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Learning Maya 6: Book Suite

Learning Maya 6: Book Suite
A CreativeCow.net Book Review


Joaquin Gil reviews: Learning Maya 6: Book Suite


Joaquín (Kino) Gil
Joaquín (Kino) Gil
kino, Los Angeles, California USA


©2004 by Joaquin Gil. All rights are reserved.


Article Focus:
Joaquin Kino Gil, noted film effects artist and host team leader of Creative Cow's Maya forum, reviews
Learning Maya 6: Book Suite, by Alias Inc. [formerly Alias|Wavefront].


1) INTRODUCTION: A SECOND LOOK.

Sometimes the first impression is dead right. The person or situation you feel the hunch for is exactly as you felt. This is so frequent that one can save oneself aggravations without end by simply listening to one’s inner voice that says “stay away from that person”, “Don’t get into that business” and so forth.

Some time ago I was asked to review a “Learning Maya 5 : M.E.L”. My feelings were mixed. Although I felt that the work was worth the trip, I found the price a tad high and the contents a tad lacking. Although the book was a good tool, I did not give it highest marks as an efficient learning tool.

Luckily for everyone concerned, I have been given the chance to see things in their proper perspective, so I can share a number of new facts about that book and some of its companions that happen to be parts of a very efficient training tool.

And this is good news indeed, as Maya becomes more widespread in use throughout the planet and this new popularity brings itself related woes as people try to learn its intricacies.


2) TO LEARN OR NOT TO LEARN

Seminal animator and teacher extraordinaire Jules Engels had very clear that it is impossible to “teach” animation, so he would concentrate on making us “learn” the tools, the building blocks, so to speak, that each one of us had to develop in order to express whatever was inside our minds through the disciplined and controlled exercise of our art. So he’d have us talk about flying and dream about it for some days and then come out with a 75 frame animation done in whatever variation of black and white stroke our fancy.

We learned something quite valuable from his reticence to determine the way we were to dream and create: It is way better to “let people learn” than to “try to teach” them. Let’s revise that concept: Let people learn. In other words, make available to them the knowledge, the data, the exercises, but lay off the hammering of principles and the dictation of gobbets more or less painfully torn from the tree of knowledge so that each may gather at hers/his own pace.

Nice, but what does it have to do with this here stack of books? Well, the concept seems to have filtered out to Toronto somehow, and we see some very, VERY interesting things in the whole series that were not apparent when looking at only one book isolated from the rest, always a bad idea in any collection. At the same time we see some things that bear improvement, but this collection is a real tool.

Our colleague John David Hutton has reviewed elsewhere the “introductory” tome of this sequence, so we need not re-run his excellent work here except for recommending its reading. Let’s then concentrate our efforts directly in the remainder of the collection:


3) THE COLLECTION’S PRESENTATION

This is the part of the review where we go over the physical appearance of the materials.

After all, if the presentation does not fulfill the dictums for clarity, organization and referenceability in wide use in self-study materials everywhere, it is simply condemned to languish in the publisher’s warehouses. Landfill candidates and a sorry misuse of trees. On the other hand, a good book is a sign of respect to the trees.

Alias has washed the faces of these manuals from the very similar books sold during the reign of Maya 5. As the reader may know, I reviewed the MEL introductory volume out of the Maya 5 collection and now I have the chance to compare editions.

Regardless of the contents, for which you need to read ahead in the Book-by-book section, the current presentation has changed from a more figurative design in which we see somewhat dry “examples” of the projects contained therein, to a more expressive trend, leaving the images of applications for the insides of the book and concentrating on a more “gist” or “benefit” oriented cover art tone, in which more finished and better rendered examples of the contents have replaced the “project” look.

In such a vein, the tone speaks too to the markets of users of the younger generations. Wise move and about time. The cover art and designs are more likely to spark the imagination of younger users and why the heck not, also of the older coots out there. Glossy covers have replaced matte, sober looks, in an obvious attempt at luring younger fare at the same time that costs are lowered. Again, we agree. The more the merrier, and we need to start young or the mind hardens and before you know you’re doing gardening in the nice house.

Alas, something had to suffer. The paper used is still very good, but reality and the current world have taken a bite out of that part of the budget. Despite this, what is of value is what is printed on the page. The grade of the paper is just a detail towards the durability of the book, and we cannot fault the choice made. Any of these books and their materials will undoubtedly outlast the current version, so we find reassuring that the core technologies have not changed dramatically, attesting to the serviceability of the training materials offered from the start. The new economic balances reflected and present in the current edition should allow Alias to continue these efforts into the ideal materials for learning this deep, deep application.

4) THE BOOKS

In order of applicability, we organize the books as follows:

Learning Maya 6: MODELING
covering the creation of geometry and the different variations that are accessible to Maya’s toolset.

The book follows the same “multi-view” approach that others and us have commented upon elsewhere, an approach based in Maya’s own “open architecture” philosophy: The same problem is approached from different points of view and solutions are presented using the modeling technology and technique being considered in each case.

As expected, the three main methods of shell and volume creation are discussed in detail. By now everyone should be fairly familiar with polygon geometry and NURBS geometry and some of their main characteristics, advantages and disadvantages.

This book takes the basic problem of organic modeling as exemplified by the human body and head. We build a Polygon body and head and then follow through doing the same thing all over again with NURBS and then we take a route that is sure to be a hit as we build a car model out of NURBS.

The success of NURBS (Non Unified Rational B-Splines) is owed in large part to how good they are for the creation of the complex curve networks that prevail in today’s cost-conscious footwear, packaging and plastics designers work, and this lesson makes very good use of the limited space to teach some of the basic concepts when thinking in terms of “curves” instead of “solids”.

Once that is safely out of the way, we do a brief tour of the Subdivision Surfaces toolset inside Maya. Although brief, this is a must-do. Subdivision Surfaces have revolutionized the way we think in terms of animatable models, by bringing back the predictability and “volume” orientation of polygons while retaining some of the best properties of patch-based and spline-based “shell” oriented thinking methodologies.

Very thoughtfully the book then addresses some of the less elegant workflows needed to deal with edges, normals, texturings and some caveats when converting between types.


Learning Maya 6: CHARACTER RIGGING AND ANIMATION
covering the different methods for specifying motion in the motion editor, including the preparation of controls and effectors for the different structured and un-structured defining methods available in Maya.

This one book is at the same time one of the most useful and one of the most “social” of the group, meaning it is one which would naturally interact with any of the others in the collection to a greater extent than any other. This one you need, even if you do not plan on doing anything even remotely resembling Chris Landreth’s “Bozo” frame that graces the cover.

What this book is about is the fine art of motion with skeletons and muscles of the virtual kind. As such this may be one of the first books on plainly put, How To Animate using the XXIstish Century, current tools of the technology commonly called “Kinematics”. As such it is possibly the first concerted effort by any of the 3D code makers to make available a philosophy of the setup within the application, that was sorely missing.

You see, it is possible to describe and even illustrate how to key in Maya and what the deuces is the difference between the hyper this or the hyper that and whether or not you should take home either, but it is PRICELESS to be privy to “approved” methods of skeleton distribution that have proven more effective and also, and VERY importantly, the WAY the guys and gals who came up with the software intended for it to be used.

Not that you HAVE to do the same, or even follow closely. Maya is *deep* and there are multitude of paths through its territories. But the unequaled advantage is simply to know, from the horse’s mouth, as it were, how the thing was conceived as dealing with in the first place, not in “general” terms, but in the particulars.

Just for that this book would be worth the trip, but it includes some really nice goodies, including the example and reasoning behind not following nature when creating skeletons in order to make our life much, MUCH easier, as is quickly demonstrated by having a “tree” inside the “human-hand” for an effective and efficacious solution.

A section on other animation models of use in character representation is again, briefly included but with enough detail to be useful. This is the case of Blend Shape transformations and the detailed exploration into virtual muscles and bulge/action behavior in human characters or similar. Don’t miss the first detailed explanation we’ve found on how to set up an influence object that delightfully, actually works.



Learning Maya 6: DYNAMICS
This, dear reader, is the OTHER “How To Animate” book that we had been waiting for. This is the complement to the techniques derived from skeletal and kinematic function. This book is the specialization in Dynamics and Microdynamics, covering the mechanisms for creating “automatic” or “physics driven” motion, dynamics and dynamics effects within Maya’s environments, including particle motion and rigid and soft body behaviors.

If all this feels like quite a mouthful, just look at it in this light: Do you realize that there are Maya users, very well respected and paid, who never “animate” in the traditional sense of the public’s idea of what “animation” is? They fall closer to those pioneers, the “effects animation” teams of countless animated movies: the team responsible for making rain fall or ripple the surface of a pond, or making mist, or fog, or smoke, but they are unusual troll who type numbers in strange places, changing the degree of stickyness of a dew drop or the amount of buoyancy of a dream.

In this book and starting with rigid bodies and progressing all the way to particles, soft-bodies and micro-dynamics, we explore another subset of Maya that opens up a world by itself. The projects are a lot of fun, as we re-create a race pod from Star Wars or build a wind-chime or make a character disturb dust with its pass or make a faucet drip.

All the examples seem readily useable in real-life projects, as each effect combines several different techniques to simulate a variety of natural phenomena and everyday events in a very coherent way. Maya’s dynamic engine, based in the Vulcan mind-meld of “Dynamation” and the “Alias particles” is one of the most versatile and useful tools that come with Maya. No need to pay anything extra, you get all this frabjous functionality even in the most humble personal learning edition. So get cracking and “dynamate” away.


Learning Maya 6: RENDERING
covering the different renderers or “image generation” programs inside Maya as well as the mechanisms for specification of material and optical qualities
.
Perhaps with this volume in particular we must realize how far have we come since the first vector shapes with proximity shading. If modern animation has separated the tasks of the modeler and the animator, we see how Rendering is a whole other thing, not just the end process of a definition that carried all the way to the very essence of the polygon lists on .obj files.

Today no one knows of “model farms” or “animation farms”, but anyone in the biz knows what is a “renderfarm”. The only part of the computer animation process where the machinery is the thing. Muscle in the brains, so to speak. The rendering process is such that everything must be ready and line up nice for the render. The render programs are, by their very nature, not very apt at error checking or correction of the parameters being passed to them if they fall within acceptable ranges and tolerances.

So it behooves someone to know what is a shading network and what do you eat it with and what wines go well with it. This is, after all, California. But seriously, the imagining technologies that a program like Maya handles are not “kiddie stuff” and need careful attention.

To begin with you have Maya’s internal renderer, a much maligned and incredibly powerful and flexible tool. A tad fickle, perhaps but ultimately efficient. As part of it we have Paint Effects, a program inexplicably ignored in this volume but luckily attendet to in another book I have reviewed, “Maya, Secrets of the Pros” (also SYBEX). The other renderers in Maya are the Hardware frame buffer, the hardware renderer, today very tied with Nvidia technology, the vector renderer, originally intended to get us the “Flashy” look so that an advanced, expensive 3D application can ape the looks of a primitive, cheap 2D application that became all the rage and finally the new king of the hill, “Mental Ray”, a programmable ray tracing shading language much like Renderman’s smaller and more agile sister Blue Moon renderer, since it does raytracing from the get-go, as well as other, more hip tricks and capable of reaching into the new areas of High Dynamic Range images and the attending illumination techniques that represent the current state of the art in computer lighting models. A harsher, harder look than Maya’s, with few challengers in photonics and caustics, very powerful and controllable.

The projects themselves are less ambitious in appearance here, as oftentimes a simple sphere and a plane are more than enough to see a kick-polygon light technique. The contents of this discussion, however, should give you the largest boost into producing photorealistic imagery than any of the other books of the collection can give by itself. A highly recommended read and study material.


Learning Maya 6: MEL Fundamentals
covering the use and syntax of the central “Language” in Maya, a powerful tool capable of completely changing the interface and functionality of many of the Maya commands, therefore something that gets more useful the more you know about it.

I reviewed this book in the past. It is still the same between the covers, down to the fonts used in page number whatever. Only the directory references to the attending disk have been updated, but a superficial look at the CD’s directories did not reveal dramatic changes otherwise.

The book, in the context of the collection, does a wonderful job of completing the Maya landscape. If in isolation one feels a lack of depth, the other members of this collection amply compensate for it so that a well-rounded image of Maya can emerge from the resulting composite. It is clear here what is the context and reach of the work, but only by taking, as we insist elsewhere in this review, the collection as a unit.

If you need this book only, it is of introductory to intermediate level, and should get you started quite well on the road of MEL’ing around. We expect to see some future complement dealing with production techniques, in which MEL kicks button, but that remains in the wishlist for now. As it stands, this one is THE authorized and definitive introduction and main published “point of view” about MEL. If you are into programmability and expansion, this is your book.


Learning Maya 6: MAYA UNLIMITED FEATURES
covering the general use and syntax of all the new sections, commands and functionality that widen the palette of options fo the Unlimited user. As is known, Maya comes in two “flavors”: maya Complete, which offers all the most used tools, and Maya Unlimited, which includes additional modules.

For Maya 6 this comprises:

a. Maya Fur & Hair
Improved workflows for fur and hair. Maya uses a model that although inherently capable of supporting “plug-ins” does not depend on a host of such hacks to deliver professional functionality. The additional modules available through the “Plug-In manager” are not required for the basic operation of the software, in stark contrast with the way other popular 3D and 2D software works. This self-reliance of the product’s toolset goes directly towards the bottom line of the user, as complete functionality is never dependent on countless add-ons and doodads.

b. Maya Live
Slight updates to Maya’s motion-tracking program, a hand-cranked business developed after the “Synamatch” motion tracking engine, a stolid and not very flexible tracker which yields acceptable results with ease, while better results tend to be possible by using extra care and much longer calculation times.

c. Fluid Dynamics
This is one of the coolest capabilities of Maya, although only available to Unlimited users. The fluids let you do things like smoke, mist, vapor and many atmospheric effects, including clouds, with elegance and ease. One almost does not miss Arete’s well remembered “Digital Nature Tools”, which used to be the definitive Maya sea, sky and clouds out there.

The book explores the attending subset of the toolset and proposes a method for its understanding and use, for which we cannot thank them enough, as possibly the question everyone asks about Fluids is “How the heck do you use this thing?”

Brief but juicy. So for those in the mentioned tiff, this is the book that will solve your quandary.


CONCLUSIONS AND COWS
I am going to make a recommendation to begin with, even if SYBEX and Alias love me for it: Consider not splitting this collection. There. Said.

Although each book can be considered and purchased separately, and some are worthy addition to anyone’s library, the whole group gives a first in-depth look at Maya and the “Maya-orientation” or “Maya-View”, a particular way that develops in Maya users on how to look at problems and how to break them down for solutions with the representational toolset that occupies us here.

Although the price may seem daunting to some ($360 or so for all six), this group of books constitutes what I would call a very decent preparatory course in what could well be your main career, that which pays the bills and the rent and the dentists and the grocery shops in your future, so consider seriously to invest in these books as you would in any kind of specialized education. $360 is a very modest price for one of the smartest methods I have seen to cram in a brain the oodles of information on the refined toolsets available to the Maya user for the synthesis of imagery of countless kinds.

The accompanying data discs are chock full of data to follow the “lessons” or projects verbatim. Installation of all the materials takes quite a chunk of disk real estate, so be practical and choose which battles to fight. After all these are reference materials as much as training materials and you’re not really supposed to have it all online, nor to swallow it in one gulp.

This reviewer considers the set a unit. Separating the books, although practical in dollars and cents, must be done as a step towards acquiring the whole collection, which is itself another toolset in the user’s arsenal.




COWS
As a set: Five undisputed cows. You’ll have to gage your different needs to split the package up, but if you need good information on Maya’s workings you will definitely find it here..


Joaquin (Kino) Gil
October 6, 2004
Marina del Rey, CA.

Click on the book cover icons above to purchase these books from amazon.com and help feed the COW. Note: For the review of Learn Maya 6 | Foundations by John David Hutton, please click here.




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