A Look at Autodesk's Maya 2008

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SIGGRAPH is often the place where big events, announcements and software launches are hosted. This year, history repeated itself for Autodesk, as they let us know about a lot of things happening inside the company, including Maya 2008. Available in both 64bit and 32bit for Windows and Linux, and 32bit for MacOSX, Maya 2008 is the first release to be completely compatible with Microsoft’s new Windows Vista operating system. If you had used previous versions of Maya on Windows Vista, you surely noticed that they automatically turned off the Aero Glass look (unless you had turned it off yourself because of any video card or performance issues you may have been experiencing). However, Maya 2008 will work with the Aero Glass on, meaning it’s finally compatible with the new display driver model.

Maya 2008 includes several workflow enhancements in all the different modules, including some that might be considered a “Godsend” by some users, maybe because they allow you to work a little faster, or because they are tools not available before. The first change you notice when you open the program is the new navigation cube that came to replace the “view compass”. It works exactly as before, save for the fact that you can not only select the faces, but also the corners and edges, which gives you the ability to change between 26 different views by clicking on the different “hot" areas.

 

 

If you are a fan of polygon modeling and smooth proxy modeling, you might find the smoothing preview option very useful. What it does is show a smooth version of the model, and it updates dynamically as you model (just like the smooth proxy or subdivision proxy for subdivision modeling). However, what’s particularly special about this feature is that you don’t affect your object’s construction history when used, since it works directly on the object’s display options (you activate/deactivate it by pressing the keys 1 through 3 on your keyboard). When you are happy with the result, you can either turn that option off and keep the low resolution model, or use the “smooth preview to polygons” command.

 

 

Another addition to the modeling toolset is the ability to slide polygon edges. You may be familiar with this command since it’s available in other software packages (such as Cinema4D). Although the feature is more than welcome, the ability to slide vertices would also be very useful.

Animation is always what interests me the most about any 3D software package, and ever since the introduction of the Full Body IK system, I’ve considered Maya to be the king when it comes to character animation. However, Full Body IK proved to be hard to get used to since you couldn’t animate the rigs as you would animate any other object (you surely might remember the “set key modes” in the contextual menu). Maya 2008 makes it easier to work with since it allows you to set keys using the “s” key, which means you can completely forget about setting the keys using the contextual menu.

Skinning and weighting has also been improved greatly. If you are a rigger, you have surely found yourself in the following scenario: Your skin weights are perfect and you start animating the model (or someone else). However, you notice that some parts are not moving as you expected, and after studying the skeleton you realize you’d get the perfect deformation if your bones were placed differently, or if you had an extra bone somewhere. Maya 2008 makes it easier to tweak your rig in a non-destructive manner. You can move, insert, connect or disconnect joints without detaching your skin. Another nice feature is the template/untemplate channels in the graph editor. This command works exactly like the template geometry, however, it operates on animation curves in the graph editor window.

 

 

In Maya 8.5, Autodesk introduced a new unified dynamics framework (Nucleus), as well as the first Nucleus module: nCloth. nCloth offers some new features and also a few sample files that you can use to learn more about the cloth simulator and the different applications for it. If you have used Syflex before as a replacement for Maya Cloth, one of the main reasons why you made the switch is surely the fact that Maya Cloth doesn’t fully support cloth meshes that are not created using the native Cloth tools. Maya nCloth allows you to use any mesh as a cloth object, and set it up differently depending on your requirements. Syflex may still be the fastest cloth simulator commercially available, but nCloth is far more versatile.

Unfortunately, we will have to wait a little longer for the next Nucleus module, since nCloth is still the only one to use the new framework.

 

 

Mentalray rendering has also gone through some improvements, as well as rendering in general. One of the nicest additions is the fact that you can now render hardware particles using Mentalray. Since the particles are now supported in Mentalray, they also support the software-based rendering algorithms such as motion blur, shadow casting and reflections. There are also new Mentalray shaders, including the “mia_material_x shader”, which can simulate different kinds of materials used for construction and industrial design.

 

 

Overall, Maya 2008 is a sound release, focusing on improving the user’s workflow via additional tools, or reinventing existing tools. Personally, I would have liked to see a new Nucleus module (maybe Maya nFur, since Fur in Maya seems to be one of the least updated modules, and has been greatly surpassed by third party applications such as Shave and Haircut), but that is going to take a little longer. On the other hand, if you’ve been following the news, you surely heard that Autodesk bought Comet Digital last month and that the new Maya 2008 Extension 1 includes a built-in muscle system. So far, the only software I had seen that included such functionality out of the box was Houdini (as software packages are updated, that may have changed some time ago, so don’t take my word for it). However, thanks to that acquisition one of the best animation software packages available as of today, ships with one of the best digital muscle systems out there.

Maya 2008 Extension 1 has been available since the first week of December for subscribers with Gold Support.

For more information, please visit the Autodesk Web Site.


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Animation Alley is a regular featured column with Renderosity Staff Columnist Sergio Rosa [nemirc]. Sergio discusses on computer graphics software, animation techniques, and technology. He also hosts interviews with professionals in the animation and cinematography fields.

December 17, 2007

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