Autodesk's Maya 2013 in Review

October 20, 2012 1:49 pm

Tags: 3D, Autodesk, Entertainment Creation Suite, Maya, MotionBuilder, Mudbox

Maya 2013 is the latest release of this digital content creation software, and packs some interesting features that cover different areas. Maya 2013 can be bought as a stand-alone software, or part of an Autodesk Entertainment Creation Suite that includes other software such as MotionBuilder and Mudbox.

While I was testing this new version of the software, I found one feature that can be extremely useful, the Pipeline Cache. Basically, what Pipeline Cache does is bake the entire scene into a single cache file that can be transferred to another artist, so he can work on other tasks of the production pipeline using that cache file and not the original scene. Since the scene is contained within a single file, you don’t have to worry about sending assets with it. Also, cache files offer faster playback because there aren’t any scene-nodes to be calculated (dynamics, deformations and such).

Maya 2013 offers two different types of Pipeline Cache files. The first one is a standard cache file using standard geometry, and it’s used for CPU playback. The other one is a GPU-optimized file. In shaded mode it looks just like the geometry-based cache file, but when you go to wireframe mode you get a “point cloud.” For my tests, I measured playback speed for one scene (using Viewport 2.0), and then compared it to playback speed using both types of cache. Maya’s viewport had never been fast, compared to other applications like MotionBuilder (which offers true real-time playback). When I used the standard geometry cache, the scene actually played back slower, going from roughly 6fps to 5fps. However, playback speed when using the GPU-optimized cache file was amazingly fast. That last file played back almost in real-time, at 22fps (for reference, the graphics card on my test system is an AMD FirePro 8750).

Top: original scene, 6.4fps. Bottom: GPU optimized Pipeline Cache file, 22.1fps

There’s a new rigid and soft body dynamics solver included in Maya, called MayaBullet. This is a new dynamics solver, faster than the previous rigid and soft body solvers. In MayaBullet simulations you can combine soft and rigid bodies, and constraints. The Bullet solver can use OpenCL acceleration, so if you have an OpenCL capable video card, you can take advantage of that. Unfortunately, my card does not support OpenCL so I was unable to perform a comparison between standard CPU-accelerated simulations and OpenCL-accelerated simulations.

Skinning a character for animation in some cases can be frustrating. Previously, Maya implemented new tools like the Interactive Bind Skin tool, but using standard Smooth Skin binding remained unchanged for a lot of time (save for the implementation of Dual Quaternion skinning method). Maya 2013 offers a new binding method (not skinning method) called Heat Map. Heat Map uses a falloff setting that simulates the heat falloff of a specific joint, and it’s meant to provide better results than Closest in Distance and Closest in Hierarchy methods. I ran a test using the standard Closest in Distance and Heat Map, on a character I’m using for my current video game (in both cases I used the Dual Quaternion skinning method), and then rotated some joints that are usually the more problematic. Heat Map produces way better results right off the bat in all cases (although it still requires tweaking in some areas).

Character using HeatMap on the back. Character on the front has some serious skinning issues...

Maya 2013 has a new Node Editor, which is (yet another) way to work with nodes inside Maya. As you may know, Maya’s workflow is based on the “dependency graph,” which is a network of nodes, and nodes are connected to each other to let Maya know what the final output will be. This is the case for everything from shaders to dynamic simulations. So far, users have been able to work with nodes using the Hypergraph and the Hypershade (the Hypershade window is meant to be used to create and modify shaders, but it can be used to work with any kind of nodes, thanks to the dependency graph workflow). The Node Editor is similar to the editors I just mentioned. You can create and connect nodes. You can also see the input and output connections for the selected object.

When I saw the new Node Editor I thought it looked very similar to the ICE trees in Softimage, because you can expand the nodes to show all outputs and inputs, and then drag lines between them to connect a node’s output to another node’s input. Working with nodes this way can speed up workflow a lot, because, in previous versions of Maya, if you wanted to connect hidden inputs/outputs you needed to use the Connection Editor, which is a two-pane window that lists all the inputs/outputs of the selected nodes. Using the Node Editor makes these types of connections a lot easier (just to clarify, the Connection Editor is still available).

Maya Hair was replaced with a Nucleus hair solver (rendered hair is still based on PaintFX strokes). The new Maya nHair uses the Nucleus solver that was implemented a few years ago. The idea behind the Nucleus solver is to offer a unified solver to simulate all Maya dynamic simulations. This means all simulation objects are capable of interacting between them, even if they are different types of dynamic objects (for example, nParticles can collide with an nCloth object, and this collision will affect both dynamic objects). Using Nucleus for hair simulations means nHair and other nDynamics can interact with each other. I am now hoping Maya Fur will get its long-needed overhaul, because it hasn’t seen many improvements in many years.

I have to say the inclusion of MayaBullet dynamics makes me think Bullet dynamics took a completely different direction, because they are not part of the unified Nucleus solver (besides, Maya nCloth can be used to simulate rigid and soft bodies as well).

The Graph Editor includes the Retime Tool, obviously used to retime the animations. Basically, you use it to create handles and then move them left or right, to change the timing of the animation. Usually, you find yourself tweaking the timing of your animation in the curve editor or dope sheet, but this tool provides a simpler way to do it.

Retiming animations the easy way.

Maya 2013 has some very nice new features. Most of them are aimed to improve workflow speeds, such as with the Pipeline Cache and the Node Editor. The new Heat Map binding method will surely make skinning tasks easier (especially in cases where you can’t use indirect binding, like dynamic muscle simulations), and finally Maya’s hair simulation is now part of the unified Nucleus solver. If you’re a Maya user, you should give Maya 2013 a try.

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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.




October 22, 2012

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