This past August we had the chance to witness the launch of Maya 2009, the 10th major release of Maya 3D software. While it’s keeping up with the latest trends in the animation and cinematography industry, I do think that some aspects of Maya need more attention as well.
Right now, we’re seeing more and more feature films using stereoscopic images. In the past you could make these images using a handmade camera rig in conjunction with some trial and error. Maya 2009 not only gives a fully featured stereo camera, but also allows you to use a feature called “Stereo Preview”. Using this feature, you can preview your stereo scenes directly in your viewport, completely eliminating the need to test render your images or animations just to see that they work.
The stereo preview offers a variety of preview modes: anaglyph (red-cyan), horizontal interlaced, checkerboard, luminance anaglyph, and also side-by-side. Personally, I use the anaglyph preview all the time since that’s the one you can use on any monitor you want.
The stereo workflow also allows you to output your images from both cameras in a single render. The images themselves are separate files, but are automatically rendered one after another when you use a stereo camera rig.
Animation Layers are also new in Maya 2009. The concept is similar to what you find in the Trax Editor, where you can have different animation takes and combine them to get a final result. However, animation layers don’t require you to create a character set and then create the clips separately (meaning that you have to use different clip files). I’m not implying that animation layers may be a replacement for the Trax Editor, as it is used mostly for non-linear animation than anything else.
When you use animation layers you can have your base animation, and then create layers to add further animation to different body parts (like a shaky hand). Layers can be turned down or completely off just like display and render layers, and each layer will have its own set of function curves making animation tweaks extremely easy.
Some software packages have had the ability to render out different passes directly. A few years ago, Maya added the render layers, but it wasn't until now that Maya users are able to render out different passes in a single render.
The render passes can be selected from a long list of available passes, and they are generated automatically with the original rendered image. What this means is that Maya doesn’t need to render out each pass separately, keeping render times down.
You do need to know what you’re doing if you use render passes, or rather how to use your passes in your compositing software, as it’s not easy to imagine how to use a “3D motion vector pass” or a “coverage” pass, and the Maya documentation will only give you a brief explanation of what the available passes are.
Taking the render passes one step further, Mentalray allows you to create a custom pass (Custom Color / Custom Depth / Custom Label / Custom Vector). Again, you will need experience with compositing and Mentalray to know how to use this feature.
Maya has always been targeted to studios with many artists working in a pipeline. What this means is that the “lone animator” will not use many of the features Maya offers, including the new Assets.
Assets are based on Maya containers. You create an Asset and configure it to show only the attributes a certain group of artists are going to use. For example, you can make a character into an Asset, allowing your animators access only to the animation controls. When the animator is done, you can send your character back to the pipeline.
The concept itself is nice and should prove to be really useful for large studios, since you can prevent people from changing what they are not supposed to. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that you’ll be using Assets if you’re the “lone animator.”
After Autodesk acquired Comet Digital, they released the Maya 2008 Extension 1, introducing the Maya Muscle plug-in. Maya 2009 includes this tool by default, and according to Autodesk, this muscle system has evolved greatly from the original (Comet Muscle System). I can’t really say if this is true or not since I never used any of the previous muscle systems. However, I can say the one included in this version looks promising.
Muscles allow you to get natural deformations on your characters, skin stretching, and also fat simulation. You can create your muscles using the standard tools, or you can also make them out of NURBS surfaces.
Maya 8.5 introduced a new dynamics solver called Nucleus, and the first module to use it was nCloth. The idea behind Nucleus was to have a unified solver that would allow dynamics to interact with each other. Previously, if you had particles, cloth, soft or rigid bodies and hair, you’d have to solve them separately, deciding which one affects the other and using that as a starting point on which one to solve first. Nucleus would allow you to solve all those at the same time, having your cloth or hair affect your particles and vice-versa.
Autodesk has now introduced the next Nucleus solver: nParticles. nParticles work pretty much the same as standard particles, using the same principles and workflow (although they are better suited for fluid simulations). They do use Nucleus now, so they can take advantage of the interactive playback, and they can also interact with cloth objects.
I ran a test just to see how the combined solver would work. I placed a cloth curtain blocking my particles’ path. The cloth was stopping the particles from moving, but at the same time the particles were pushing the curtain, until they eventually moved it out of the way.
Maya nCloth has also seen some updates. You are now able to use force fields to affect your cloth, opening the door to new possibilities. I’m now working on an animated short film, and for one of my shots I wanted to create an effect similar to the “bathroom transformation” effect in the Silent Hill movie, and while testing nCloth I realized that I could very easily reproduce that effect using cloth objects and fields.
I do wonder how long it will take Autodesk to translate the rest of the modules to Nucleus, especially since some of them desperately need an update. At the beginning of the review I mentioned that some aspects haven’t seen any change in a long time. The first module I can think of is Maya Fur, since it has remained pretty much unchanged since I used it for the first time in Maya 3 or 4.
On the other hand, Maya Live (the camera tracking module) is completely gone. To tell the truth I don’t know if anybody actually used Live, considering the availability of third party applications. I do think that a better camera tracking module would be really suitable for Maya, and I don’t see why it couldn’t be possible since Autodesk acquired Realviz (maybe the name Realviz Matchmover will ring a bell).
Personally, I think Nucleus is changing the way some of us work. I had the chance to use Syflex once some time ago, and I couldn’t help to think how powerless Maya Cloth was. However, when I used Maya nCloth I never wanted to go back to Syflex. Now I would really like to see an nFur module that would make us think twice before using Shave and Haircut. Maybe combine Maya Hair and Fur in a single Nucleus module and release it as either an Extension or in Maya 2010.
It is difficult to say whether or not this should be considered a “must have” release. To me, it is because I find the Stereo workflow, Nucleus updates and various optimizations really useful. On top of that, animation is my main priority and the Animation Layers will prove to be extensively useful. However, Maya serves a wide audience and not everybody has the same needs, so in the end it will all depend on the kind of work you need to do.