Review: Autodesk's Maya 2017

Feb 16, 2017 at 11:04 pm by -gToon

As a young reporter attending his first computer graphics conference, I found myself at a table with several veteran writers and asked them a question, "What's so special about Maya that makes it the number one 3D application in the world?"

The answer I got, if you boil it down a bit, was twofold : One, Maya has the deepest tool-set for artists and designers and, two, the API for Maya allows companies to completely rework the application to fit any company's tool-set and workflow.

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The answers to this 10-year old question was on my mind as I was starting to write my review of Autodesk's Maya 2017. I'm not going to address the API as I'm not a coder, although please note that Maya 2017 now uses Qt version 5.6.1 and PySide version 2.0; but I do want to talk about how Maya 2017 adds significantly to the already incredibly deep tool-set of Maya 2017 in ways that are unexpected at times and definitely ahead of the curve compared to other 3D applications.

Autodesks's Maya 2017 was launched in July, 2016 at the Siggraph conference. The Maya 2017 help documentation (which is fabulous) lists many categories for new additions including Basics, Modeling, Animation, Rendering, Simulation and Maya Learning. Now we aren't going to address all of the new additions to Maya 2017 as it would make this review much too long, but I am going to focus on 4 areas: rendering, motion graphics, graphic interface (GUI) and the new Time Editor.

Maya 2017 What's New
The list of new additions and improvements is massive for Maya 2017. While I can't list them all (you can check the bulk of them out with Maya 2017's seriously good documentation) I do want to highlight some of the most significant improvements and the focus in on specific highlights that I think make Maya 2017 such a great new update. The video above is a good introduction to these new features.

Focus: Motion Graphics
One of most interesting additions to Maya 2017 is a continuing focus on Motion Graphics. Maxon's Cinema 4D has lead this market for many years, so it's good to see Autodesk giving them some competition. Updates for the Maya 2017 include improvements to the MASH toolkit, improved channel handling, several new nodes and partial export from Maya 2017 to Adobe After Effects. I really like how Autodesk is growing the motion graphics capabilities in Maya 2017. They are taking their time and getting the updates just right.

Focus: Time Editor
One of the most spectacular new additions to Maya 2017 is the Time Editor. The excellent Maya documentation describes it best: "The Time Editor is a non-destructive, clip-based, non-linear editor for editing animation at a high level. Unlike the Trax Editor, which requires Character Sets, the Time Editor frees animators by letting them work on any attribute with animation curves, whether it be characters, cameras, colors, and so on"

The ability to create, mix and edit animation clips in Maya like a non-linear video editor is a major advance for animation editors. You can even edit audio in the Time Editor. I found this new editing system to be an absolute joy to work with in Maya 2017. The possibilities for creative animation and the savings in time are huge.

Note: there are vastly improved tools for animators in Maya 2017 including a new "quick-rig" tool, an enhanced blend-shape deformer and a new shape editor. Check out the animation documentation here.

Focus: Arnold Renderer
With Maya 2017, Autodesk have removed the long-standing renderer, Mental Ray, and have replaced it with a more modern rendering system: Arnold. Since Arnold is a modern, physically-based un-biased rendering system, achieving photo-realistic results is faster and Arnold has proven itself a powerhouse in many major industry rendering systems.

Although those used to mental ray might find the transition a bit awkward, Arnold is fairly easy to use and the documentation both at Autodesk and at Solid Angle (creators of Arnold) is excellent. This should help new users make a smooth transition.

Focus: Workspaces
I'm so pleased that Autodesk is working to simplify the Maya workspace so users have an easier time interacting with this powerful 3D application. With Maya 2017, they've introduced "Workspaces" which are unique combinations of windows and panels in Maya 2017. You can create any combination and save it as a custom workspace. Since the workspace files are stored in the directory and not the scene, you can set up just about any configuration you like in Maya 2017.

Note: additional ease of use improvements include a new content browser in Maya 2017. This new browser is much easier and more powerful than anything previously used to search/find content.

Focus: Simulation and Effects
Bifrost is Maya's ocean simulation system which allows you to create realistic ocean surfaces with waves, ripples and wakes. Improvements to fields and mesh properties include Kill Fields, Motion Fields and new nodes for certain mesh properties.

I was also psyched to see some great improvements in liquid creation with Guided Liquid Simulations (much easier to set up) and physically correct viscosity.

Note: Maya 2017 also has major improvements to its Character Effects including Interactive Groom Splines for Xgen hair and fur creation making this difficult process much, much easier.

Some Final Thoughts on Maya 2017.
I have to admit I was apprehensive about reviewing Maya 2017. I had last used the program when it was Maya 2015 and although the program was obviously top notch, I found it difficult to use and, frankly, intimidating. Simply opening Maya 2017 with it's clearer interface, bright green new features and much better icons, made me feel like I was almost working with a new program. I'm so glad to see that Autodesk is committed to making Maya easier to use and to interact with.

For me, the new Time Editor and the addition of Arnold as the default renderer are stand-out features in Maya 2017. Being a video editor myself, I love the idea of using a non-linear approach to animation in Maya 2017. It's such a simple idea, but has a very powerful impact on how users can interact creatively with Maya 2017's animation system. This new feature alone is worth the price of the upgrade or first time purchase.

And it's easy to see why Autodesk chose Arnold for its default renderer. It's superior in practically every way to the older Mental Ray. I liked how easy it was to learn and on my NVIDIA Quadro M5000 card rendering just smoked in Maya 2017.

What has caused some stress in the 3D community is Autodesk's implementation of the Arnold renderer in Maya 2017. To quote the Autodesk Maya 2017 manual, "You can render a single frame or a sequence of frames interactively; however, batch rendering and calling from mayabatch.exe are not available and your images will appear with a watermark. To render images without a watermark, purchase Arnold batch render nodes from Solid Angle"

What this means is that if you want to batch render you have to buy a license from Solid Angle (creators of Arnold). Existing Arnold licences will work as well as other render plug ins, but the fact remains that if you working at a professional level and you need batch rendering you'll have to buy two licenses, one for Maya 2017 and one for Arnold. Not a pleasant prospect for smaller teams whose budget's are tight and who may have become very skilled in using Mental Ray.

Despite this slight stumble, I believe Maya 2017 is one of the most important releases of this powerful, industry leading 3D application. Autodesk has done an amazing job making Maya easier to use and more powerful for the 3D artist. I'm pleased to say that with Maya 2017, Autodesk has set the bar very high for other 3D applications to reach. There is strong competition from applications like Cinema 4D and Houdini, but there is only one Maya and with the new 2017 edition it is still the leading 3D application in the world.

Please take some time and try out the Maya 2017 demo to learn more about this do-it-all 3D application.

Autodesk was one of the leaders in moving to a subscription cloud-based model for their software. Maya 2017 is currently available for a monthly subscription fee of $185, a one−year subscription for $1,470 and two/three year subscriptions as well (note that all prices are in dollars). Multi-user subscription (or "Network Subscription") is also available, just not through the e-store. Users just need to contact their local sales or reseller contact for pricing information.

With your subscription you get access to the latest software releases, you get 1-on-1 online support (see all subscriber benefits). Single-user subscription is available on Windows and Mac OS X operating systems (see system requirements)

For those artists who might not have the funds for Maya 2017 and are focused on game creation, Autodesk has a nifty Maya LT version which doesn't quite have the firepower of the larger application, still has a lot of functionality and power, plus you get free access to the Autodesk Stingray game engine. You can find out more about Maya LT here.

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