Smoothing Groups in Maya
Anyone who has used 3d Studio Max and then switched to Maya has always missed the use of Smoothing Groups. While Maya doesn't have Smoothing Groups, with a little bit of planning and work, we can achieve the same result for our low polygon models. We're gonna start off by modeling a quick and low polygon space helmet. Start off by making a sphere. Click on the option box next to Create/Polygon Primitives/Sphere and set your subdivision axis and height both to 12.
Rotate the sphere 90 degrees on the Z axis. Select three rows of faces on the front of your helmet. Stop your selection leaving a few columns on the left and right side unselected.
Activate the extrude tool.
Keep your extrude tool in the local mode and move the faces in on the Z axis.
Select the outer most circle of faces and extrude them out straight out using the scale in global mode. To get into global mode, click on the small circle on the top right of your extrusion manipulator. Then Scale on the X axis.
Select again the faces you just extruded and extrude them again, this time stay in local extrusion mode, select the scale on the X axis and then scale them in.
After you have them the size you want extrude again. Scale those out on the X axis globally.
Scale those new faces uniformly in, making a slight decrease in size.
For the end of the ear antennae we are going to extrude, move and scale several times to create a knob at the end. Make sure you have both side selected but work locally on one side. Select the faces, extrude out, and then scale out uniformly. Repeat this step several times until you create the desired outcome.
After modeling the space helmet, switch to the perspective view. Notice how you can clearly see the edges that make up the polygon shape. We'll fix that. This is where we start to form our groups and smooth the normals to create a well defined shape without having to add geometry.
Change your selection mode to Edge Mode and switch to the front viewport.
Activate the Select Edge Ring tool.
Use the Select Edge Ring tool by double clicking on one of the verticle edges, it will select the ring associated with it. Double click and select the three verticle edges that are in the indent of the helmet.
Switch back to the normal selection tool (Keyboard shortcut Q). Holding Control draw a selection box around the edges outside of the helmet, deselecting them.
Switch over to the Select Edge Loop tool.
Select the two loops of edges that intersect the previously selected ring.
Deselect the edges that are outside of the indent for the helmet.
Open up your Edit Polygons window and tear off the Normals window by clicking on the double lines on the top of the window.
Click on the options box next to Soften/Harden and resize it, relocate it, do whatever you need to do to create a comfortable workspace. We'll be using this window often. Change the options for the Polygon Soften/Harden Edge options to be All Soft. Apply.
The faces on the front of the helmet now smooth together, making them look like one piece in contract to the rest of the helmet.
Select the edges that are the main body of the helmet.
Click on Soften/Harden in your Normal Window.
In the front view, select the edges that are a part of the ear pieces. Soften them.
Notice that we went too far, we smoothed too many things and lost a lot of our shape definition. Here's how to fix that.
Using the Select Edge Loop tool, select the loop of edges that connect the ear piece to the main body of the helmet.
Open up the options for Soften/Harden and change the setting to be All Hard, or 0. Apply.
This restores the definition and makes the ear piece appear to be hard edged.
Using the above method of softening groups and hardening edges, we can achieve a result of a smooth low polygon model.
Maya doesn't have smoothing groups like Max does, but it doesn't take much work to create the desired effect when modeling something with very few polygons.