Maya, from Alias (previously known as Alias | Wavefront) has long been a big name in 3D animation, but after receiving an Academy Award, things look set to get even bigger. Now in its fifth incarnation, Maya should be even better than before, so what's new?
First on the list are the Hardware and Vector renderers. The latter has been brought in from Electric Rain and offers new possibilities for Web print and broadcast animation. Vector rendering can take 3D lighting and shading into account, and convert this information into vector gradients and meshes if required. Or, more traditionally, 3D surfaces may be rendered as flat solids for a 2D cartoon-look. Either way, the final file can be saved as a bitmap or, perhaps more usefully, in a vector format such as Flash (SWF) or Adobe Illustrator.
Maya 5 also comes bundled with a single Mental Ray licence and Mental Ray for Maya plug-in. Mental Ray has a strong production history, and this latest version of the Maya-to-Mental-Ray translation plug-in makes it easier than ever to render directly to Mental Ray. The integration is very good, all things considered, but it can't compete with the tight integration of Softimage|XSI and Mental Ray.
In any case, the procedure with any of the four rendering options is more carefully integrated than before, making it easy to switch between renderers while still retaining some of the Render Global settings such as resolution and frame range.
However, Alias has had to perform some amazing tricks to make Mental Ray more compatible with some of Maya's more advanced features.
Paint Effects, for example, is a fantastic feature for 3D artists that creates complex natural environments, foliage and trees by painting and ‘growing' them in your scene.
These Paint Effects strokes are a post-render effect in the Maya software renderer, so they have to be recreated as geometry to be rendered with Mental Ray, which is precisely what Maya 5 does. You can render your Paint Effects strokes using Mental Ray at any time, where they'll be converted into real polygon objects, complete with any textures and colours. This also means you can convert Paint Effects to geometry within the scene and modify them as any other polygon object.
Maya 5 isn't just a rendering upgrade, though; it also features improved polygon modelling. The Extrude Along Curve feature is available in the Extrude Face dialog box, which extrudes the selected faces along a curve you've drawn. This adds extra refinement to polygon modelling and can be used to add detail to models quickly and easily, or to create a rough starting-point shape for further shaping.
A graph similar to those introduced in the Ramp shader can also be used to create undulations along the extrude.
The full-on Maya Unlimited version has been awarded a few new features too. Fur rendering, for example, now has a new Clumping attribute. This allows for certain fur effects that were previously difficult or impossible to achieve in Maya alone; namely, wet fur or dirty matted fur. Adding clumping to a fur description immediately makes the fur look more realistic and less computer generated – very handy for creature rendering.
Also in Maya Unlimited is a new Wake feature in Fluid Effects for creating ripples like boats ploughing through water. A Wake emitter can be attached to a boat to produce the effect in a fluid object, and the results from this are very realistic.
Character animators will also be pleased to see that an FK/IK (Forward Kinematics/Inverse Kinematics) switch has been implemented. Switching between these is now as simple as setting a keyframe for the weighting of the switch attribute.
Maya will display ghosted animation states for the joint being switched, so you see the position of the FK and IK states of the joint at the same time.
Similarly, Maya's constraints and other non-keyed animation controls – such as Set Driven Key, motion paths and expressions – can be blended with keyframe animation. Plus, a new Parent constraint further fleshes out Maya 5's excellent character tools.
At $4,530, Maya 5 Complete is a good all-round 3D system and an outstanding character-animation package for the money. However, it's worth noting that it isn't that easy to get your head round, and it isn't to be purchased if you don't intend to wholeheartedly and completely submerge yourself in it.
For occasional 3D work, there are other more traditional packages available such as LightWave that are much better suited and more keenly priced.
However, if you're a professional who can afford $14,000 for Maya 5 Unlimited, you won't go home disappointed. The Unlimited version is a great 3D animation and effects system that's difficult to beat, especially in key areas such as overall workflow, dynamics and cloth rendering.
Maya 5 is a nice upgrade to a well-established animation package. However, Alias needs to be careful not to neglect the needs of its professional animation customers, and this version might well disappoint without any of the really impressive new technologies like the Fluid Effects introduced in 4.5. Even so, Maya is still a great 3D animation system, and now it's even better – if only slightly.