Autodesk finished the acquisition of Alias in January of 2006. Since then, there had been questions of whether or not Autodesk would continue developing Maya. This SIGGRAPH, Autodesk answered that question by unveiling Maya 8 3D software. Maya 8 comes packed with some nice new features, and a special gift for 64 bit PC users.
Maya 8 has finally made the step into 64 bits. The installation CD comes with two different executables, one for the 32 bits version of Windows (Windows 2000 or Windows XP) and the other for the 64 bits counterpart (Windows XP 64 and soon Windows Vista). The other very special thing is the new support for multi-CPU computers. Now Maya uses all of your system CPUs for the different operations that are performed in Maya, such as skinning or hair and dynamics.
The change that you notice first is the changes in the menus. Maya 8 has reorganized most of its modules. The polygons and NURBS menus are now in different modules, supposedly to make things easier for users. Another thing you will notice is the change from "Polygons" to "Mesh" in the Polygons module. There is also a "Customize..." option in the drop-down modules list. This lets you create custom modules to store the commands that you use the most, just like using shelves.
In the animation realm, Maya 8 has gone through a few improvements on workflow, mostly in the graph editor. You can bookmark animation curves, so if you are tweaking an object a lot, you can just create a bookmark instead of having to re-select that object every time. You can also set different colors for the curves or keys in the Dope Sheet to make it easier to know what you are modifying.
The biggest new feature in the animation module is geometry cache. The concept is similar to the "Bake Simulation" command, however, geometry cache does let you work with the baked animation. When you create a geometry cache, Maya stores the per-vertex transformations of the model. This baked animation is then sent to the Trax Editor where you can move it, retime it or loop it, as you would with any animation clip. Since this stores the animation on a per-vertex basis, it will also store information on the deformers and anything attached to your rig. So you can then un-skin your character and the animation will remain, and since it's baked animation the playback will be much faster than calculating the skin deformers.
There are also new tools for polygon modeling, including the Bridge tool, which creates a bridge between two separate edges. This bridge can follow the original object's tangents to create a smooth blending. Tools like the Sculpt Geometry or the Soft Modification tools now have color feedback to let you see what you will actually be modifying before you do anything. This should be helpful to prevent users from moving things they don't want to move, for example.
A nice new addition is the Transfer Attributes tool. You can transfer UVs, topology, and vertex color. On the image below I used the tool to mirror the morph target from one side to the other, which would be particulary useful when creating morph targets for your model. Although the tool is part of the polygons modeling set, you can see that it serves different purposes, such as morph creation.
The Transfer Attributes can also be used to transfer attributes from one side of the model to the other. For example, in the image above, I could have copied the brow position from one side to the other, and in the end the girl's head would have both brows up. The same can be applied to UVs.
Now NURBS and Polygon primitives can be created interactively just like in 3DS MAX, and this option can be turned on/off depending on everyone's taste. The bad news is that, beside those changes in the primitive creation, the NURBS toolset remains intact.
Maya 8 also includes a new version of Mentalray. You can now view Mentalray materials in the vieports, which is a good thing because you don't have to test-render just to know how a material would look like. Maya standard materials (such as Phong or Blinn) also have Mentalray Surface Scatter to simulate translucent materials such as wax, milk or skin. This new solution is not as versatile as using the special SSS Mentalray materials, but they serve as a simpler solution for some situations. The image below shows a quick shader that I made using this new Scatter feature. The skin shader is a layered shader with two specularity levels and a base color with Scatter turned on. I applied a standard Lambert shader to the head so you can see the difference. The lighting rig is made up of 26 light sources directly extracted from the HDRI used as a background.
Autodesk unveiled its new compositing software package called Toxik. Toxik is based on Flame, but it's designed for PC users that need more power than Combustion can give. I briefly described how Toxik works on my SIGGRAPH report here. Even if Toxik is brand new, it can work seamlessly with Maya 8. You can easily render out your different render passes (render layers) and Maya will automatically send them to Toxik for compositing. This connection also lets you update your rendered layers on the fly, so you don't have to reopen your Toxik project everytime you re-render a layer.
During SIGGRAPH, Autodesk was giving away some metallic cards with the word AREA written on them. This is actually a new online community created for users of Autodesk DCC software packages, including Maya. The entire concept is very similar to that of the Alias community, but you can also find information for MAX or VIZ. Make sure you visit the AREA in case you haven't done so.
The concept behind Maya is that you can get all you need right out of the box (hair and fur simulations, cloth, camera tracking, etc). However, you find that sometimes using third-party plugins lets you get results easier and faster. Most of the plugins are already available for Maya 8, and they also run on 64 bits. I even had the chance to speak with the guys from TSplines and Syflex, and their plugins were already available for Maya 8 by that time.
Maya 8 was intended to address specific issues on performance and workflow. The first item was addressed by making a 64bits version and adding the new multi-cpu support. The new tools in modeling, rendering, and animation are also meant to let you work faster, so you spend less time on the technical side and more time on the creative side. On the other hand, the name change for some menus and commands, and also the module reordering can be confusing at first, but you will get used to it quicker than you think. Overall I can say that Maya 8 is worth the upgrade, because everybody wants to be able to work faster, and Maya 8 will give you just that.
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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.