Maya 3.5 for Mac OS X

Maya is an important release for OS X in particular and the Mac in general. It’s a high-end 3D animation program of considerable proportions that represents the Mac’s coming of age in 3D. It’s big – not just in terms of disk space (a full install takes 280MB), rather it’s the most complex program ever made available for the Mac. Maya has an estimated 25 million lines of code, and can boast some of the most powerful 3D tools available. In its short history, it has become the standard by which all other high-end 3D programs are judged. It’s no wonder that companies such as ILM and Pixar use Maya for much of their computer graphics and effects work. Installing Maya is pretty simple, but it does require you to log-in to Mac OS X as ‘root’, the system super-user – something Apple doesn’t encourage. This is necessary for the installation of the Flexlm licensing software that protects Maya against piracy. Thankfully, there’s no dongle involved; all you need to do is email your computer’s Ethernet hardware address to Alias, which generates a licence-file for your machine. Once that step is complete, Maya can be launched. For more on X’s root, see Mac OS X Secrets, page 139. After a few moments the main interface appears, replete in full Aqua livery. This is clearly not a hacked-together port, with care taken to get the aesthetics of the user-interface right. And there’s phenomenal power beneath that cool Aqua exterior. The way Maya works internally is part of the reason why it is so powerful. Basically, everything in Maya is a ‘Node’, and these nodes have inputs and outputs – also known as attributes – that can be connected together. You don’t ever have to deal with nodes directly if you don’t want to, but because you can, there’s a great deal of flexibility for power-users to tap into. An example of working with nodes would be connecting the red colour-input of a cube’s shader node (a shader defines the material properties of an object when it is rendered) to the y translation output of a sphere’s transform node. As you move the sphere in the y axis, the cube becomes redder. This is a very simple example, but the principle can be applied to much more complex systems, too. X model
The main interface consists of a large OpenGL viewport sandwiched between rows of tools at the top and a timeline at the bottom. To the right is the Channel Box, an important part of the interface that lists the keyable attributes for a selected object. It also displays the steps in an object’s Constriction History, and this is the second powerful aspect of Maya. With History enabled, all the modelling steps taken to create an object are stored in a list. When you click on one of them in the Channel Box it unfurls to display any associated attributes – allowing you to make changes to them, or even to delete the step entirely. It provides a nonlinear undo – but it’s more than that because you can change the history, not simply take steps backwards. For modelling, History is crucial. You can use curves to create a profile, extrude, or sweep it along a curve rail to create a 3D surface, but you can also go back to change the shape of the original curves to modify the 3D shape. This is a feature that’s been available in numerous 3D programs on the Mac for a while – such as Cinema 4D XL and SolidThinking – but Maya takes this concept much further. You can move the points that make-up the 3D surface, and still be able to tweak the curves without loosing those surface edits. You can also deform the 3D object using some of Maya’s tools, add geometry, remove geometry, and still be able to edit the source curves. Pretty impressive stuff. There are a lot of other interesting interface devices that Maya has in order to maximize productivity and workflow. Each pane can be changed to display any of the other Maya panels, such as the Render view, Outliner or Graph Editor, and you can choose to divide the display into different layouts – such as two views stacked, or side-by-side, two views over one etc. Tapping the space bar with the mouse over any of the panes expands it to fill the workspace – a great way to focus on a particular task. If you hold the space-bar down, however, something different happens; the Hot Box pops up. This consists of a few rows of menus and four regions like those of a compass. These let you access the usual menus in Maya right beneath your mouse, but the regions pop-up further arranges menus in a radial array. By default, they display interface-related tools, but can be customized to display whatever commands you like. The theory is that, as you use Maya, you forget to look where the commands are, and instead rely on ‘muscle memory’ to find them. This is great in theory, but the display tends to take far too long to pop-up, so you end up watching it anyway. There are also other menus that pop-up called the Marking Menus, and these can be accessed without the Hot Box, by holding a modifier key and clicking. Speaking of clicking, Maya absolutely requires the use of a three-button mouse. As Mac OS X supports three-button mice, Alias ships such an input device with Maya. Scenes are displayed using OpenGL, and, thanks to Apple’s native support for it and Maya’s speed, the displays are fast. Even using a humble ATI Rage card, we could navigate complex scenes quickly, though a faster card such as an ATI Radeon or NVidia GeForce will be better. Working with objects in the Perspective view is fluid, thanks to on-screen manipulators that let you move, scale and rotate objects or their components using any axis. You can also use ‘virtual sliders’ by selecting an attribute in the Channel Box and dragging with the middle mouse button to change its value interactively. Polygon modelling is good, though it’s not as fluid and direct as in apps such as the much cheaper LightWave (version 7 will be reviewed in our next issue). There’s also no Subdivision Surfaces in this version. However, NURBS modelling is extremely good, with the system supporting trims, fillets, bevelling, surface blending and stitching, and other high-end features. When creating a 3D character, you can construct it out of many different ‘patches’. This is often the only way to create such a shape using NURBS, an inherent limitation. Maya’s Global Stitch tool allows you to bind the patches together at their edges to form a continuous surface. The tool prevents the patches from splitting when the character is animated and deformed. Artisan artist
Another tool in Maya’s arsenal is Artisan. Artisan technology lets you paint onto objects to perform an operation. Painting textures is one obvious use, but you can paint other things too. The Sculpt Paint tool uses Artisan to sculpt geometry. You can take a simple NURBS or Polygon plane, and use a brush to interactively ‘paint’ a landscape with hills and valleys, or to mould a character’s face, or add dents in objects. A Script Paint tool lets you use any MEL script (Maya’s built-in scripting language) to modify the tool. A quick visit to a Maya resources site, and we downloaded the GeometryPaint script which allows you to paint objects on to the surface of another. This could be used to paint a forest of trees on the landscape, or stubble on a character’s face. Once objects are created, it’s on to the task of animating them. Maya offers a wide choice of animation possibilities, from standard motion-keyframing to dynamics and blend shapes – a kind of morphing. The keyframing tools are impressive. You can create keyframes to transform objects, and use the Graph Editor to fine-tune the motion using simple function curves. To speed the process of animation, you can link attributes together, causing one to drive the other. The Set Driven Key feature lets you do this quite simply, and can be used, for example, to link the rotation of a character’s knee joint to the motion of a group of points on the character’s thigh. As the knee bends the thigh muscles bulge. The point here is that the bulging will occur every time the knee joint is moved, reducing the amount of work an animator has to do. To further refine the animation process the Trax editor provides nonlinear animation capabilities, allowing animators to blend between multiple layers of animations on a single character. Transitions between the clips merge one sequence smoothly into another, and you can easily reuse sequences, change their timing, or loop them simply by dragging the clip in the Trax editor. There’s no need to animate an entire sequence from start to end; it can be built-up from a pre-saved library of poses and actions that an animator (or teams of animators) create. Mental render
Creating materials is another of Maya’s strengths. You can build ‘shading networks’ by linking different shaders and textures together using the graphical Hypershade panel. The Interactive Photorealistc Renderer allows artists to see the results of changes to materials and lighting as they are made on a near-final-quality render. Final rendering quality is very good, though it can take time to get great results – which many may find surprising for such an esteemed package. Maya has always been criticized for having a less-than-excellent renderer, which is part of the reason that Alias announced that it will try to link Maya with Mental Images’ acclaimed rendering solution, Mental Ray. Availability of Mental Ray for the Mac is uncertain, though. The main problem with Maya’s renderer is that it can be very slow, especially when using raytracing. It’s not disastrous, but for the price you’d expect better. AltiVec optimization should ease this bottleneck in future Mac versions, we hope. Despite the rendering problems, there are plenty of redeeming features. The Dynamics system is just about the best money can buy. Maya was used to create the realistic pod-race sequence in Star Wars Episode 1. The crashes in which pod engines were seen disintegrating into thousands of pieces were created using Maya’s rigid-body dynamics and collisions. Using the system is actually quite easy. You simply define the objects that you want to be dynamic, add forces and constraints, and let the system go. The impressive thing is the speed with which the dynamics are calculated, even on a relatively ponderous 450MHz G4. You can also create soft-body dynamics to simulate deforming surfaces such as cloth, rubber, jelly, and flesh. Using Artisan, you can paint soft body ‘weights’ to control their effect. A cape can be made into a soft body so that it blows in the wind; to prevent it simply flying off, you paint zero weight where it attaches to a character’s neck. The cape then flaps away while maintaining its attachment location. Robust and easy-to-use joints, IK and deformers for animating characters, cluster animation for animating surface points, and Blend Shapes all contribute to Maya’s animation power. Blend Shapes are essentially morph targets, making them ideal for facial animation. Using a slider-based interface, you can blend many different targets to produce varied facial expressions. One let-down was Paint Effects, Maya’s unique system for creating dense, dynamic effects such as grass, foliage, electric sparks, and such. We’ve seen it on PC systems, and it’s very impressive – but on our Mac it was extremely slow. Simple Paint Effects work is possible, but trying to create the rich, complex renders we have seen this technology produce bogged down the machine to the point of being unusable.

OUR VERDICT

Despite a few interface glitches, Maya remains a breathtakingly powerful 3D system – and the Mac will be all the better for it. The only major concern is the £6,360 price tag. You’ll also have to pay a regular support fee, to entitle you to upgrades that Alias produces every six to eight months. The bottom line, though, is that Maya will not be the ideal solution for everyone, but its appearance on OS X should help to boost the Mac’s popularity in 3D graphics. For those who desire the utmost power and flexibility to create anything from film and TV effects and dynamic simulations, to games and high-end character animation, Maya for OS X is difficult to beat.

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