Autodesk's Maya 2011 In Review

Product Review: Maya 2011

Maya 2011 was recently released, and it packs a wide variety of enhancements and features, contrasting with the 2010 release (which I had called 'evolutionary' rather than 'revolutionary' in that review, since it focused on integration with bundled apps, such as Maya Composite and MatchMover).

When you first run Maya 2011, the most noticeable change is the complete UI redesign. It has a darker color scheme and new icons, but that's just scratching the surface as it's also built on Nokia QT. One of the advantages of using the Nokia QT interface design is that users can graphically design windows and panels for their custom tools using a Nokia QT UI design tool, instead of writing countless lines of code.

This new UI allows you to tear and rearrange your panels in any way you want. You can take the Channel Box and put it next to your tools, display the Channel Box and Attribute Editor on different sides of the window, and pretty much place any of the tool bars anywhere you want. If you're at least marginally familiar with extensively customizable user interfaces (like the one featured in Cinema 4D, or the video applications by Adobe) you will be familiar with the concept.

Even though Maya loads and works faster, sometimes I've experienced lags between my inputs and the software response, but mostly after having Maya out of focus (minimized) for a long period of time.

As an animator, the first set of new features I checked out were the ones related to animation. One of my favorite features is the Camera Sequencer. Basically, the Camera Sequencer is an editor similar to the Trax Editor. You create different camera sequences along your timeline inside this editor, and this serves to switch camera views as you playback your animation. This is extremely useful if you have shots with more than one camera, where you need to view the scene from specific cameras at specific times.

While we were working on "Tormented" (the short film I wrote and directed last year), something like the Camera Sequencer would have been very useful, as sometimes we would create more than one camera for a shot, and then we would have to manually playblast and cut through the animation just to get a sense of what the final shot would look like. For these types of scenarios, the Camera Sequencer will soon become your best friend.

Maya 2011 also features a new binding system, the 'dual quaternion' system. This new system is meant to improve deformations in key areas, such as elbows and armpits, eliminating the "candy wrap effect" you get in those areas, preventing the need of extra deformers to help improve your skinning.

The other rigging enhancement is the "interactive binding." Basically, this binding method lets you use "envelopes" or "capsules" to define the influence of a bone. What's nice about this new method is that you can define your basic deformation with the envelopes, and then use the Paint Weights tool to improve the deformations. Just like standard binding, the interactive binding can use dual quaternion binding as well as standard linear binding.

There are also improvements in the Graph Editor. You can now pin curves, stack them, and better manage and display them. Maya 2011 also includes Human IK, providing a better motion retargeting solution. You can retarget animation, and also modify that animation later on. Human IK can work with animation layers in Maya 2011, meaning you can modify the animation by adding animation layers on top of it, instead of modifying the base animation.

Another major enhancement is the Viewport 2.0. This new render preview option offers higher visual quality since it includes better lighting and shader representation. Obviously, it does not support every single Maya feature (for example, it will not display shadows generated by Area Lights). However, Viewport 2.0 is only meant to give you a representation of your scene, as it's not an internal GPU-render engine like FurryBall.

Maya 2011 also offers a multi-camera stereo rig. This is basically a single rig that can support 2 or more stereo pairs, each with different configuration settings, and each stereo pair can be linked to a different set of objects. If you're into 3D, you will immediately see the usefulness (I've found myself using render layer overrides on stereo cameras due to the lack of a multi-camera stereo rig).

Maya 2011 includes Mentalray 3.8 and a few Mentalray enhancements, as well as new shaders. If you've been following the development of Mentalray, you are surely familiar with Iray (the GPU-based rendering solution). Unfortunately, Iray is a Mentalray standalone-only feature, so it does not ship with Mentalray for Maya.

There are also some new minor, but welcome, features in modeling. I've always had to create my curves in third party applications (like Adobe Illustrator) because they offer better tools for creating curves, which is very useful when working on logos. You can now create Bezier curves in Maya, something I've been waiting for for a long time.

The soft selection tool has been extended to work on objects now, instead of just elements. If you're using this tool, you can gradually transform the objects, without deforming them. There's also a pinch brush similar to the one available in Mudbox, allowing you to make creases more easily.

If you were waiting for a new Nucleus module, that didn't happen in this version. However, there are some enhancements and speed improvements in nParticles. I, for one, hope a Nucleus-based fur and hair system is in the works, especially since Fur is the least updated module inside Maya.

Maya 2011 offers a variety of features in key areas, like animation, rendering and dynamics. The new UI is also a welcome addition, making Maya more open and customizable. I do believe that more development should be focused on areas that have been left behind, such as Fur. However, overall, Maya 2011 is a highly recommended update.

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Sergio Aris Rosa [nemirc], is Sr. Staff Writer for the Renderosity Front Page News. Sergio discusses on computer graphics software, animation techniques, and technology. He also hosts interviews with professionals in the animation and cinematography fields. You can follow him on Twitter, and if you want to see what he's up to you can visit his blog.

May 31, 2010

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