Maya 8.5 Review

The Maya 8 release, announced in July of 2006, was received with less than complete enthusiasm as many users complained of persistent stability issues. However, living up to its pledge to develop and support Maya along with 3ds max, Autodesk’s quick release of Maya 8.5 addresses user concerns and introduces new, groundbreaking technologies.

The good news for Mac users is that Maya 8.5 now runs natively on Intel-based Macs, significantly boosting performance, and making this update worthwhile solely for that. The bad news is that Maya 8.5 does not yet support Mac OS X Tiger, which is optimised for 64-bit machines and has begun shipping on Mac Pro computers. But it’s difficult to get too upset with Autodesk since it already supports 64-bit Windows and Linux machines, and the problem is likely to be that the 64-bit Mac operating system was not available during Maya’s recent development.

The simulation game
By far the most significant new feature in Maya 8.5 (Unlimited) is the Maya Nucleus Unified Simulation Framework, the first release of Autodesk’s Nucleus Technology. Previous generations of simulation solvers could behave in unrealistic ways, choke, and often crash the system when pushed to extremes. Nucleus addresses these limits with a paradigm shift in simulation management, employing solvers that are aware of each other and can influence each other, thus permitting stable but faster results with fluid motion, realistic self-collision and no intersections.

The first simulation system to take advantage of Maya Nucleus is nCloth. nCloth is pleasantly simple and straightforward to use, allowing newcomers to begin work straightaway and providing experienced animators with the tools to quickly produce convincing simulations. To get started with an nCloth simulation convert a mesh into an nCloth object, enable interactive mode, adjust the nCloth parameters to taste, and watch the results in real time. The simulations can even be adjusted while running. More than just a cloth simulator, nCloth also intuitively performs complex simulations, such as tears and internal and external pressures (think balloons, tires, parachutes). Further, dynamic properties, like Stretch and Compression resistance, make it possible to simulate much more than just soft body objects; controlled and realistic deformation of rigid bodies, such as metals and plastics, are also possible with nCloth.

Increasing possibilities
In a smart move Autodesk has added support for Python in addition to MEL. Python is not a step-sibling to MEL but is fully integrated into Maya and has access to the same API commands. Furthermore, Python can call the MEL interpreter from within Python and MEL can do the same for Python, giving programmers the ability to make use of existing scripts. Given Python’s popularity, Autodesk has significantly increased Maya’s scripting power and the number of programmers that can extend Maya’s tools.

Just about anything can be modelled in Maya, but not always easily. To bridge the modelling gap between Maya and popular programs like modo and Z-Brush, Maya 8.5 debuts some sorely overdue tools. To facilitate symmetrical modelling Move, Rotate, and Scale can now be performed across a selected axis. And although Maya’s paint deformation still needs improvement, the new Relax Option puts 3D sculpting on the right track.

Maya 8.5 ships with new options to improve control and mesh quality when working with Edge Loops. Most notable is Fix Quads, which ensures quads are the product of the Insert Edge Loop command. Additional modelling enhancements include better tessellation and improved normal management.

Of the modest animation improvements in this release, such as better Skin Weights copying, and enhanced control over how a character interacts with uneven terrain, Moveable Geometry Caching is the most significant. Cached geometry data can be dropped into tracks in the Trax Editor and positioned relative to or blended with other data, providing better control in refining animation. Even better, Geometry Caching has been optimised to take advantage of multiple-processors.

The mental ray tools have received a substantial overhaul. The new Batch Editor features options that allows artist to set up mental ray to automatically configure itself for optimal rendering. Following the lead of 3ds max 9, Maya 8.5 now ships with mental ray Sun and Sky shaders for lighting realistic environments based on the sun’s position. The new Architectural and Design shaders provide ready-made shaders for various common materials, and taking the edge off sterile CG images is a snap with the Round Corner shader, which bevels sharp corners during rendering.

Also worth a mention are new Paint Effects brushes that facilitate the creation of environmental objects. Maya Hair features enhanced controls and Maya Fur has been optimised for improved rendering; but more important, nasty fur gaps along UV borders can be minimised via new controls.

OUR VERDICT

Should you spend hard-earned cash for this release or wait for Maya 9? That is the question. The answer depends on what you do with Maya. However, the resulting increase in performance and stability from Mac-Intel support, and the pioneering Nucleus technology in Maya Unlimited may alone be persuasive enough arguments for upgrading to Maya 8.5.

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