The combination of tightly integrated and completely scriptable modeling, character animation, physics-based dynamic and particle simulation, and remarkably flexible rendering in Alias|Wavefront’s Maya is unmatched by most other 3-D-effects packages, including NewTek’s LightWave 3D and Electric Image’s Universe. So when Alias|Wavefront shipped Maya for Mac OS X 3.5 late last year (Reviews, January 2002), we were delighted to see it running on the Mac for the first time, despite concerns about the program’s performance. When we reviewed Maya again in June, most of its bugs had been worked out and its price had dropped significantly, but the Mac version still hadn’t caught up to its Windows and Linux counterparts.
But with Maya Complete 4.5, the wait for a no-compromises version of Maya is finally over. Version 4.5 addresses nearly every criticism we had of version 3.5. What’s more, it’s a smooth, stable performer in OS X 10.2 (it doesn’t run in OS 9).
Maya 4.5 borrowed its most significant feature addition, subdivision-surface modeling, from Maya Unlimited ($6,999, for Windows or Unix only). And for animators and effects artists, the Mac version offers vital new features of its own, in addition to a much better interface and performance improvements that make it ready for prime time — literally.
Maya’s New Skin
The headline feature in version 4.5 is subdivision-surface modeling, a tool that has long been standard in LightWave 3D. Subdivision surfaces let 3-D artists build lifelike characters, as well as smoothly blended organic creatures and surfaces, using simple polygonal modeling. They often produce better results in less time than NURBS (nonuniform rational B-splines), which are also used for modeling organic surfaces. Combined with Maya’s top-of-the-line character-animation tools (including a new Jiggle Deformer for realistic flab), this feature allows artists who use Macs to readily create characters with the same type of detail and lifelike movement seen in animated films such as DreamWorks’ Shrek or television programs such as ABC’s Dinotopia.
Character modelers will particularly appreciate a new Cut Faces tool that makes polygonal modeling — and by extension, subdivision modeling — much easier to do. Furthermore, this release introduces simple, one-step conversion of subdivision models to NURBS patches, so even studios that need NURBS in their pipelines have a powerful, timesaving alternative to patch modeling.
Maya’s renderer lacks some advanced effects, such as global illumination and caustics, and its speed is sometimes criticized when compared with LightWave 3D and Universe. However, the vast majority of users will be quite pleased with Maya’s out-of-the-box rendering capabilities, which include a rich selection of lighting types, as well as an impressive tool set for working with and managing shades and textures.
There is at least one major problem that has not been addressed, though: Maya’s so-called Batch Renderer, which can neither queue more than one animation on a single machine nor manage rendering over multiple networked computers. These functions are essential in environments where renderings are measured in many minutes or hours per frame, and where productivity calls for offloading the process from the artist’s workstation as much as possible.
But much to the relief of artists who have an eye for nuance, a Mac-compatible version of Mental Image’s Mental Ray plug-in rendering engine is in the works. We anticipate that it will address the majority of Maya’s rendering issues. Furthermore, Alias|Wavefront will offer this $3,995 plug-in — nearly double the price of Maya alone — for free to all version 4.5 users. (According to Mental Image, the Mac version of Mental Ray is expected to ship this winter.)
Overall, Maya is now much easier to use, thanks to a number of minor additions and interface enhancements throughout the program. For example, it offers many new snapping options, including the ability to snap objects to one another based on multiple snapping points. Also new is a set of Align tools and many added constraints in the Transformation tools, such as the ability to scale an object on two axes while locking its third axis.
Also to improve ease of use, Maya now ships with a nicely designed set of ready-made Shelves (Maya’s customizable tool palettes), and its Marking Menus (pop-up menus that give you access to commands) offer many new options and features.
The Mac version of Maya has reached parity with Maya’s Windows, Irix, and Linux versions; this will be of major importance in production environments where Macs and PCs share studio space. We had no trouble either sharing files or working and rendering interchangeably on Windows systems and Macs; however, negotiating the differences in keyboard layouts for standard key commands was a minor annoyance. More problematic is the unavailability of a vast library of plug-ins for Mac users, including Alias|Wavefront’s Real-Time Author and Right Hemisphere’s Deep Paint, as well as dozens written by small, independent developers.
Of all the usability enhance-ments in Maya 4.5, the most significant are its gains in performance. Although Maya now supports dual processors for rendering and other computation-intensive functions, users will notice mainly that the program is simply faster and more fluid than it was, even on single-processor Macs. Actions such as painting 3-D textures onto surfaces with Maya’s delightful Paint Effects brushes are now fast and fluid. We enjoyed running Maya on an 800MHz Titanium PowerBook G4, whose ATI Radeon Mobility 7500 chip set was able to keep up with Maya.
Part of the reason for the change in speed and flow is the fact that we were running OS X 10.2; the other part is Maya’s greatly reduced dependence on specialized graphics cards with hardware overlays. To give credit where it’s due, we should say that we tested version 4.5 with the newest OpenGL cards — including ATI’s Radeon 8500 and the Nvidia-based GeForce4 Titanium, from Apple — on a dual-800MHz Power Mac G4. Both cards offered big performance gains compared with older cards and finally laid to rest our criticism about OpenGL on the Mac. We highly recommend adding a top-end OpenGL card to any Maya purchase.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
It’s true that Maya’s rendering features and performance need some work, and it will be some time before Mac users have access to the variety of plug-ins available to users on other platforms. But despite these relatively minor gripes, Maya Complete 4.5 is a must-have program for graphic artists or animators who are serious about 3-D animation. At a great price, the program adds many improvements — including cross-platform compatibility, subdivision surface modeling, and vastly improved performance — to an already impressive feature set.