Maya has been an industry-standard 3D modelling, animation and VFX tool for more than a decade. Over the last few releases there hasn’t been much to suggest that Autodesk is trying to reinvent the wheel, but there have been small but significant changes – and Maya 2013 is set to continue this trend. While the basic navigation, tools and workflow remain the same, there have been additions and improvements made to try to speed some tasks up and make others easier.
Maya is widely used as a character animation package and this latest incarnation strengthens the tools available to animators. The joint, skinning and muscle systems of past versions are still available, as well as the editable motion trails that emerged in Maya 2012. Now you also have access to ATOM (Animation Transfer Object Model), an XML-based file format that enables you to transfer animations on rigs between scenes. You can export a template of the entire animation or select ‘views’ – specific portions of the animation, such as leg or arm movements. These can be used separately or exported as a separate part of the main file. As ATOM is XML-based, it allows modification of elements of the file, either manually or through the in-built search-and-replace function on import. This means you can build up a library of animations or poses that can be imported for use with any character or scene.
The new Heat Map Skinning feature is again typical of the Maya upgrade as a whole. While it doesn’t signal a major change in workflow, it’s significant and will make character setup a lot easier and quicker. The new algorithm calculates the relationship of vertices to particular joints when skinning. Nothing new there perhaps, but it allows vertices on opposite legs, for example, to be overlapping in world space but still be skinned to the correct joint, without the need for excessive weight painting.
Maya’s interface has often been seen as a little bloated and visually crowded. While this may still be the case for some, the inclusion of a new Node Editor is a step in the right direction: it incorporates the functionality of the Hypershade, Connection Editor and Hypergraph into one node-based window. It has three levels of complexity (basic node names, active connections and all possible connections), so viewing and connecting elements has become much simpler. When rigging a character, a common workflow was to jump between the Connection Editor and Hypergraph because of their ease of use in different situations. To combine their operations into one space should prove to be a huge timesaver. The Hypershade window was always painfully slow, and the Node Editor seems to have addressed this issue too.
As a modelling package, Maya is really broad. You can create primitive shapes as polygons, subdivision surfaces or NURBS surfaces. The modelling and UV toolsets and processes are the same as previous releases and similar to the core tools of any 3D package – you work in Object, Face, Edge or Vertex mode and extrude or add more detail as necessary. The core tools are good but it’s an area in which I wouldn’t have expected Autodesk to rest on its laurels, and Maya is still without a solid, working symmetry mode. There are workarounds but none of them work universally with all of the tools.
Another area that’s been tweaked is Maya’s dynamics tools. The nDynamics system was introduced four years ago and incorporated nCloth and nParticles, joined under a common Nucleus system. Maya 2013 sees the old Maya Hair system updated and brought under the umbrella of the Nucleus system. This allows bi‑directional interactions between hair and the other elements of the nDynamics system, while drastically speeding up sim time. It also allows for self-collision between hairs, which maintains much more of the hair’s volume than the original Maya Hair system.
Maya 2013 also sees the introduction of the open-source Bullet dynamics engine. This allows a mixture of rigid‑body dynamics, soft-body dynamics and ragdoll simulations all in the same scene. It’s fairly easy to use and, while Autodesk is one of the last major companies to incorporate Bullet, it’s a huge improvement on the limited DMM system that was available in Maya 2012.
Import and export of the Alembic file type for caches has also been incorporated. This is a huge plus for Maya. It allows simulations and animations to be cached into an application-independent file type, which means it can easily be transferred along a studio’s pipeline or used to ease the computational burden on single machines. It also means huge and often unwieldy scene files don’t have to be hauled around. Alongside this is the introduction of the GPU cache; while this enables you to import Alembic data it does so by creating a GPU Cache node that isn’t built out of a standard mesh, and bypasses the dependency graph altogether. Instead it’s sent directly to the GPU and so allows you to create hugely complex reference scenes.
Overall, Maya is far more than just a jack‑of-all-trades; it has long been an industry standard and it’s easy to see why. There’s not much it can’t do once you know your way around. There may be a steep learning curve for some elements, but unique and impressive work never comes easily, no matter what the medium. This update has strengthened Maya as a character animation package, but without a doubt it will continue to improve in other areas release after release.
Alembic file cache makes transfer simpler
Movement of animations between scenes
Modelling tools are due an upgrade
The interface is still a little overcrowded
Maya is a hugely detailed package for almost any visual style or effect, but you will have to spend some time learning it
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Patrick Finn is a freelance Maya generalist. A background in mathematics and scripting led to him working with MEL, Maya’s dynamics system and its modelling toolset
Why not follow Patrick’s excellent Maya tutorial on building a steampunk model?
We will be reviewing Maya 2014 as soon as the new version comes out