How Autodesk Maya 2019 helps deliver Oscar-winning animation and VFX

If you live and breathe 3D visuals – or even just have a passing interest – you’ll be more than aware of Autodesk Maya. Its powerful integrated toolset is ideally suited to animation, modelling, motion graphics and VR, whether you’re fashioning an entire eye-popping digital world or sweating the details on posing a solitary character’s hair.

Such is Maya’s range that it’s been used on every VFX Oscar winner since 1997 – including the 2019 winner First Man. And of the rest of this year’s nominees, Maya was once again instrumental in the toolsets of artists who worked on Avengers: Infinity War (above), Solo: A Star Wars Story, and Ready Player One.

Those dazzling, visually exciting productions pushed at the boundaries and limits of what’s possible on a screen. But just as the film industry doesn’t stand still, nor does Maya. The latest update – Maya 2019 – brings with it a raft of changes, to help you meet daily workflow challenges, iterate more rapidly, and seriously boost creativity.

Maya 2019: giving you what you want

The vast majority of new features and updates in Maya 2019 are directly based on feedback from people who use the product every day. There are performance and stability upgrades across the board, ramping up productivity in a meaningful way that artists will immediately notice. The aim is to stop you having to wait around when you could be creating; it’s not really about working more (although you could), but making each shot better by spending more time trying new things.

This line of thinking is readily apparent in Maya 2019’s cached playback system. If you use an earlier version of Maya, you might be used to animating for a bit, and then generating a playblast – a flat video render – so you can check out what your various alterations look like at your production’s target frame rate. With cached playback, Maya 2019 largely eradicates the need for playblasts in many scenarios.

Cached playback: get the balance right

The process works in the background, carefully analysing your scene, rigs, and skin bindings as you work. Because this is done intelligently, frames needn’t be re-cached if no changes are made. But also – unlike playblasts – cached playback gives you the option to check out your animation from any angle or zoom level.

You needn’t do anything to take advantage of cached playback – it’s activated by default; and you can keep animating while caching is happening in the background. At any point, you can see if playback’s ready to go by way of a blue status indicator bar in the timeline (below).

Additionally, Maya users who want to get the most from their hardware can tinker a bit. Cached playback has a number of settings that you can configure and tweak to best take advantage of a powerful GPU – or a ton of system memory. Whichever way you approach it, this feature alone gives animators scope for producing higher-quality work, by making the environment more interactive and responsive, and removing the creative frustration that comes from having to wait around.

A nicer view – rendering in Maya 2019

With Maya 2019, the viewport also gains significantly higher quality previews, which are much closer in nature to final renders. This isn’t quite ‘what you see is what you will get’, but the result is nonetheless arresting. Through rendering Arnold in the viewport, including its RenderView options like Debug Shading, AOVs, and region rendering, Maya 2019 gives you illumination and reflections in real time.

From a productivity standpoint, the benefits are obvious. Because you’re removing so much guesswork, it’s possible to keep working with confidence regarding what the final render is going to look like; and although you’ll still fire off some preview renders, chances are you’ll do so far less frequently.

Again, this is a boost for creativity and iteration, and reduces wasted time. Also – and importantly, given that a 3D artist spends so much of their working life staring at a screen – this feature ensures Maya 2019 simply looks better while you work!

Close to the edit

Cached playback and improved previews are arguably the heavy hitters in terms of new Maya 2019 features, but other improvements are peppered throughout. For example, the Graph Editor gains two new filters that help you to refine animation curves. The Butterworth filter smooths out your curves, so you get a more predictable result, and the Key Reducer creates a simpler, more usable animation curve by assessing keys and removing those that aren’t needed to extrapolate movement.

There are rigging improvements, too, which should ease the workload of riggers and character technical directors. There’s the means to hide sets from the outliner, in order to streamline scenes; there are improvements to the Bake Deformer tool; and Maya 2019 adds methods to save deformer weights, so you can more easily script rig creation.

Beyond that, Maya 2019 speeds up the loading of scenes with MetaData, improves material and texture load times, and has faster selection performance in the viewport. In short, artists working in Maya will find everything that bit snappier and more responsive, when doing everything from loading scenes to handling dense meshes.

Get started with Maya 2019

One final new feature we need to mention is the preset human rigs that have been added to the Content Browser. This is of course handy if you need a quick background character to add to something, since they’re all Arnold render ready; but also, this eases the transition for newcomers to Maya, and provides students and novices something to get to grips with – without having to first create their own character.

All of this adds up to Maya 2019 being not only the most powerful Maya yet, but also the fastest and most user-friendly. In short, it will save you time and help you be more creative, so you can be more productive than ever.

If you’ve designs on your own VFX Oscar, check out the Maya website, where you can download a free 30-day trial.

Users can subscribe for £216 per month  or get Maya as part of the Media & Entertainment Collection that includes 3ds Max, Arnold, MotionBuilder, and more.

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