Maya 7
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 11 (November 2005)

Maya 7

Maya has certainly become the de facto standard in visual effects, and at animation studios throughout the world. The software has many advanced features and is always at the forefront of new technology. While Maya is very robust, it’s sometimes a little rough around the edges. Version 7 of Maya softens those edges with new interface enhancements and advanced modeling tools. Alias also extends the package with nice new animation and effects features.

The software is available in two versions. Maya Complete has all of the modeling, animation, and rendering tools most artists will need, while Maya Unlimited adds advanced features such as hair, cloth, and fluid dynamics.

To test Maya 7, I used a workstation running Windows XP with an ATI FireGL board. Installation was straightforward, and once licensed, the software was up and running without any problems.

Maya 7’s UV mapping tools have been improved to make complex texture mapping much easier.

Maya 7’s interface is recognizable, and the panels and basic menus are identical to those in previous versions. There are, however, a few key additions to Maya 7, such as the Universal Manipulator that surrounds a selection with a box-shaped manipulator. This allows you to move, rotate, and scale an object without changing modes. A new gizmo viewport allows you to instantly change the viewport’s view to any angle. Yes, Maya now has easily accessible back, bottom, and right viewports.

Motion-graphics artists who work with many Adobe Illustrator files will appreciate Maya’s new import features. Now Illustrator files can be referenced, with the link to the original Illustrator file remaining “live.” And, if the original file changes in any way, the changes are automatically reflected in the Maya file. This is a particularly nice feature for work groups, where a logo or other piece of art may undergo many revisions.

Maya’s polygonal modeling tools have also been upgraded. The Select Edge Loop, Border, and Ring tools, for example, give you much more freedom when selecting and manipulating edges. Tools such as Duplicate Edge Loop allow you to add new detail to a model quickly. Vertex selection has also been improved by allowing you to use the arrow keys to expand the selection interactively.

Most artists who model with polygons also use subdivision surfaces, either with Maya’s SubD surfaces or a simpler tool called Smooth Proxy. SubD surfaces in Maya are very robust, but require a lot of system overhead. Therefore, people with basic modeling needs usually opt for the faster Smooth Proxy method. Smooth Proxy users will also be happy with the Poly Crease tool, which allows you to weight the sharpness of a smoothed model’s edges. This is nice for creating sharp corners in an otherwise smooth object. One feature I’d like to see added is the ability to weight vertices for greater control over the “pointiness” of corners.

Artists will also appreciate the new UV mapping tools, which make it easier to place textures on polygonal objects. The Unfold UVs tool gives Maya an easy way to “spread out” the mapping of a complex object on a flat plane and adjust it to fit a flat bitmap. The actual editing of UV maps is aided with some new marking menus that can be used to quickly switch between tools without digging into Maya’s main menus. Other tools, such as UV Smear, also simplify UV mapping.

Animators will be happy with the incorporation of MotionBuilder’s full-body IK system into Maya’s skeletons. This system lets Inverse Kinematics (IK) affect the entire body rather than just the limbs of a character. For example, if you pulled the arms of a character using the full-body IK, the character would not only reach, but once the arms were extended, the character’s body would also lean into the reach, creating more realistic movement.

While full-body IK works great, setting it up is not simple. New skeletons must be created manually in Maya using a specific naming scheme, which can become time-consuming. It is faster to create new skeletons in MotionBuilder and import them into Maya. Perhaps future versions of Maya will simplify this process with a menu or control panel that allow you to create a full-body IK skeleton interactively within Maya.

Another great rigging feature is the Geometry Substitution tool, which can be used to swap models on existing skeletons and have the skin deformations follow along. While this approach isn’t perfect, it does a terrific first pass on the new model, reducing the work load to a simple testing and tweaking of the envelopes and deformations.

Hair and fur can now be rendered within Mental Ray and a new toon shader that relies heavily on Paint Effects technology has also been added. A toon-shaded object is actually “painted” on automatically, using Paint Effects’ brush strokes. This approach gives you more control over the final result, but requires some additional overhead-each “stroke” of paint on an object creates an additional Paint Effects object in the scene.

Those who create lots of special effects will appreciate the new solver for Maya’s fluid dynamics, which helps make the effects more realistic. Technical directors will also appreciate the ability to save and load hair presets, giving them the ability to make custom “hairstyles.” To speed this process, Alias provides a couple of hairstyles with the software, which can be used as starting points for creating custom hair designs.

Overall, the new features of Maya 7 have definitely evolved, making the package more robust and user-friendly. There are enough new features in the latest version to satisfy everyone, and keep them on a steady upgrade path. I would like to see better integration of the full-body IK system and continued improvements in polygonal modeling tools in future versions. Still, Maya is certainly a venerable package with a complete feature set and a wealth of enhanced modeling and animation tools.

Price: $6999 for Maya Unlimited, $1999 for Maya Complete
Minimum System Requirements: Windows Intel Pentium III or higher, AMD Athlon processor; Macintosh Power Mac G4 and G5, Linux: Red Hat Linux 9.0 and Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3.0 WS or SUSE Linux 9.1; 512 mb of RAM; a CD-ROM Drive; hardware-accelerated OpenGL graphics card, and 450 mb of hard-disk space.

George Maestri
is president of RubberBug, a Los Angeles-based animation studio specializing in character animation.