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Issue: Volume 33 Issue 7: (July 2010)

Review: Autodesk's Maya 2011

By: George Maestri

Maya is probably the most noted 3D application used in television and feature films. It has long been a staple in the animation and special effects industry, and has been used on everything from Hollywood blockbusters, to network tele­vision, to games and product design. Maya 2011 is the latest release and adds a brand-new interface, along with some terrific new character animation, modeling, rendering, and special effects features.

Maya is offered in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. For OS X users, Maya is now fully 64-bit compliant, adding a nice boost in speed and memory. In fact, anyone using Maya should seriously consider a 64-bit system—the speed boost is noticeable, and the ability to use memory above 4gb allows for significantly larger scenes to be loaded.

Without a doubt, the most noticeable new feature is Maya’s updated interface, which gives the software a whole new look. From an organization standpoint, most everything is in the same place, but buttons have been softened and the colors changed to a darker hue, making the interface more attractive and putting it more in line with other Autodesk Media & Entertainment products.

In addition to these cosmetic changes, Maya 2011 has a number of new interface features. One of the nicest is the new color picker, which allows you not only to select colors either using the color wheel or an eyedropper, but also to keep track of the most recent colors you’ve chosen. Menus and UI elements can be docked and undocked more easily, and the new file browser makes it much easier to find your assets. Another simple but effective new feature is a tabbed interface along the right-hand side of the screen that allows you to easily switch between the Attribute Editor and the Channel Box.

For modelers, the hands-down best new feature in Maya 2011 is the simple addition of Bezier curves. This type of curve uses a handle on each vertex to control tangency and direction, and they would be familiar to anyone using drawing packages, such as Adobe Illustrator, as well as anyone who edits animation curves in Maya’s graph editor. Bezier curves work exactly like Maya’s venerable NURBS curves, and can be used as the basis for any sort of NURBS surface. Personally, I find Bezier curves easier to manage, and one especially handy feature is the ability to create sharp corners with a simple click.

Polygonal modelers also get a few new tools, such as the Spin Edge Tool, which allows you to re-orient edges in a polygonal model with a simple keystroke. Connect Arbitrary Components is quite novel; it allows modelers to draw edges between any number of components, which makes it easy to add detail into a model. My other favorite new modeling tool is Object Level Soft Selection, which is a mouthful to say but a very easy tool to use. To put it simply, the tool allows you to stretch and scale groups of objects without deforming the objects themselves. One possible use would be in laying out multiple objects in a scene, such as trees in a forest. Using Object Level Soft Selection, you could scale an entire forest without resizing the trees, the result being that the trees would remain the same size, and the only thing that would change would be the density of the forest.


Maya 2011’s new Interactive Skin Bind allows for precise control over character skinning.


Animation

Anyone involved in character animation will appreciate the new skinning tools in Maya, which work similarly to the Skin modifier in 3ds Max. The new interactive Skin Bind tool places a capsule-like manipulator around each joint in a character’s skeleton. Manipulating the volume of this capsule increases or decreases the effect of the joint on the character’s mesh. Improvements to the Paint Skin Weights tool add another level of control, with skin weights now appearing in technicolor rather than the boring black and white of the old versions. Paint Skin Weights also has a number of new functions to fix weights, including the aptly named Weight Hammer, which pounds down stray vertices by averaging them with their neighbors. Skeletons have also seen a nice little update with new joint drawing styles. These mimic the standard curve-based handles that many riggers place into rigs as controls.

Other nice animation features include a Camera Sequencer, which allows you to set up multiple cameras in a scene and switch between them at specific points in the timeline. This allows you to play with multiple camera choreography to choose the best way to render scenes. The feature also allows import of an EDL from Apple’s Final Cut or any other major video editor to sync up Maya cameras with cuts done in a non-linear editor. As the effects editor refines shots, the shot list can be imported into Maya so the resulting render matches the current cut of a scene.


Also Worth Noting

For visualizing your scenes within viewports, Maya’s new Viewport 2.0 gives you far more accurate rendering. This feature relies on the ever-increasing performance of high-end graphics cards to display attributes such as textures, lighting, and shadows with greater accuracy. For anyone doing rotoscoping work, the 2D Pan/Zoom feature allows you to zoom in on a viewport without changing the camera angle. Instead of zooming the camera into the scene, you simply zoom the viewport itself.

Special effects artists also get their share of new features in the product. Maya Fluids includes the ability for fluids to self-attract or self-repulse, which adds to the realism of swirling or expanding fluid effects. Maya’s nParticles get some new capabilities, such as surface tension and viscosity for simulating blobby surfaces and the ability for particles to emit fluids upon collision. For smoke and fire effects, the addition of new attributes that control the internal lighting of a simulation allow for such things as diffuse and ambient lighting, all of which can be previewed in viewports prior to rendering.

Finally, a few improvements have been made to rendering, most notably the standardization of Mental Ray versions across Autodesk’s product line. Maya users can now employ a 3ds Max Mental Ray node to render, for example. Another new interface feature is the totally revamped Hypershade window and, after about 20 years, the demise of the Multilister, which first came to life when Maya was just a twinkle in Alias’ eye. Finally, Mac users can now enjoy full support for Backburner network rendering on OS X.

The new interface alone makes this update a must-have for anyone using Maya. The additional features also make it very compelling. The new character rigging tools particularly stand out, but the modeling and special effects tools are quite nice to have, too. Add in a speed boost for OS X users and some other nice little tweaks, and you have a very solid release for those using Maya on any platform.

Maya 2011
$3495 (stand-alone)
Autodesk

George Maestri is a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World and president/CEO of RubberBug animation studio. He also teaches Maya for Lynda.com. He can be reached at maestri@rubberbug.com.

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