I would say Alias has done it again, but that isn't really true. They've surpassed what they've done before
since it's the season, grand-slam homerun, Alias!
I have to admit that I just loved their Maya 6 series. Usually when you purchase an instructional book from the makers of the software, you're in for a real uninspired piece of
work. Not true with their 6 series of books and if this 3-book set is any indication, their entire Maya 7 series set of books and videos will be nothing short of mandatory materials for learning.
Having been written before the buyout from Autodesk and released on or afterwards, this particular book set comes at an interesting time for the Maya product. Trying hard to leave my own opinions out of this article, I'll attempt to focus on the books and touch a little at the end on the acquisition as it pertains to this set of books.
First, here's what you get: 3 books, roughly 700-800 pages, each with their own companion DVDs containing tutorial scene files, free software, movie tutorials and free elements (models, textures) for use in Maya. If you're anything like me, you won't even look at demos included with discs from books - even if I am interested in them, I'd likely go to the homepage and download the newest versions myself. I'm happy to report that these discs' material are truly helpful and inspiring.
The tutorial scene files are vital to learn a complicated and deep program like Maya. I learn by doing, and following along is an essential part of my learning process. To help with this, Alias has included the ability to pick up from just about anywhere you left off by including chapter scene files, which is great for those of us with little contiguous time for learning. If I have ten minutes to go through a portion of the chapter, I want to be able to skip over material I'm already comfortable with and hit the foggy areas harder. The beginning of each section contains the scene file to open so you can follow along with just that section. This means you don't have to work through an entire chapter if you don't want to, just each part. This is such an invaluable method and should be standard for any tutorial book.
The free software included is Sketchbook Pro 1.1, a painting program designed specifically for tablet PC users or desktop users using a tablet, such as a Wacom. Like all Alias products I've seen, the interface is beautifully designed and requires little to no keyboard keys at all. A free demo exists on Alias and I encourage you to at least download it and check it out. If you've purchased these books you'll have a full version (not a demo) included on the disc (a $200 value) and it's a great little program to have among your arsenal.
The included movie tutorials are simply vital in learning some complicated aspects of Maya, particularly the modeling portions. It's so difficult to explain in text how to model. Modeling is really something that should be taught in videos and I wish the included discs had more of it. While true that they included quite a bit and touched on the complicated portions of the model we were working with (3D characters named "Meeper" and "Diva" from Sony Pictures Imageworks' "The ChubbChubbs!"), I wished they'd have simply done the entire lessons on video. I didn't count off for this as some users prefer following steps for modeling, of which they did a great job of doing. If I had my way every tutorial in all three books would've had an instructor-led screen capture to follow along with for every section, so if the video didn't help you could jump back to the book for clarification of hard topics, such as dynamics and mel scripting. The instruction was professional and the movie quality was superb. You will like what you see and hear. Like most supplemental material you get out of books, you'll want to copy them from disc to your hard drive for best playback performance.
As far as elements included, you get a hefty dose of free textures and models from Turbo Squid. Turbo Squid's a great place to gather resources for your 3D production and I'm glad such a quality outfit donated materials to help Maya newbies and professionals alike. I personally like Turbo Squid. They help newbies in that they offer free models and other resources, they also help established artists by helping them sell their models and other work and offering advanced models for experienced users on the go. It's a great resource.
This being such a visual profession, I was always a bit disappointed seeing instructional books for software with such an uninspired design and layout - no color, few pictures, paragraph form layout (like this article! Heh). It's such a visual pleasure to turn through these pages and see the work included, the complimentary graphics to illustrate points, screenshots so the student won't get lost, etc. Aesthetics is admittedly one of the least important things when grading a book (or should be), but I put a lot of stock in how a book is laid out, particularly from the software's authors. It's a monster of a great program, the instruction books should reflect that. It's obvious Alias knows this, hopefully Autodesk is reading this. *ahem* As a cute aside, Alias has included a traditional flipbook animation on the side of each page for each of the three books. When you flip through the pages, you'll see the animation unfold, old-school style.
TOPICS COVERED IN THE BOOKS
The First Book of the series is called Foundation. Undoubtedly the first book of the three, this will cover the basics over a wide range of topics, from a complete scene in the first project to more detail of the different Maya areas, such as Polygonal and NURBS modeling and texturing, skeleton rigging, animation and dynamics, organic modeling with a bit of painting and some MEL.
The Second Book, The Modeling & Animation Handbook, covers modeling and animation specifically and it does so in a linear fashion (meaning newbies may not want to skip around in this one much). From NURBS, polygon and sub-division surfaces in-depth on to skeleton building, rigging, skinning and blend shapes. Then the student will build a simple walk cycle and animate some simple movements, touching on lip-sync. Each lesson will build upon the previous one, by the end of the book the student will have built and animated two complete characters as well as having exported them into Motion Builder for further tweaking. Note: Motionbuilder is available as a demo to download and install.
The Third Book in the series, The Special Effects Handbook, covers materials and textures, lighting, shadows, raytracing, camera work, rendering, composite set up, different types of render engines and various methods of rendering. Also it covers a more detailed run-through of dynamics, particles, expressions and effects, including Flow. Similar to the Foundation book, this book covers several areas in more depth and reintroduces difficult concepts in differing ways to help the user understand and control some of these advanced features.
That leads me to one of the best points this book bundle accomplishes - showing the user various ways of accomplishing the same thing. This is vital in helping workflow and everyone's workflow is different. Deliberately exposing different ways of doing the same thing gives the user a much more solid understanding of how the program can help them and bend to their ways of working, instead of vice-versa. Configuration and inline compatibility and workflow customizing are the areas Maya beats other packages hands-down. I'm glad the tutorials offered help to illustrate those points.
In addition, the actual scene files opened in Maya utilize the labeling of the correct joints to click on, insuring the user is following along with the correct ikChain the book references. For example, when working with a skeleton in the modeling and animation book, Maya's actual scene file contains labels illustrating location and order the user should step through while they're working through the book's tutorial. This was really ingenious as it uses a scene file in the actual software to complement the book's instructions. I don't see enough of this in tutorial books!
Alias consolidated many books into three large books, making it easier for the new user to choose a package that will help them with many areas of Maya efficiently, and with a price tag that's much smaller than before. It allows for a much more complete and well-rounded training. Kudos for that.
Like many users, the purchase of Alias by Autodesk left a lot of users with mixed impressions. Many wonder how 3D Studio Max and Maya will now work with each other (or if they even should) and many new users and companies are reluctant about moving forward with the software for fear of its demise. Having been purchased by a company who already owns a significant stock in the 3D world with 3D Studio Max, Maya's future seems tentative at best and products like this book set may be seeing the negative effects, which I hope is not the case. Alias developed a terrific product with great training and a good artistic appreciation for workflow and compatibility, it was disappointing to me they didn't sell out to a company who could've used such frighteningly wicked 3D solution (Adobe?) and training packages. For Autodesk's part, they've publicly committed to several more years of separate development between 3D Studio Max and Maya so products like this book set are still very much in demand. I hope Autodesk and other companies will take these books as examples of what to mimic for their own training. They've truly been a pleasure to utilize.
Thanks, Alias, for a truly outstanding set of training for such a complex and wonderful software package. These books have truly helped me reach the point I've wanted to be at in Maya and inspired me to explore less familiar areas further.
I give this 3 book bundle a solid 5 cows for a clean, organized, thoughtful layout and instruction set. They contain an awe-inspiring bundle of textures and materials, programs, videos and tutorials. They've truly been an example for other companies to follow and a vital resource for anyone serious about 3D and Maya.