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Maya is a powerful, 3-D modeling, texturing, and rendering application, with all of the tools needed to do nearly every type of animation imaginable, from simulations of real-world physics to character animation with a wide spectrum of emotive expressions.
Maya has become an entertainment industry standard, and is one of the few high-end 3-D animation systems that run on OS X. Maya 8.5 isn’t a blockbuster upgrade. The number of important new features and capabilities is small, but this new release is a step forward. For example, I found Maya 8.5 to be faster and more stable than its predecessor.
One of the most touted changes by Autodesk, the makers of Maya 8.5, is 64-bit native operation; however, this change doesn’t apply to the Mac release, only to Windows and Linux releases. The most compelling reason for a 64-bit upgrade would be support for large amounts of RAM—over 4GB—for complex rendering. While this may seem like a vast quantity of RAM, a surprising number of Maya rendering actions can bump up against that ceiling.
While I am happy to report that Maya 8.5 now runs natively on Intel machines, the software does have limitations when used with many lower-end graphics cards. I had to upgrade to an ATI X800 XL card for our older PCI-based dual-G5 before I saw acceptable real-time rendering performance, and I was still unable to render shadows in real time. I’m looking forward to enjoying the memory benefits of 64-bit operation support, as well as the elimination of lingering graphics card issues on the Mac.
Version 8.5 includes a number of important new modeling tools. One action that artists will appreciate is the capability to place, scale, and rotate primitive objects in a single operation. (Some of the new features touted in 8.5, such as the new nCloth dynamics system, are available only in the $6,999 version, Maya Unlimited.)
Autodesk has significantly improved the way you work with UV maps, the system for applying textures to irregular polygonal objects, such as character skins. One of the more useful changes is the ability to transfer attributes, including UV information, color per vertex, vertex translations, and normal maps from one surface to another. This means, for example, that you can fit a character model inside the frame of an existing character and transfer the texture of the face of the existing character directly to the new character, something that was inordinately difficult to accomplish in past versions. Another great new feature is a Bridge tool that lets you quickly bridge two different sets of edges with a blended series of polygons.
Paint Effects, which can be used to paint 3-D elements such as fur or trees—or even rusty nails—have been significantly improved by the ability to attach effects to brush stroke curves and to deform those curves using standard Maya deformers. In addition to being able to sculpt surfaces and apply Maya’s Paint Effects onto surfaces, you can now apply textures to polygonal faces by painting. You can also paint right across the seams between adjacent objects.
For technical directors and technically minded animators, the biggest addition in this release is Python support. The Python scripting language can be substituted anywhere you would normally use Maya’s native scripting system. This makes it possible to use one language to both script components of an animation and manage the production pipeline outside of Maya.
Another important change in this release is geometry caching. Just as particles can be cached to the hard drive for quick playback, now geometry deformations can be cached. This is great for character animators working with heavy animation rigs, as well as for anyone who needs quick playback of deformations.
The most significant changes in rendering have been made in the mental ray renderer. Here, a sub-surface scattering shader has been added, as well as the ability to do hardware previews of mental ray shaders. Also, Maya’s interface for working with mental ray shaders, and the very full-featured renderer itself, is much more intuitive.
Macworld’s buying advice
Maya 8.5 is an animation package that’s full of features. Its steep price makes it a tool for serious users, but few animation packages can match Maya’s depth and power.
[ Sean Wagstaff is a freelance animator in Palo Alto, California and a veteran of film and games production. He is currently focused on animation and visualization for the bio-tech and pharmaceutical industries. ]Maya 8.5 includes new tools for rendering animated characters.