I’m personally very fond of Autodesk Maya and have been for the better part of a decade. First some intro…
Autodesk Maya 2014 is the latest release of Autodesk Maya (redundant, but all fact). For those not familiar with Autodesk Maya, it serves as the central production hub for high-end 3D digital content creation. In their own words:
“Autodesk® Maya® 3D animation software offers a comprehensive creative feature set for 3D computer animation, modeling, simulation, rendering, and compositing on a highly extensible production platform. Maya now has next-generation display technology, accelerated modeling work flow, and new tools for handling complex data.”
Autodesk Maya is used by everyone, everywhere for just about everything (I’m not even kidding). ILM, Weta, Pixar, Blizard, Epic Games, SPI, Dreamworks – You’ll find Maya. If you’ve watched a feature film, played a video game or watched TV in the last 15 years – chances are you’ve seen Maya in action (Technically it wasn’t Autodesk Maya at first, but the product is basically the same – actually, it’s significantly better due to the massive influx of R&D capital Autodesk has invested over the years). In short, Autodesk Maya is a big deal.
Unfortunately, Maya doesn’t do everything. For instance, polygon sculpting in Maya is abysmal at best. Thus, the Autodesk Entertainment Creation Suitewas born. There are world class tools for doing everything. Dense motion capture editing in Autodesk MotionBuilder, sculpting and texturing in Autodesk Mudbox, crowd simulation in Autodesk Softimage, L-systems, 3D camera tracking, compositing, physics simulations, effects, distributed network rendering, python scripting … basically the whole damn production pipeline.
“But I prefer Autodesk 3ds Max!”
Great! Autodesk 3ds Max comes as a choice for the suite’s hub application! You get to pick your hub application! Choose either 3ds Max or Maya and the rest of the suite is the same. Bump up to the “premium” version of the suite, they’ll throw in Autodesk Softimage. Everybody gets Mudbox, MotionBuilderand Sketchbook, along with all the other little utility apps. Not good enough? Go with the “ultimate” version and you get both 3ds Max and Maya.
If you’re setting up a 3D production pipeline, the only other software you’d have to buy would be Adobe Photoshop and you’re set. (If you’re making games you’ll also need a game engine, but for game asset creation the Autodesk Entertainment Creation Suite has you freakin’ covered.)
Now some substance…
What’s new in Maya 2014
A lot! This year, we got a lot of usability enhancements and several slick new tools. No major new modules this time around, but a plethora of little niceties everywhere. For more details, see the links at the end of the article. I picked just a handful of stuff touch on in this review, including:
- Grease Pencil
- Node Editor Improvements
- Modeling Toolkit – Quad Draw
- Edit Edge Flow Tool
- Paint Effects Geometry Interactions
Unfortunately, I can only touch on some of what is new. The actual list of what’s new is almost as long as this review.
Grease Pencil – “It’s work related!”
The new Grease Pencil tool is a great way to waste time sketching doodles of “work related” content. Seriously, I lost hours due to this tool. Everyone who test drove 2014 was sketching “work related” content and making stupid little stop-motion animations of everything. I’m sure when the ‘it’s new’ factor wears off, things will get back to normal. Everybody loves this tool and it is quite useful for blocking out a shot.
Image courtesy Autodesk.
With the Grease Pencil you basically sketch out a previs of your animation in camera space with on-screen pencils, markers, etc. This works for any camera – even orthographic and spectroscopic cameras. It also works with any user created camera. It behaves correctly with the undo system and works with the timeline controls just like normal key frames (except you can’t copy grease pencil frames to another camera). It feels like a lightweight version ofSketchbook built into every Maya camera. Super cool. It’s also pressure-sensitive and works with a tablet.
Unfortunately, it has some drawbacks. (Ha! “drawback” – I’m amazing.) The trouble arises when your camera is the child of an animated object. That is, if you parent your camera to a locator and animate that locator, the grease pencil frames will fail miserably. This is particularly vexing because camera rigs like this are common. However, if you refrain from parenting your camera and instead use a parent constraint, things should work correctly:
Grease pencil and parented cameras don’t work. Use a parent constraint instead.
Overall, the tool is quite useful if you work within its limits. You can also render grease pencil frames with Maya Software, Maya Hardware and Maya Hardware 2.0 (Not mental ray). There’s a caveat to using Maya Hardware 2.0, however: screen space based ambient occlusion and the grease pencil are currently incompatible. If you make a grease pencil frame it kills your ambient occlusion in both the viewport and in Maya Hardware 2.0 renders. (Insert Metal Gear solid Alert sound.)
That said, the tool still feels a little buggy. Being new, this is not entirely unexpected. I hope to see some fixes in future patches. Regardless, I’m glad Autodesk shipped it because despite its shortcomings it is still useful just as it is.
Node Editor Enhancements
The Node Editor was already pretty cool, but it also gets some usability enhancements this year. You can press 5 on your keyboard to cycle through different node labels. You can press 1-4 to cycle through different levels of detail/number of attributes shown. Node names now appear above the node.There’s a new button to add the current selection to the node graph. (Thank you!):
Nodes are also color coded by type. There’s a grid you can snap nodes to and so on. Basically, no major changes but a lot of useful little usability improvements that make it much nicer.
Image courtesy Autodesk.
Modeling Toolkit – Quad Draw
At first sight, I though the new Modeling Toolkit was lame. It looked like Autodesk just re-boxed the shelf into the channel box. A new tool here and there, who cares, right? Wrong.
It’s actually very cool and a huge time saver, but not because of the location of the tools, rather how the tools work. The new tools like the Quad Draw behave differently. E.g: while having the Quad Draw tool active you can still move vertices, faces, edges, weld vertices, delete faces, append faces and more – without any tool switching. Want to slide a vertex? Just middle mouse drag BAM! Done. No selection or move tool needed. Want to delete a face? Simply ctrl+lmb – gone. Need to append a face? Just hold shift+lmb. Done.
Image courtesy Autodesk.
After using it for a few hours and switching back and forth between Maya 2013 and Maya 2014, it was the feature I missed the most. I’m a modeller at heart, so I especially appreciated the new tools. In terms of overall time saved when making base meshes or rebuilding scan data, or pretty much anything to do with tweaking poly meshes – it’s reason enough to upgrade. The ability to basically ‘paint’ strips of quad polygons onto an existing mesh is a huge time saver:
Drawing quad strips onto surfaces with no tool switching. (Image courtesy Modulok… oh wait that’s me.)
You can simply click to place vertex points, then hold down shift and Maya shows you where it will create a new quadrangle if you click again to complete the action.
There is more than just Quad Draw, the other tools in the toolkit also work in a very interactive manner. The Quad Draw tool was just coolest of them all!
There’s a new parametric edge adjustment tool called Edit Edge Flow (found under Edit Mesh). It basically lets you modify an edge loop to maintain curvature with the surrounding surface. It’s like the modern version of Oliver Beardsley’s APESplit MEL script from way back in the day. (Anyone around long enough to remember that little gem?) You can adjust existing edge loops, or you can have the edge flow inserted automatically for newly created edge loops. (See various mesh editing tool settings.)
This is a huge help when modeling and a pretty decent implementation to boot. You can still trick it into causing your mesh to explode in unexpected ways, when dealing with very long edge loops with high surface curvature and low poly count (think contorted Möbius strip), but 99% of the time it does the right thing. Under real world conditions you shouldn’t have a problem. I try to break things.
Paint Effects surface interactions
You can now have Paint Effects interact more closely with geometry. For example, Paint Effects now supports geometry collisions. This is easy to enable by simply selecting the stroke+geometry and then Paint Effects -> Make Collide. The collision detection works in real time. This helps when doing things like positioning trees along walls, or preventing paintFX from going through surfaces they’re intended to instead grow around.
Image courtesy Autodesk.
There’s also the ability to have a surface attract a Paint Effects stroke to affectively pull it into contact with the surface so the growth takes place along a given surface, instead of away from it. The attracting surface need not be the surface the Paint Effects stroke is attached to. This is great for things like ivy, vines and other similar vegetation.
These features add to the value of Paint Effects in immediately usable ways. For example, positioning geometry and Paint Effects together in architectural shots is a lot simpler. You no longer have a tree going through a wall. However, the tool is not intended as a full-blown dynamics simulation for hero shots. For example, growing a tree in a confined space is cake, but running over a forest with a steam roller at 100mph is a bit beyond the scope of the tool… at least, I think. But they can’t stop me:
Autodesk Maya 2014 spanning three monitors with viewport 2.0. Shown is the Node editor, perspective camera and a torn off shot camera. No trees were harmed in the making of this image.
It was pretty fun to play with in the viewport because of the immediate feedback it provides. The collisions are also frame independent – there is no motion history dependence, like normal dynamics where you’d have to play back each frame in succession to solve correctly. Instead, it just works as you position your objects.
While not perfect, the collision detection was a lot more robust than I expected. The tool will enable artists to accomplish things that in previous versions ofMaya would have been extremely time consuming and expensive. If you deal a lot with Paint Effects, this could be your reason to upgrade.
It’s Autodesk Maya. In a high-end 3D production, it’s almost as critical as having electricity. Combined with the rest of the Autodesk Entertainment Creation Suite it is the 3D production. There were a lot of good upgrades this year. I only covered a very small selection and have probably already written too much! Maya is my personal production hub and has been my favorite tool for almost 10 years – seriously. This year things only got better!