Enhancements, such as the Trax editor, Motion Retargeting, and Photoshop integration, make Maya 6 more useful to artists and tech directors than version 5.
This time the big headlines are for the Trax editor, Motion Retargeting, and Photoshop integration features, as well as enhanced Maya Hair and Fur tools and expanded Mental Ray integration. In total, this is a more comprehensive release than version 5.
Maya has made the redesigned Trax editor the command center of character animation. Trax is a nonlinear animation tool that looks a lot like an NLE with clips of animation on a timeline. Clips are placed in separate tracks — like in After Effects — and can be joined together or overlapped to create hybrid motion. For instance, a clip of a running man is joined to a clip of the same character jumping, with the transition between actions blended smoothly together.
In Maya 6, Trax has the ability to collapse, group, solo, or mute tracks. This reduces clutter in the workspace and allows the animator to fine-tune specific aspects of the motion. The new Trax editor allows Clips to be scaled, blended, and cycled more easily and with more options, including support for expressions and constraints. The audio limitation of one track has also been lifted.
The new ways to massage motion capture data in Maya 6 immediately reminded me of the functionality in Kaydara's MotionBuilder. Shortly after the debut of Maya 6, Alias announced its intention to buy Kaydara, a deal that recently went through. Expect to see Maya inherit Kaydara's very powerful realtime tools in future versions.
Maya's new Motion Retargeting tool allows the animation from a short skeleton (like a Hobbit) to be applied to a large skeleton (like a T-Rex). Previously, this was the type of animation surgery where the patient had little chance of recovery.
Motion Redirection makes existing keyframe and mo-cap data more flexible. The Redirection tool allows an animation of a character walking along a path to be turned in a new direction while keeping the animation intact. Banking for curved paths (when a character turns a corner) is not automatically added. The Character Mapper is another repurposing animation tool. In this case, the Mapper maps animation curves from one character to another.
These three asset-sharing tools are a big step along the path of making animation reusable. For more than a decade, this has been one of the most oversold concepts in CGI. Finally, the software is living up to the hype.
The new Soft Modification Tool allows you to select geometry, and then move, scale, and rotate the selection with the strength of the deformation strongest at the center of the selection and fading outward. You set the area of influence by means of a curve editor, allowing for more nuanced deformations. The curve edits the x, y, and z axes separately. The tool offers effects such as the one in The Mummy in which scarab beetles crawl under the skin of several unfortunate characters.
Over the years there have been a lot of Photoshop competitors, but in the end all roads lead to Adobe. Maya 6 now reads and writes Photoshop files including Layer Sets, Transfer Modes, and Adjustment Layers. What is particularly nice is the way that you can set up layers for a texture in Maya in one screen and use Photoshop's painting and image-editing tools in Photoshop in another screen. Yet, the changes you save in Photoshop are reflected in Maya. The integration is so seamless that it's like having Photoshop tools right in Maya. A smart feature is the nonrendering UV snapshot of a model that can be saved as a Photoshop layer. All in all, this is an excellent implementation of Photoshop.
This feature is straightforward and a texture map artist's dream. It will be interesting to see if the same level of support is offered sometime in the future for Alias Sketchbook Pro.
The improved Maya 6 Fur tool can render fur in Mental Ray and can be included in global illuminations. Image: Alias Systems Corp.
Alias has given Maya Fur and Hair a makeover. The Hair module is now controllable with the use of NURBS curves (curves can also be used to control surfaces). Because curves are subject to dynamics, far greater control over the creation of long hair and movement is possible. The actual hair is rendered using Paint Effects for direct conversion to polys that can be rendered in Mental Ray. Previously, Maya Hair was left to somewhat arbitrary (or at least difficult to manage) soft body dynamics, which often failed to produce truly realistic motion. With the new system, curves allow for the simulation of hair stiffened by hair spray or gel or hair held in place by clips or rubber bands, such as ponytails and braids. Applied dynamics respects the curve-controlled hairstyle with far greater ability to make hair motion behave in specific ways. The long list of new creation and control tools for hair and hairstyles is extensive. It's obvious that Alias worked hard to provide the definitive hair system.
Maya Fur has been improved. First is the ability to render in Mental Ray (volumetric fluid effects have also been added to the Maya renderer). Fur can be included in global illuminations and other high-level calculations, and even in relatively simple lighting situations, rendering consistency is guaranteed. This is particulary helpful when Fur is seen in reflections or through transparent objects. Previously, this required a second pass in a different renderer. Additionally, Maya Fur can now be rendered on subdivision surfaces.
Alias has made improved Mental Ray support a priority in Maya 6. This includes using the Maya Native Shader user interface with Mental Ray shaders. Mental Ray for Maya now takes advantage of Interactive Photorealistic Rendering (IPR), including raytracing. Basically, IPR renders a deep raster version of a scene, and only updates changes as you work. This feature is especially useful to tech and lighting directors. High-level rendering has also been improved in Maya's hardware renderer, which supports third-party plug-in shaders, such as CgFX. Newly supported in the interactive viewport are bump, transparency, and specularity attributes.
There is a short list of smaller enhancements, such as motion blur in Mental Ray for particles effects, blurry reflections, and refractions of the type seen on a polished wood floor (reflections degrade and soften the closer they are to the camera). Shader glow, formerly a post process in Maya, has been added to Mental Ray for Maya. There is also enhanced support for High Dynamic Range image formats, including .ct, .st, .map, and .iff, which are gaining support throughout the industry.
Maya 6 users will appreciate enhancements to the workflow, including new file referencing and a scene segmentation feature. For instance, you can now select which parts of a scene to load upon opening, which is a big time saver when you are working with mammoth data sets, such as the New York City model used in Spider-Man 2. A related feature is the ability to create references with an annotated locator visible in the scene view. You can use the locator to dynamically load or unload the related reference. If there is a pattern emerging here, it's that Maya 6 is targeting improved workflow and speed.
While adding features, Alias has come to acknowledge the program's steep learning curve. It has worked hard to integrate Help documentation into the program and provide DVD training material created inhouse. It recognizes that winning the education game is key, but Maya has also suffered comparisons to 3ds Max and XSI on the ease-of-use issue. Maya 6 is a very tech-centric product despite considerable effort to make it an artist's tool. Even the online Help documentation seems to skip a beat when it comes to defining basic terms.
Alias should look at Adobe's online Help, which is the benchmark for clear and direct information. Maya DVDs (sold separately), however, are very good and cover all areas of the program for new and intermediate users.
Maya 6 rendering times on Macs average 20 to 50 percent faster than in previous versions. Image: Alias Systems Corp.
Maya 6 finally introduced the unlimited version to the Mac. Alias already supports Windows, IRIX, and Linux, which is one of the reasons why tech directors at visual effects studios have embraced Maya. Maya is the only professional animation application to support so many OS options. The Mac version is rock solid, but there is one wrinkle. Maya allows you to map commands to a one-button mouse, but that's like driving a sports car in second gear. Don't bother using Maya without a three-button mouse, standard issue on Wintel and AMD workstations. Apple supports the three-button mouse, but really needs to consider adding one to its systems in the near future. Alias can help by putting up a page with a few hardware suggestions (I use the Logitech MX510).
With the acquisition of Alias from SGI by investing group Accel KKR, 2004 was a big year for the company. Alias purchased Canada-based Kaydara, the developer of MotionBuilder, and also found time to release version 6 just one year after the debut of version 5. You can be sure that Accel KKR did not invest in Alias because of the growth potential of a 3D application preferred in the upper stratosphere of visual effects, a modest opportunity at best. No, the bet is on the technology and engineering expertise at Alias and the prospect of new, broader commercial applications.
Across the industry 3D development is in a period of consolidation with innovation less prevalent than refinement. Alias is not immune to the changes in the marketplace, but it has managed to maintain the scientific flair and vision that produced stunning technologies like Maya Paint, Maya Liquid, and Marking Menus. Maya 6 is one of the best releases of the software in recent years with lots of enhancements for tech directors and artists.
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