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REVIEW • March 12, 2001

Maya Paint Effects

by Frank Capria

Alias|Wavefront Maya Paint Effects is another set of plug-ins promising natural media and organic imagery for computer-generated art. Reviewer, prepare to be underwhelmed, you warn. We have been here before with clouds that don't quite look like clouds, lightning that looks like it was gener-ated on an Etch-a-Sketch, and neon glows no more sophisticated than an additive Gaussian blur. But, unlike some other Adobe After Effects plug-ins, Maya Paint Effects boasts one of the most respected family names in 3D animation today: Alias|Wavefront. Okay, now my interest is piqued. Alias|Wavefront claims that Maya Paint Effects can create trees, grass, flowers, waterfalls, rain, and all manner of stuff that grows from the ground and falls from the sky. Eagerly, I downloaded the plug-in.


Anticipation was quickly replaced by frustration. After installing the soft-ware, I discovered that it must be licensed via the Internet. Those who con-sider dongles irksome will be downright infuriated with Alias|Wavefront's e-licensing scheme. I'm all for the protection of intellectual property, but there must be a better way than this. To begin with, the installation process for Maya Paint Effects assumes every workstation has Internet access. My Avid doesn't.

Installation of the Viatech e-license caused my PowerBook to crash, apparently just after Alias|Wavefront was alerted I had used my license, but before actually install-ing a valid license on my machine. The plug-in would not work and I could not try again until Alias|Wavefront reauthorized another e-license. I rebooted with a minimal extension set to avoid another crash, and fortunately the second attempt worked. Later, in order to move the plug-in to another machine in my studio, I had to get another license from Alias|Wavefront. I can't imagine the disaster it would be to upgrade a computer if every plug-in installed on it required a new authorization from the manufacturer every time I swapped machines. This is an unacceptable burden on honest users. Professionals should not be expected to jump through such hoops to do business with a vendor. A smooth installation would certainly have raised the score significantly.

To be fair, as we were going to press, Alias|Wavefront informed us that it had fixed the installer that caused the PowerBook to crash, and that it was working on installers independent of the Internet. Since we didn't get a chance to test them, we can only hope that the company solved the installer problems.

Creating a natural scene from scratch is quite easy in Maya Paint Effects. Details like splashing the rain water off the flower petals took only a few minutes to add by drawing a path that roughly outlined the flowers. A weaker rain was added and the water's direction reversed. Rendering such a scene can be slow. On a mid-range G4, this 10-second animation took over three hours to render.

Natural reaction

After taking a chill pill, my enthusiasm returned. This is a very nifty piece of software. It delivers on its promises. This pair of plug-ins can create animations in After Effects that used to require a separate 3D appli-cation to accomplish. Maya Paint Effects ships with a couple hundred presets. All but a few are very realistic. It's rare that such a high percentage of presets yields usable results without laborious adjustments. The grasses are especially convincing. All of the presets have approximately 80 individual adjustments available, and all of the adjustments can be saved as a new preset. Some controls are intuitive, but several require either prior knowledge of Maya or a significant invest-ment of time to understand.

Maya Paint Effects doesn't paint on anything per se. Instead it builds objects or places strokes, much like a 3D application, on or off a path. For artists not accustomed to working this way, it takes some getting used to. Yet after a short time, the elegance of Maya Paint Effects's approach becomes apparent. Adjusting the positioning of elements can be done quickly and precisely. Bezier curve controls allow more inter-esting and more natural animation. Objects such as flowing water and swaying rope benefit greatly from this process.

Maya Paint Effects gives users two stroke options—simple strokes or strokes with tubes. Simple strokes paint along a selected path. Strokes with tubes "grow" objects off of the path. Smoke, leaves, and branches are examples of strokes with tubes. I was surprised that mastering tubes isn't difficult. About 20 minutes of experimentation was all it took for me to get pleasing, professional results. Unfortunately, the Maya Paint Effects documentation does not offer much assistance in getting the user to the next level. For the sophisticated user, it is too elementary. Alias|Wavefront has begun to add some more advanced tutorials and examples to its thorough—yet surprisingly difficult to navigate—Web site. There are also additional examples in the Maya Paint Effects section of www.toolfarm.com.

Creating environments for reflection maps for either 2D or 3D applications will be one of Maya Paint Effects's primary chores in my studio. Creation time is negligible, but render time can be long. (Store window frame courtesy of Artbeats.)

3D landscape

Any time the term 3D appears in a product description, count on long render times. Load up your compo-sition with some Maya Paint Effects grass, a couple of trees, and a bed of flowers, and render times can shoot up to 90 seconds a frame quite easily. Yet some of my most commonly used effects are actually the least render intensive. Adding a little mist or haze to the horizon line or giving type treatments an ethereal glow and an interesting texture usually only costs several seconds per frame in render time.

In many ways, Maya Paint Effects is reminiscent of Bryce 3D (now sold by Corel) and Synthetik Studio Artist. Like those applications, its output can be mind- blowing. Its precise and robust controls are addictive. A new user can expect to spend several hours on the maiden voyage of any one of these programs. All of these tools render quite slowly. Perhaps most important, all three excel at creating effects my clients rarely need. I'm simply not asked to create animated wheat fields often.

The key difference is that, unlike these other tools, Maya Paint Effects does a lot of little things very well too. Although its more grandiose features likely will not get much use in my studio, its subtler tricks will be called upon frequently. Because Maya Paint Effects conveniently resides in After Effects, it's close at hand for creative experimentation.

Maya Paint Effects's glows and mists are useful in such tasks as de-emphasizing a prominent horizon line or toning down the detail of surface water for a title shot. Because several paths can be defined on a single layer, and each path can be assigned its own Maya Paint Effects effect, amazing subtlety is possible. In another situation, I used a few large, gently blowing foreground leaves, slightly out of focus, to frame title text in a more interesting way than a standard, illus-trated border would frame it.

Unlike nearly every other plug-in of its type, Maya Paint Effects excels at creat-ing natural turbulence patterns. Leaves and grasses really appear to be blowing in the wind. Fogs and mists rise realistically. As elsewhere, the default settings are actu-ally usable! Throughout the process of learning the nuances of Maya Paint Effects, I was impressed with the attention developers put into presets and defaults that give professional results.

Maya Paint Effects works on paths and normals, so this animated title was fairly easy. The tubes were animated to make it appear like the scraps of rope came together to form the words. The paths were animated as well.

Follow the path

Maya Paint Effects's reliance on paths is an incredible asset when you're working with type or vector-based graphics. Paste any Illustrator path into a solid, and Maya Paint Effects can go to work. It took me no time to apply a texture and animate a path so that text appeared to form from scraps of rope. I can't think of another application or combination of applications that makes such easy work of a task like this.

The package also includes Paint Write-on. As the name implies, the user creates a motion path on a layer and Paint Write-on applies the selected Maya Paint Effects style to that path. Once again, I was impressed with the speed at which I was able to create something I would be willing to show a client. Paint Write-on is intended for text and other "synthetic" paths. Organic growth is actually handled in the Maya Paint Effects plug-in.

Those buyers looking to use Maya Paint Effects only to spice up text effects or add slight nuances such as horizon glows and fog to existing footage may be put off by the $499 price tag. For those users, a combination of Pinnacle Systems Image Lounge plug-ins and Zaxwerks EPS Invigorator may be an option. At its price, Maya Paint Effects's gee-whiz factor alone is not enough to justify purchas-ing it. If Alias|Wavefront fixes its broken electronic licensing system like it says it will, I would recommend Maya Paint Effects to the uncommon After Effects artist truly in need of natural world elements like flowing water, grass, or hair. n

Frank Capria is the creative director of Kingpin-DTVPix, a design studio in the Boston area. He's also a member of the summer master faculty at the International Film and Television Workshops in Rockport, ME.

(This article first appeared in the March 2001 issue of DV.)