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MAYA Secrets of the Pros

MAYA Secrets of the Pros
A CreativeCow.net Book Review


Joaquin Gil reviews Maya: Secrets of the Pros


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


©2002 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 "Maya: Secrets of the Pros," edited by John Kundert-Gibbs and published by Sybex. While he points out a few weaknesses of the book, he still gives it Five Cows, our top rating, because not only will it give you a great education in the software itself -- but in many pro-level aspects of effects production and workflow strategy as well. Kino says much of this book would be applicable to any serious animator and regardless of tool or version. This is high praise indeed from a guy whose own body of work includes Godzilla, Contact and Starship Troopers and many others.



QUICK OVERVIEW:

Since as artists we deal with visual qualities, colors and materials, let me start off by saying that the presentation of the book is of prime quality. Good paper, clear typefaces and a well thought out layout make the book a joy to hold in the hands. It's also easy to read and easy to search for a particular passage. The CD that comes at the back of the book is full of useful goodies and protected in a cardboard envelope that is considerably more rigid than the covers, so there is less risk of breaking the CD by accident. This is a clear departure from the hopeless practices of many other publishers. Good work, Sybex.

The book has been loosely aimed at the consummate or professional user, who understands "what"” is being said. If you are studying to become a professional in digital imagery, this book should be on your list. It is a book for study and as such, it is full of wonderful ideas, brilliant suggestions and illuminating insights… if you know what is being talked about.

The outstanding thing about the book is that it is there. That is no small feat. The editor, Mr. Kundert-Gibbs, has attempted a brave thing which has been sorely missed by many of us: a “higher-level Maya book” -- something of an exploration into the intelligent use of the tools of the trade instead of the impersonal “manual” or “how-2” primer on the tools themselves. For this, he has enlisted a collection of brilliant modelers, animators, TD’s and similar fauna to produce an intelligently partitioned look at an insider's view of Maya use.


SOME FAULTS:

Faults of the book are few: a certain lack of historical perspective -- so some contributors tend to re-invent warm water over and over -- and the loose aim or too broad a spectrum of the intended target “audiences” of the different chapters. This scatters too much information on some areas and too little in others, resulting in that not all the articles are of similar level or depth. Then again, this will prompt you to research, which is good for you. But this is also sort of paradoxical for a book whose main claim is to be one of the first in its class in the field. (Much like that line in the ghost movie: “Who you gonna call?”)


GAINING TRACTION:

Let me offer that given the vastness of the work/exploration actually going on based on Maya’s toolset, that was kind of unavoidable. This is, I repeat, one of the first books of its kind, so you have to cut the pie somewhere. Can’t deal with the whole thing, man. Too large. Give you indigestion for a year. So you do select some things. Gems. And you stick to your guns. And you know what? This book has a very cool selection of topics.

Once you are aware of this, the book gives considerable mileage. It also helps to be aware that most of these articulists are building their reference frameworks as they go along. Kind of building the bridge as you cross the chasm.

That is the reason that you have to know Maya fairly well in order to get the most out of this book, not out of any intentional obscurity but simply out of what I said: it is an exploration into the intelligent use of the tools of the trade. To do that, you have to know what is the trade, where the tools are and what do they do.


A CLOSER LOOK:

A couple of articles are directed to the “serious” beginner. Some require expert knowledge. Some assume you have a large crew, fat bank account or some kick-butt multi-talents yourself -- so be realistic, study and adapt. A few chapters are strange mixtures of both trivial and hard-core savvy techniques. Most are wellsprings from which you can drink over and over. Some are even fun to try. All of the writers do their best, and some of them are actually a good read.

Editorially speaking, I sympathize with Mr. Kundert-Gibbs. You see, he does not have all his ducks in a row here. He has a zoo wandering about. Zebras, emus, platypusses, howler monkeys, butterflies, bacterial colony-organisms. There are also a few plants and one or two rocks… at least I think so.


DIVERSITY LEADS TO MORE CREATIVITY:

What I mean is that there is wild diversity, even disparity, in the articles that form the book. This is both good and not-so-good. The not-so-good is obvious: the disparities in focus make some of the articles hard to edit and collate. Since there are some great and some merely good writers in the lot, problems in conception creep in here and there. Crucial steps are missing from a couple of procedures, and irritating -- and potentially discouraging -- comments intrude or impede the complete flow of the information contained in them. A couple of chapters demand of you not only to already be a Maya artist, but to have experienced some of the situations described in order to understand the “recipes” used. And unavoidably, some “production habits” get acknowledgement as if they were universal truths, as with the use of external applications in the processes discussed. That is excellent when we are told new things (as in Chapter 3 when we learn about something really cool called “Xfrog”). Yet there seems to be little need in a Maya book for having Photoshop uninspiredly recommended instead of a more appropriate external system or Maya-supplied image tool to accomplish the same tasks. Thankfully for us, just one writer ties the workflow to specific external software techniques in this rather unimaginative way.

Still the diversity of experience recorded here is also a very good thing: The book gathers an impressively abundant collection of information about and from the CGI world, organized around Maya. You can find ideas for practical production logistics and task sequencing, from script analysis to scene breakdown to completion strategy.

Since certain stages of the work are dictated by the way the software approaches the solutions, using the program as a backbone is probably the only sensible way to organize all the articles. But in so doing, the book follows both the design philosophy behind Maya and -- because of the exploratory nature of the work sampled -- the true, live, breathing “state of the art” in computer generated imagery. The different TASKS in the CGI process are displayed to reinforce the understanding of the structure. All the chapters belong in one of the program’s sections. We get no grey areas nor fuzziness, even when a chapter has to bridge two or three “areas” of the software’s use.

You have to love that. This means that the usefulness of the lessons here is grounded on tangible assets in Maya. The examples and discussions can be applied directly with few exceptions. But precisely because this rests on usages and combinations of those real capabilities of the system, the information can be easily extrapolated and translated to enrich one’s perception of common problems of contemporary animation and the informed use of “off-the-shelf” solutions for specific answers to real production needs.



Maya: Secrets of the Pros is not for the casual user or the novice but the pro user will find it well done, useful and reasonably representative of some of the best practical work and exploration going on in the use of the Maya toolset. It is also a milestone in the professional recognition of the maturity, flexibility and potential of Maya.

Recommended for dedicated users or serious study of production strategies.

While as in my article I show it's not perfect, still its value is such that I still give it 5 COWs.

SUMMARY:

In plain English, we can apply most of this stuff to almost any animation/CGI package out there. And a lot will still make sense when Maya is not around anymore -- or when version 238 for starship holodecks begins shipping. The logic used by some of the writers is exposed as the procedures are revealed step by step. We not only get what I have called “the recipes”, we get some insights in the motives and strategies of the Chefs, which are “versionless”. (And what if not all of them have the stage presence of Emeril Lagasse? The knowledge they are making available and inter-connectable in this collection is, frankly, way more valuable than the book’s price, anyway.)

Many of the writers are good instructors besides accomplished artists, so you will get a better “master class” out of their chapters. Do not trust my say-so. Go have an electronic peek at the book, more information, table of contents and sample chapters here.

Then, if you are seriously into CGI, buy the thing. In a panorama where many of the Maya publications are aimed at the complete beginner, it is refreshing to see a good first effort at sharing practical advanced techniques and applications. This book is a definite asset in the arsenal of the professional Maya user or the serious student.


--Kino Gil




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