Alias|Wavefront Maya 2.0 Improves Functionality

The main concern for me as a Technical Director is always the final product. The last ten percent of production tends to become the deciding factor between a very good animation and a truly great one. Alias|Wavefront’s Maya Version 2 is a program that puts more power in the hands of the artist and helps achieve that extra push. I was excited to get to review Maya 2.0 NT because I have used Maya 1.0 since its first Beta trials and have been waiting for the day when it would be the leading off-the-shelf 3D package on the market.

Maya 2.0 NT represents a great leap forward, with vastly improved features and simply amazing new functionality. It is still not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but 2.0 takes a very important stride towards establishing Maya as a major 3D package on the market with a wide array of appeal to modelers, animators and effects artists. No longer carrying the dreaded 1.0 moniker, it has its eyes set on becoming the leading package out there.

Maya does have some flaws: It has yet to achieve the quality rendering that Renderman, Mental Ray or even the venerable Lightwave are able to offer. But

it does improve upon its predecessor and enables the artist to wield some amazing new toolsets. Maya makes some basic but fundamentally important strides beyond version 1.

First and foremost, it has multithreading rendering that can use more then one processor per render. This is a huge step because with version 1.0, if you had more than one processor, they were simply an expensive yet useless waste of space. Now, if you are pushing a dual or quad processor machine you are can take full advantage of your investment. Alias|Wavefront has yet to resolve network distributed rendering for NT. Discreet 3D Studio MAX has a great Render Queue system which hopefully Maya will adopt in the future-I know that they are working on something similar.

On the Irix version Maya employs its Dispatcher network rendering utility. But if you are using Maya for production on NT, you’d better get a good intern who is willing to babysit your machines or, at least, someone who can come up with a script to write out batch files for you. Without the ability to network render quickly and simply, it can become a production house nightmare, which I have seen firsthand.

Now, Maya 2.0 does seem to produce faster render times then its predecessor. I imported a Maya 1.0 file into Maya 2.0 and it did render more quickly but it also brought the tessellation settings down which made it look very jaggy and aliased. To correct the render, I had to change a setting in the Attribute Spreadsheet to the geometry that was causing the ugly renders. This is not necessarily a bad thing because Maya 2.0 does give the user much more say so over the way the geometry is being rendered, and allows some great tweaks.

This is the way it should be, because it then becomes the artists’ job to learn how to make their scenes more efficient and render-time friendly. Remember that if you can bring your beautiful scenes down a bit in render time your System guys will be your new best friends and it will allow you more time to play Quake on the network. The render quality has not been greatly improved: it is more streamlined but does not greatly surpass version 1 which is a bit of a disappointment.

However, Maya 2.0 includes its IPR (Interactive Photorealistic Renderer) add-on, which in my book adequately compensates for the renderer. IPR is actually an older rendering system from Wavefront that allows you to manipulate the rendered image after you actually render it. I attempted to use the older IPR system that was a standalone package when I was working on Alias Studio many moons ago. Unfortunately, the manual read like stereo instructions so I quickly put it away. What is so beautiful about Maya’s IPR is the way it is integrated into the program. With one quick touch of the mouse you can render your scene using the IPR renderer.

Now, what exactly is IPR? Well, once an image is rendered via IPR you are asked to select a region to begin processing. When you select the region you can then change most settings in your multilister such as lighting and shaders and see the image update almost instantly without having to wait for a new render. This is one of the most powerful and useful additions to Maya 2.0 by far. It truly cuts down on wasted time and allows the artists to really get down and dirty when it comes to tweaking.

Once you are satisfied with the IPR render you can then render the image with the standard Maya renderer and it will have the same changes. IPR is not meant to be the final output renderer but rather to be used for shading and lighting fixes until the Art Director is happy.

Some of the added features in Maya 2.0 rendering is Depth of Field which was only found in Irix release 1.5. It is a render hog and can multiply render times by a factor of five if not more based on the scene and the camera settings but for anyone attempting to get the photorealistic look “in camera” it is virtually impossible without it.

Another excellent add-on is the ability to choose between 2D blur and 3D motion blur. 3D motion blur is beautiful but very, very costly during rendering. Whereas 2D motion blur is a post-process that takes 2D vectors into account and blurs the image pixels accordingly, very fast and very effectively.

Maya 2.0 also has the ability to render a separate shadow pass which gives you far more control of the final image. Most professional animations are rarely ever completed “in camera” and generally are rendered in passes and then composited together later on; this makes the task a bit easier. It is nice to see that some of the plug-in scripts that were available for 1.0 are now integrated in 2.0 such as the render diagnostics, which will evaluate your scene and give you tips on how to speed up the render and diagnose any potential errors you may encounter.

Particle replacing is another ability for effects artists: You can now replace particles with instanced geometry so you can get that really “chunky” explosion look that everyone must-have. Maya 2.0 also has some presets within the particle f/x such as fire and smoke which is reminiscent of Alias Studio which had an amazing palette of preset particles that gave you a great foundation to create photorealistic particles without a whole lot of experience.

Maya has improved and streamlined some of its animation tools and editors and modeling. Some of its new GUIs seem a bit painful to navigate with.

The new Hypershade is a hierarchical way of creating and editing shaders and lights but in all honesty it is not as quick as the multilister and in a complex scene is a good way of getting a migraine. It is a good tool to find visually how shaders are linked together in your scene but can be a nuisance trying to create new shaders and link attributes to one another.

The new light linking system is supposed to be a vast improvement over the system that was used in 1.0 but it too can be quite messy in a big scene. It is a good method to use to observe the links but it is a pain trying to link lights-although the ability to now link lights to geometry instead of solely on shaders is very useful.

Now Maya 2.0 comes in two flavors: Maya Complete which includes Maya 2.0, Maya F/X and Artisan which in version 1.0 were sold separately but which everyone knows should have been included in the base version originally. The big brother and more expensive version of Maya Complete is Maya Unlimited which not only includes the aforementioned tools but also Maya Fur, Maya Cloth, Maya Live, Powermodeler and 2 floating rendering licenses.

Maya Cloth, Live, and Fur are stunning and bring Maya’s production value through the roof. Powermodeler brings some of the most powerful tools of Alias Studio directly into Maya such as curve networks, N-sides and Birails and the new ability to create Nurbs booleans is a very powerful asset.

Maya 2.0 is an excellent up-date of a good version 1. Maya 2.0 is a great leap forward and brings the package one more step closer to the best all-around 3D package on the market. Alias| Wavefront has some more issues to work on but Maya 2.0 is capable of handling most productions from inception to final output in stride. It will only get better and stronger. You could sit and wait for Sumatra, or you could dive into Maya 2.0. It’s a 3D package that is no longer in its infancy and can bring a strong suite of abilities to your production.

Alias|Wavefront’s commitment to improving it on a timely basis and their smart decision to make the price tag reasonable to almost any serious production is another huge selling point. It is an intuitive package replete with great all around ability from modeling to character animation and on to effects creation. Maya is definitely the present and future of 3D production.

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