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Review: Autodesk Maya 2016

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Autodesk Maya 2016 has been out for a while now and I got to test drive it as part of my daily routine these past few months. This article covers some of my favorite feature highlights for theMaya 2016 release. There were a lot of changes, features and tweaks between Autodesk Maya 2015 and the new Autodesk Maya 2016. It was a major upgrade!

For those not already familiar, what is Autodesk Maya? In Autodesk's own words:

"Comprehensive 3D animation software. Maya® 3D animation, modeling, simulation, and rendering software offers artists a comprehensive creative toolset. These tools provide a starting point to realize your vision in modeling, animation, lighting, and VFX."

Basically, Autodesk Maya is an application hub for 3D digital content creation. Whether you're making a high resolution 3D hero character for a multi-million dollar effects shot while working at Industrial Light & Magic, or an animated company logo, Maya is involved. Skilled artists withAutodesk Maya can model, animate, sculpt, light, render, simulate particles, rigid bodies, fluids, fur, hair, forests, do extensive scripting and automation and more. Autodesk Maya is not only a powerful tool, it also has a large, supportive community.

A new GUI Look

The most immediately noticeable feature in Autodesk Maya 2016 is the interface looks different. There's all the familiar tools and menus present, plus a few new ones, but they're clad in a newer subtle icon theme. Icons also appear beside their respective menu items in the drop-down menus and marking menus. Furthermore, there is now better support for Maya to work on high resolution displays.

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Maya 2016 sports a new look and feel. Some menus have been combined and or renamed.

Mudbox sculpting tools in Maya

This is one of the biggest features for me, as I'm a modeller at heart. There's a whole set of new sculpting tools, largely borrowed from Autodesk Mudbox. While Maya has always had polygon sculpting tools since at least version 4.5, (circa 2002), and probably before that, they've never been much to talk about, because in those days workstations simply didn't have enough memory to make sculpting feasible for anything but the simplest cases. Things have certainly changed today.

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Maya 2016 now features many of the same sculpting tools from Mudbox.

Hardware matured and perhaps inspired by the primitive polygonal sculpting tools found in older versions of Maya, programs like Zbrush and Skymatter Mudbox hit the market. Autodesk acquired Skymatter and thus it became Autodesk Mudbox. In Autodesk Maya 2016, many of those sculpting tools have made their way back into Maya. In a way, coming full circle.

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These tool options, stamps, stencils and falloff controls should look very familiar to Mudbox users.

How do the new sculpting tools stack up?

In short, the new sculpting tools now included in Autodesk Maya 2016 are excellent. They behave exactly like their Mudbox counterparts but with some caveats. In fact, all of the default stamps and brushes are identical to the ones found in Mudbox. You can get a ton of mileage out of the new sculpting tools. At times I forget I wasn't using Mudbox, so much so that I would press the ctrl+d hotkey, which in Mudbox subdivides a mesh, but in Maya duplicates one. This took some getting used to. And yes, they work with a tablet just as you would expect.

So what are the limitations? For one, there aren't yet built-in tools in Autodesk Maya for extracting normal and displacement maps from a sculpt as one would normally do in Mudbox. There also isn't a convenient way to step up and down subdivision levels in the same way as Mudbox. You can sort of do it, but it's not as intuitive. Perhaps most critically, Maya isn't going to handle as much high frequency detail as Mudbox. On a decent machine you can push several million polygons with ease, but you're not going to be sculpting skin pores or fabric weave as you would with Mudbox. Finally, while there's support for Mudbox brush stamps, there isn't yet anyMudbox style screen-space stencils.

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Mudbox users should recognize most of these!

So is it really any good? Yes! A resounding yes! It's amazing and a welcomed set of tools. Just keep in mind that incorporating the new sculpting tools was never an attempt to replace a dedicated sculpting tool like Mudbox. It was instead an attempt at revamping Maya's legacy sculpting abilities. With Maya 2016, Autodesk accomplished this goal nicely. It makes creating blend shapes very easy. Just keep in mind you won't likely be sculpting textile weave level of high frequency detail in Maya.

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Maya 2016 comes with as I count it, 67 base meshes, many from Mudbox.

The tools are a vast improvement over previous legacy sculpting tools in Autodesk Maya. You can sculpt up some pretty crazy stuff without ever leaving Autodesk Maya 2016.

OpenSubdiv Updates

OpenSubdiv is an open source library originally written by Pixar to implement Catmull-Clark subdivision meshes. Last year with Autodesk Maya 2015 this became the default smoothing algorithm. OpenSubdiv is superior than the previous algorithms for several reasons, namely in that it is GPU accelerated. You can also interactively view certain types of displacements. This is all old news, as support for OpenSubdiv was added in Autodesk Maya 2015 but this year we got another big update...

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Maya 2016 features OpenSubdiv real time, locally adaptive tessellation. You can enable this per object, or globally.

New in Autodesk Maya 2016, is real time locally adaptive OpenSubdiv tessellation. With this enabled, a mesh will dynamically adjust its tessellation based on camera angle and distance. This gives you automatic level of detail on a per face/vertex basis that is fully GPU accelerated and all you had to do is enable it. This will work on appropriate hardware supporting DirectX11or OpenGL 4. If you don't have a GPU that supports these APIs OpenSubdiv will fall back on its default non-locally adaptive behavior.

What does all this mean?

It means Autodesk Maya 2016 gives you real time, in viewport, high fidelity perfectly smoothmeshes no matter how close you get to your model. Due to the GPU acceleration, you get this with almost no performance penalty. OpenSubdiv adaptive tessellation works with viewport 2.0, as well as Maya's legacy default viewport renderer. However to actually see the dynamically updating tessellation in a wireframe-on-shaded fashion, you'll have to use the default quality viewport.

Don't be confused: Adaptive tessellation occurs and works in viewport 2.0 just fine, it's just you can't see the wireframe-on-shaded edges being used for the hardware render mesh. You can still see the wireframe of your object as you model, and the perfectly smooth mesh, it's just not theactual wireframe of the render mesh the GPU dynamically tessellating. So unless you're trying to make the following screenshot, this is totally a non-issue.

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Maya 2016 features OpenSubdiv real time adaptive subdivision. You can enable this per object, or globally. You can only see the adaptive tessellation wireframe-on-shaded when using the legacy default viewport renderer.

Now, the down side is that OpenSubdiv adaptive tessellation is a real time only feature. It works beautifully when rendering in hardware through viewport 2.0, or even interactively during yourAutodesk Maya 2016 session, but once you render with something like Mental Ray theOpenSubdiv adaptive tessellation is ignored. For software rendering, you'll have to rely on the tessellation controls you already know and love. Mental Ray users of course could make use of the traditional Mental Ray approximation nodes if locally adaptive behavior was required.

For working interactively in Autodesk Maya 2016 - it's amazing! You get infinite resolution essentially free. The best part is that it's a perfectly smooth interpolation as it subdivides. There's no blocky popping as you would have with a naive algorithm or more traditional mesh swapping LODs. Finally, it works correctly with your textures just like it should. Truly awesome feature!

Hotkey editor overhauled

Autodesk Maya 2016 features a completely new hotkey editor. It's definitely an improvement! My only complaint is that I would have loved to have been able to right-click, or double-click the on-screen-keyboard to assigned or to modify things. At present, the on-screen keyboard just shows you that a particular key combination is assigned and what it is, but it doesn't let you directly edit it.

Instead, you edit hotkeys by navigating the list on the left to assign functionality to a hotkey combination. This is easy but I just expected it to work differently. On the plus side, you can now quickly create, change, revert, import and export entire hotkey sets. A useful feature indeed.

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The hotkey editor has been completely overhauled.

Hypershade Updates

Hypershade sees several updates including its own mini attribute editor and greatly improved shader previews. You'll also notice the graphed nodes have been updated. They are now displayed just like in the Node Editor from Autodesk Maya 2015. This means you get the ability to press hotkeys 1, 2, 3 with a node tile selected to show its attribute quick connect slots.

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Hypershade has seen quite a few changes. I especially liked the built-in mini-attribute editor and the node tiles being drawn with attribute quick connect slots.

New Evaluation Manager

There's now the ability to select from 3 different dependency graph evaluation modes. Basically, under-the-hood in Autodesk Maya is a dependency graph (DG). It's this giant web of nodes and their connections that define the entire Maya scene internally. This graph keeps track of stuff like which nodes are dirty and therefore need re-computed, which nodes are in a valid state, etc. This is all low-level stuff the typical end-user never interacts with. For a typical user things just work.

Now, with the release of Autodesk Maya 2016, things just work - but even faster. You can now choose to have the dependency graph evaluated on a single core, in parallel across all compute cores, and even take advantage of the GPU for things like standard mesh deformers when using Viewport 2.0. While not perfect for every scene, and in some cases a little buggy, for most scenes I tested the new parallel execution worked nicely.

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Why is this big news? On modern mutli-core systems this can make Maya process the scene graph much faster. For animators, this is even bigger news, as they will benefit from significantly faster in-viewport interactive playback speeds as well as performance improvements when animating and manipulating a complex rig. This is especially the case when dealing with multiple characters in a single scene as the rigs can often be evaluated independently of one another.

Couple this with the new performance profiler and it's a win-win.

Final Thoughts

Autodesk Maya 2016 is a huge and welcomed upgrade that touched on nearly every aspect of Maya. There was everything from the new Bifröst foam feature to the new Evaluation Manager, to the new Delta Mush deformer, the ability to export directly to Unity, color management, major animation evaluation performance improvements and probably a hundred other tweaks, features, API changes, etc. This article covered only a tiny fraction of new features. One could literally write a book on the new features alone. Users can read more at:

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