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Learning Maya 5: MEL Fundamentals

COW Library : Autodesk Maya : Joaquin Gil : Learning Maya 5: MEL Fundamentals
Learning Maya 5: MEL Fundamentals
A CreativeCow.net Book Review


Joaquin Gil reviews: Learning Maya 5: MEL Fundamentals


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 and Film FX forums, reviews
Learning Maya 5: MEL Fundamentals, by Alias Inc. [formerly Alias|Wavefront].


MEL FUNDAMENTALS

(Learning Maya 5 series by Alias Inc. [formerly Alias|Wavefront])
A real world review by Joaquin (Kino) Gil


An Animation Language
Perhaps the single most extraordinary contribution that Maya brings to the animator's palette is that of an internal language, tailor made for animation, modeling and rendering applications and related tasks, which allows the savvy user or the technical director the kind of customization potential and specialized usages that cannot be easily addressed by the user-friendly but limited metaphor of the "menu" structure.

But up to now there was scant information on MEL available in a didactic form for the general user. This somewhat slim tome addresses this concern directly, opening the virtually limitless possibilities and potential of MEL for users taking their first steps in the concept of "explaining" to the computer what is it that you want it to animate, and how do you want to go about it.

Let's say you need to build a fleet of different spaceships for a story of a migration. Or it could be ducks, just the same. The director asks for different looking ships of different species, and to make them very different from each other. You will need to model a hundred different ships. Do it by menus and you'll be there until around August next year.

So, before using that soda cracker to slice your veins up, reach for the Maya Embedded Language, or MEL for short.

That's what the book is about.

After reading and applying the methods in the book it should be surprisingly easy to set up Maya, for example, as a "Spaceship modeling program", with interface, selectors and sliders to change amounts and replications and, say, a bank of different "species", so that you do not mix parts of two species together. Further, now could make it so that, at the press of a button, pre-ready shapes can be added, rotated or scaled, nested or whatever in order to make your ships happen.

Or it could be ducks, or stars, or springs inside a bed... keeping a character balanced, having its eyes follow two actions at the same time... open and close a long line of doors, one by one but randomly...

On a day-to-day basis, animation is full of repetitive, boring tasks that can better be done by our obedient, stupid computers (once the task is explained in their unambiguous code) in a few minutes than by a human animator hour after hour.

Wonderful effects of rippling lights or coordinated dance are a nightmare with the mouse, a delight when using the keyboard to tell Maya what do you want.

There is nothing better than to let MEL loose on such pesky tasks.


The BOOK
So imagine my delight at seeing the first MEL book that comes out of the Maya education program at Alias.

Long overdue, it comes under the special effort being made to popularize Maya beyond the high-end animation market, and it is a step in the right direction.

A product of Maya Documentation, the book shares the new Maya 5 look and is diagrammed and composed using the same high design standards we have come to expect from Maya documentation, even after its shift to optional resources and a profitable Education line.

Of course, this is not really "programming". It's more like "educated instructions". That is the beauty of it. An artist CAN be a MEL coder with not a lot of fuss, because MEL is such an integral part of Maya and so task, that is, artistic task, oriented.

It certainly requires ordered thinking and a modicum of articulation and logical thought, but it is a language of clarity, with explicit, clear instructions. A rigid framework to support one's wildest imagining. And a favorite tool in Maya.

In fact, Maya itself is nothing but a bunch of MEL scripts. MEL is the secret to the infinite flexibility of Maya.

And this book provides a very good first key to MEL.


The CONTENTS
The book is focused on Maya 5, the current version of the software, and is obviously torn between two worlds:

On one hand the book is meant to introduce the Maya user to the wealth of possibilities that MEL opens. To that purpose it deals with many of the interface portions of Maya that have bearing on the MEL properties of connectivity and re-wiring of the program.

On the other hand, it has to give a plausible first glimpse to the landscape of the enormous variations open to the MEL user. Unfortunately it stops short of exploring but a few of all the possibilities available to this powerful language, but the exploration, and its nature, are wide enough that the student can obtain a sense of real control of the software.

We're missing some content. The book does not enter on some of the main aspects of control and rigging support, but even so, opens more doors to the hidden world of "out there" and the hundreds of possibilities in MEL. It is well organized and includes very good reference material (one very useful CD and one not very useful DVD, mostly a 5.0 walkthrough-ad, accompany the printed version)

It is also clear enough that you do not have to be looking at the example materials in order to follow the flow of the information, a trait indispensable for retaining the attention of real programmers, which TD's have the bad habit of being.

On a first reading, the contents dovetail with the rest of the Maya documentation in hardcopy or disk. If detailed usage of the materials proves to have no mistakes (caveat: Alias is most assuredly NOT a manual publisher, their work tends to be complete but cryptic and "reference" prone rather than didactic in nature), then the book would be worth every cent of the admittedly steep $59.99 price tag.

And not because of the beauty of the cover art or the layout, which is easy on the eyes, but for the sheer power it can give you. It's like Popeye's spinach, or the Hulk's rage, or the radioactive spider bite of Spiderman.

We don't guarantee the tights or the bulging biceps, but having a way to unravel your way into MEL is as close as CGI superhero training material as it gets.

What more do you want? That is, if you mean to learn the Maya ropes for seriously real.

That said, we find that it could go a little deeper into discussion, give us more content, even if that meant to spend less in the lavish presentation. That is the only issue we find, (having NOT checked the syntax of the scripts, and allowing for the usual lag in this kind of in-house document with a bit of pretensions). The CD seems to correspond with the materials presented accurately. The DVD is very cool, but it is an overview of new stuff in M5, not MEL-specific information. It adds to Alias' marketing efforts rather than to the MEL proficiency of the reader.

It is my understanding that by Alias' slicing the possible contents among different authors and books, some other, wider and wilder aspects of MEL and its interaction with the "out here" will be revealed.

Let's hope that is the case. They are certainly starting with a right step, even if I feel it rather "babystep-ish".


CONCLUSION

This book, as I said, is long overdue, and something that Maya users will undoubtedly welcome with open text editors, if a little trepidation in their purses.

MEL is so important that having a definitive, Alias blessed source on the design philosophy of the most intimate core of Maya is definitely a plus and worth the trip.

This book rates highly enough to be required reading for Maya users and help offset the high price. You could miss other books on Maya, just try not to miss this one if you aspire to maximizing the program's capabilities and if your budget can deal with it. It is a first and small step, but one you should not hesitate to take because of the importance of the subject.

One feels that Alias could have provided more complete information at a better price combination, since comparison with similar materials in the market finds them at roughly half to two-thirds of this book's sale price, but we have to insist. The knowledge here will make you more efficient. I concede I don't know if such a high price is justified, it feels excessive for the contents.

But the saving grace, I must insist, is the importance of giving the animator independence from the tyranny of the mouse. That is as promised.





Learning Maya 5: MEL Fundamentals
Three cows. It is somewhat short in contents for full five cows, and too highly priced for four, but those three are well deserved. We need more MEL documentation. This is an excellent start.

--Kino Gil



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