Autodesk’s Maya saw another release this year, and it will still be some time yet until the 2014 versions are available. So until then, we examine Maya 2013.
The 3D modeling, rendering, animation, and effects package is very mature and used throughout the entertainment and visualization worlds. As with any software, there’s always room for improvement. The 2013 version keeps Maya at the cutting edge with a new physics and dynamics module, improved hair, as well as tools for virtual filmmaking.
The software can be purchased standalone or as part of a suite. The standalone version of Maya includes a few other applications, such as MatchMover, a camera-tracking tool. The Standard suite includes Maya, MotionBuilder for animation and motion-capture editing, Mudbox for digital sculpting and painting, and Sketchbook Designer. An upgrade to the Premium suite adds in Softimage, and the Ultimate suite adds in 3ds Max.
The first things you’ll notice are some slight interface enhancements to Maya. Viewport 2.0 now has support for image planes and ghosting, all with advanced visual effects such as motion blur. It also allows you to use your graphics card’s GPU to batch-render larger-than-screen-size frames, producing high-quality animatics and previsualizations in less time. With a fast graphics card, you can get previews that can almost pass for a final render. This is a testament to fast GPU chips and Autodesk’s ability to leverage this power.
This is not a render, it’s a live viewport. Maya 2013’s Viewport 2.0 continues to add realism to the desktop with the help of fast GPUs.
Another nice interface tweak is to the Hypergraph window, which is used to create materials. The node editor has been cleaned up to make things easier to understand. The new interface allows you to see only what you need to see. You can show Hypergraph nodes with or without connections, as well as expand nodes to get even more detail. This makes it much easier to author new shaders and materials.
Probably the biggest new feature is the new Bullet Physics module. Bullet is an open-source system that simulates both rigid and soft bodies. The simplicity of the tool kit may fool you; this is a very powerful system. The big advantage of Bullet Physics is that it is very easy to set up and use, but also fast and very accurate.
Staying on the dynamics front, Maya has finally integrated hair into the n-Dynamics system, which speed up dynamics calculations considerably. Maya’s nHair allows hair particles to interact bi-directionally with any n-Dynamics simulation. The result is a fast and realistic simulation of hair that fits in with other effects perfectly.
New virtual filmmaking features allow packages such as MotionBuilder to feed virtual cameras.
Character riggers and animators will enjoy Maya’s new heat map skinning, which makes attaching geometry to a skeleton much easier. The tool works by calculating which joints are inside the mesh and assigning those joints a heat value, which affects the mesh. This method works quite well and is relatively painless, significantly reducing the number of stray vertices that need to be hunted down.
Character animators aren’t left out, either. Enhancements to Maya’s Human IK bipedal skeleton make it easier to animate characters. Animation can now be copied between Human IK skeletons and custom rigs. The interface has also been revised to add in new character views that allow for much easier selection and control of character attributes.
Finally, at SIGGRAPH this past summer, Autodesk, Weta, and Lightstorm Entertainment announced a partnership to develop virtual production tools for the motion-picture industry. These are derived from the tools developed to create James Cameron’s Avatar, which used virtual cameras to interact with virtual actors on a motion-capture stage. Several tools have already been released and are part of the service Pack upgrade for Maya 2013 and MotionBuilder 2013.
Overall, Maya 2013 is a good upgrade, particularly for those doing visual effects and character animation. Bullet Physics, nHair, and the character rigging tools make it a must for these artists.