Maya 7.0 – Wow!

I must say that after reading about Maya 7’s new features and watching the demo videos at Alias website, I got really excited about all the additions implemented in this, as some folks already noticed, probably the greatest release of Maya so far. Thanks, Alias!

Here are some highlights of the new features that I found particularly interesting and useful.

Full Body Inverse Kinematic Solver (FBIK), from MotionBuilder
Last year Alias has acquired the leading character animation software package from Kaydara – MotionBuilder. I played around with MotionBuilder a few times, and its full body IK solver was really amazing, aside from having a real-time animation playback. I loved FBIK’s ease of use and intuitive approach to character animation that was made possible with this solver. And now, it can be created within Maya, that’s just so great.

However, to successfully apply FBIK to a skeleton, the character needs to be modeled in T stance, meaning that his arms should be straight and horizontal, his palms facing down, and his legs also need to be straight down, and not spread out. Unfortunately, the latest character I modeled is not in this pose, so I guess it will be my last attempt at making my own skeleton rig, but all the subsequent character that I make will be optimized for FBIK.

Maya Paint Effects Based Toon Outlines
This is my favorite new feature and it is just plain awesome. One of the best aspects of Toon Outlines, is that they allow for a very nice preview in the viewport, and render extremely fast, as most Paint Effects do, using Maya renderer. Neat addition to the render window is that it now displays time it took to render the scene after the render is complete. There is a whole new Toon menu in the rendering menu set, and one of the items – perhaps the most interesting one – is the command to apply a paint effect stroke to the toon outline. This means that any PFX brush can be applied as a stroke to an object as an outline! Simply amazing, now just think about the possibilities here! Alright, here’s a simple example:

Here I applied a PFX modifier cube, which made the lines in the central part of the chair thicker. Note how the lines look painterly, with a nice width variation. Well, I should read the complete documentation on Toon Outlines first, but I was just so eager to play around and experiment. Anyhow, the more sophisticated use of these effects will be posted at a later date.
The Toon menu also offers a shortcut for creating several presets of ramp shader, which is great, because the default ramp shader usually doesn’t suit my needs and there are many things that I want to turn off, such as specularity and reflectivity. I’ll be working on substituting mental ray contours with Maya’s new Toon Outlines for my project, and perhaps I will write another tutorial on how to create toon shaders and outlines in GTA cover art style, but this time using Maya 7 and its great Toon Outlines. Very exciting, indeed!

Polygon Modeling Tools Improvements
Alias certainly tries to please the game content creators, by implementing the poly modeling tools in its every release. However, this latest release really pushed Maya forward, I believe, and is making it a preferred tool for many game companies. First of all, there are new edge selection tools. These tools let you select edge rings, edge loops and border edges. Previously only the command to select contiguous edges was available. The edge ring and loop selection tools are particularly useful when reducing the polycount, as the whole rings of edges can be selected with one click and collapsed. In addition, adding more detail to polygon models is now much easier with duplicating edge loop tool and split edge ring tool. Split edge ring is just the great addition to split polygon tool, because it now lets you split the whole loop of edges with one click.

Shift + right click now displays a marking menu with common polygon modeling tools. If shift-right clicked while polygon geometry is selected, the marking menu will feature menu poly editing options and tools, and while shift-right clicking without anything selected, the marking menu will show a list of polygon creation tools, including create polygon tool, and poly primitives, with the addition of all new poly primitives: pyramid, pipe and helix. I’m pretty sure these marking menus weren’t available in previous versions of Maya, but if they were, then I certainly wasted a lot of time for not using them. They are very handy.

Polygon UVs
Instead of accessing poly UV editing tools through Edit Polygons > Texture, Maya now has a new Polygon UV menu with some cool new tools, such as Unfold UVs, Grid UVs and Warp Image. I didn’t get to play with those too much yet, but have a feeling that they are very useful as well. And, wow, just to think that 3ds Max in it’s v5 still didn’t have a UV snapshot option, unless an additional plugin was installed. I’m not sure about the subsequent versions, but I still believe that 3ds is history. Go, Maya!

Skinning – Substitute Geometry
The possibility to skin a geometry to a skeleton and at a later time substitute it with a new geometry with different topology and level of detail, without losing weighting information – that is truly life saver! The option to substitute skinned geometry with similar one that has been further tweaked, allows animators to start animating at the earlier stage, when the modelers still haven’t completed the model, and eliminates the need to paint weight maps all over again when the new geometry has been skinned to the model. There are also several other implementations for smooth skinning, such as the ability to have influence color feedback (like XSI has – each joint is colored differently and the vertices affected by the joint inherit its color. Neat, but for me the weighing process worked well with only the grey-scale representation of influence on geometry). Also, Maya 7 allows you to rotate joints easily while painting weights, without having to switch to rotate tool, and, finally, multiple influence objects can now be added at once.

Deformers – Delete Non-Deformer History
The ability to delete non-deformer history is great when working with complex models that had to receive some tweaking or UV manipulation after they have been skinned. I hope this will improve the performance, since it will let us get rid of the history without destroying the effect of the deformers and skinning. And if it ever happens that I forget to delete history before skinning, it will not be the end of the world and I will not have to redo anything.

Transformation Tools
There is a new tool in Maya’s toolset of transformation tools: Universal Manipulator. It has its button at the main toolbox, and a shortcut Ctrl + t. It combines the functions of Move, Rotate and Scale tools. Additionally, it allows user to enter precise scale, move or rotate values in a text boxes in the viewort. The Move Tool has been significantly improved as well, because it offers the option to align the move axis to edge or face, to orient axis toward point, or to move along object’s axis. I wish the same functionality existed for Rotate and especially Scale Tools, because it makes component transformations much easier.

Render Layers
There are great improvements in terms of render layers usability. They now allow the use of different renderers for each layer, and per layer overrides of object’s materials, which means that I can now have one object assigned to different render layers and for each layer the object can have different shader. I find this very useful with toon style rendering, because I will be able to have different Ramp Shaders applied on single object, as opposed to animating the Ramp Shader’s colors when, for instance, the lighting conditions change. The render layers will let me use mental ray for contours and Maya’s renderer for Toon outlines, all in one scene. But the most amazing thing about render layers is that the rendered image sequences can now be output as layered PSD files, with render layers or render passes (for shadows, diffuse, ambient, specular, outlines etc.) corresponding to Photoshop layers. Those layers could be set to different blending modes, if needed, or manipulated in After Effects separately.

These are not the only new features. Basically, every aspect, from modeling to animation and dynamics has been implemented significantly. I am already trying to devise a new workflow for my current projects that will take advantage of all the new stuff available in Maya 7. So it’s time to go back to work.

Oh, didn’t I mention that you can now convert Paint Effects strokes to NURBS?! Awesome. Maya rulez!!!


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