• Maya 7 Review

    CGSociety :: Product Review
    Sean Wagstaff
    8 December, 2005

    Maya 7 is driven through its final paces under the guise of Alias, in this ‘New Features’ review.

    October’s stunning announcement that Alias would be acquired by arch-rival Autodesk (the developer of 3ds Max) rippled through the world of 3D production. As face-to-face rivals, Maya and 3ds Max have played an important game of one-upsmanship for most of the past decade. With the sale by a Canadian school teacher’s pension fund (for $180 million or so) expected to be complete in about four months, it’s likely that this Maya 7 review is the last I’ll be writing about Alias-branded products.

    Maya has always been a well-designed product, but it has suffered from a slow feature-revision cycle and a feature request list that far outstrips the company’s ability to keep pace. Version 6.5 continued in this trend, with most of the changes relating to performance and fixes to long-standing problems, and few major new features to crow about. Maya 7, however, has a list of new features as long as your leg. Most significant in this release is integration of the full-body IK solver borrowed from Kaydara’s Motionbuilder (Kaydara was recently acquired by Alias);  a host of workflow management improvements, including much better file referencing; a completely new and very welcome approach to render layers and render management; some significant modeling and texturing improvements; and even a new Toon Shader. Maya 7 also offers a gaggle of enhancements to the user interface, and lots and lots of nips, tucks and tweaks in almost every other aspect of the program. Because there is so much new to look at, this review primarily looks at the changes in Maya 7 from 6.5, rather than the application as a whole.

    Maya box
    Making passes


    Project management and rendering are two of the biggest winners in this release. Although it’s not a sexy feature, Render Layers get my vote as the most important change in Maya 7. While previous versions allowed you to render a scene in passes, this release has moved that functionality into a new Render Layers palette.  The interface is similar to Maya’s display layers, but Render Layers contain groups of objects, lights, shaders and rendering overrides. Each render layer is rendered as a separate pass and its images are stored in their own directory.  In earlier versions of Maya shots would often require saving and rendering multiple versions of a file, with separate render settings, or objects textured with different shaders. For example, it was common to set up separate files for beauty passes, and holdout passes, where the same objects would have normal diffuse shading, and black matte shading, respectively. In Maya 7, you simply add the same object to two different render layers, and assign a different shader to it in each layer.  At render time, each layer is rendered using the “override” shader assigned in that layer. Similarly, overrides can be created for rendering options. For example, one layer can be rendered using Mental Ray, while a particle pass might be rendered using Maya’s Hardware Renderer. Inexplicably, you can’t override the camera.


    Render Layers


    The new Render Layers are a huge productivity improver. On my first job with Maya 7, I had to render over 160,000 frames, each using three to six render layers. This new feature alone spared me from saving, managing and rendering hundreds of separate project files, a big consideration with 300Mb scene files.
    I found some problems in render layers, however. It’s very easy to end up with different shaders assigned to the same object in different Render Layers and not know it, and there’s no quick way, short of writing MEL scripts, to identify objects with more than one shader assigned, or to know which shader is active on which layer.

    Maya space ship
    A new look

    On the surface, the changes to Maya are subtle. Most obvious is a navigation widget that lives in the corner of perspective windows and lets you quickly switch to standard views by clicking on its handles. (This reveals another nice change in Maya – transitions between views are animated, which helps to orient you to the new POV.) In a similar vein, a new Universal Manipulatorallows you to rotate, scale and translate an object using a bounding cage marked with intuitive graphical handles at its corners. My favorite part of this tool is the capability to click on a numeric label and change a transformation value directly, without going into the Channel Box or Attribute Editor. It’s also a great time saver that you can now quickly switch between the pivot point, world space, local space, and the geometric center, as the basis for transformations.

    Universal Manipulator

    Other nice interface changes include mirroring in the Move tool, which lets you deform one side of a symmetrical object and have the other side deform proportionately. And snapping is now available in all tools that use the standard Manipulator. For example, when extruding a face of a polygonal object it can now be snapped incrementally. And illustrative of the many tiny, but very useful changes, is that you can now snap to the centers of polygonal faces.


     
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  • Maya 7

    For your reference

    Full-bodied IK


    One of the limitations of Maya’s IK animation has always been it’s limited influence on a body. Maya’s IK solvers have only worked up to the nearest root joint. Pull a finger and the arm will move, but only as far as the nearest shoulder joint. Alias has integrated the Full-Body IK solver from Kaydara’s Motionbuilder into Maya 7. (Alias acquired Kaydara several months ago.) As a first implementation, the Full Body IK is pretty impressive. Setting up a character’s skeleton works best by using a standard naming convention for joints – these map automatically to the solver. You can then animate the character to move very naturally with a minimum of effort. For example, by pulling on its hand, you can animate a character reaching up as if grabbing something from a top shelf, and the hips, shoulders, and back will all rotate and bend appropriately. With Maya’s other solvers, you would have to keyframe separately the motion of the hips, shoulders, arms and neck to avoid the character getting bent into strange, stiff looking poses. (While the new solver works really well in general, we did encounter a bug that caused a character’s parts to scale randomly when the joints were animated, but also of an associated fix, which was to disconnect the character’s scale nodes from the solver.)


    Full-Bodied IK



    Dynamic Bandaids


    Working as a special effects and dynamics TD much of the time, my expectations are probably more extreme than most, but I was somewhat disappointed with the changes to dynamics in Maya 7. On one hand, Maya has an amazing feature set for rigging and controlling dynamic effects; on the other, animators are unreasonably handicapped by some of its ongoing limitations. One that comes to mind in particular is that while Maya 7 changes the way you can script particles – by adding per-object/per-particle goal weights (finally!) the “conserve” value that determines how much a particle’s dynamics compete with its momentum, is still controllable only on across an entire particle field. It’s like giving someone the keys to the car but leaving the tank empty. Why Alias won’t just make every attribute of a particle controllable on a per-particle basis continues to frustrate me, and if I could have just one particle of complaint peel off and make a beeline for Alias’ product management team, this would be it. To Alias’ credit, there are some more pleasing changes in the Dynamics realm. A new falloff feature makes it dramatically easier to create useful fluids simulations. It’s now easy to create a fluid system that doesn’t run into the edges of the fluid container – a persistent problem in previous versions. And the hair, fur and cloth systems all have lots of nice changes that make it easier to create realistic simulations. (Fluids, Hair, Fur and Cloth are all features exclusive to Maya Unlimited.)


    The wrap party


    Maya 7 may be the last version you ever see from “Alias,” but it it’s a far better product than it was a year ago. We can only hope that the Autodesk merger will result in a faster better Maya in the future.


    About the author


    Sean Wagstaff
    is a 3D gun for hire, currently working out of his home in Palo Alto, California (near San Francisco). His credits include the films “Hellboy,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” and “Sky Captain & The World of Tomorrow,” as well as the recent game “Psychonauts.”

    You can reach him at sean@wagstaff.info.


    Related links


    Alias Maya 7


    Alias also added some big change to file referencing. It’s now possible to load a file with references, but defer the loading of the referenced file until it’s called for. This is great for working in heavy scenes when you want minimum of stuff on screen. You can also create proxy references – low-res dummy objects that stand in for high-res reference objects. A related change is that it’s now possible to swap a character’s skin after it has been rigged, and there are smart tools for transferring the weighting. (This is still not possible with an object that has blend shapes.)

    Cutting edges

    There are no major new modeling features – unless you include beveled type -- but as with the interface, Maya’s modelers will enjoy lots of small improvements in version 7. It’s now a simple matter to create 3D objects from Illustrator documents. And taking a cue from Luxology Modo, poly modelers can now select edge loops and rings (continuous strips of edges and faces) and quickly make modifications to selections, such as splitting along edge rings. Also, you can now step through sequences of points, faces and curves using the keyboard arrow keys.

    It’s also much easier to convert one type of selection to other types, for example, you can select a single edge, then with one command, convert the selection to all of the edges radiating outward in a continuous line. New primitive types include pyramids, pipes, helixes and miscellaneous platonic solids – even the unclassifiable, but apparently in-demand, soccer ball. One change that was long in coming, but great to finally have, is the capability to sculpt subdivision surfaces with Maya’s ubiquitous Artisan pressure-sensitive interface (a Wacom tablet is highly recommended). One capability I’d like to see in Maya that still isn’t there, however, is fast refinement of detailed areas in sub-d surfaces, a la, ZBrush. Adding levels of detail in Maya sub-d surfaces still imposes lots of performance overhead.

    Blend Shape
    QC for UVs
    UV mapping — the association of points on a 3D surface to points on a 2D texture map —  is the bane of polygonal and Sub-d modelers (Nurbs proponents have their own issues). Maya 7 has at least eased the burden by regrouping the UV mapping menus into one logical menu, and coming up with a functional “Unfold UVs” method, that takes a complex surface, such as a human head, and unwraps it into a usable UV layout that can then be tweaked with the usual UV tools. This can save hours of cutting and stitching UVs, and will spare many artists the embarrassment of having stray bits of eyeball mapped to the ends of their character’s noses. In my experience, the Unfold UVs tool did a remarkably good job of giving me nice evenly-spaced and fairly square UVs from shapes such as human heads.  Maya’s Automatic Mapping method — best suited to UV mapping of flat-sided objects — is also greatly improved:  You can now manipulate the mapping planes used by Maya like other geometric shapes to change the angle or alignment of projections on the various planes of a surface.

    Kiler Whales


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