To Maya or not to Maya

To Maya or not to Maya

If you’ve had your jaw dropped by Spiderman: Into The Spider Verse, or wowed by the intergalactic battles in Avengers, or blown away when you first loaded into the world of Uncharted 4: Thief’s End and wondered, “How the heck did they create those visuals?”, the answer is Autodesk Maya.

A behind the CGI look at Marvel’s The Avengers from 3D studio Industrial Light & Magic

Maya is a fully featured 3D software, but it is most known for animation. Well, not just “known”; Maya is considered the industry standard animation software. In fact, Animation Mentor, the original online animation school, teaches 3D animation in Maya. VentureBeat Magazine also stated that every winner of the Academy Award for Technical Achievement since 1997 used Maya. 

Simply put, Maya is synonymous with world-class 3D animation. (If you’re already familiar with Maya and want to read about recent developments, read our article about Maya updates.) 

If you are now hyped to learn how to craft scenes of giant robot fistfights or bring the Jurassic era back to life or fold whole cities onto themselves, let’s answer some basic questions to determine whether you and Maya are a fit.

What can Maya do?

In Maya, you can do pretty much everything in the 3D pipeline. You can do polygonal or NURBS modeling. You can map a texture onto materials. You can automate the animation of fire, liquids, smoke or cloth using built-in simulations. And you can give your scenes a photorealistic finish using the powerful Arnold render engine.

(Already got a project in Maya that you need to render? Give our Maya render farm a look.)

To Maya or not to Maya
Arnold Renderer in Maya. Image from NVIDIA.

You can do all these and more in Maya but as mentioned above, animation is where Maya lives and breathes. Its animation tools are among the most powerful and most mature in the industry, being over 20 years old. And in all that time, its engineers have crafted plugins and fine-tuned the software to overcome any and all challenges when it comes to animation.

We can’t possibly list here all the things that make Maya superior for animation but let’s name one key feature: its sensible and seamless UI that leads to an efficient workflow.

When working on something so complex and laborious such as animating 3D objects, the little things matter a lot. Things like being able to import a character rig in just 3 clicks (compared to at least 7 in Blender). Or having keyboard shortcuts for often-used commands that are laid out sensibly with regards to hand positioning, for instance, letting you add a new keyframe without taking your eyes off the screen to look for the right button because the shortcut is already there where your hand normally is. Or having the ability to grab a curve, to isolate a curve with one click so as to not mess up with other curves, select and deselect curves with a click, slide curves up and down without the need to be too precise with your mouse movement in Graph Editor – stuff like these let you save energy and time to focus on the actual animation and minimize mistakes. 

Is Maya hard to learn?

The short answer is yes.

The longer answer is anything 3D is hard to learn, especially if you have no prior experience. So if you are an absolute beginner, you will have to bring your expectations down much, much lower. You can’t come into Maya and expect to come out with exploding stars and marauding aliens in a few weeks. 

To Maya or not to Maya
It’s a long journey before you’re making film-worthy graphics with Maya. Take time to learn the basics, like Maya’s UI.

Honestly, you most likely won’t be anywhere near making Avengers-level visuals even in a few years. Just the sheer number of tools and commands and features and settings can overwhelm you. No 3D software is designed to be like a mobile app that you can simply intuit your way around from the get-go. When starting in Maya, you would have to take baby steps and settle for creating simple objects and movements, get to know the tools, develop muscle memory for the controls, and generally wrap your head around the fundamental concepts first. Learning and mastering 3D is a long journey, to say the least. You must be someone who enjoys the process of learning and someone who takes joy in making incremental progress.

But if you are patient and not someone who easily quits, then Maya will reward your hard work. You already know what Maya is capable of since you see its output pretty much everywhere – in films, games, ads, and shows. So whether you’re in 3D school or are studying by yourself through online tutorials, learning Maya can be a joyful, personally rewarding, and financially lucrative (more on this later) undertaking.

Is Maya free?

No. Maya is heavy both on your wallet and your hardware. You’ll need lots of cash and a powerful computer to run Maya. Maya costs $1,785 annually or $225 monthly for the subscription. You cannot purchase Maya outright. 

However, Autodesk has launched Maya Creative. It’s a cut-down version of Maya that has its modeling and animation capabilities but doesn’t have the simulations and the ability to load third-party plugins. Maya Creative is aimed at indie 3D outfits that do not have the budgets of the big studios. Maya Creative can be accessed through Autodesk Flex, a token-based, pay-as-you-go platform that charges you only for those times that you use the software. All told Maya Creative costs about $3 a day.

Is Maya worth learning?

To Maya or not to Maya
With practice and patience, you can do anything in Maya. Credit:

As in anything connected to 3D, it always boils down to your objective as an artist. If your goal is to become a 3D professional specializing in animation, then learning Maya will make you as hireable as you can be. Do a quick LinkedIn job search for “3D animator” and you’ll find that most of them are looking for someone “proficient in Maya.” Needless to say, if you want a shot at being hired by the biggest VFX or gaming or animation companies in the world, your best bet is to get good at Maya.

If you are more of an independent creator, or someone who just wants to get one’s feet wet with creating 3D visuals, then you don’t necessarily have to put down some money for Maya. Something like Blender, being free and fully-featured as well, may be a better fit for you. 

So: to Maya or not to Maya? If you want to specialize in 3D animation, you already know the answer.

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