Tag Archives: Autodesk

REVIEW: Maya Entertainment Creation Suite 2010 Is A Wonderful Package

ecsbox

This fall Autodesk began offering some of its popular 3D modeling and animation products in suites, similar to what Adobe does with its series of Creative Suite applications. I’ve never been an Autodesk user but have always been curious about adding 3D and CGI to my repertoire, so I requested a review copy of the Maya Entertainment Creation Suite (ECS) 2010. This suite contains:

  • Autodesk Maya 2010, for 3D modeling, animation, visual effects, rendering, and compositing,
  • Autodesk Mudbox 2010, for digital sculpting and 3D texture painting, and
  • Autodesk MotionBuilder 2010, for high-volume game animation pipelines, director-driven virtual cinematography and real-time character simulations.

Experienced Autodesk users should temper my review with the fact that I’m a newbie in the field and don’t have previous experience with Maya and other apps. That being said, I was blown away by the power and complexity of the Maya ECS 2010 applications—no wonder they are so highly regarded in the industry.

Autodesk Maya 2010: More tools in the same package

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I have noodled with Maya in the past, thanks to the free Maya Personal Learning Editions (PLEs) Autodesk used to provide for students. Autodesk has since discontinued the Maya PLE in favor of 30-day trials (60 days for students). Maya 2010 represents a major shift in Autodesk’s product line because it combines the Maya Complete 2009 and Maya Unlimited 2009 products in one application. This means that the full set of features is now available to all Maya users from now on. This strikes me as ironic: while Adobe segments its applications for various market groups, Autodesk is consolidating Maya for a more streamlined product line. I think it’s a good move.

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Maya 2010 is also the first Maya release that can serve as a start-to-finish computer graphics workflow. Maya Unlimited tools are included as described above, and so are Maya Composite (for compositing), Autodesk MatchMover (camera tracking) and Autodesk Backburner (a queue manager for multiple computers). Note that Maya Composite is available in a companion application based on Toxik technology, which will be familiar to experienced Maya users.

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It was evident years ago, when I was working with the Maya PLEs, that Maya was a complicated application in a complicated field. Maya 2010 is still a complicated application, and the user interface can be overwhelming. Fortunately, Autodesk provides good tutorials and directions for novice users, but Maya’s plethora of menus and buttons is still daunting. It makes After Effects look like Stunt Copter. Normally I harp on software manufacturers to improve user interfaces, and I think there is room for improvement for Maya 2010’s interface, but the tools needed for this kind of work are many and there’s not many interface elements that can simply be removed. I think a redesigned, unified set of icons would improve usability a lot, as well as more keyboard shortcuts.

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Some designers might be disappointed that the Maya 2010 application itself has not changed much from the previous version. I could only find a couple new features: an updated mental ray core for rendering and the ability to add constraints to animation layers. Five more mental ray rendering nodes are also included but multiple computers are needed to take advantage of the extra rendering power. This isn’t much to celebrate, but I think the new strategy of bundling Maya 2010 with Toxik and other Maya Unlimited applications makes it a game-changing upgrade anyway. If you have wanted to jump into the 3D and CGI field with Maya, now is an ideal time to do it: the learning curve is high and will always be high, but Autodesk is offering a more comprehensive product now.

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Autodesk Mudbox 2010: Beautiful sculpting interface

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Mudbox 2010 is a more enjoyable product for me, probably because my training is in the fine arts and Mudbox software’s creative sculpting interface captures the feel of moving paint and clay. The only other application that captures this kind of fine art realism is Corel Painter, which I’ve always enjoyed using. Mudbox 2010 is no different and I think designers with a strong creative streak will want to try it out.

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Mudbox 2010 obviously doesn’t have the comprehensive set of applications the new Maya 2010 has, but it has more changes under the hood.

  • New support for the FBX and PSD file types means that it’s easier for users to move 3D materials to and from Mudbox with FBX or to and from Photoshop with PSD. I happen to use Photoshop a lot more than Mudbox so it’s handy to paint layers in Photoshop and take them back to Mudbox. Mudbox 2010 doesn’t have the range of effects Photoshop does.
  • Mudbox 2010 is extendable with a new application programming interface (API) and software development kit (SDK). I didn’t test this since I’m not a C++ programmer, but the SDK is extensive with many built-in classes, importers and exporters for plug-in development.
  • Two new brushes, the Clone Brush and Dry Brush, can paint a copy of one area to another (Clone) or paint on the raised parts of a surface (Dry). The brushes work very well and the best thing is they help recreate the realism of working with paint and clay. This is what sets Mudbox 2010 apart from similar products.
  • New viewport filters let you view artwork in ways beyond normal mapping. You can choose to add non-photorealistic effects to your viewport, for example. These filters can be helpful but be careful—I found that my Mac Pro had to work to process these filters. You can now also render directly from the viewport, which I thought was very handy when producing proofs and otherwise rendering parts of the whole.
  • It’s getting easier to stencil and paint complex objects. Mudbox 2010 allows paint layers to be combined for improved performance. Stencils now support transparency and alpha channels so you have more control when painting details and decals on meshes, and general improvements in 3D painting makes painting models with multiple parts easier and faster.

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All this makes Mudbox 2010 a nice upgrade and a great addition for creative professionals. The application makes beautiful work and it’s easier to use than Maya, and offers a more creative experience. It’s not for everyone—it really does need a strong computer to handle the processing—but I encourage you to try the trial version if you like the idea of working with digital mud.

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Autodesk MotionBuilder 2010: Better physics

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MotionBuilder is a time-tested application, and I could tell that MotionBuilder 2010 is quite mature. The application itself runs smoothly, though I had real difficulty learning the software—it’s my first time using it—and the controls were difficult to grasp. I had the same trouble with Maya 2010 and Mudbox 2010, so I’m sure I would have an easier time if I was more experienced.

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One new feature I really like is the new Physical Joints, which can be added as constraints to animated objects to create hinge and swinging effects. Effects like these that can create realistic animations and are still easy to apply are highly regarded, and Physical Joints are anything if not easy. Adobe has been experimenting with physics engines for Flash (see my video from the Adobe MAX Sneak Peeks) but Autodesk already has physics happening here in MotionBuilder 2010.

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The other new feature that looks really impressive is pose control and matching. Poses can be stored from objects and groups as well as characters, and they can be applied to other objects. This is a production improvement, but the pose matching is more striking: characters can match poses and also be set to do specific things when interacting with environments. So if a character happens to be falling or moving in a certain way, aspects of the pose can be manipulated and MotionBuilder 2010 will match the pose with the character as you like. Working with pose matching can be a little tricky but not too much, and the results are impressive.

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The rest of the enhancements in MotionBuilder 2010 are mostly integration and production improvements, such as better support for Autodesk 3ds Max Biped character rigs, Autodesk HumanIK plug-in, Maya and Autodesk Softimage software. The Actor tool is also now more efficient at working with finger and marker data. My one complaint is, as a Mac user, I’m disappointed this version of MotionBuilder is not available for the Mac. Maya and Mudbox both are Mac-compatible so it’s an annoyance to have to run MotionBuilder on my virtualized Windows environment. Previous versions of MotionBuilder were released for the Mac, and I hope Autodesk brings it back soon.

MotionBuilder 2010 is an impressive product based on its physics alone, and even though the price is high I think it’s a good buy for those animating 3D characters and scenes. If you are already using MotionBuilder 2009, definitely check out the upgrade for the physics benefits alone.

Conclusion

The Maya Entertainment Creation Suite 2010 is a powerful combination of applications, and I am happy to see Autodesk bundling these together for the first time. I think you get a lot more for your money when purchasing the suite instead of the separate applications, and there is also an Autodesk 3ds Max Entertainment Creation Suite 2010 where 3ds Max replaces Maya. Both would be solid investments in some top-notch technology.

Maya Entertainment Creation Suite 2010
Autodesk
US $4,995
Rating: 9/10

Maya 2010
Autodesk
US $3,495
Rating: 9/10

Mudbox 2010
Autodesk
US $750 / $375 upgrade
Rating: 10/10

MotionBuilder 2010
Autodesk
US $3,995 / $995 upgrade
Rating: 9/10

Reviewing the training guides

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I wanted to also give a review of the official Autodesk Maya training guides, because a monumental application like Maya (let alone a monumental suite) requires extensive training and guides like these are vital to the user community. Autodesk used to publish three Maya training books but this year scaled it down to two, Learning Autodesk Maya 2010 (Foundation) and The Modeling & Animation Handbook (Intermediate).

The first impression was a good one. Adobe’s Classroom In A Book training guides are usually small and relatively thin, but these books by Autodesk are thick (over 600 pages each) and look great. The graphics are also top-notch, taken from the 2008 Bollywood film Roadside Romeo—the first CGI feature film to come from India. The movie may not be Pixar-level material but it’s high-grade material for a training book and very inspirational.

The writing is clear and the lessons are fairly easy to follow but the authors don’t explain complex concepts thoroughly. Most of the writing consists of short instructions and relatively short paragraphs explaining the thinking behind the exercises. Compare this with the Classroom In A Book series, which is also exercise-based but devotes more pages that explain how these exercises illustrate larger concepts. This is the major failing of the Autodesk training guides, and it’s a direct cause of the one gripe I hear over and over again about these books.

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“Too hard.” Learning Autodesk Maya 2010 and The Modeling & Animation Handbook really require a strong grasp of 3D fundamentals, and the guides aren’t really accessible to beginners. I am a beginner too and I could go through the lessons easy enough but sometimes felt like I was in a fog, going through the motions. Mistakes were not easy to track down and resolve, and it was sometimes unclear for this beginner to tie the instructions to larger concepts. I felt like I was making headway but wasn’t sure how or if I would be able to apply my training to other projects.

These two Autodesk training guides are good but can irritate beginners who want to learn a new application like Maya. Maybe there’s no good way for a beginner to learn Maya outside of a classroom with a trained instructor. I think Learning Autodesk Maya 2010 and The Modeling & Animation Handbook are good tools for those wanting a hands-on experience with Maya without much general overview or explanations of key concepts.

Learning Autodesk Maya 2010 (Foundation)
Published by Autodesk
US$69.99
Rating: 7/10

The Modeling & Animation Handbook
Published by Autodesk
US$69.99
Rating: 7/10

Tutorial: Use Stitcher Unlimited 2009 To Build Interactive Panoramas

Photoshop has been able to produce good panoramas for years with the Photomerge plug-in, and it’s a popular tool for some photographers who use Photoshop to build sweeping vistas from multiple shots. Other users find Photomerge very handy for combining images for use in QuickTime VR (QTVR) projects such as 360-degree online tours and other immersive interactive media.

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I have always used Photoshop and a $49 program called CubicConverter to build QTVR: I combine images in Photoshop and then output the movie file with CubicConverter. However, Autodesk offers an application called Stitcher Unlimited 2009 that handles both functions extremely well. There are some pros and cons to using Stitcher versus Photomerge, but I like the fact that it’s a complete solution for VR professionals.

Create your panorama

In this tutorial we’ll learn how to import images into Stitcher, stitch them together in a panorama, fix any bad stitching or mismatched exposures, and export to QTVR. The five images in this tutorial are of St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin.

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I stitched these five photos of St. Stephen’s Green.

1. Import your images into Stitcher.

The easiest way to do this is to drag the image files onto the Stitcher interface, but there are also menu and icon commands that do the same thing. I recommend that you make the exposures consistent outside of Stitcher. During the import process Stitcher will detect the lens type and focal length, which you can accept or revise.

2. Use the Stitch Shots command to automatically begin the stitching.

Stitcher does a good job stitching shots together on the fly, every bit as good as Photoshop’s Photomerge feature. You’ll have greater success if your shots have a healthy amount of overlap: in my example, the first and last shots have very little overlap with the image next to them and Stitcher did not attempt to stitch them together.

Photos that are successfully stitched are marked with green in the Thumbnail View strip below the main window. Stitcher uses green, yellow and red to mark successful and problem images. The stitched images show up in their panoramic glory in the main window, and the three tools to move around are in the View menu—pan, zoom and roll. The menu bar doesn’t show it, but there are vital keyboard shortcuts for the Pan (Alt/Opt-drag) and Zoom (Cmd/Ctrl-drag) tools. These shortcuts make moving a lot easier and the menu commands are comparatively slow.

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The Stitch Shots command is the easiest way to combine photos with Stitcher, as long as they don’t have exposure differences or too little overlap. Click the image for a larger view.

3. Manually stitch any missed images.

I dragged my two missing images from Thumbnail View to the main window. The left image stitches nicely just by dragging the image so it overlaps the image next to it. Stitcher fades the two images together to make a seamless transition, though in my case a man in the left image ended up losing some opacity due to blending with the second image’s background. Unfortunately, Stitcher does not have any retouching tools like Photoshop does, though you can stencil out part of an image and retouch it in Photoshop or another application.

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See the man in the background who is 50% transparent? He’s right on the seam between two photos. These photos aren’t stitched, but Stitcher is smart enough to blend images when they overlap.

The right image is a good candidate for Stitcher’s Manual Stitch command—images that overlap and have common landmarks do well with Manual Stitch. Select the right image and the one to be stitched to it and choose the Manual Stitch icon or menu item. An interface appears that allows you to pin common points on both images. In my example, the statue in the background and one of the railing posts were good common points. Once the pins are in place, click Stitch and Stitcher brings them together. Note that manually stitched images are marked with yellow while non-stitched images (like my left image) are marked with red.

4. Equalize images

There are two methods for equalizing images: use the Equalize All Images command or, if you have 32-bit High Dynamic Range (HDR) images, use the HDR exposure controls in the HDR menu. In my example, the fourth and fifth images have some overexposure compared to the three on the left. However, Equalize All Images doesn’t seem to work with unstitched or manually stitched images and it of course can’t fix incorrect colors like the sky in my fourth photo. The sensitivity of Equalize All Images is also buried in Stitcher’s preferences, making it a chore to tweak it for the best results.

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The transition between the rightmost image and the one next to it. I left the exposure difference in the final product; Photoshop is the best choice to fix this problem.

Photomerge seems to do a better job of automatically equalizing images, though it doesn’t have the specialized HDR features that Stitcher offers. Photomerge produced a fully equalized panorama with the St. Stephen’s Green photos, and even figured out how to stitch the right image so I didn’t have to do it manually.

5. Render the final QTVR output

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Stitcher provides many options when producing the final output.

The real value of Stitcher is in the various formats it can produce: JPEG, QuickTime movies or QTVR, Pure Player Java or HTML and KML. The KML file is suitable for use with Google Earth. To publish a QTVR, select “Cylindrical QTVR” or “Spherical QTVR” from the Type menu and change the various settings as needed. The Render dialog box has four panels full of options for quality, output and scripting so it’s a complicated process but also very robust, and there’s a panel for saving and recalling settings so the process runs smoothly.

Conclusion

The coolest thing about Stitcher Unlimited 2009 is its range of features: there are several I did not write about, including hotspots, stencils, alignment and working with fisheye images and full spherical panoramas. I was impressed by the wide features that Stitcher offers to creators of panoramas and QTVR, and I think there is potential for more interactive images and multimedia with these tools.