We take a look at the past, present, and future of Autodesk’s Maya in visual effects for films.

Avatar, Jurassic Park, Terminator 2 – what do these movies have in common?

If you answered “All three films won Academy Awards,” you are correct. If you answered “All three movies used Maya for visual effects,” you are also correct.

Autodesk Maya is THE industry standard when it comes to 3D animation. For more than 24 years, Maya has been responsible for making possible things that moviegoers now take for granted – exotic alien worlds, fighting robots, galaxy-saving superheroes, and more. Looking back at the history of Maya is almost like tracing the history of visual effects in movies itself – time and time again we have seen how technical advancements in Maya became cinematic milestones. 

A T-rex screaming at a car. A blob of liquid metal transforming into a cop. 9-feet tall blue humanoid creatures thriving in a magical, alien rainforest – these iconic scenes and images are now forever etched in film history as triumphs of creativity, vision, and technological innovation. These iconic scenes and images wouldn’t have been possible without Maya.

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Image from Autodesk’s VFX Breakdown on YouTube.

A Brief History of Maya

Before Autodesk Maya was Autodesk Maya, it was three separate entities: Silicon Graphics Computer Systems (SGCS), Alias, and Wavefront.

Back in the 90s, the most advanced 3D software came bundled with the physical workstation it runs on. You couldn’t just buy the program and install it on your computer (you couldn’t anyway on a normal desktop PC); you had to get the machine. SGCS was a manufacturer of such workstations. SGCS wanted to always one-up its competitor Microsoft in 3D graphics production and was always on the lookout for cutting-edge 3D software to feature in its machines.  

In 1995, SGCS found a winner in Alias Technologies and so acquired it. By that point, Alias already had a multiple Academy Award-winning relationship with the esteemed visual effects company Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). Alias had collaborated with ILM on The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Jurassic Park. Alias’ cutting-edge features like 3D modeling using NURBS and its Power Animator quickly became the gold standard for 3D graphics in films. 

Meanwhile, Wavefront developed Advanced Visualizer, a suite of software for the production of 3D visuals. As a company, Wavefront looked beyond the U.S. and gained a foothold in international markets (The Belgian government was an early investor; Japan was an early customer base). In the process of international expansion, Wavefront acquired Thomson Digital Image (TDI), a French visual effects company. By that point, TDI developed Explore, a software for creating photorealistic (by that era’s standard) computer images. 

This merger of Alias and Wavefront which was facilitated by SGCS is the precursor to what later on became known as Maya. Maya was the result of integrating TDI’s Explore, Wavefront’s Advanced Visualizer, and Alias’ Power Animator. By 1998, Alias Wavefront released Maya as their flagship software. 

In 2005, Autodesk acquired Maya.

How Maya is Used in Film Production

In 2013, Forbes Magazine reported that Autodesk Maya was responsible for visual effects in 21 movies that were nominated for the Academy Awards. In 2015, VentureBeat Magazine observed that Autodesk Maya had been used in all films nominated for The Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. In fact, Maya had been used in every film that won the Oscar for best visual effects since 1997. 

As such, it is impossible to explain here all the ways that 3D artists use Maya to create visual effects; its applications vary as much as the plots and characters of Game of Thrones vary from those in Frozen and Les Miserables. However, we can take a look at some of the key features that make Maya indispensable to film production.

Customizable user interface.  When Disney was in production for their 2000 movie Dinosaur, its artists collaborated closely with Maya developers. The Disney team asked for a customizable user interface in order to make the workflow more efficient and flexible for their artists. That customizability remains to this day. 

Modeling. In Maya, you can create models of 3D objects in two ways: polygonal and non-uniform rational b-spline (NURBS) modeling. Polygonal modeling is best for hard-surfaced objects like buildings, tanks, and 30-foot robots that transform into vehicles. NURBS on the other hand is best for 3D assets with smooth shapes and curvatures such as cars, creatures, and 9-feet tall human-like citizens of an alien world called Pandora.

Rigging. Maya is well-known for animation. But before you can make your 3D characters move, you need to undergo the process of “rigging,” essentially attaching a skeleton to your 3D model, giving you joints and points that you can manipulate for movement. This can be a very tricky step and Maya has rigging tools that have been put through its paces by some of the biggest film production and refined across decades.

Animation. Even before it merged with Wavefront to give birth to what we now know as Maya, Alias had animation at the core of its software. Alias’ Power Animator had already been the industry standard for animation for more than a decade when it merged with Wavefront. All that deep know-how when it comes to making virtual objects move in 3D space went into the development of Maya and has only been improved upon by countless innovations since then. No other 3D software gives animators the level of control and efficiency that Maya does. From the ability to isolate and manipulate specific parts of a bigger movement to making adjustments to a whole set of keyframes without ruining the overall animation, Maya’s animation toolset is as robust as it gets.

Rendering. This final step in 3D graphics production involves shading and texturing your 3D objects and lighting your 3D scenes. While this description sounds simple, it is anything but. Rendering is responsible for giving 3D scenes its lifelike finish or what is called photorealism. Autodesk wanted to make Maya a one-stop shop for 3D and so in 2016, Autodesk acquired Solid Angle SL and its rendering engine Arnold. Arnold is one of the best renderers today. With this acquisition, the  Maya render settings now include  Arnold built-in. (Fun fact: the name Arnold came from, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor who played Model 101 in the Terminator films that won Alias an Oscar for Best Visual Effects.)

What’s in Store for Maya?

If we are asked to summarize the year 2023 in one word, many would do so with just two letters: A and I. Artificial intelligence has disrupted a lot of industries and has created the fear that AI will push a lot of workers out of their jobs, including jobs in 3D graphics.

But Chip Weatherman, foundation manager at Autodesk, wants to shift the conversation in the other direction. He believes that AI can actually empower artists and make life easier for them, allowing 3D artists to get their job done faster with fewer mouse clicks. 

How? By using normal human language to generate code that will in turn create 3D assets in Maya. This is the goal of Maya Assist, a plug-in (in beta as of writing) that allows artists to type in prompts phrased in normal everyday language to get 3D visuals as a result. For 3D artists, this means more efficiency (e.g. you can automate repetitive tasks by literally typing in “do the same for the remaining 37 joints of the rig). For non-3D artists, this means they can dabble in Maya without prior technical knowledge of the software.

(Fun fact: Maya Assist is a collaboration between Autodesk and Microsoft. Microsoft, as mentioned earlier in the brief history of Maya, was the primary competitor of Silicon Graphics and was the main reason why Silicon Graphics acquired Alias and Wavefront. The Alias-Wavefront merger gave birth to Maya.)

Closing Thoughts

Maya’s track record when it comes to visual effects in film is unmatched. Its modeling, rigging, animation and rendering tools have been continually refined by generations of artists and developers working closely together to push their craft to the absolute cutting edge. The love affair between Maya and cinema is one that has simply grown deeper and stronger with time. While some may think that the advent of AI might pose a challenge to this relationship, I have two words in response: James Cameron. Unless AI proves capable of producing, by itself, visual effect wonders and narrative masterpieces such as Terminator and Avatar, the marriage of Maya and cinema is forever.

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