Maya 5 Complete
What we do have in version 5 is a spring-clean with a sprinkling of new features aimed at making the program easier to use for newcomers, and a more productive environment for experienced users. It's also a more compelling system for designers looking at moving up to 3D. The Web side of things is handled by a new rendering system - one of three new renderers to grace Maya 5 - see "Flash bit", left. The vector renderer can be used to render 3D objects and scenes into 2D vector-formats including Flash, EPS, AI (Illustrator), and SVG. This alone should make Web designers sit up and take notice where they may have ignored Maya before. A series of radio buttons controls shading: single colour, two colour, four colour and full colour, average colour, area colour, and mesh gradient. The time it takes to compute the image increases as the shading becomes more complex. The mesh gradient option is an excellent option, but will make renders take at least ten times longer than a standard render. Choosing simpler shading styles together with outline rendering can yield some excellent 2D-style looks in relatively little time. The vector renderer also produces decent toon-style images at a push. Edge rendering is fair, too. Users have the option to render outlines or all face edges (to create a 3D-mesh look) with variable width. It's also possible to render extra outline detail by specifying minimum edge-angle that will render as a line. In the past, Maya has had stick for the speed and quality of its software renderer, but for the first time, all versions - including OS X - now ship with Mental Ray for free. Only recently, this renderer and plug-in could only be bought separately for a few thousand quid. That it comes free at last puts Maya on a par with competing 3D systems. Mental Ray is an excellent render engine, and equally impressive is the fluidity with which Alias has integrated it into the Maya workflow. Admittedly, it isn't quite as slick as other systems, but the level of features and control is impressive. Some users, such as the print- or Web-designer that Alias also needs to sell to, may find it too much hassle to deal with, however. For example, sample quality (anti-aliasing) is a reasonably simple thing to set in most applications, as it is in Maya's own renderer, which has a series of preset qualities as well as more detailed settings. Mental Ray is much more involved. Rather than a simple slider that travels from Less to More (and perhaps an adaptive sampling threshold), there are six sliders, Min and Max Samples, one of which defaults to a negative number and the other to zero, and four Contrast sliders R, G, B, and A. Most users faced with this would not know what these parameters refer to; it certainly isn't clear to the uninitiated. There's an explanation if you seek it out in the online help, but it's rather arcane. More frustratingly, experimentation with the sliders doesn't produce predictable results. The point here is that although Mental Ray is a great addition, unless Alias can engineer a more intuitive front-end for it, a lot of users - especially those new to 3D - simply won't bother. There's a using Mental Ray with Maya guide available, but you have to buy it. For the 3D professionals that have a better understanding of the subject, Mental Ray provides global illumination and caustics rendering, and this is the first time Maya for OS X has been able to offer these features. Mental Ray gives you two kinds of global illumination methods - standard global illumination and Final Gathering. The latter is a special technique that can improve on the standard version in certain scenes, and can also take less time. Global illumination means that you can render photo-realistic images without spending days on the lighting rig. Skydomes are a particularly good way to simulate natural diffused lighting in an exterior scene. Since the global illumination algorithm calculates light emitted from an object's surface, you can use luminous surfaces to light the scene - hence the skydome technique. You can use image-maps to colour the lighting, too. Mental Ray also supports HDR (high dynamic range) images - which takes rendering to another level of realism and control. HDR support means that special HDR images can be used as texture maps on a skydome, for example, to light your scene with unparalleled realism. There are limitations, though. Though .HDR format files can be imported, you don't see them in the Maya interface. Only when rendering using Mental Ray will the HDR image become apparent. Furthermore, if using HDR files as reflection maps, you only see them properly (with unclamped brightness values) when rendering using the Batch Renderer - not in the standard Render View. This limits the workflow of HDR rendering in Maya 5, but at least the technology is supported. Hard-wearing
Hardware rendering is also new in Maya 5. This can make use of supported graphics cards to enable the speedy rendering of scenes, including particles, for such things as broadcast graphics. Rendering like this on an ATI 9000 Pro OpenGL card was extremely fast, but some things, such as specular highlights or environment reflections, weren't supported. Running Render Diagnostics gave us a somewhat strange report, saying that depth-mapped shadows were supported, but at a low quality, and that bump maps were not - when they were clearly being rendered. One area that has been in need of attention is Paint Effects, which we have always found to be buttock-clenchingly slow unless you're using a fast Mac. Not only does Paint Effects seem more responsive in Maya 5, it has gained some cool new abilities. In order for Paint Effects to render using Mental Ray, Maya has to convert the strokes to polygons. Note that Paint Effects is a post render effect applied over the top of a standard Maya software render - so Mental Ray couldn't render them as they were. The need to convert to polygons has provided the side benefit of being able to convert Paint Effects to polygons whenever you want to. Once strokes are polygonal, you can edit them just like any other polygonal object in Maya. This is a fantastic feature that opens up a wealth of possibilities. Nips and tucks
Further improvements come in the form of a new extrude-along-a-spline feature for polygon faces. If you want to create a crooked polygon tree-trunk, for example, you can draw a NURBS curve along which you want a polygon face to be extruded. Copy-&-paste the curve, and snap to other faces on the extrusion to extrude branches. Maya's modelling history means that you can edit the points of the extrude curve to change the shape of the extrude. The extrude node has attributes for the number of divisions, and twist and taper, and there's a graph for creating constrictions and bulges along the length of the extrude. There are some superb new features waiting for animators, too - the best of which is IK/FK switching. You're now able to animate weights between the two main kinds of animation on a join chain (forward and inverse kinematics). This will allow greater freedom in Maya, already a stunning animation system for characters. There are also improvements to the constraints system, including a new Parent constraint that can parent an item to multiple animated objects, and weight between them freely. Maya 5 also lets users mute certain animation channels so they don't interfere with other motion.
We found Maya 5 to be more than a little unstable - unusual for this application, which has always been solid. There are also some interface issues that we had hoped would be fixed in this release. Among them are the glitchy Attribute Editor scrolling, and the sluggish response when changing view-manipulation hot-keys. Maya 5 is a bit of a mixed bag. There are some great features for professionals - such as HDR and full Mental Ray support - plus the improvements to Paint Effects and modelling. Vector output is also good news for those wanting to do 3D Web graphics, but the hardware rendering will be dependent on your graphics card. This latest-and-greatest version of Maya is more of a clean-up and general service with a few treats thrown in than a major blockbusting release. Of course, we shouldn't forget that Maya still has industry-leading dynamics and character-animation tools, so while it still may not be as compelling for print and Web types, for advanced animation and effects, it's still the business.