Review December 5, 2001
Maya Complete 4
by Todd Iorio
I'd wager that Alias|Wavefront (www.aliaswavefront.com) has been feeling a bit of pressure. No, I don't have hidden cameras in the offices or clandestine connections with the programmers, but I've been to the trade shows. I've read the reviews, seen the demos, and investigated what the competition offers. When you consider buying a 3D package, the choices are many and subject to whims and wills of animators who populate the cubicles of hundreds of broadcast design and effects houses worldwide. Discreet is pushing 3d studio max development full-speed ahead, and its tenacious grip on the game market doesn't seem to be loosening. Softimage XSI is gaining popularity by releasing some impressive tricks and technology in new versions. So how does A|W respond to its competition? With Maya Complete 4, of course.
A|W had one big goal for Maya Complete 4: Take what is arguably the industry standard for 3D modeling and animation and make it more friendly. To this end, A|W has made hundreds of little adjustments and addressed many ongoing concerns. Maya Complete 4 is not a Next Big Thing release; it's a refinement of one of the largest feature sets available.
To take a toolset robust and complete enough for the demanding 3D market and be able to shoehorn it into the relatively small real estate provided by even the largest of computer displays requires some doing. Many of the improvements in Maya Complete 4 center around the user interface and experience. Maya Complete 4 has an improved layout and new features that improve workflow and usability. A new Lasso tool improves the speed at which you can select multiple objects, and Quick Layout buttons provide quick access to saved Layouts. Enhancements for displaying the Tool Settings in the Channel Box are a more user-friendly experience. Most of the UI toolsets can be easily hidden to increase screen real estate, and menus have been reworked to provide a more intuitive structure. New Heads-Up display items include Object Details, Camera Names, and Animation Details for displaying general and specific information while you work. There is also a plethora of new grid options for precisely positioning objects.
The NURBS and polygonal modeling toolset in Maya is comprehensive in general, so Maya Complete 4 only has a handful of new modeling features. Among those are a new submenu for modifying CV selections by growing, shrinking, and selecting boundaries and borders. You can also modify CV selections with Attach Without Moving to attach surfaces without modifying the original surfaces.
Additions to the Polygonal tools also improve usability, especially when using UV textures and the Texture View (formerly the UV Texture Editor). Maya has robust UV texturing capabilities, and A|W tweaked Texture View so that users have the ability to move the pivot point and enter numeric values when transforming UVs in the texture editor.
The brave new world of Subdivision surface modeling (okay, relatively new world) is one that Maya has embraced since version 2.5 Unlimited; and the Subdivision tools and interface are upgraded in Maya Unlimited 4. Clean Topology removes components of Subdivision surfaces that you haven't edited, resulting in a more efficient surface. Most of the paint tools in Maya now work with Subdivision surfaces, which makes them easier to work with inside the application. Usability is improved now that you can edit UVs directly on a Subdivision surface without having to go back to the polygon proxies. A|W also added texturing options such as Planar Mapping, which assigns UVs in a single direction/plane where intersections with the Subdivision surface are assigned UVs. Maya Unlimited 4 also applies the UV mapping capabilities available for other surfaces to Subdivision surfaces, including Automatic Mapping, the Layout UVs tool, and cut, move, and sew. In Maya Unlimited 4, Subdivision surfaces are available and much more useful.
As a wise 3D modeler once said, "If you build it, they will come. And they'll probably ask you to move it." The animation toolset in Maya Complete 4 improves workflow with some seemingly obvious features such as Ghosting to see frames before and after the current frame, and Motion Trail, which displays the path or trajectory of an animated object. For those users-you know who you are-with rotation issues such as gimbal lock (aligned rotation axis resulting in loss of one axis of rotation) due to the three-axis nature of object rotation when using Euler-Angle animation curves, Maya Complete 4 adds Quaternion rotation, which describes rotations in four dimensions. Those of you who snoozed in those upper-level math classes shouldn't worry-the Channel Box still uses the familiar Euler angles to describe the rotation. Quaternions are also used for blends in the Trax editor, Maya's interface for nonlinear animation editing. Additional Trax features include time warps and simpler interaction among clips, poses, and characters.
Setting up characters for animation has also gotten easier in Maya Complete 4. A new Jiggle deformer can aid in creating secondary animation, such as muscle vibration or hair movement. A simple but useful feature is the ability to switch from inverse kinematics (IK) to forward kinematics (FK) when you use skeletons for animation. This allows a greater degree of freedom when you're dealing with situations where using one solver would be beneficial at one point in animation and detrimental at another. At the same time, quaternions are used for IK and FK, greatly reducing those annoying flipped joints in IK chains.
The paint metaphor is one that Maya has always put to good use. Paint technologies such as Artisan and Paint Effects have been well integrated into the application. Maya Complete 4 has a major upgrade to paint technologies. Artisan has been completely reengineered for Maya Complete 4 and now supports subdivision surfaces, which provides consistent tools across all types of geometry. The Artisan toolset provides incredible capabilities: You can sculpt surfaces and paint selections, skin weights, attributes (including cluster weights, jiggle weights, and soft body goal weights), and more. The overall Artisan experience is more fluid, with under-the-hood performance enhancements that make it more productive.
A natural extension of the Artisan technology is the ability to paint textures without having to rely on a third-party application. This negates exporting models and drastically improves a project's overall workflow in Maya. A|W has integrated the old Paint Textures tool with Paint Effects. The result of this union is the impressive 3D Paint Tool. You can select either Artisan brushes (that now allow an image to define the brush profile) or Paint Effects brushes. With the 3D Paint tool, you can create precise and advanced texture maps with the same painting toolset used throughout Maya. These maps include color maps and the majority of standard texture maps, such as transparency, bump, specular, reflectivity, etc. Both Artisan and Paint Effects brushes can be used on all of these maps. You also can edit maps in third-party applications because maps are simply saved as image files. The 3D Paint interface itself is clean and user friendly.
The much-maligned rendering engine in Maya is akin to the runt of the 3D litter. Although A|W has improved it a lot since the initial release of Maya, the renderer can't seem to shake its initial bad rap. A|W is aware of this and has made substantial moves to improve, tweak, and fiddle with it.
In Maya Complete 4, A|W addresses a number of artifacting and filtering problems with rendering. No longer will textures using the advanced filtering options result in pixilated textures depending on distance from the camera. Filter size in general has been improved for sharper textures and bump maps, especially when viewed from a low, close angle (e.g., the edge of a bump mapped sphere). The limitations surrounding nonsquare texture files have been improved. There are also fixes for background leaks that had been noted in the Maya 3 raytracer, reduction of noise tiling artifacts, and improvements in speed and memory usage.
Aside from these rendering engine fixes, Maya Complete 4 includes basic multipass render control to ease the difficulties setting up multiple renders. In addition to rendering layers set up in the scene, you can choose to render multiple versions of the animation, including Color, Shadow, Diffuse, and Specular passes. The raytracing engine features new attributes and effects such as chromatic aberration (light rays passing through the second surface of a transparent object); shadow attenuation (brighter areas in the center of transparent object's shadows); translucence depth; light absorbance; surface thickness; depth jitter (to reduce/replace banding artifacts in volume renders with noise); and raytracing volumetric materials (enabling effects such as reflections of fog). Under the simple-but-useful category, you can selectively disable specular and diffuse shading on a per-light basis and selectively disable Receive Shadows for a surface.
It's also interesting that A|W has said that mental ray for Maya is in the works. By adding mental ray to the options for Maya, A|W is placing Maya solidly at the front of the pack when it comes to rendering options.
Maya Complete 4's node-based architecture gets applied to rendering via the improved Hypershade. Hypershade's interface is loved or hated, depending on the artist you talk to. The most dramatic change in Hypershade is the split view, allowing you to access details of a texture node in a separate Work Area without changing the current view above. The tabbed interface can be customized for specific projects to allow for easy access to materials and textures that have been created. In addition, A|W provides an extensive shader library to help you get started. Simple additions, such as easier access to use a texture file's alpha channel to define transparency, round out the improvements.
Although it's impressive, Maya Complete 4 is not without flaws. First, the supported configurations list is short, as is the list of supported graphics cards (and even among those supported there are unresolved limitations).
Some simple things can cause unnerving problems. For instance, neither Paint Effects nor Fur field render. The workaround is to render frame increments of 0.5 and then interlace in a compositing application. Although this method works, it slows down the rendering pipeline significantly. There are nagging limitations that require too-frequent head scratching and debugging. The Maya Complete 4 Release Notes helps significantly. To A|W's credit, almost any issue I had was in those notes (except for the all-too-prevalent user error). However, these persistent little problems interrupt what would otherwise be a very fluid workflow.
Maya has also borne the weight of a steep learning curve, making it a hard sell for those buyers currently using other 3D solutions or just entering 3D production. A|W has responded with Instant Maya, a series of tutorials included in the Maya Complete 4 box. Although they aren't the most exciting projects, they are well written and present concepts in a direct fashion. And unlike the more interesting but time consuming Learning Maya 4, Instant Maya lives up to its name by only requiring a short time commitment.
It's also fair to mention that this may be the slimmest release of Maya yet. A|W has moved away from shipping boxes and boxes of printed documentation. In its stead, Maya Complete 4 comes with a Documentation and Lessons CD with all of the documentation in PDF format. Although the printed documentation was handy at times, you can search the PDF versions more easily. Maya Complete 4 also introduces context-sensitive help within the application. Although valuable to Maya newbies, these learning tools also help reassure producers that if one of their Maya artists should be unable to work, replacement artists will be able to continue working on the project.
Maya Complete 4 is a major release for A|W, not only because of the overwhelming amount of new features, but also because it takes an already feature rich product and refines it. The overall Maya experience has been improved while features and fixes that artists have been asking for are implemented. The end result is a 3D application that fits the needs of many 3D animators, producers, and artists. This is not to say that Maya Complete 4 is for everyone. Its steep price and learning curve may be too much for those not requiring a feature list that reads like a book. For those users who need a little more, Maya Complete 4 may be the answer.
Todd Iorio is living off the coast of Southern California. When not sailing or surfing, he provides effects for short-format spots and music videos.