Autodesk tidies up Maya 8

At first glance, Maya 8 doesn’t seem to offer any exciting new features. The new owner, Autodesk, has paid more attention to tidying up the software and ensuring it integrates better with its other apps. However, that doesn’t mean the new release doesn’t have its uses, says Chris Jupp, 3D Maya animator at Showtime Arabia.

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By  Chris Jupp Published  October 17, 2006

I|~||~||~|Maya 8 differs to previous version in two ways. It is the first offering under the banner of Autodesk and it is the first 64 bit version of the Academy award winning software to hit the market place. The new tool sets seems a little slim compared to the usual endless lists of upgrades and enhanced features one is used to in previous releases and if you search the response to Maya 8 a significant number of Maya users seem disgruntled at the relative shortness in the ‘what’s new’ section. Do they have a point? The fact of the matter is that most of the new features seem to be far more subtle and under the bonnet in nature. It’s rather like the Maya programmers have carried out a big tidy up; fixing and finishing off a lot of lose ends. You start using Maya 8 wondering why you’ve upgraded and several weeks later you wonder how you could ever go back to the previous version. Dig deep into Maya 8 and you’ll see there are a large number of useful extras and valuable improvements. And then, of course, there is the matter of it being 64 bit. Let’s go over the new features first and then finish up with an overview of 64 bit and what it means to the graphics world. Transfer Polygon Attributes allows the user to transfer UVs, colour per vertex and vertice positions between models of different topologies or detail. The feature ‘transfer’ is actually present in previous versions of Maya; however, the implementation of differing geometry detail or topology means that extensive additional modeling of characters can be carried out and UVs copied from earlier versions of the model. Also, extremely important to game developers where there are often three versions of the same character with different levels of detail or LOD, UV maps can be copied between low-res and high-res models, something that had previously been carried out by hand. ||**||II|~||~||~|Geometry Cache allows for the positional data, XYZ of vertices and CVs to be recorded to the hard disk. A complicated character with a rig, bundles of deformers and an array of blend shapes will take time to update on every frame. By caching, you’re allowing for much faster feedback since the computer already ‘remembers’ the positions of the surface rather than having to do any deformer calculations. The clever bit is that the cache can be edited in the Trax Editor so that any problems with the deformations can be highlighted and corrected by say the same character rigged and deformed in a different way that specifically corrects that particular problem. UV mapping has been overhauled; first, by rearranging the menu and secondly, by upgrading features such as the transfer function mentioned above. In the main menu, we now have Polygons and Surfaces replacing the once single menu Modeling. Within Polygons, we have Create UVs and Edit UVs. Everything has been nicely spaced and laid out in an orderly manner. Lots of nice little improvements such as the colour coding of overlapping UVs which is particularly useful for separating your UVs up. One thing to note when loading in an earlier model from Maya 7 is to always use Import rather than Open file. In fact, this is a good rule of thumb when bringing in scenes from earlier versions to later ones. The main menu has been upgraded. We now have Animate, Polygons, Surfaces, Dynamics, Rendering, Cloth and Customize. Go into Customise and you’ll quickly see that it allows users to create their own main menu. For instance, make a menu called Chris and put bits and pieces from all the other menus for your own use. You may also notice that a small square appears over certain icons connected to a drop down menu. This is useful for Maya newbies trying to find their way around. Render layers, in a sense, has been finished off in 8. Earlier versions added a tremendous improvement. ||**||III|~||~||~|With their addition, however, certain key features were missing, the most important being the ability to assign not only one but multiple render cameras to the layers and make copies of render layers so that modifications could be added to the copies. Now, you can set up any complicated render outputting all the passes any flame artist could ever want and still only have one Maya file to set off to render. Mental Ray has also had a few tweaks. An attribute called Scatter has been added to surface shaders. A quote from Autodesk says: “Subsurface scattering refers to light penetrating an outer surface and then being scattered diffusely beneath. This creates the look of a soft surface, often with a very subtle glow. An example of subsurface scattering is human skin, where the soft, porous quality and semi-translucent glow are essential to achieving a realistic look. Other surfaces that require scattering are leaves, wax and gel.” It must also be noted that hardware shader colour now reflects Mental Ray shaders and not that horrible green colour! On to modeling, which has had its extremely powerful tool set for constructing Polygons extended. New features include Bridge, which allows open edges to be connected with new polygons, effectively filling in breaks in a model. For instance, you can connect the lower body of a character to a modeled upper body. The edge loop tool had been enhanced by adding multiple edge loops and an offset version allows you to interactively space edge loops on either side of the selected loop. The soft modification tool now has colour feed back. Apply the tool to a surface and you can see the fall-off change from yellow in the middle to red allowing for intuitive feedback to an already powerful tool. Now, we move to 64 bit. Is this a significant step for Maya and what does it mean in terms of performance? In order to reap the true benefits of a 64 bit system, one must have a 64 bit application e.g. Maya 8, a 64 bit operating system or OS e.g. Windows or Linux 64 and a 64 bit CPU with 64 bit memory. ||**||IV|~||~||~|To begin with, there seems to be two main advantages to a 64 bit setup. The first is memory or RAM. The numbers give an insight into the possible future of computing power. A 32 bit application running on a 32 bit OS can utilise 2 to the power of 32 = 4 GB RAM. Half of that is given over to the operating system so really only 2 GB is useful to whatever application is running. A 64 bit application using a 64 bit OS can in comparison use 2 to the power of 64 bytes of RAM, which works out at around 13 billion times more memory than a 32 bit system. Bearing in mind that 64 bit memory is 60,000 times faster at accessing data than your average hard disk, you can see the potential. No one has terabytes of RAM on their computer yet. But it does mean that high-end PCs such as the BOXX technologies computers with 16 GB of RAM come into their own allowing for massive data sets to be manipulated. Secondly, there is something called scalable multi threading. Imaging your application is a customer in a shop and the CPU is the shop keeper. Whenever the customer asks the shopkeeper to carry out an instruction such as fetching an article off the shelf, it can be described as a thread. The application is requesting a service from the CPU. A 64 bit CPU has a longer data length than a 32 bit processor by 32 bits. This makes it 32 times more efficient in providing threads. The bottom line is that Maya 8 running on a 64 bit system would be twice as fast than if it where running on a 32 bit system with similar clock speed and memory configuration. On the down side, there is still no upgrade to fcheck, which I think is important. Even a sequence listing feature would be helpful. I checked out the help menus and found loading index took several minutes. This is probably something that they intend to correct in the bug fix release. I was also disappointed to see back burner not implemented with Maya. This is one of the biggest advantages that could have been offered from the MAX side. The advantages are there if you have a 64 OS and a dual 64 bit Boxx system to run it on with 16 GB of RAM to boot. The bottom line is that currently, big production companies will benefit from Maya 8 but it won’t be long before your average laptop also comes with 64 bit as standard. Maya 8 is available from MediaSys, Maya’s resellers in the Middle East.||**||

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