Maya 2015 Impressions – One Generalist’s Thoughts…

3D software has become increasingly versatile and thanks to Autodesk purchasing the big 3, (3DS Max, Maya, and XSI) it is becoming apparent that many more changes are on the way. With Autodesk discontinuing XSI, there is a need to fill the void that frustrated XSI users feel at the loss of their favorite app. Thankfully, Maya’s feature rich update appears to be in the right direction, and is setting itself up to really manage most functions an indie startup or 3D artist would need.

(I’m only thankful because Maya is my personal favorite app.  As much as I’m not surprised by Autodesk discontinuing one of their products, I’d like to give a big shout out to all the artists that are now displaced by losing future releases of XSI.)

Not quite an all in one, Maya 2015 still manages to really offer a robust toolset to the 3D artist, removing the need for outside apps, and ultimately simplifying the process altogether.

Disclaimer

First and foremost I should apologize for any features that may have been in prior versions of Maya that overlap in these impressions. I’ve been working in different iterations, but I skipped 2014 completely. I’ll try to stick with the newer features, but I did notice that many of the features have been tweaked to offer fewer bugs and better support.

Viewport 2.0

If you aren’t familiar with it yet, Viewport 2.0 is the answer to a plaguing problem I’ve always had with 3D content creation packages. Why does everything in the viewport have to look absolutely awful until render time. Especially when you consider how far game engines have progressed in realtime graphics, we should see better solutions when working on the fly. There are many uses for this, and despite the fact that it does eat up cycles and slow down your computer. GPU support and development has really pushed this type of technology, and it can be extremely useful when using it for pre-visualization and presentation. (Viewport 2.0 is similar to the ‘Nitrous’ viewport in 3DS Max)

Let’s say you are working with a client that doesn’t have a very big imagination. After the usual disclaimers you try to explain to them why your C4D comp has nothing but grey or strange patterns, and why it will look better after you build all your shaders and actually light the thing. Of course they don’t understand it and you end up wasting valuable time explaining what you know will be fixed in the end anyway. Enter Viewport 2.0. Although it’s been around since 2011, Maya 2015’s Viewport 2.0 build feels more stable than previous iterations, and so far I haven’t had the need to revert back to the legacy viewport(other than for testing). Most items that you need to see in view are available, and new options to disable them during playblast or or Hardware Rendering are a nice touch. This makes prototyping fun and much more visually pleasing to you the artist and the client.

The primary functions of Viewport 2.0 that really stand out to me are as follows:

• Ambient Occlusion – shadow “casting” where geometry is in close proximity
• Anti-Aliasing – to remove those pesky jaggies that muddy up the viewport
• Motion Blur – creates a tad more polished feel before sending to a client.
• ShaderFX Support – Create real-time shaders & materials for game quality assets.

The other features are also nice but these specifically help immensely with presentation.

DirectX 11 Shader (Ubershader)

Turbosquid alien model, displayed using the DX11 Shader.Originally this shader was released as part of subscription customers who had Maya 2013. Thankfully it is still included and is a great way to test textures and visual development before exporting/rendering into a better renderer.

DX11 Shader Features not limited to:

• Multiple Reflection Types
• Multiple Refraction Types
• Fresnel Reflections
• Blended Normals for Realtime Subsurface Scattering Effects
• Tessellated Displacement, amazing but a bit beefy on graphics performance
• Spec and Diffuse controls
• Bump/Normal Mapping

The primary limitations of this shader that I can see is that it is only renderable through Hardware Rendering 2.0. It is only available on Windows because it requires DX11. It only links up to 3 lights that I can tell so far, which limits how you can present it in certain lighting situations. However, achieving that level of fidelity in realtime is a wonderful solution for artists looking to conceptualize and remove the major technical hurdles that come with traditional rendering. It also presents an alternative to tools like Marmoset Toolbag which could help artists visualize before bringing it into an app like that.

Shader FX

Continuing on the discussion of DX11 shaders and Viewport 2.0, Maya 2015 now comes equipped with Shader FX, a new material engine that looks very similar to 3DSmax’s Slate and the Unreal Development Kit (UDK) Material Editor. Shader FX is an extremely robust material editor that gives developers lots of options prior to exporting to an engine. Now I’m still pretty new to that style of working, (I build most of my materials with Mental Ray) but at the very least, ShaderFX will allow developers to build and experiment with node based material profiles inside Maya before applying those materials in a realtime engine. These materials are designed to work as realtime game engine materials, which means you can create all sorts of awesome effects that will essentially play in your viewport, and they use the same kind of nodes and jargon you’d find in something like UDK. You’ll find many of the nodes and operations working very similarly. I’m not sure if you can bring these ShaderFX shaders into UDK or another through importing, although I would imagine that you should be able to. If not hopefully Autodesk is working on it. These shaders cannot be rendered unless you are rendering with the hardware render, but you can export UV-unwrapped textures through the editor, which is a nifty feature.

ShaderFX Editor - Sample node structure combining two textures into a mix, based on RGB comparison.

Modeling Toolkit and Multicut Tool

Maya’s updated Modeling toolset is awesome, and finally the former “Split-polygon Tool” has a new and improved brother, known as the MultiCut tool.  You can cut into shapes with ease and now modeling doesn’t have to be so reliant on order of operations.  Polygonal modeling still requires cleanup and optimization, but the new tools are great for laying down geometry very quickly.  Some features mimic applications like Topogun, which allow you to paint geometry on a surface when retopologizing.

UV Unfold that actually works

If you’ve ever tried unwrapping UVs in Maya with the unfold feature it can be frustrating to figure out. Autodesk finally fixed the unfold to work appropriately, and like other modern apps.

BiFrost FluidsMilk Pour BiFrost example scene

BiFrost really rounds out the Maya suite. Finally Maya has an in-software fluid solution. It’s had fluid simulation in the form of fire, gas, explosions, clouds, and dust, but getting a liquid substance with bubbles and spray was simply not feasible until this addition. BiFrost is also very user friendly after a quick viewing of the examples and tutorials in the help files. BiFrost also caches out particles in the background, which is a nice way to work, especially if you have a fast computer. Implementation feels relatively solid, although I will say that it does get bogged down pretty quickly when working with larger sets of liquid over big surface areas. If BiFrost remains a permanent addition in future iterations, it will likely improve fluid workflows dramatically, especially with better GPU support.

Bullet Physics Integration

The Bullet Physics library has finally been integrated into Maya natively. For rigid and soft body simulations this is wonderful news. The library calculates very quickly and allows for different kinds of “hulls” to be used for calculation on objects. It also allows for new rigid body sets, that give you more global controls of a body of dynamic objects.

Texture Deformer

One smaller but incredibly powerful new feature is called the Texture Deformer. I’m not sure how many other apps have a similar feature, but I’ve wanted one in Maya for some time now. Basically you can use an grayscale map to drive points in space on a surface. This can be used for a huge variety of animation and motion graphics functions. There were more primitive ways to do this in the past, but most were cumbersome and very difficult to visualize on the fly. Because it doesn’t rely on a shader, this function is completely renderable with any renderer. You will have to step up subdivisions for more noisy maps, but GPUs today can easily push millions of triangles, and for most applications this is a very useful and needed feature with tons of applications.Texture Deformer applied to a subdivided plane surface using fractal noise.

CameraShape Settings - Custom framebuffers created for outputing MILA passes through the camera.Mental Ray and MILA Shaders

One of the more impressive updates to Maya this time around has stemmed from Nvidia’s acquiring of Mental Ray. Mental Ray is a great physically accurate renderer with a lot of flexibility, at the price of ease of use. Even seemingly simple scenarios can be very tedious and slow moving when setting up a Mental Ray scene. Especially if you are new to rendering and Mental Ray is your first real experience. In other words, you don’t break in Mental Ray. Mental Ray breaks you in.
Over the last couple versions, there has been significant progress to making Mental Ray more equipped for modern workflows. Things like V-Ray’s Progressive Rendering and ease of use are finally coming to Mental Ray in big ways. Unified Sampling and MILA Shaders are now integrated in Maya 2015.
Unified Sampling is a pretty heavy discussion, but if you’d like more info, see the link at the bottom of the article. As for the MILA Shaders, they are the new “official” way to approach material creation in mental ray, and they come ready to use with LPEs (Light Path Expressions). For more information on these please see the links below. LPEs have not been implemented without some slight work arounds, but in a nutshell, you can now extract additive framebuffers from a render, and use them for compositing with a near 1:1 visually accurate composite. For Example, lets say you want a character’s diffuse color tweaked, you can render out your MILA LPE passes and tweak the direct_diffuse of a given layer. It becomes powerful when you see that you can actually apply all the layers on top with a simple add mode, and it will look near identical to the beauty. You will still need the existing passes system for certain things like depth, shadow, motion vectors and others, but breaking down a beauty pass feels streamlined and easy to understand with these new MILA shaders. Also, since the MILA shader has a layered architecture that uses the same structure to achieve virtually any material, these same LPE frame buffers become uniformly valuable, among all material types. For more information about this awesome new system, check out the links below.Example of the layered structure of the new MILA material.

A Note on Maya LT

Autodesk released Maya 2015 LT, which is their self-described “indie developer” version of Maya. While the pricing is nice, ($795 to Buy) it lacks a lot of functionality. Upon it’s initial release, it didn’t even have Set Driven Keys available, which in this writer’s humble opinion, is a flat out travesty. They have since added it back in for Subscribers in their “Extension 1” updated. The modeling toolkit is all there, but animation was lacking severely. You’ll still need the regular Maya for FX related tasks as well.

A Note about Maya 2015 Trial on Mac

I tested the Maya 2015 trial on my Mac side only to be severely disappointed by rendering problems that were not apparent on my work computer with Windows 7 and a licensed up-to-date version of Maya. I don’t know if this is just a Mac issue, or if it has to do with the service pack being only 2 (currently the actual licensed version is on SP3), but I could not batch render passes in Mental Ray without having the renders fail, or say they were finished without finishing all the frames. The same file rendered just fine on a Windows 7 version of Maya, so there must be some big bugs to work out there.

Complaints

As with all 3D software, there are always bugs, glitches, and bizarre problems that can creep into scenes. For the most part I had a glitch and bug free experience, but I did notice a rather disturbing issue with the “masterLayer” render layer for Mental Ray. I rendered Mattes on a separate layer, with the same camera and object positions, but the “masterLayer” rendered slightly off, as if it had moved in perspective, despite no overrides and using the same camera. I had to create a “MasterBeauty” layer to ensure the mattes line up correctly. I had the same issue in two different scenes, so it appears to be a consistent problem, but I haven’t done further tests yet. I don’t recall this as an issue in prior versions either.

One other issue that was a bit of a pain was utilizing Image plane sequences to time out shots. I had to disconnect image planes that had sequences attached to them in order to actually batch render. For whatever reason, mental ray did not like image sequences messing with a batch render.

Most other glitches are hardly worth mentioning because they are of usual Maya flair. I found myself far more excited by the new features and integration than I did running into bugs.

Summary

This post shouldn’t be a definitive guide to all that is right or wrong with Maya 2015, but I have to say that I’m very impressed with the level of integration Autodesk has been working on to make pipelines faster, and reduce the number of needed programs to do more simple tasks. In general, it seems like 3D applications have some very buggy, bad releases, and every once in a while a very good, stable build comes along. This very well may be that version for Maya. At least on Windows anyway. There are enough new features to make your mouth water at the possibilities, and better integration of several features that have been developed over the last few years. Some nice changes coming to Mental Ray in the coming years too, like GI on the GPU(which is accessible now through string options), and hopefully better MILA pass integration. It’s exciting to see where we’ve come in the last 10 years. Thanks for reading and I hope this was a candid and pleasant look at Maya 2015’s new and updated features. If you have any questions feel free to comment below and I’ll do my best to provide any insight I have.

Links

Mental Ray, MILA, and LPE Concepts:

The Layering Library MILA Part 1

The Layering Library MILA UI Beta Shaders

Using Framebuffers with MILA

Framebuffers & LPE

Unified Sampling

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