How Maya almost made a zombie out of me in just four weeks…

DMiP – Autodesk Maya 2008

Just when I thought it was safe to take my brain off ice, the powers that be introduced us to Autodesk Maya 2008 – a 3D modeling program that has enough power to create some excellent 3D modeling scenes and also has the capacity to literally melt your brain! Insignificant next to the power of the force, but still, pretty scary!

“Start with something simple then”, I hear you thinking out loud. Good advice, I’m not ready to have my brain melted yet! So, we familiarise ourselves with the common short-cuts and tools. All one million of them!? Holy Toledo Batman, where to begin?

Maya Control Panel

Note the amount of Tabs, Tools, Buttons and Whistles!

Modeling

Houston, we are ready for launch! Ok, let’s bust a few moves and throw some shapes down! What is this? Breakdancing’ class! I teeter precariously over to the left-hand toolbar and see nothing I like. I venture north and see some shapes, I mouse over them; Sphere, Cube, Cylinder, Cone. It appears I have a choice of Polygonal shapes to play with. I set about fooling around with said shapes and after half an hour of doodling came up with this masterpiece….

Zeppelin model

Too many Indiana Jones films as a kid!

My my, what am I, 6 years old!? Just what on God’s digital planet is that supposed to be? I guess I was going for a scene from a Call of Duty style WWII game. You know the sort of thing, you and the platoon invading The Netherlands to have at Jerry, you’re held down in a bombed out church with a Zeppelin overhead. No? Ok, well anyway, I think I’m getting the hang of these shapes! But they look kinda boring and grey don’t they. Plus there’s just no atmosphere to the whole thing. However, Maya has unlimited power (almost) to light a scene, texture and colour the shapes, shift camera angles et al! This monster is a gargantuan behemoth! I think I’m hyper-ventilating at the thought of it all, have a look at this video our lecturer produced in Maya while I catch my breath….

Pretty impressive, eh! For fans of Doctor Who and other like-minded nerds (myself included), this example of Maya’s full potential is inspiring. However, it does leave me feeling like I should leave this kind of work to the dedicated professionals and not embarrass myself and my entire bloodline, by trying to compete in this particular area of creativity. Still, I’d be a fool not to look into this program a little further and see how one might light a scene, or render a clip etc, so I did!

Lighting

MayaScene

Typical basic scene - no light

Take this very basic scene. There are just a few Polygonal shapes placed into it. However we have selected the Spot Light from the Rendering tab and have placed it in an elevated position, pointing down at the shapes. The directional settings can be altered by pressing ‘T’ on the keyboard which activates the control nodes. By setting the Ray Trace settings in the Attributes tab to maximum and then increasing the light’s cone size to 100, I was able to light the scene up in a realistic way….

MayaLighting

The screen-shot of the scene, once rendered.

Without the correct instruction, even the simplest of procedures like this one, are difficult. There are so many tabs and options that the mind starts to sizzle when trying to remember where to navigate. Like many other programs, the more you look into the possibilities and potential of Maya, the more you realise that this platform requires some serious dedication and acumen.

Making the polygonal shapes look a little prettier is another fascinating string to Maya’s bow. Having fun with colouring and shading different shapes is probably one of the best ways to familiarise yourself with the various skins one can apply to texture the objects.

Texturing

MayaSpheres

Four spheres, each with a different skin applied.

By creating a sphere and having this new object selected, you can press Apple+D/Ctrl+D to duplicate the sphere. Repeat this step another couple of times and you have four spheres to texture in different ways (above). Here you can apply different textures such as the Lambert, Blinn and Phong effects to get different reflective surfaces on each sphere. Each texture preset has its own Render Node settings within which one can apply all sorts of colouring effects to an object. Shading, Grain Colour, Contrast, Spacing and much more can be tweaked and altered in the material attributes menu, enabling you to give your shapes and models a little more character and verisimilitude.

Putting It All Together

Having spent four weeks worth of lectures looking at this program, I’m starting to lose my mind. It’s not Maya’s fault, it’s mine! I’m just not cut out for this world of 3-D modeling. Being a Photoshop enthusiast and a fan of shooting photographs and footage, I find I haven’t enough time in one life to become familiar with another complex and powerful program. The friends that I know who have spent many a long night battling with and mastering Maya look like zombies. There skin is pale from too much exposure to a monitor in a dark room, I believe this is known as a “Tekkies Tan”. Their eyes are bugged out and about to fall out of their heads and the only decent conversation they can produce involves a huge amount of gibberish. In short, Maya is more demanding than a jealous girlfriend!

MayaVictim

Poor old Stan, he overdosed on Maya!

Well, I sure don’t want to end up like poor Stanley here, but I will tell you about the bowling alley that we were asked to texture and animate.

MayaBowling

The basic Bowling Alley scene provided for us.

We were given a template scene of a Bowling Alley, provided by our lecturers. We had to texture the scene but more importantly, we had to apply dynamics to it. The object being to make the bowling ball move down the alley and crash into the pins. This involves applying the correct gravity field to the components in the scene and specifying the body type (be it Active or Passive) to the ball and the pins. This was done by selecting the individual objects and accessing the Dynamics shelf tab and selecting the Gravity field. Once gravity has been applied to the bowling ball, you must determine which objects have a passive rigid body type or an active rigid body type. This will stop your bowling ball flying straight through your scene and enable it to interact with other objects, in this case, the pins.  This is science! I don’t have the brains for science! I don’t understand gravity and particle physics! Anyway, I applied an active rigid body to the bowling ball,  a passive rigid body to the alley and an active rigid body to the pins. This was done by accessing the Soft/Rigid Bodies menu. I then changed the mass of the bowling ball in the Rigid Body Attributes tab, increasing it to 5.0 and changed the Bounciness to 0.05 to stop it, well… bouncing! It is after all a bowling ball, not a basketball! Next, I navigated to the Attribute Editor and changed the initial velocity on the Z axis to -40 and the spin on the X axis to -300. I finally applied a Gravity to all the pins and pressed play! Hoorah, the bowling ball moves down the alley and smashes into the pins.

After swiftly applying a little texturing to the bowling ball, the alley and the pins, I was now ready to render!

Now, should I wish to create a full render of this scene, I have to export some files to Final Cut Pro. Firstly I had to set the Render Settings in Maya, changing the Image format to PNG [.png] and creating a custom image size and quality, as seen in the image below.

Maya Render Settings

Render Settings MayaI then closed the above menu and pressed Render>Batch Render Options to reveal this dialogue box….

Batch Render OptionsI ticked the Use all available processors box and pressed the Batch render button. After rendering all 180 frames, I then opened Final Cut Pro and Imported the PNG images into the Bin. I then clicked on Final Cut Pro>User Preferences>Editing which revealed this dialogue box…

Final Cut Pro User PrefHere I set the Still/Freeze Duration to 00:00:00:01 (one millisecond) and pressed ‘OK’. I then dragged all my images from the Bin into the timeline, pressed Apple+R to render the clip and added a quick title sequence at the beginning. After exporting the clip as a Quicktime movie I then uploaded it to You Tube. Without further ado, prepare to be amazed, here it is….

There we have it! My first fully rendered animation, sort of. Maya is complicated, it’s fairly difficult for a virgin-user like myself to get used to in a condensed amount of time. But it is amazing! A very powerful and professional program that rewards those Maya zombies out there, by helping them to produce some fantastic 3-D animated scenes (I refer you back to the Dalek animation). I think I’m going to need a six month holiday after putting myself through the trauma of re-living this virtual nightmare!

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About Roulette Revolver

Currently a first year undergraduate in Film & Media Studies.
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