Maya 4.5 Fundamentals
Stepping into the world of 3D animation and visual effects is a daunting task. In order to truly achieve proficiency and the level of expertise demanded by employers and clients, one must not only have a solid background in the origins and basics of visual communication, but be able to master tools that are complex and deep. Few 3D packages can rival the complexity and depth of Alias-Wavefronts Maya, which is used in the vast majority of feature film and commercial 3D animation/visual FX work. Fortunately for beginners, there is a wonderful book to put aspiring Maya artist on their first steps. This book is Maya 4.5 Fundamentals by Jim Lammers with Lee Gooding.
Maya 4.5 is geared toward those who are new to the field of 3d animation entirely and/or new to the Maya package. It is fairly impressed by the fact the duo bothered to introduce readers to history of CG, and simple explanation of some of the terms found in all 3D packages, such a bump mapping, blinn shaders, phong shaders, etc., etc. They spend some time discussing items such as shot composition, basic cinematography, and some of the hardware needed to run Maya successfully. (At the launch of Maya 1.0, the reviewer was one of those poor souls perplexed that he needed a 3 button mouse just to use the program).
The book is divided into 3 main sections, Quick Start Guide, Maya Basics, and Going Further With Maya. The Quick Start Guide lives up to the chapter title, and give the user a basic overview of the fundamental tools in Maya for transforming, scaling, rotating objects and manipulating the UI. This is a fairly straightforward section, but it becomes very apparent they place great emphasis on the hotkeys in Maya. Usually on most chapters they will have a box with the appropriate hotkeys and what they achieve. This feature (as well as the section they spend on customizing the hotbox, which will be talked about in detail a bit later) is must for any Maya user. Maya lives and dies off the speed of its UI, and the hotkeys are a big attribute of this.
In the next section, Maya Basics, they rundown a more comprehensive look at creating scenes in Maya. The book covers, Nurbs and Polygonal modeling, materials, lighting, animation basics, intermediate character animation and cameras/rendering. One thing missing from the mix is Subdivision of Surfaces Modeling. While some may frown upon this omission, it is not necessarily a bad thing. The polygon modeling section covers the new mesh smooth tools in Maya 4.5 which function in a manner similar to Sub-D modeling. It is widely regarded that Mayas true implementation of Sub-D isn't quite there yet for production and has difficulty working with more advanced functions in Maya, and is problematic to texture. One can modeling with about 90% of the features found in Sub-D with the normal poly modeling tools, with the exception of the advanced refinement levels found in Sub-D.
Another thing the authors deserve to be commended on is placing emphasis on customize the UI for the job, and spending time showing how to load various marking menus in Maya. These steps become crucial to speed in Maya, and this is the first book the that seems to place heavy emphasis on this feature.
The last section, Going Further with Maya, dives into the more advanced features of Maya such as Paint FX, dynamics/particles, and extra steps to improve efficiency. In all reality, these features are still the tip of the iceberg of what Maya can do, but bombarding a novice user with more at this point would be a bit overwhelming until the previous items are comfortable to them.
Last but not least, most new Maya users do not come into the fold without previous 3D package experience. Two of the other popular midrange packages people often switch from are 3D Studio Max and Lightwave 3D. The last two chapters of the box are a primer for people switching from these applications, and explain what tools are similar in both, easing the transition. This is a very nice way to cap off the book for a new user.
My major gripe with the book is the lack of a more in-depth look at MEL. While MEL is covered here and there in snippets, there is nothing for the aspiring TD to get his feet yet with. Also, Maya is very heavily dependant on MEL scripting throughout the application, so some more basic applications of it would have been helpful. It would have also been nice to see a chapter on the new Mental Ray integration, but this may have been more a issue of the book going to print before the final release of the mental ray plugin.