Modeling and Animation
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 2 (Feb 2003)

Modeling and Animation

Alias|Wavefront's flagship modeling and animation program, Maya, has been in transition recently. The package has seen a new surge in popularity since the company drastically cut the price of the software last year. Maya 4.5 is the first new version since the price drop, and I'm happy to report that Alias has continued to add innovative features not found in other packages.

Maya now has a few new shelves and marking menus, which add to the software's productivity. One nifty enhancement is the ability to create presets from within the Attribute Editor. Not only can an entire page of settings be recalled, but they can also be blended with existing presets. So, if you want a shader that is halfway between two other shaders, you can accomplish this with a few clicks. Another nice feature is the ability to annotate any object in a scene. This is great for larger projects, where information such as help files and version numbers are necessary for following an object through the pipeline.

The biggest addition to Maya Unlimited is the Fluid Effects module, which allows users to simulate water, fire, clouds, lava, and so forth. The module interfaces well with Maya Artisan, allowing you to literally paint how a fluid will move through a scene. Attributes such as fluid density, velocity, and temperature can be painted directly onto objects. The module is tightly integrated with the rest of Maya, which enables fluids to interact with such features as soft bodies and forces.

Modeling has seen a few enhancements. Some of the new polygonal modeling tools include poke faces, which allows you to expand a face around a vertex, and wedge faces, which allows you to extrude along an arc. Another tool lets you cut faces cleanly along a line. NURBS modelers will be happy to know that the full suite of advanced modeling tools previously available only in Unlimited is now included with Maya Complete.

One of the more interesting new tools is the smooth proxy mode for editing polygons. Much like subdivision surfaces in other packages such as Discreet's 3ds max and NewTek's LightWave, this feature allows modelers to see a smoothed version of their object beneath an editable cage. This feature should not be confused with Maya's own subdivision surface module, which is a bit more complex and allows for hierarchical subdivisions. The smooth proxy mode is a quick way for modelers to create organic surfaces.

Probably the most advanced new modeling feature is the ability to move cleanly between subdivision surfaces and NURBS. When doing so, Maya analyzes the surface to make the minimum number of seams between the individual NURBS patches. These can then be stitched together into a seamless NURBS object. This feature allows modelers to work in the surface type that's best for them with the ability to convert to other types of surfaces later for animation or rendering.

Maya also has a couple of new animation features. The most notable of these is the ability to mirror joints from one side of a character's body to the other. This makes building new skeletons a breeze. Constraints have been upgraded to allow for offsets, so you can place a character's feet 12 inches above the floor, for example. Trax has also been improved, with some interface enhancements as well as the ability to apply animation clips directly to characters.

Finally, one of the most exciting items regarding Maya is that Mental Ray will be bundled with future versions of both Maya Complete and Unlimited. Mental Ray is certainly one of the best renderers on the market, and offers a wealth of features, including programmable shaders, global illumination, true displacement, and much more.

While the full release of Mental Ray was not shipping at the time of this article, I did download the public beta just to get a taste of how the software will work within Maya. The menu structure is a bit complex, with one global render menu for Mental Ray and another for Maya. Sadly, the Mental Ray menu was missing features like image size, forcing you to flip between the two menus. Mental Ray does do an admirable job of translating Maya shaders and lights.

Overall, Maya 4.5 is a nice upgrade. Mental Ray alone is worth the upgrade price, but the new features, especially the fluid dynamics module, make it even more compelling. Alias|Wavefront has done an exceptional job of providing a powerful package at a reasonable price. ..

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

Maya 4.5 has an ocean shader, which uses a displacement shading technique to create bodies of water.
Image courtesy Alias|Wavefront.

Maya 4.5
Prices: Maya Complete, $1995. Maya Unlimited $6995.
Minimum System Requirements: Windows 2000/XP (Complete also supports OS X); 256MB of RAM