Review: Autodesk Maya 2014
Vastly Improved Modeling Tools Make This a Most Welcome Upgrade
Autodesk Maya 2014 is a genuine milestone upgrade. This release plugs the gaping hole that has existed in Maya's polygonal modeling toolset and continues the refinement of its character animation tools with a Grease Pencil and new Joint Tool options. But there are many more great updates, such as better viewport performance with enhanced DX11 support and improved asset management with Scene Assembly tools.
Polygonal Modeling for the 21st Century
While Maya has a comprehensive modeling repertoire, its polygonal modeling tools have been in dire need of an update for some time. In fact, even 3ds Max, which is considered a modeling powerhouse, has only recently had its polygonal modeling tools updated with the advent of Graphire Modeling in the 2011 version.
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In spite of its popularity and prowess in animation, Maya has lagged in polygonal animation tools, forcing artists to use other applications for this important task. However, Maya 2014 goes a long way to updating its polygonal modeling workflow with innovative tools like Quad Draw.
The debut of applications like Luxology modo, with its innovated approach to polygonal modeling, may have spurred an industrywide "less is more" attitude toward polygonal modeling. Ever since modo, applications have been making the move to a more streamlined and intuitive polygonal workflow.
However, Maya is late to the game. It is difficult to get excited about modeling tools that have existed in other applications for years; nonetheless this release delivers awesome polygonal modeling tools based on digitalRaster's NEX modeling engine.
Some of my favorites include Quad Draw, which makes it easy to create quad meshes by simply laying down an initial matrix of vertices. Quad Draw also intuitively edits meshes by adding, deleting, and merging mesh components (vertices, edges, and polys), and its tweak mode is a super-fast way to edit. Also noteworthy is the ability to easily retopologize existing models with the new modeling tools and/or by using the parametric Mesh Reduction Options dialogue.
In Maya 2014, symmetrical modeling is not limited to the standard XYZ planes. Edges can be used to define the plane of symmetry, even on posed models. As with standard modeling, component highlighting is improved in symmetrical modeling. The really cool new symmetry tool is Symmetrize, which mirrors the topology of a group of polys across the plane of symmetry.
A bevy of utilitarian improvements include Freeze Transformations, which prevents common problems with transform functions like flipped normals. Selection and selection-highlighting of objects and components is greatly improved, including Soft Selection. The object manipulator on component selections now allows interactive transformation. Along the same lines, component selections are "remembered" in the same object or in different objects, and Select Similar (from the Edit Menu) makes the tedious job of selecting similar components in different objects easy, almost as if editing instances.
This entire review could be written just about the new polygonal modeling tools. There are many more significant modeling features that bring Maya up to par with 3ds Max and other applications in terms of modeling. So now, Maya artists can work entirely in Maya, from modeling to animation, without having to leave their favorite application.
Remarkable Paint Effects Options
Maya's Paint Effects has been drastically improved, with new options to control how paint strokes interact with each other and scene objects. Surface Snap makes paint strokes grow from their base on the nearest surface point of an object. Populating a scene with trees, for example, is much easier than before. Surface Attract causes stroke objects to be attracted to surfaces so that they cling to or wrap around dynamically, as in vines growing on a wall. Paint Effects strokes are smart in that they are aware of the space occupied by other strokes, thereby avoiding self-collisions. Even more cool, with Make Collide, Paint Effects strokes can react to moving objects in real time. Overall, the new Paint Effects options make working with this complex tool easier and less time consuming.
Maya's Paint Effects got much better in this release with new options like Surface Snap, Surface Attract, and Make Collide. The new options give artists more intuitive ways to deploy Paint Effects objects.
Improved Viewport Performance and Real-time DX11 Support
Maya 2012 introduced the high-performance Viewport 2.0, which improved real-time display of large datasets and support for advanced Maya render nodes like PTex and CGFX. In Maya 2014 Viewport 2.0, debuts support for even more Maya render nodes, like the 2D texture nodes Bulge, Cloth and Noise, more 3D texture nodes, and a myriad of utility nodes. Improved texture filtering allows even faster and higher-quality texture display.
Maya 2014 improves Viewport 2.0 performance with support for additional render nodes, but more important is full support for DX11, which means game developers can preview their assets in Maya as they would appear in a game engine.
Real-time application developers, such as game developers, will love the ability to preview DX11 shaders inside the Maya viewport. All aspects of the DX11 shader can be easily accessed and adjusted to create textures and preview them as they would appear in a game. This is a huge time saver.
Better Asset Management
Displaying dense scenes, like a detailed cityscape, is taxing on any system. To improve viewport and processing performance, Maya 2014 debuts Scene Assembly tools that allow artists to swap out and display representative instances of scene assets at varying levels of detail.
The new Scene Assembly tools are designed to improve performance by allowing artists to decide the level of detail with which scene assets are displayed.
Scene Assembly tools use Assembly Definition nodes as containers that organize and allow access to various instances or scene representations of stored assets like models. On the other hand, Assembly Reference nodes organize and combine Assembly Definitions into scenes. Together they work seamlessly to minimize system overhead, but be warned that the Scene Assembly tools learning curve can be steep.
Animation Always Improves in Maya
In Maya 2012 and 2013 there were significant improvements in character and particle animation tools. While this release focused on polygonal modeling and performance, there are important new animation additions in Maya 2014, like the Grease Pencil and Joint Tool.
This release focused on polygonal modeling and performance updates, but Maya 2014 still delivers new animation tools like the Grease Pencil for marking up animations on screen and new Joint Tool options like Snap To Projected Center for faster rigging.
The Grease Pencil allows animators to quickly block out an animation by sketching it in the viewport at specific key frames and then using the sketches as reference while animating. The sketches may be toggled off and on, onion-skinned, and saved. Further, directors may use the Grease Pencil to mark up animations to communicate changes to the animator. Though the Grease Pencil is a neat idea, it isn't a novel concept — Blender features a similar tool.
Maya's character-rigging toolset just got better, with improved joint-centering and symmetry options. The new Joint Tool option Snap To Projected Center automatically finds the center of a volume of an object, such as a limb, and projects new joints into the center. While the rigger is placing joints along one axis, Maya takes care of joint position in other axes. In addition, the new symmetry option allows riggers to quickly create and edit rigs symmetrically. These new additions to the Joint Tool will make rigging a bit less tedious.
In my opinion, just the new modeling tools are worth upgrade to Maya 2014 — but then, as a modeler, I may be a bit biased. All kidding aside, Maya 2014 delivers important performance updates to the viewports with DX11 support, better Node Editor workflow, optimized asset management for heavy datasets with Scene Assembly, cool animation improvements with new Joint Tool options, and remarkable new Paint Effects options. That's quite a bang for your buck.