By George Maestri
Now in its fifth major release, Alias| Wavefront's Maya 3D animation and visual effects software is a favorite among those who create digital content for film, broadcast, video, and game applications. Even so, Maya has had a few shortcomings, particularly in the areas of rendering and subdivision surfacing. Version 3 eliminates these particular limitations, and also adds some cutting-edge tools, including a nonlinear animation editor.
The software runs on SGI Irix and Win dows NT/2000 systems. Alias also has an nounced a version for the Macintosh OS X operating system. And, the Maya renderer has been ported to Linux, which will enable the construction of inexpensive renderfarms.
On opening the program, you'll see the familiar Maya interface. But underneath, Alias has done a lot of housecleaning and reorganizing to make the software more efficient. For instance, frequently used options such as the Render Globals menu are placed higher in the menu hierarchy, where they're easier to get at. You'll also find a couple of new windows, including Visor, which is an image browser, and Hyper shade, which allows you to manage and build complex shaders.
|Maya's interface now includes Trax, a nonlinear animation editor, and Hypershade, which allows users to build shaders visually.|
One of Maya's best interface features is Artisan. Initially a paint-based modeling tool, Artisan has matured into a full-fledged core component of Maya and now gives you the ability to use its brushes to paint color, bump, transparency, and other renderable channels directly onto NURBS and polygonal models.
I found the new ability to paint selections particularly useful, as it allows for an easy way of selecting vertices for modeling and deformation tasks. Another new feature is the ability to paint color on a model. The color shows up in a bitmap, which can then be used to texture the model. Artisan is by no means a full-fledged 3D paint program, as it doesn't have features such as texture cloning, blur bit maps, and so on.
Over the past few years, subdivision surfaces have become a popular way to model and animate. A subdivision surface is modeled much like a low-resolution polygonal model, which is then subdivided into a perfectly smooth model. Past versions of Maya have enabled users only to subdivide static models, but Maya 3 allows for texturing, animation, and rendering.
Modeling subdivision surfaces is ac com plished using Maya's polygonal tools. A polygonal model is turned into a subdivision surface with a menu click, whereupon the subdivision surface appears beneath a low-resolution polygonal "cage." Modeling the cage affects the underlying surface. Surfaces also can be subdivided more than once so that you can refine detail locally without having to add detail to the entire model. Additionally, areas of the low-resolution model can be weighted to affect the curvature of the subdivision surface. Un for tunately, this con trol has only three settings: one each for a round corner, a soft edge, and a hard edge. Other packages, such as Discreet's 3D Studio Max and NewTek's LightWave, offer completely variable weighting.
Rendering improvements include the addition of area lights and completely reworked displacement mapping. The renderer also has gained the ability to render out layers, giving you separate files for shadows, for example, which should help users who do compositing. A new universal rendering policy, meanwhile, enables users to float the renderer across any number of desired nodes.
Probably the most important addition to Maya 3 is Trax, a nonlinear animation editor. Trax gives you the ability to mix animation in a non-destructive manner. This is great for people involved in motion capture, but it also can serve traditional animators well. I found Trax fairly straightforward and easy to use. Motions can be saved as clips or as poses (a pose is a clip that's only one frame long). Clips and poses can then be layered and mixed to your heart's content. Although Trax is a great way to create content, it requires an approach different from standard keyframing, in that you animate actions separately and mix them together later, rather than create the actions from scratch every time.
In Maya 3, Alias|Wavefront has developed another great set of tools to add to its product offerings, enabling users to manage everything from NURBS to polygons and from keyframe animation to motion-capture data. Despite its $7500 price tag, the software is an excellent value.
George Maestri is a writer and animator living in Los Angeles.
Minimum system requirements: Irix or Windows NT/2000; 128MB of RAM; 220MB of disk space; approved OpenGL card