is a lot better in Maya 6. The OpenGL textured view is much clearer. The High Quality Shading option renders scenes in near final quality using OpenGL, according to Alias. However our ATI card was not supported for this feature to work so we were unable to test it, though the Panel tantalizingly displayed
‘transparent shadow maps’ and ‘occlusion culling’ options.

Character animation is one of the key areas of improvement in Maya 6. Firstly, the Trax editor has been redesigned, and it’s better than before. It looks a lot better now, and it’s easier and more intuitive to use. It’s more like the non-linear editing found in other 3D applications such as those from Kaydara and Softimage.

New in 6 is the ability to mute, solo and lock tracks using buttons to the left of each clip track. Solo and mute have obvious advantages to workflow, and make it a lot easier to work with lots of clips. Sound support is included directly in Trax with waveform display – great for lipsynching. Trax supports Expressions and Constraints too, which makes it a true all-round animation tool for Maya users.

Two other improvements are Motion retargeting, which allows animation data to be transferred between dissimilar characters for reuse, and Motion Redirection, which can warp existing animation in different directions. To facilitate remapping, there’s a new Character Mapper panel. This lets you define relationships between the source and destination character’s joints.

Another form of warping that’s especially useful for motion-capture data or baked simulations has been added. It’s called Lattice Deform Keys, and it allows a special envelope to be used to scale the keyframe data on an object in the Graph Editor. It’s again similar to other 3D systems, except it is displayed as an actual lattice in the Graph view encompassing the selected keys. It’s a bit fiddly to work with though, and you wonder why Alias didn’t just duplicate the single envelope curve used in XSI, as this is much simpler to use.

Mental ray integration has been tightened up in this release. Mental ray is becoming an essential rendering option for Maya users, and the improvements make a huge difference. Most importantly, it now supports Interactive Photorealistic Rendering (IPR). This brings with it support for raytracing in IPR.

Image-based lighting is now supported fully in Maya 6. Alias is a bit late to this party, but late is better than never. In order to use HDR files mental ray has a special Image Based Lighting node, which you select from the Render Globals. Once you load in your HDR file (Spherical and Angular maps are catered for), the map is displayed in the viewport on a special environment sphere. This is not tessellated at render times so does not interfere with mental ray’s rendering optimization. Under OS X on a dual G4, the OpenGL display crawls to a near halt with the HDR image loaded, even when in wireframe mode, but at least it simplifies the creation of HDRI renders. Image quality using Final Gather is good, without too many artefacts, and rendering speed is acceptable.

Image Based Lighting is a new option in Mental Ray and long overdue in Maya. However HDR support crawls along under OS X.

Other improvements to mental ray include blurry transparency and reflections as a top-level attribute, Photon and Final Gather visualization tools, Shader Glow support, and Contour rendering – for line-art and cel-like effects. Unlimited users get a raft of other improvements, such as the ability to render Fur and volumetric fluids using mental ray. This means that fur can be seen in reflections and transparency.

Modelling has been given a subtle boost with a collection of pleasant new tools and options. First there’s a Soft Modification tool that lets you pull points and polys with magnet-like fall-off. In deformation mode the editing creates a history that can later be animated.

The sculpt deformer can now have its offset varied over a surface using a texture, or by using the Artisan painting interface. Paint over the sculpt objects surface to vary its effect, or apply a texture map. This makes all kinds of effects possible. In Maya Unlimited, Artisan has a new Hair painting mode – ideal for painting on eyebrows and lashes – and collision painting for Maya Cloth.

Paint Effects strokes can be applied to polygonal objects in Maya 6. There are also some new brushes, the city buildings in particular is an interesting one.

Subdivision Surface and Smooth Proxy workflow is improved with the implementation of hotkeys for showing/hiding the cage. Subdivision Surface and Smooth Proxy modes are much faster – up to 18 and 16 times respectively, according to Alias. Smooth Proxy now has a built in Mirror mode that’s ideal for creating symmetrical objects.

Other notable improvements include improved file referencing, deformers on particles, a built-in Web browser, STL import, Paint Effects for polygons, mouse-wheel support, Normal Map creation, a user-specified default scene file and some new curve editing options, and loads more to explore.

In all, Maya 6 doesn’t have any groundbreaking new features, but it is good to see Alias listening to users and addressing their needs. There’s still a lot of room for improvement in workflow though, especially for Complete users with very short turnaround times. A general rethink of some of the interface conventions would pay dividends for graphic artists and animators that need to work very quickly, because Maya’s sheer complexity can get in the way sometimes.

Nevertheless, Maya 6’s new features will please those loyal to the application, if not exactly wow onlookers from competing packages. Alias has solidified its position in the market once more, but you can’t help looking to the next version for something a bit more special.