10 Maya features I love and why

3D character artist Melvin Okoronkwo talks about his favorite Maya features and how important they are in a streamlined workflow.

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There is a third-party software or script for just about any command you can perform in 3D software today. Undoubtedly, using fewer external tools can make a huge difference between a streamlined and cumbersome workflow. We’ll be taking a look at some of the 10 features I love using in Maya and how they’ve improved my workflow.

Modeling Toolkit

In the past, modeling in Maya wasn’t the most exciting experience, nor was it the most reliable – not unless maintaining your sanity wasn’t of paramount importance. Most 3D artists had a preferred 3D modeling package where all their modeling was done and then exported back into Maya. With the integration of what used to be the NEX plugin for Maya, as the now built-in Modeling Toolkit, polygon modeling in Maya has never been this much fun, efficient, and reliable.

My favorite tool in the Modeling Toolkit is Quad Draw. It is a very intuitive and easy-to-use retopology tool. For every 3D artist with a ZBrush to Maya workflow, Quad Draw is invaluable for quickly changing the topology of sculpted or scanned mesh data directly within Maya.

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Soft and bouncy hair… we all admire them in CG characters, but prior to Maya 2014, this could only be achieved efficiently using hair plugins like Shave and Haircut, or using Maya’s own nHairs, which in my opinion wasn’t the most user-friendly tool. With the integration of XGen into Maya, creating ultra-realistic hair and fur within Maya is now possible without additional costs.

With XGen you can create and style hair, fur, feathers, and even scatter object instances like trees, rocks, and grass across the surface of a polygon mesh. XGen works using a modifier stack where you can add different hair effects on top of the other to achieve your desired look. The clump modifier is one I enjoy very much. You can quickly achieve very complex looking hair using 3 or more clump modifiers. My typical XGen window always includes the cut, clump, and noise modifiers. You’d be surprised how much you can achieve using them.

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Arnold 5 Renderer

We all probably have a friend called Arnold, but that’s not the only reason I love this renderer. With buttery smooth rendered images, less tinkering of render settings, and lightweight performance, this juggernaut of a render engine has never ceased to impress… and it now comes bundled with Maya.

Since Arnold 5, the standard Arnold shader has been updated with a variant of the popular Al Shader that can quickly and intuitively achieve realistic looking surfaces, in less time. The aiStandardSurface shader can now achieve a lot more than it could in previous version of Arnold. For instance, achieving a sub-surface scattering skin/wax effect no longer requires using the aiSkin shader; it’s been consolidated into the standard shader.

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UV Editor & UV Toolkit

Someone out there surely never thought the day would come when UV unwrapping would be fun. Over the years, Maya’s UV Editor has received some major upgrades, and now in Maya 2018, UV unwrapping is no longer a task that needs to be accomplished efficiently using a third-party tool. My old workflow used to involve exporting my polygon mesh to another software like Headus UVLayout, unwrapping all my objects, and then importing them back into Maya. Now it can all be done in one place and the unwrap tool works like a charm to quickly add cut seams and unwrap complex polygon models!

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Middle mouse button

Probably one of the most underrated features in Maya. The functionality of the middle-mouse button (MMB) is something I definitely cannot do without. With the MMB you can quickly use Maya’s transform tools without the need to always click and drag directly on an axis of the transform gizmos that correspond to the direction I want to move in. In Maya 2018 the MMB functionality has been updated with the ability to repeat the last command selected from a menu. This can improve your workflow by reducing the number of times you need to search through a long list of menu items if you need to repeat a command.

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Sculpting tool

I like to stay focused while working on a project, and the more applications I shuffle, the more distracted I get. Because of this, I am always welcoming to any tool that removes the need to export work to another software and back – the sculpting tool is one of those. With the inclusion of some basic sculpting brushes from Mudbox in the newer versions of Maya, the need to export work to a sculpting package has to an extent, been reduced. While working on any organic 3D model, the grab, sculpt, and smooth brushes are my favorite. They have certainly made me a more efficient Maya modeler.

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Quick Rig

Character rigging is a very complex and time-consuming task. It’s definitely not something to be rushed. On time-sensitive projects, the Quick Rig tool can help you rig your 3D characters in a matter of minutes, not hours. Though not perfect, it can help you to quickly get your characters out of the default A- or T-pose, and into a more dynamic pose.

In my Maya to ZBrush workflow, I prefer using Maya’s Quick Rig tool to experiment with different poses. In conjunction with the sculpting tools, I can easily pose a character and sculpt in quick corrective deformations before going back into ZBrush for a more detailed sculpt. The transpose tool in ZBrush works quite well, but Maya’s Quick Rig tool is more efficient for a Maya user.

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Shape Editor

Another fine addition to the newer versions of Maya. I’ve always enjoyed using this tool in its original form in Softimage XSI, so it was very exciting to see an improved version of it implemented perfectly into Maya. Combined with the aforementioned sculpting tool, the creation of multiple character blendshapes within Maya has now been streamlined. My favourite command in the Shape Editor is the mirror command. With it you can quickly mirror a pose on  your character. For instance, you can create a blendshape for a left eye blink, and then duplicate and mirror that blendshape to get the right eye blink.

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Viewport 2.0

I love viewport 2.0! This may sound vain, and yes, it’s just a preview of what will be rendered finally with your renderer of choice, but it’s more than that. When creating characters with hair cards, the transparency algorithm can be very handy to accurately preview your hairs by selecting the sorting order that results in less depth sorting issues. Also, when working with XGen, increasing the multisampling anti-aliasing (though GPU intensive), can give you a better representation of your work.

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Symmetry modeling

Symmetry modeling has come a long way. We’re all probably used to the technique of modeling half of a character, and then mirroring it on the X axis to get the full character. With Maya’s symmetry modeling now you’re not only limited to transforming components, you can also use tools like connect, cut, and even extrude; all while maintaining symmetry. This comes in handy when you need to make alterations to a character after the UVs have been done. It also works well for asymmetrical characters.

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Maya is an excellent software but it’s not perfect … nothing is. As a 3D character artist, these are my top 10 features in Maya that have improved my workflow over the years. There’s always something new to discover in Maya so dive right in and explore for yourself – there’s something for everyone. Something to take away from all this is to occasionally re-evaluate your production techniques and find ways to thin out redundancies in your workflow. If you don’t have to export your work to another software, don’t! Stay focused and you’ll be more productive.