John Chamberlain
Developer Diary
 Developer Diary · You Heard It Here First · 13 December 2003
Maya Drives Movie CGI
While watching one of the behind the scenes specials for "The Two Towers" I noticed that the animation team seemed to have KDE desktops and so I thought they might be running linux. Further research showed that they based most of their animation on Maya running on SGI Irix boxes (presumably with KDE desktops installed). Products like Maya are turning live action animation from a custom specialty into a commodity item. You have probably seen Maya at work in innumerable media presentations ranging from commercials to full-length SFX features like "The X-Men". Maya is made by a graphics software development house called Alias.

When Peter Jackson originally asked to do the Gollum animations (which would be crucial to LOTR) at his local Weta Workshop special effects company New Line, the studio underwriting the project, said "No way, contract it out." In the past such complex animations were the province of huge proprietary companies like Industrial Light & Magic (think Star Wars). In fact, for years, ILM was the only CGI firm with major motion picture quality and had a virtual monopoly on the business. The idea that a tiny company whose main experience was in model making could do a major animation seemed ridiculous.

Software like Maya has changed that way of thinking. After Jackson showed the studio some test animations they changed their mind and said, "Go for it." After hiring a motion capture crew and combining that technology with key frame animation coordinated by off-the-shelf Maya the rest is history: unparalleled Oscar-winning animations resulted.

Maya is so accessible that you can get the personal learning edition free (but the full-scale commercial version is $7000). It's so easy to use that they were training colorists and illustrators who barely knew what a mouse was to operate it. The many add-ons and special tools in the package make it relatively painless to create high-quality renderings. Movies seem destined to become less real than ever while looking more real than ever.

Developer Diary · · bio · Revised 13 December 2003 · Pure Content