Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 9 (September 2001)

Maya 4

By George Maestri

In the few YEARS that Maya has been around, it has become a 3D modeling and animation package that effects artists rely on heavily for feature film and broadcast production. It seems that every Siggraph we get a new version of Maya with at least one big new feature. But this year, instead of concentrating on a single capability, Alias| Wavefront has consolidated Maya's feature set by offering up a ton of incremental improvements that focus on ease of use.

Maya now comes in three flavors on four platforms: Windows, SGI, Linux, and Macintosh. Maya Builder is the basic version, used mostly for authoring games; Maya Complete is the mid-range product that can perform most modeling and animation tasks; and Maya Unlimited includes advanced features such as cloth and hair.

Alias|Wavefront updated Maya's interface in Version 3, but like the person who can't decide where to put the couch, the company has reorganized and updated the interface again. Menus have been rearranged and consolidated, and the interface looks different. One of the most noticeable changes is that the navigation icons have moved from underneath the toolbar to a vertical column along the left side of the interface. Other improvements include a lasso select tool and new snapping options. These changes work well, and I think the software will help users be more productive.
Alias|Wavefront reorganized and consolidated Maya's interface for enhanced productivity.

Maya has historically been a NURBS package. Maya 3 saw the introduction of subdivision surfaces for seamless character modeling. Unfortunately, not all of Maya 3's tools, such as Artisan and Cloth, worked well with subdivision surfaces. Alias|Wavefront has addressed these capabilities with Maya 4, thereby making the software more attractive to those who like modeling and animating with polygons.

Rendering speed has been improved, and so have bump mapping and texture filtering. In previous versions, textures that were rendered at oblique angles, such as on the edge of a sphere, tended to blur. With the improved filtering, textures re main sharp and clear.

Maya still doesn't support global illumination, but Version 4 does have some nice raytracing improvements. One is chromatic aberration, which simulates the way light changes color as it passes through a transparent surface, in much the same way as a prism separates light into a rainbow. Another addition is translucency, which simulates the scattering of light within semi-transparent surfaces.

Another big improvement is with Artisan, which has been completely rewritten. Alias| Wavefront has increased Artisan's speed by adding multiprocessor support as well as support for video cards without overlay planes, such as those from Nvidia. The best new feature is a palette of tools that turns Artisan into a fairly complete 3D paint solution. The software now supports several brushes and the ability to blur and smear textures.

The animation tools also have seen some incremental improvements. One of the nicer interface features is the addition of ghosting, which enables you to see previous frames as you animate. Also added is support for IK/FK switching. Animators like to move characters' joints in two ways: rotation (forward kinematics) and translation (inverse kinematics). Until Maya 4, animators have had to choose the animation method when the skeleton was built, which was limiting. Maya 4's implementation enables you to switch modes using a check box that enables or disables the IK solver. When unchecked, the joint works as FK. This implementation works fine, but it forces you to check or uncheck the box every time you want to switch modes. Other software, such as Discreet's character studio and Nichimen's Mirai perform the switch automatically.

The IK solver has seen a few changes. Most important is the addition of quaternion rotations. Quaternions are also used in Maya's Trax nonlinear animation editor to blend between motions and eliminate joint flipping. Trax features other interface improvements. In Maya 3, you had to create a character, essentially a set of animation curves, before using Trax. Now, you can create a clip without first creating a character. Maya simply creates a new character containing the channels of the selected objects. If these objects are already in a character, Maya adds the clip to that character. This streamlines workflow considerably.

Overall, this is a more mature Maya-one that is robust and easier to use. The new features add a lot and fill in several gaps that were left open in Alias|Wavefront's early rush to enhance the product.

George Maestri is a writer and animator living in Los Angeles.

Price: Maya Builder, $2995; Maya Complete, $7500; Maya Unlimited, $16,000
Minimum System Requirements: Windows NT 4.0/2000, Irix 6.5, Red Hat Linux 6/2, or Mac OS X; 128MB of RAM