Maya (Autodesk) is currently the leading animation program for cinema; nearly every studio uses it. It is known as difficult to learn, but it is possibly the most powerful 3D package. When studios use Maya, they typically replace parts of it with proprietary software. Studios will also render using Pixar's Renderman, rather than the default mentalray. Autodesk, makers of 3ds max, has recently acquired Alias—the original creator of Maya. Maya comes in two versions: Maya Complete and Maya Unlimited. There is also Maya Personal Learning Edition, which is for non-commercial use and puts watermarks on any rendered images.



What Is Maya?

Maya is 3D Modeling, Animation and Rendering software by Autodesk, who also produce similar and related softwares such as 3D Studio Max, AutoCAD and Mudbox. Maya is used primarily in the motion picture and video game industries to create digital characters and environments, and special effects. The possibilities are essentially unlimited, but Maya’s complex user interface and steep hardware requirements mean that it can take a lot of time and resources to become proficient. There are, however, dramatic animations and effects that can be achieved relatively easily.


What can an artist use it for?

If you’re a video artist or animator, the applications are pretty obvious. If you spend the time to get proficient with the software, it may end up changing the way you work entirely. However, installation artists, sculptors, photographers and even painters might find uses. For example, you can build a mock-up environment for your proposals and populate the space with your work and literally show people what you have in mind. You can build digital versions of a sculpture (of any scale) that can be adjusted without limits before committing to a final design. You can composite what you make in Maya with real-world photography or video to create fantasy scenes.


Before we get started, what are some other softwares I might use, and why?

Maya is pretty much the 400-lb gorilla of 3D animation (along with the custom software that Pixar and Pixar alone use to make Pixar films...). It’s incredibly powerful, but fairly expensive (though students can purchase a copy at a deeply discounted price if they want to use it after they graduate) and one of the tougher software softwares to get to know.

If money is an issue, there are two free softwares that might appeal to you. First is Google Sketchup. It’s a basic, basic, basic 3D modeling tool. It’s interface is designed for anybody to use, but it is pretty limited in terms of what it can do. There is a version called Sketchup Pro that costs money. There is also an open-source software called Blender that can handle 3D modeling, rendering and animation much like Maya. There’s no reason not to give it a try and see if it can do what you need.

If you’re looking for an engineering or design tool in place of an imaging tool, you should investigate Rhino, AutoCAD, or Sketchup Pro. These softwares aren’t as feature rich when it comes to making things move and turning out photo-realistic images, but they get the job done for visualizing real-world projects.


Maya’s Three Functions

As stated at the beginning, Maya does three things: Modeling, Animation, and Rendering. It does all of these tasks in a 3D work environment, allowing for the simulation of real-word scenes. The basic workflow goes something like this: Make amodel (or several models making up a scene). Animate what parts of your model require modeling. Set materials for your objects and lights and cameras for your scene. Render a 2-D image (moving or still) as final output. You’ll need a clear idea of how Maya’s three functions are defined to get started learning the software.



Modeling is making objects in a 3D environment. Maya works both with polygonal shapes and what are called NURBS surfaces.

Polygon models are made up of points floating in three dimensional space with lines and faces connecting the points (called vertices). The surface of polygon objects are flat planes, something like a cut gemstone.

                                    Polygons: Kinda Like This.

This means that polygon shapes are best suited for modeling rigid bodies with hard edges. However, buy creating a polygon model with an increased level of detail, you can use polygons to model objects with smooth surfaces and gentle


NURBS (Non-uniform rational B-spline) surface are modeled based on curves rather than points in space. They are a bit fussier to work with than polygons, but do an excellent job at representing curved objects.

Maya allows you to use either object in the same scene. You are not committed to one or the other when you start a project. You can convert a NURBS to a polygon, starting with one system and convert to the other. Modeling in Maya (and most 3D softwares) is usually a process of taking simple 3D shapes (Cubes, Spheres, Pyramids, Cylinders, Cones, etc...) and editing them and combining them with other simple shapes to make complex models. It’There are exceptions for advanced uses, but the basic process of combination and small adjustments will allow novices to accomplish a lot.

NURBS: Ideal for curved objects



Once you have objects in a scene, you can make them move using a lot of different systems. Animations in Maya can be basic--simple movements along X,Y, and Z axis, rotation around a pivot point, changes in scale, etc. At the same time, you can use Maya to build animations as complicated as they come, including rigging skins over virtual skeletons to create characters and simulations of fluid and cloth dynamics (make an ocean boil or a flag wave in the breeze).

Maya most fundamentally relies on keyframe animation to make things move over time in a scene. Keyframe animation should be familiar to people who have used other animation and video editing softwares, especially After Effects, Flash or even Final Cut Pro. Keyframe animation is a fairly simple system. You assign certain specific positions for an object at specific (“key”) frames, and the software automatically calculates the movement between the two positions. This system, if you haven’t used it before, simplifies animating dramatically and speeds up workflows by ensuring that you won’t have to assign a position for each object in every single frame.

Maya has a number of interfaces and tools at hand to edit keyframes and take simple animations to higher levels. You’ll spend the most time working with the Graph Editor early on, which charts all the keyframes and values of a given parameter of an object over time. You can move keys, scale their position relative to each other, delete them, add them. It’s a handy interface and once you get used to it, you’ll turn to it often.

The Graph Editor: What it looks like.



Rendering is, fundamentally, Maya’s output stage, but you’ll make a lot of decisions about rendering while you’re still building your scene. Choosing materials for your objects, setting lights and positioning cameras are all considered part of the rendering phase (though you can certainly animate cameras and lights).

Cameras and lights will be surprisingly intuitive for folks who have worked on video and still photography projects in the real world. Maya allows you to simulate many features of real world cameras, including angle of view, aperture (and depth of field), shutter speed and motion blur. Lighting options include spot lights, point lights (which radiate lights in all directions), directional lights (simulating strong sunlight) and ambient lights (providing soft, diffuse lighting).

Materials are less intuitive, especially since many of the options have exotic, technical names like “lambert”, “blinn”, “phong”, and “phong e”. The difference will essentially come down to what kind of real-world properties and materials can be simulated with a given material in Maya, including color (all materials give you this option), reflectivity, surface eccentricity (shininess), translucence, transparency and specularity (reflective highlights). The good news is that Maya gives you the options to simulate just about anything that exists in the natural world.


Once you have established all of the objects, materials and lighting of a scene, you will have to render the scene (still or moving) in order to get a workable 2D image from your 3D scene. You can control resolution, render detail, file format and a variety of other options when you output, and you can choose to use your system’s video hardware (typically faster) or your system’s CPU (typically higher quality) to process the render.

Rendering in Maya can often take a very, very long time. Simple scenes render faster, but complicated scenes rendered at production quality might take a few minutes per frame. When you consider most video projects are 24 frames per second or more, just a few minutes of video becomes a very large project. This is a reality of working with 3D imaging software, and you should factor time for rendering into your project schedule. Faster processors (and more of them) can help quite a bit.


What kind of hardware do I need to make this work?

Maya can be one of the most demanding applications a computer can run, but you can still get a lot done on a budget. Maya exists in both PC and Mac versions. There is no clear cut answer as to which is the better option, but if you’re on a budget you can get a lot more power for your money in PC land. Maya will use different computer resources at different stages of the project. When you are working on the scene, a powerful video card (the NVidia Quaddro series is the industry standard) can make a big difference. You’ll be able to navigate your scene more smoothly and see a better representation of what you’re working on (the scene in Maya’s interface will never look exactly like the render...). When it comes to render time, it’s processors, processors, processors. The more muscle under the hood, the faster your render will happen. Surprisingly, RAM is not a major influence on Maya’s performance unless you’re working on something exceptionally complicated. However, RAM is just about the cheapest upgrade you’ll ever make to your computer. If you’re building a machine to run Maya, you’ll probably want it to run After Effects and Photoshop as well (the three softwares are often employed together...), and a generous amount of RAM can really help out there.

Also, FYI, Maya’s user interface requires you to have a 3-button mouse. You can get one pretty much anywhere, but don’t forget that you’ll need one.


Sounds complicated. What do I do next?

No doubt that Maya has a steep learning curve, but there’s a lot you can do to help yourself out when you need it.

First of all, while you’re a student at MICA you can use’s vast library of instructional videos. Maya is particularly well documented. Get yourself a six pack and enjoy. There are dozens of hours of videos on every aspect of the software from novice to expert.

If you don’t totally understand a concept, try Wikipedia. The geeks of the world have made sure that Wikipedia is an incredible resource for learning the definition and history

of a huge variety of technical and computer oriented this and that. Maya’s various terminologies are well documented.

Speaking of geek communities, there are millions of user forums for Maya online. The pro users of this software often turn to each other to troubleshoot their projects. If you’re having a problem, chances are somebody else is having it. Just Google it.

Google: Useful. Not Perfect.


That’s all!

That’s all for the intro. There’s a helluva lot you can do with this software if you take the time to get to know it. Stay calm and enjoy yourself!