Monday, April 13th, 2015 Posted by Jim Thacker

Discover the new features in Maya 2016

Autodesk has unveiled Maya 2016, the latest update to its industry-standard modelling, animation and rendering software, at NAB 2015, alongside new versions of 3ds Max, Mudbox, MotionBuilder and Flame.

The update improves viewport performance, particularly for animation playback; adds a new brush-based sculpting toolset, a new Delta Mush deformer and a PBR shader; and extends the XGen and Bifrost toolsets.

CG Channel spoke exclusively to Autodesk director of media and entertainment Chris Vienneau about the new features, and about ‘Project H’ – Autodesk’s ongoing R&D program to “humanise” Maya’s UI and workflows.

Improved viewport performance for complex character rigs
In terms of user experience, one of the most significant changes in Maya 2016 is the improvement in viewport performance brought about by more efficient use of CPU cores and of the GPU.

150417_ChrisVienneau“It’s no secret that [previous versions of] Maya didn’t use a lot of the cores [in a user’s machine] and that you didn’t really need a multicore machine to run the software,” says Vienneau. Maya 2016 harnesses that unused processing capacity properly, with the new Parallel evaluation mode attempting to multithread by default when parsing the Maya scene graph.

Vienneau says that during development of the new evaluation mode, “80 to 90 per cent” of customer-submitted production scenes could be multithreaded.

The changes should cut background loading times for geometry and textures, but the most significant benefits lie in the improvments to animation playback brought about by faster evaluation of character rigs.

The new architecture gives “good performance” with rigs of up to “TV quality”, with Vienneau citing a typical 3x improvement in playback frame rate, rising to 12x on certain scenes.

In addition, intensive tasks like deformations and skinning can now be handled by the GPU, providing a further 2x improvement in performance when working with complex characters.

Vienneau comments that this performance increase is “not automagical” and that some traditional workflows, like onion-peeling characters, will have to be redesigned to make the most of GPU acceleration.

To make it easier to identify bottlenecks, the Performance Profiler introduced in the Maya 2015 Extension 1 release, and shown in the video above, has been updated to make it more accessible to generalist artists.

“As long as you can understand the constraints system, you can decide [what’s] necessary to do your work,” says Vienneau.

New brush-based sculpting tools for animation workflows
The other headline feature in Maya 2016 is the new Mudbox-derived brush-based sculpting toolset.

The toolset is primarily intended for modifying existing geometry – for example, when finalling a model, or for sculpting blendshapes – rather than for creating complex organic models from scratch.

“We’re not trying to replace ZBrush,” says Vienneau, commenting that the new tools should provide good performance on models up to the low millions of polygons.

This mindset is evident in the way that toolset is implemented: as you can see in the video above, sculpting uses a blendshape-based, rather than a layer-based, workflow.

In addition, none of Mudbox’s texturing tools have been transferred to Maya. However, the rest of the functionality – brush types, brush falloff controls, support for stamps – should be familiar to Mudbox users.

“It’s not everything you can do in Mudbox, but it works well for animation,” says Vienneau.

The new sculpting tools are integrated with Maya’s existing procedural modelling tools and deformers; and brush-based workflows have also been carried over into the UV Texture Editor.

The Bifrost fluid simulation system has also been updated, in what Vienneau terms the “TD release” of the toolset, as opposed to the more generalist-friendly implementation rolled out in Maya 2015.

In contrast to the existing, more menu-driven approach, Maya 2016 opens up Bifrost’s underlying procedural graph, enabling users to change the logic of a simulation or add in their own modifiers.

If that sounds a familiar workflow, there may be a reason for that: as with many other new features in Maya, it was implemented by the developmers who used to work on Softimage’s ICE visual programming toolset.

Foam, spray, mist and atmospherics
In addition, Maya 2016 adds “effects to round out the liquid toolset”, including a system for simulating surface foam, spray and surface bubbles, shown in the video above.

The foam system exposes another underlying technology within Bifrost: the particle system used to generate the foam can be made view-adaptive, so particles are only emitted with the camera’s cone of view.

In addition, simulations can be guided, with an animated mesh object or a cached low-resolution simulation driving a high-resolution simulation on the liquid surface.

The technologies make it possible to selectively define regions of high resolution within a much large domain, increasing the realism of a simulation while minimising the attendent increase in computation time.

The same priciples apply to the new Aero solver (shown above), used to generate atmospheric effects like smoke and mist, and intended to provide a higher-performance alternative to Maya Fluids.

Vienneau describes Aero as having “neat new qualities never seen in a fluid solver before”, and hints that while Maya 2016 doesn’t support full adaptive fluids, this will follow in a future release.

XGen becomes the standard toolset for hair
The XGen instancing system, first introduced in the 2014 Extension release and used for hair, vegetation and object scattering, also gets an overhaul, with an “updated workflow, presets, sculpting, and preview”.

Vienneau describes the changes as being intended both to make XGen more artist-friendly, and to remove workflow and performance “blockers” when used on large production scenes.

That’s particularly important for hair, since the older Maya Hair and Maya Fur systems are effectively being retired: they aren’t being ported to Viewport 2.0, and Autodesk is transferring their old presets to XGen.

New UI design and overhauled Hypershade
Another key feature of the update is its new design philosophy. As will have become apparent from watching the demo videos above, Maya 2016’s user interface looks different to previous releases.

The UI now scales better so that icons no longer look like “little specks of dust” when viewed on HiDPI displays, and the icons themselves have been redesigned in line with Windows 8’s ‘flat design’ aesthetic.

Icons are also now colour-coded by type, and Autodesk has introduced separate sets of menu structures for different tasks: modelling, rigging, animation, FX and rendering.

The Hypershade has also been overhauled to function as a complete look-development environment, gaining a new Material Viewer and a Property Editor.

The viewer enables users to preview shading networks on a range of geometry types, including cloth, glass, ocean surfaces and water splashes, and using any supported render engine.

Nodes in the shading network also now come with a new Solo button. Clicking on it displays only the contribution of that node, both in the viewer and in the viewport itself.

Introducing ‘Project H’
Both the new UI and the revamped Hypershade are part of an ongoing initiative that Autodesk calls ‘Project H’ or ‘Humanized Maya’, intended to make Maya more artist-friendly, particularly to former Softimage users.

“We’re going to be asking a large number of users to switch to Maya [now Softimage has been discontinued],” says Vienneau. “They feel there’s work to be done in how Maya presents itself to an artist.”

Guiding principles of Project H, which will run through to Maya 2017, include consistency of presentation in the UI, and scalability across a range of devices, from 4K displays down to Windows Surface tablets.

There will also be more scope for users to create custom workspaces, as shown in the Hypershade video.

Vienneau describes the changes, many suggested by Softimage’s “strong” and “very vocal” user community, as being beneficial to long-term Maya users, not just those accustomed to other software.

“You get used to the way certain things work, but that doesn’t mean [they’re] right,” he says. “That’s why it was good to have a new influx of users to question things.”

Other new features
Other new features in Maya 2016 include a new Delta Mush deformer for smoothing arbitrary deformation on a polygon mesh without losing the original detail of the model.

The deformer, which can be used to manually paint out artefacts in simulations or character animations, is based on techniques developed at Rhythm & Hues and published in a seminal 2014 paper,

The Viewport 2.0 display now implements OpenGL 4.0 across Windows, Linux and OS X – Windows users can still opt for DirectX 11 instead – and supports a few additional effects, such as fog.

Artists working on next-gen games also get a new PBR shader that can emulate those in common game engines and art tools.

“You can see what [an asset is] going to look like to 80-90% [accuracy inside Maya] and then bring it over to Unity or Unreal,” says Vienneau.

The new colour-management system introduced in Maya 2015 Extension 1 has also been extended, including support for Playblasts; and more issues raised in the Small Annoying Things forum have been addressed.

Mental ray no longer installed by default
The final key change in Maya 2016 isn’t so much of a new feature as a removal of one.

Although mental ray will still ship free with the software, and still acts as Autodesk’s “reference renderer”, users will now have to actively choose to install it, rather than it being installed by default.

Vienneau describes the change as being part of a new “open rendering policy” that has seen Autodesk collaborate actively with the developers of alternative render engines including V-Ray, Arnold and Redshift.

“There is no single renderer that’s good for all things,” he says. “We’re trying to make it easy for as many renderers as possible to plug into Maya. It’s great for the users to have all these different options.”

Pricing and availability
Maya 2016 is available now for 64-bit Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. A perpetual licence – due to be scrapped next year – costs $3,675, while pay-as-you go subscriptions cost $185/month, $460/quarter or $1,470/year.

Read more about the new features in Maya 2016 on Autodesk’s website