The groans from Maya users were audible when in January this year Autodesk acquired Alias. However, Autodesk did its best to quell concerns by assuring Maya, and 3ds max users, that both applications would continue to be supported and developed separately. True to its word Autodesk launched Maya 8 at SIGGRAPH in August.
Though Maya 8 delivers interface, modelling, texturing, and animation enhancements, the majority of new features are core performance improvements, including 64-bit support, multithreading scalability, file-exchange compatibility, and more efficient productivity. In other words, many of the new features in Maya 8 are under the bonnet. Currently, the Mac Pro 64-bit systems ship with OS X 10.4, which is a 32-bit operating system, so Mac users will have to wait for the release of Leopard to benefit from Maya’s native 64-bit support. Nonetheless, you can still enjoy a boost in performance from Maya’s support for multiple-processors systems.
The modelling menus, graph editor and dope sheet, among other interface items, have been shuffled to accommodate new tools and improved organisation. A key new feature for real-time 3D development, such as games, is the ability to override a viewport with a third-party plug-in to preview a scene as it would appear in a specific real-time renderer – very cool.
New modelling tools
When it comes to modelling, Maya is a polygonal, subdivision, and NURBS powerhouse, but there’s still room for improvement. The Polygon Bridge tool, which debuted in 3ds max and Lightwave last year, has finally appeared in Maya. Polygon Bridge, as its name implies, makes short work of connecting separate meshes. Unique to Maya is Transfer Polygon Attributes which transfers CPV, UV and vertex position data between different objects, thus making it possible to work on different resolutions of the same object. New “3ds max-style” primitive creation is possible, as well as parametric rounded caps on primitives. However, the chief improvements are not tools but enhanced management of very large datasets. Overall, if you have Maya you won’t need high-end modellers such as modo or form•Z.
Improved UV mapping and rendering
Optimising UV workflow has been a welcomed trend in most 3D programs. Maya 8 further improves UV mapping with better unfold control, Shade UVs that identifies tangled UVs, and improved primitive UV mapping, but not much else is new. Rendering is one of the most resource-consuming aspects of the 3D workflow; as such Maya ships with numerous enhancements and new render tools. Most notable is the upgrade to the mental ray 3.5 core (shared with 3ds max 9), thus integrating standard Maya tools with the mental ray render engine. For instance, mental ray shaders can be viewed directly in the interactive view, standard area lights are supported in mental ray for Maya, and Subsurface Scattering properties are now options in several mental ray for Maya shaders. Also noteworthy is the ability to export Maya scenes directly to Toxik, and improved support for HDRI lighting.
Better character animation
Maya sets the standard when it comes to animation, especially character animation. To keep its edge, Autodesk has focused on improving core performance issues by multithreading existing character animation features such as skinning, Substitute Geometry, and the Wrap Deformer, thus allowing many animation tools to scale with the number of processors. The most remarkable new animation tool is Geometry Caching, which allows faster rendering and playback. When coupled with the Trax editor it can create novel animation combinations.
Maya Unlimited delivers improved Cloth features, such as better stiffness mapping, UV painting, rigid body collisions, and recoil damping. Maya Fluid and Fur effects are also improved, but Maya Hair has been revamped the most with new features that include superior hair performance on skinned characters, faster hair collisions, especially on multiple-processor systems, and better clump, damping, and stretch controls. For the most part, Maya’s cache of animation tools are unrivalled in the industry and the core performance improvements go a long way to keep it in the top spot.
Maya's tootsets and pricing are geared towards the busy workflows and deep pockets of larger studios. As such, established studios will find Maya's new features indispensible. However, independent CG artists and small studios, who cannot afford Maya, can get much of the same functionality from programs like the Cinema4D and Lightwave.