Maya 7 promises value for money

Chris Jupp, graphic designer at Showtime and an ardent Maya user, gives us the lowdown on version 7.0 of the software.

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By  Chris Jupp Published  March 25, 2006

I|~|Maya1.jpg|~|Topology Propagation for Blend Shapes allows an animator to re-model around the original surface of a character and automate the new modifications to all targets by applying ‘Baking Topology to Targets’.|~|Spend 30 minutes looking through the ‘What’s new in Maya 7’ section on the Alias website and it is easy to see that Maya 7 is one of the best if not most complex upgrades to date. There is such an impressive and broad sweep of new or improved features that it is quite a daunting task to review this mighty software package. However, the one thing I must say from the features I see is that it is very evident that Alias’s ‘listening to the user’ policy is very much still in effect. And there is not one new feature that a user can’t look at and say ‘that’s a great improvement and makes life more creative and generally easier for me’. Perhaps the best way to review Maya 7 is to split it up into the classic Modelling, Animation, Dynamics and Rendering modes. There is also, of course, Fur, Cloth and Hair to contend with. But on to modelling. First off is an extension of Marking Menus allowing the user to access the variety of new polygonal modelling tools. With the polygon selected + SHIFT right mouse click, you can get to an array of tools nicely grouped from the main menu. CTRL right mouse leads to new selection tools such as Edge Ring, which allow you to multi select edges as per its shape. CTRL right mouse with a NURBS surface selects leads you to CV and Border select. And it is also worth noting that SHIFT right mouse gives you Poly Primitives. It would, therefore, be logical to make CTRL right mouse give you NURBS, but maybe it is getting complicated enough already. There is also a navigation icon that allows you to change camera view by clicking and the when you frame an object, the camera will actually animate to the object allowing you to retain your 3D bearings. Text modelling has always been poor in Maya. Now there are two new features to counter this. In Create Text there is a Bevel type, which will create a beveled polygon version of your text with a ‘textForBevel’ node added in the history. This allows the user to change the font. On trying it a few times, I discovered that a few fonts produced didn’t work as well as they should have. Also, it doesn’t give you the NURBS output option. What does, however, work well is the new feature allowing instant beveling of Illustrator files. Given the fact that it is so hard to get history text to work in Maya, this is a very clever work around. In a sense, you are doing all the work in Illustrator, changing the font and so on, and Maya is simply importing the ai. file and beveling it. Surface Sampling is also a clever tool that allows very low resolution versions of a model to look (and react to light) in exactly the same way as a much higher resolution version. Imagine an intricately modelled stone wall with all the bricks and cracks in it. Surface Sampling allows you to place, in this case, a simple box around the wall model and then bake the surface into texture maps generated from the normals of the polygon faces of the simple box model and then map those onto the simple box model. What is more impressive is that when you cast a light source on to the proxy wall (the low res version), the detail reacts accordingly as per shadow and secular. ||**||II|~|Maya2.jpg|~|Maya 7 now comes with a Full Body IK option so as to ensure that if an animator pulls his character’s hand, the rest of the body will also be pulled along with it as if in real life. |~|There are a multitude of other improvements as well including a new array of Poly Primitives such as pipe and helix. Interestingly enough, no teapot, is available here. For MAX users who have recently gone over to Maya and miss the instance teapot, there is always the Paint Effects furry teapot brush. Alias always have to go one better. Now, let’s on to animation. If there is one phrase that describes what Alias is trying to achieve when it comes to the 3D pipe line, it would be non-linear. Two new features, which surprisingly don’t seem to be given much spotlight on the website, are Substitute Geometry and Topology Propagation for Blend Shapes. For studios involved in character animation, these alone will save an enormous amount of production time, and though it may seem like I’m over stating it here, they will dramatically change the look of future 3D character quality. Here’s why. Let’s address Topology Propagation for Blend Shapes first. In order to produce animation such as facial expressions, a technique called Blend Shapes or Morph Targets is employed. Let’s imagine we are going to animate a human face. Once the modelling is complete, the different ‘expressions’ are produced by making copies of the face model and manipulating the vertices or CVs into new positions to make a smile or a frown. The 3D software used will then blend or morph the original vertices or CVs position into any of the new positions or a combination. All fine and dandy until now except the modelling of the original face and the multitude of different expressions, usually around 20 or higher, can take a lot of animator hours. In fact, it can take several days. And the rule is that all the blend shapes have to have the same Topology i.e. number of vertices and CVs is the same and in the same order, for it to work properly. So if a director walks in and says “it’s great but can you put horns on the character’s forehead”, you won’t just be modelling horns on the original model but on all the blend shapes/morph targets you have so carefully crafted. You have to do all your blend shape again with the new horned face. But not anymore! Topology Propagation for Blend Shapes allows you to simply add detail (increase the amount of vertices/CVs) and re-model around the original surface and then propagate the new detail and modifications automatically to all your targets by applying Baking Topology to Targets tool. A very handy tool for animators, if you ask me. Substitute Geometry, on the other hand, deals with skinning. As well as your face you have modelled a body to go with it. Having spent several days carefully sculpting the muscles and contours of the body, you then bind the model to your skeleton and begin the time consuming task of assigning the varying weights to the vertices or CVs that make up your model. If Smooth Binding is used, usually the best choice for complex characters, the weight values are manipulated by painting on the model. To get the surface to deform in the correct manner is a tricky process and time consuming. And once you’ve completed the task, going back and remodelling or adding detail involves unbinding and then rebinding and loading on the weights again. Now, with Substitute Geometry, changes can be made to a duplicate, changes in topology included, and the copy substituted into the bound model with weights cleverly reapplied as before but allowing for the modifications. A useful pipeline that can be envisaged is lower detailed, rough models being bound to the rig and then animated. Then detail is slowly added by the modelers. This is once again an example of how Maya is allowing for a more non-linear approach to the traditional 3D pipeline. And now, with the improved array of polygonal modelling tools such as edge ring, adding detail to characters has become more powerful and intuitive. ||**||III|~||~||~|Motion Builder, software dedicated to a more automated character animation workflow has been acquired by Alias and their technology to an extent integrated in Maya 7. Anyone who has tried to sit down and watch the advance DVD on binding will know that it’s complicated and in the last few years much effort has been put into producing off-the- shelf skeleton/rigs that can automatically fit on to your character and drive it. Maya now offers a Full Body IK option that will essentially chain your skeleton together. The idea of Full Body IK is that if you pull the hand, the rest of the body will be pulled along with it as in real life. This makes posing easier (less to move and animate) and more realistic. Maya 7 comes with two examples — a character called Jackie and a Camel. I instantly thought of testing the Middle Eastern version. Each has a nice set of Effectors that you can select for posing. Improvements that I can see first off are the feet driving the movement of the Hip Effector with the classic Body.transZ = (FootLeft.transZ + RightFoot.transZ) /2 expression and attribute controls on the Hand effectors for fingers positions such as Point and Fist. One other little feature that is worth mentioning here is Normalise Curves. A constant frustration when manipulating animation curves is that the scale of say, rotate and translation attributes are often very different in height when viewed on the graph editor. Normalise Curves makes it possible to see the relative shapes of all curves selected irrespective of their individual value range. Now, on to Dynamics. Here, the best improvements have been done on Fur and Hair. Firstly what’s the difference? Fur in 3D is basically positioning thousands of tiny little strands on a surface that can react to fields and can be coloured so as giving a very accurate appearance of say, a lion’s mane. Hair, on the other hand, is a set of curves that can also be manipulated by fields, making them dynamic, and the Paint Effects tool can then be added along them. Maya 7 now offers an integration between the two by allowing Fur to be manipulated by Dynamic Curves (Hair) thus giving that lovely flowing hair motion (as per shampoo commercial) to Fur strands. Meanwhile, Hair now has an array of off-the-shelf hair-dos that can easily be dragged and dropped on to a character. This makes things a lot easier for animators unfamiliar with how to begin with placing Hair by giving them a head start. Modifier objects have been added to Paint Effects so that spherical or cube shapes can be used to manipulate various attributes of the Paint Effects strokes such as Width, Opacity, Tube Scale and Force. Imagine a monster running through a huge grass field. By attaching a couple of modifiers to the creature’s legs, one can create the effect of the monster pushing his way through the grass. One interesting thing here is that Paint Effects strokes can now be converted to NURBS and curve. I personally feel that there is so much more power when you can go to NURBS so this is a very welcome addition. Rendering is another important area. The most important feature here is the Toon Shader. This isn’t actually just a shader but a combination of modelling and rendering techniques that give an excellent rendition of that traditional cartoon look. First, we have our classic ramp shader, which allows for the model’s surface to be filled by one colour based on values such as brightness or facing angle. ||**||IV|~||~||~|This gives you 50% of your cartoon look. The other 50% is the outline, something that has only been attempted through shaders as far as I have seen but now a physical outline can be added with Paint Effects or a poly mesh. It seems to be using camera projection on to the surface to create the outline and then ‘extruding’ along it. To see how impressive this tool is, check out a couple of the characters in the examples and then press 5 for smooth shading. There is even a Modifier added which controls the line wiggle through its position. And now, to Render Layers. This can be one of the most complicated parts of the CG workflow, the rendering of all the different elements necessary for the final composite like shadows, reflections, specular and diffuse. The actual idea is fairly simple, objects can be assigned to render layers and each render layer can have its own renderer (maya, hardware, vector or mental ray) as well as start end frame, anti aliasing setting and material thus freeing you from having to save multiple versions of your Maya file. I put together a classic little compositing case to see how it would cope. A character walking on a table which should output Diffuse of character / Specular of character / Shadow of character cast on table (usually this is white on black) and a reflection pass (with alpha) of the character reflected in the table. Diffuse and Specular are very straight because of the presets, reflection a little tricky until I found you could actually override the Render Stats of different objects with in the same layer. And the shadow-pass impossible without being able to override the back ground colour of the camera. With more exploration, one is sure that the Render Layer feature will make it possible to have one maya file that will allow the rendering of everything you will need to do a composite. Render Layers also plays an important part in the new Maya-Adobe workflow. It is now possible to render out as a PSD layered file, which can be directly imported into Photoshop, and more importantly, After Effects. This means that all of your rendering can be broken down and organised in Maya and then ported straight into compositing, and when adjustments are made to rendering and then the PSD updated, you will see the result. Again the non-linear feel is prevalent in the Maya pipeline. This, by the way, also applies to Flash files much in the same fashion. All in all, Maya version 7.0 is full of useful, money saving and creatively enhancing tools. An upgrade is always measured by how much animators would want to use the new version. By the looks of Maya 7, one is certain that most Mays users would have decided to upgrade. Perhaps, one issue that Alias will need to look into, is the fact that Maya is now becoming a little top heavy. Rather like Softimage 3D before it gestated into XSI, Maya seems to be becoming ever so slightly chaotic with all of its features. Since Autodesk, the company behind 3D Studio MAX, has now bought over Alias, I am certain that between them, a new super 3D package is being planned for the 21st century. Until then, let’s hope that the next version of Maya will be lots of even better surprises. ||**||

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