Mon, Jun 24, 6:36 PM CDT

Maya Feature Creature Creations

Jul 27, 2008 at 12:00 am by Store Staff

If you’re into high-end computer graphics and feature films, even if you don’t actually work in that specific branch, you must be somewhat familiar with how the characters and creatures for feature films are made. You have surely read about Yoda, Gollum, King Kong, as well as creatures from more recent features such as Cloverfield, The Golden Compass and 10,000 B.C.

Those creatures are made with an extremely well-crafted combination of talent and technical tools. For any of those we have the base model, texture maps, displacement maps, muscles, hair and cloth simulations.

There are many books and resources that cover the elements I just mentioned above. However, Maya Feature Creature Creations tries to be a one-stop resource when it comes to creating realistic creatures.

The first step is to take you through the creature modeling and UV mapping. The creature modeling takes into consideration the edge flow and topology, which is helpful not only to deform it correctly, but also to create the muscles and wrinkles. The problem arises when you compare the book to any other modeling-oriented book, since Todd Palamar (the author) doesn’t take the time to explain the workflow and differences between the different modeling methods (NURBS and Subdivison Surfaces are left out).

You then move on to texture painting and sculpting. The weapon of choice to sculpt the creature’s details is Mudbox, the digital sculpting software in Autodesk’s arsenal. Some people could argue that Palamar should have used ZBrush instead; however the same can be said about pretty much any choice of software package (for example, “why not make a XSI Feature Creature Creations book instead?”).

One thing I did find interesting, was the comparison between Maya as a digital sculpting software package, and a dedicated sculpting software package (be it Mudbox or ZBrush). The truth is that, thanks to the Artisan Paint Tools, Maya can be used for digital sculpting (if you also happen to have the hardware that supports a high-resolution mesh). You can model a high resolution creature with all of the small details, and then use the tools already included in Maya to extract the normal and displacement information.

The last part of the book is about dynamic simulations. Even if the character you create doesn’t have hair or clothing, it does have muscles. Muscle simulations in the book are done using native Maya tools as well (Maya nCloth, the cloth simulation module in Maya Unlimited, and Maya Muscle). Keep in mind that you won’t be able to go through those chapters unless you have the Maya Extension 1 from Autodesk (which I don’t have since I am not a Gold Support customer). Any other muscle system could work, although there aren’t many available for Maya.

It is very likely that you are very familiar with modeling and texturing, and possibly displacement maps. However, not everybody knows how to setup and configure a muscle system, and the fact that Maya doesn’t include the Maya Muscle by default is a shame. I do hope, however, that Autodesk will include the module by default in Maya 2009.

Using muscles requires setting up a “real” skeleton. However, as you will see in the book, you don’t need a completely realistic and accurate skeleton.  Palamar also gives a brief explanation on how the skeleton and muscles work in real life so that you know the rules of muscle-building when you setup your system.


Rigging is one of the most technical aspects of 3d animation, and that’s why the rigging chapter feels a little bit shallow. The book explains how to setup bones, how to use constraints and also how to drive the “real” skeleton using the bones, but it doesn’t dig deep into complex setups. This shouldn’t be surprising, though, since rigging is very technical, as I mentioned.

For this specific branch, I would really recommend that you get a book about rigging (some examples are: The Art of Rigging, Maya Character Creation, Inspired 3d character rigging…) since it takes more than a well designed muscle setup to get you an animation-ready character.

Overall, Maya Feature Creature Creations is a good book with lots of valuable information. Unfortunately, the information is not balanced, so you end up with a lot of information in some areas, and not so much information in others. However, this should be expected since some parts of the creative process are more complex than others.

As I said before, you will need more learning resources when it comes to rigging. Another book on modeling should be helpful too, in case you want to know more about NURBS and Subdivision Surfaces. On the other hand, if you’re already familiar with those and want to know how to take your creatures to the next level, the chapters about digital sculpting and muscle systems are what keep this book apart from other “creature creation” books out there.

Maya Feature Creature Creations
By: Todd Palamar

Available from:


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.

July 28, 2008

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