Price: 1449 . 2149 . 4899 . 5800
Pros: New polygon modelling tools. Character animation and skinning enhancement. New nCloth capabilities. mental ray 3.6. Windows Vista support. Improved hardware rendering.
Cons: Fairly steep learning curve. Relatively expensive. High system requirements.
As with previous versions, Maya 2008 comes in two flavours: Maya Complete and the Unlimited version, which adds nCloth simulations, Fluid Effects, and Fur and Hair. Both editions ship with mental ray 3.6 and run on Windows XP, Mac OS X on Intel and PowerPC, Red Hat and openSuSE Linux and now Windows Vista Business. Windows XP Professional x64, Vista and the two flavours of Linux are additionally supported by Maya 2008 64-bit.
There’s no Personal Learning Edition (PLE) of this version yet, though this usually takes some time to appear after the main release.
As well as the support for Vista, new features in Maya include a streamlined subdivision surface workflow and enhanced modelling tools, a non-destructive skin-editing workflow, faster and more accurate viewport and hardware rendering with support for HLSL (High Level Shading Language) shader nodes (so providing native Direct X compilation rendering).
The new Smooth Mesh Preview lets you see how changes to the polygonal mesh will appear when rendered as smooth surfaces. Responding to the 1, 2 and 3 numerical hotkeys, Maya displays either the original mesh as a wireframe outline (known as cage mode) and a preview of the smoothed version and cage simultaneously or only the smoothed preview version by itself.
Any modifications occur on the original mesh and subsequently appear on the smooth preview as well, but you have to convert the preview to a fully smoothed mesh before rendering or create a subdivision proxy from the preview settings.
In addition, variable creasing is now supported on vertices as well as edges, for both Smooth Mesh Preview and Subdiv Proxy, providing greater control over the resulting surface shape.
Working with edges has been further streamlined in that it’s possible to extrapolate full-edge loop selections from a single-edge selection and pick-walk adjacent loops across the mesh using the arrow keys. Another of the related new modelling features is the Slide edge tool, a way of moving edges or edge loops without changing the shape of the surface and therefore handy for editing the look of an object without adding extra detail.
There are also enhancements to the polygon bevel and extrude tools as well as Boolean operations on polygons – efficiency tweaks really, but they’ll no doubt be welcomed by modellers.
Still on the subject of polygon modelling, the polygon-reduce tool has received a speed boost through the inclusion of a cache for intermediate states, which allows the data to be updated faster. The tool also preserves quads, rather than applying triangulation across the board, so keeping more of the refined detail while reducing the polygon count of a scene significantly.
Character animators sometimes need to make changes to bound skeletons and there are new tools to insert, delete, connect, and disconnect joints after skinning has been set up. There’s also a move skinned joints tool, which lets you manipulate bound joints without changing the character’s skin – which will come in extremely handy for fixing exposed joints at the last minute. Both this tool and the standard move tool have a new Preserve Child Position check box in their attribute, which allows you to move primary objects without their attachments.
You need to readjust the skin weighting when new joints are added and hotkeys for the artisan brush have been added for this – holding down Control when painting inverts the value, while holding Shift causes the brush to change to a smooth skin weights setting.
The latter is another new menu option for working with bound characters, useful when you want to quickly and easily smooth areas of rough or discontinuous skin weighting. You can view the joints of a character’s skeleton when carrying out this task by turning on the new Xray joint option in the Paint?Skin?Weights?Tool settings.
Repurposing attributes between bound characters is also possible. The bind pose of the attribute is retained, as it’s dependent on the imported geometry. It’s also now possible to create multiple bind poses for your skinned characters and bind your characters when their skeletons are not at their default poses.
Maya Unlimited has its own set of new features. New grooming tools include ramp attributes for controlling the shape of individual hair clumps and for tweaking the degree of attraction to the start curve along the length of the hair, for example making a hair stiffer at the follicle than at the tip. It’s also possible to render Hair in mental ray Standalone. Fluid Dynamics has been enhanced for use on multi-processor workstations and Fur shadows are now more efficiently rendered in mental ray.
The most interesting features of Unlimited centre around the Nucleus solver. Introduced in Maya 8.5 this is an advanced system for adding dynamic animation to objects and scenes. nCloth is the first implementation of this technology, allowing nCloth duplicates of polygon mesh objects to respond to internal dynamic Nucleus forces such as wind and gravity.
This attribute is extended here with the introduction of controls for wind shadowing and wind noise (turbulence), both of which add non-uniform effects to the simulation. In addition there are now a range of simulation presets which when applied to the nCloth object give it the properties of material like rubber, burlap, or chain mail. After initial setup it’s also now easier to edit which vertices of the nCloth are affected by constraints.
The standout features in previous Maya updates have tended to focus on increasing the feature set of Maya Unlimited, so it’s good to see a significant investment being made in the features available in the more affordable Maya Complete. The further development of Nucleus is very welcome, however.
There’s nothing groundbreaking here on the scale of version 8.5, but this build of Maya undoubtedly has a lot to offer VFX professionals and character animators.
With 3DS Max also owned by Autodesk, the equally full-featured Houdini from Side Effects is likely to be the closest commercial competitor. Houdini Master and Escape versions are both cheaper than the corresponding Maya versions, but they don’t offer Mac support nor do they currently specify support for Windows Vista.
Those starting from scratch with this complex suite of tools will face a steep learning curve, so a printed manual or learning reference would be a welcome addition for the price. However, the online help does seem more detailed with this version.
Unlimited offers example files and presets for Maya nCloth to create starting points or inspiration for different material types, such as chiffon or silk, and for different set-ups such as a bag of marbles, or a zipper. Extra options for the Nucleus wind model add further realism to the simulation.