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April 2014
Issue: July 1, 2009

REVIEW: AUTODESK MAYA 2009

By: Dariush Derakhshani
PRODUCT: Autodesk Maya 2009

WEBSITE: www.autodesk.com

PRICING: US $1,995, Maya Complete 2009 (Standalone); US $4,995, Maya Unlimited 2009 (Standalone).
- Mental Ray archiving
- Maya Assets
- nParticles

I've been using Maya 2009 for quite a while, and there are new features that have immediately made my work life easier. Most notable are the enhancements to render passes and easy access to Mental Ray frame buffers. For example, you can output a render to a single OpenEXR file of your scene but have that file contain all the separate passes you need for composite work, from shadows to mattes to occlusion. And that's just from one render.

Previously, render passes needed to render separately from each other. Maya 2009's new frame buffer workflow extracts the passes during a single render of the entire scene. This is great for efficiency as well as organization and integration into compositors such as The Foundry's Nuke. And although this functionality could have been coaxed out of Maya/Mental Ray through custom coding, it's nice to see it in the UI and functional for coding luddites like me. It does represent a departure from the Render Layer workflow from before, but it is something fairly quick to pick up and become proficient in.

And don't let me forget about Mental Ray archiving! This feature of the Mental Ray renderer allows you to place low resolution in- scene proxies for complicated models while you work the scene file. The more complicated model is then loaded only at render time, so you don't have to struggle with large scenes. Again, this is a functionality that has been worked around before by coaxing the feature out of Maya through some MEL work, however UI integration like this opens the doors for many more people to enjoy working in stupid huge scenes.

NICE ASSETS AND MORE

And speaking of huge scenes, Maya 2009 finally incorporates an asset management system, called Maya Assets. Larger facilities typically have their own pipeline worked out that manages such assets; and some turnkey software such as OpenPipeline brought detailed asset management to those without the resources to code their own. Maya Assets will not really change anything for existing set-ups; however, shops or groups that don't already have their own pipeline will benefit from this feature. Scenes are not getting any less complicated over time, and delivery times are evermore unreasonable and short. Efficiency is king, and asset management is the cornerstone to large projects.

Maya continues to be a rich toolset for animators, and the efforts in the large grinding gears of Autodesk continue to show this fact. For example, muscle systems have already been introduced with Maya 2008 Extensions, but are now integrated into Maya 2009, giving animators comprehensive musculature options when designing and rigging their characters. In addition, from the MotionBuilder bag of tricks, Autodesk has included Animation Layering. Just like Render Layers, Animation Layers allow you to create and edit animation in your scene without destroying any previous work! This is a great feature that at the very least allows animators, and the producers pushing them, to try more things without the hassle of new scene files every time. What's more, animation from layers can easily be blended or merged together so you can always "split the difference" to satisfy a client, if not to lose a little bit of your artistic soul in the process.

UVs, the bane of my personal existence, have gotten a little easier to deal with in Maya 2009. And while hardcore texture and modeling folks may still turn to software such as Headus to help their UV work, the more general Maya user will find easier unfolding and layout options for their UVs right in the Maya UI, including an interactive mode. Even still, I'll continue to force interns to do my UVs.

And a final notable addition to Maya 2009 will make many effects people happy: nParticles. Building on the Nucleus system, nParticles are the next step in dynamics for Maya since nCloth was introduced. I'm impressed by the streamlined workflow nParticles now affords me. What used to take several steps to create with Maya particles (including some expression writing) I can now do with half the steps with nParticles. That just makes much more sense to me. The dynamics under Nucleus seem to run much tighter than before, and the collision abilities amongst all n-based dynamic objects are fantastic. Heck, now you can have self-colliding particles straight out of the box. This opens the door for a lot of fluid-based effects, as well as an easier workflow.

FINAL THOUGHTS

All in all, Maya 2009 is the next logical step in Maya's upgrade march into the future. Nothing in particular will blow you away; however the doors have been opened wider to more general users and smaller shops in several key areas: rendering, animation and dynamics. By opening the UI to features like render proxies, asset management, easier particle workflows and Mental Ray frame buffers, Autodesk is putting more power in the hands of the little guy, and this is critical in such a competitive market. But is it getting too late? Maya's foothold has been slipping in small studios, giving way to 3DS Max, in particular.

It will be interesting to continue to watch how Autodesk leverages the power of XSI and 3DS Max in future Maya features. Some have said if you smack Maya's front-end onto a 3DS Max back-end, you'd have the perfect software, though others would look to XSI for a more modern UI overall.
Autodesk, if you're reading this, call me…

Dariush Derakhshani is VFX Supervisor/Head of CG at Radium in Los Angeles. He can be reached at: dariush.derakhshani@radium.com.