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Maya is one of the most powerful tools for doing 3D modeling, animation, rendering, lighting, dynamics, scripting, and more. Most people take years to discover Maya's power and capabilities. I've been using Maya since 2005, and I'm still learned what its capable of.

You can pretty much do anything in Maya. This is a blessing and a curse. Learning how to use Maya shouldn't be daunting, intimidating, frightening, and/or frustrating, but it is. The main reason for this is its interface and power.

So if you're new to Maya and want to start learning it, my recommendation would be to go through this instructable and play around with its interface until you feel like you've gotten to know Maya on a deeper level.

Also, I'd recommend acknowledging to yourself that you're not going to understand everything at once, and thats okay. Using Maya is a fun flow inducing activity once you've figured out the basics of its interface. So lets dive in and start exploring, poking around, playing with Maya.

Step 1: Interface Overview

Maya's interface is cluttered with icons, views, shelves, tools, menus and more. I've divided Maya's interface into bite size sections so they are easier to understand and learn. Check out the image above. I've labeled sections that I think are useful and important, they are briefly described below:

  1. Panel Layout: changes what is shown in the main view, by default a perspective view is shown.
  2. Selection, Move, Rotate, Scale, Last CMD: these tools help select and object and manipulate it in space
  3. Tool Shelf: Contains many tabs, each tab contains commonly used functions
  4. Mode Selection: Determines what mode Maya is in, and shows menus that correspond with that mode.
  5. Render Tools: Contains buttons that can render the scene and setup rendering parameters and more.
  6. Channel Box / Layer Editor / Attribute Editor: This panel show properties of the object(s) selected in the scene.
  7. Timeline: Shows the current frame, and duration of the timeline. Has controls for playing, stopping, and more.
  8. Script Editor: Allows the user to type in commands and shows the user feedback when commands fail.

The rest of this instructable will tackle one section at a time. We'll start with the Panel Layout and more clockwise until we are at the Script Editor.

Step 2: Essentials

Here are some super essential things that will help you navigate Maya's interface quickly:

  • Left Click inside of the main view: Selects an object
  • Left Click and Drag inside the main view: Selects many objects
  • Right Click after selecting an object presents options for what you can do to this objects.
  • Control + Left Click: Rotates the Camera
  • 'f' Key Press: focuses the current selection in the main view
  • '5' Key Press: turns on Shading on objects
  • '4' Key Press: turns off Shading and turns on Wireframe mode
  • Keys '1', '2', '3' control the display smoothness of the polygonal objects in the scene (Objects have to be select for this to effect how the object is rendered in the view).
  • 'q' Key Press: turns on the Select Tool, this allows you to select objects
  • 'w' Key Press: turns on the Move Tool, this allows you to move objects
  • 'e' Key Press: turns on the Rotate Tool, this allows you to rotate objects
  • 'r' Key Press: Turns on the Scale Tool, this allows you to scale objects
  • Space Key Press inside the main view, allows you to switch between a single perspective view and four orthographic views (top, perspective, side and front)
  • 'g' Key Press preforms the last command executed in Maya. For example if you preform a smooth operation on a cube to smooth it again press 'g'

You'll probably want to get these commands down ASAP, they are super useful!

Step 3: Panel Layout

The Panel Layoutsection contains buttons that change what is displayed in Maya's main view or panel.

Essentially these buttons change the main view that is shown. This is super useful for when trying to view your scene from different perspectives. Here is a list covering the different options:

  1. shows a perspective view of the scene.
  2. shows four viewports (Top, Perspective, Side and Front).
  3. shows the Outliner (1)and a perspective view.
  4. shows the Graph Editor (2)and a perspective view.
  5. shows the Hypershade (3) and Node Editor (4).
  6. shows a perspective view on the top left and the Hypergraph (5) on the top right and the Graph Editor (2) on the bottom.
  7. This button is special. It basically allows the user to customize and reconfigure what exactly shows up in the Viewport. Its icon visualizes the current layout of the main panel. Each inner button, when clicked, presents you with a list of views that can replace the sub-panel in question.

Above I mentioned a couple things that you might not be familiar with. They are described below. Its important to get a general overview of these panels, because you'll run into them in the future if your animating, rendering, creating materials, and complete scene hierarchies.

  1. The Outliner shows what objects are in the scene. Think of this as a finder (from OSX) or explorer (from Windows) window with all the objects in your file/scene. By default Maya create a couple cameras for you. These camera are shown here (persp, top, front, side). Whenever an object is a created, it will show up here. The object will have a plus icon next to it, this is because there is another object inside of it. Typically every object (camera, mesh, etc) in Maya has a transform object on top of it to control where it is in space. (See image 3).
  2. The Graph Editor is where animation keyframes can be tweaked and created. Since this is an instructable in itself, I'm going to skip describing it here. Just know, this is where animators spend most of their day keyframing and tweaking things. (See image 4).
  3. The Hypershade is where you'll go to create new materials and configure their parameters. In the Work Area Materials / Shaders / Textures / etc are represented as nodes. These nodes can be wired together to build complex materials and lighting models.
  4. The Node Editor is similar to the Hypershade's Work Area, the Node Editor allows you to see the node representations of the objects in your scene. This view shows things they aren't not easily visualized in the perspective view, such as an objects transform node or shape node (which is what all meshes are represented as).
  5. The Hypergraph is yet another place where you can view the node representations of objects in your scene. Throughout Maya, nodes are used to represent objects. These nodes typically have inputs and outputs. The output of one node and drive the input of another node. Thus nodes are great because you can build complex relationships between objects / materials / etc in your scene without much knowledge of programming or how they work internally.

Phew, hope you made it through that. I know its a lot, but you can also treat this instructable as a reference guide. After playing around with Maya (which is what I recommend for anyone learning it) you can always come back and read the relevant sections.

Step 4: Tool Shelf

This "Shelf" is where you can find commonly used commands in Maya. The tabs can be used to switch between various different sets of commands. For example while modeling you might be creating many cubes, thus pressing the cube icon will quickly get you into the "Polygon Cube Tool". Click anywhere inside the view and you'll see a cube show up.

There are many tabs and icons here. Explaining them all would make you fall asleep and make my hands super tired, so I'll highlight a couple key Tabs to checkout:

Curves: Allows you to create various different types of curves and a couple preset curves (circle, square, etc).

Surfaces: Allows you to create various different types of nurbs. Also, this tab has surface building commands for lofting, revolving, extruding curves.

Polygons: Allows you to create various different types of polygonal meshes. In addition there are options for creating chamfers, extruding faces/edges/etc.


Step 5: Mode Selection

The dropdown menu allows you to change what top level application menus are shown. Check out the images to see what changes when you select another option. This menus is super important.

For example, if you're modeling with polygons and you want to perform a smooth operation, you'll need to access the Mesh menus and select Smooth. If you were in the Animation mode, then you won't be able to access the smooth command quickly via the top menu bar. There are other ways of getting to the smooth command, but they aren't the most intuitive for most beginners.

That said, there are many ways of accessing commands / tools in Maya, so hopefully that will make the interface less daunting.

Step 6: Render Tools

The Render Tools for quick access to commonly used Rendering commands.

  1. opens the Render View Window.
  2. renders the current viewport
  3. renders the current viewport and allows the user to select what part of the render will be used for IPR(Interactive Photorealistic Rendering).
  4. opens the Render Settings Window, where various settings can be tweaked to produce nicer rendering or decrease rendering time.

Step 7: Channel Box / Layer Editor / Attribute Editor

The Channel Box shows you object properties. If you create a cube in Maya (Create -> Polygon Primitive -> Cube) and selected it, the Channel Box would allow you to edit the Cube's properties and parameters. For example you can change where it is located in space, its rotation, scale, and whether its visible or not.

Within the Channel Box, below the Cube's Transform Properties, there are two other sections (SHAPES and INPUTS). The listed items in the these sections are clickable and their parameters can be tweaked there. For example if you wanted to modify how many subdivision the cube had you could click on one of the text boxes and enter a new value.

Go ahead and make a cube, center it in the scene, rotate it until you're happy, and then give the cube more subdivisions.

The Layer Editor is very much like Photoshop's or Illustrator's Layer Editor. Here you can create new layers, delete layers, rename layers, and turn on and off layer properties. There are a couple different types of layers that Maya has, I'm going to focus on the Display Layers and Render Layers since they are the most used.

A Display Layer contains objects in your scene that you want to see in the main view. If you turn off the layer's visibility here, they will no longer show up in the main view. You can add an object to a display layer by selecting the object and right clicking on the display layer and selecting the "Add Selected Objects" option. If you create many display layers, keep in mind that an object can only belong in one display layer. This is the key difference between Display Layers and Render Layers.

Render Layers are useful when multi-pass rendering is needed. For example if you want to render separate images to capture different render properties of the scene (such as specular lighting, occlusion, diffuse lighting, etc,). Thus you can add your objects to all the render layers and configure each layer's render pass options.

There is one more panel that is important, its the Attribute Editor. The Attribute Editor is like the Channel Box but shows even more properties or "attributes." For example if you created a cube and wanted to see what kind of material was on the cube, you can select the cube and open the Attribute Editor (by pressing on the third icon from the right in the top right hand corner of Maya's Interface, shown in the fifth photo). You can use the small arrow buttons (shown in the sixth photo) to cycle through the tabs until you get to lambert1 or the like.

Step 8: Timeline

The timeline is located below the main view panel. Its essentially there to help use understand where we are temporary in our scene. When working with an animated scene, the timeline will be your go to tool for selecting a range of time you would like to see. The timeline's playback controls are located on the right of the timeline. They include the standard controls, such as play, stop, play backwards, go to the next /previous key frame, go to the start / beginning.

You can change the duration of the timeline by clicking on the number box left of the text "No Anim. Layer" (shown in photo three). Additionally there is a range slider (shown in the fourth photo) that allows you to zoom in / out. This is particularly useful for when trying to navigate an animation sequence.

Step 9: Script Editor

Up until now we have been using Maya's interface to access tools and commands. These tools and commands can also be executed / accessed by the Script Editor. By default the Script Editor is very small, but we can expand it and let it breath. Press the button on the lower left corner of Maya's (shown in the first photo). Another way to expose the Script Editor is by using Maya's Window Menu and then selecting General Editor and then Script Editor.

With the Script Editor open, go ahead and create a cube like you would normally. Then look at the top part of the script editor, you'll see that Maya has echoed a couple commands (shown int eh fourth photo). Now copy the line: "polyCube -ch on -o on -cuv 4 ;" and paste it into the bottom of the Script Editor. Make sure the MEL tab is selected. Delete the cube you just made and then highlight the text and press control + enter. Maya will execute the command and create a cube centered at the origin!

This just shows you can script things that would normally take a lot of time using Maya's visual interface. The great thing about scripting in maya is that Maya logs every commands you preform. Thus if you don't know what the MEL command for a specific tool or action, just preform the action and check out the script editors log output.

Step 10: Final Remarks

Congrats! You made it to the end!!! See, its not that hard or crazy. Just take one section at a time and play around until you've uncovered what each button has done. The key here is to be fearless and make a lot of mistakes. This is the best way to learn Maya.

If you felt I left out anything super essential for learning Maya's interface, please let me know. I'm still learning and very much human.

Great job! Finally there is a guide on what the little bits and pieces do. I had to find out the hard way
<p>Nice work. Thanks for sharing this!</p>

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Bio: Reza is a computational designer & creative engineer. He uses code to express himself, and creates tools and libraries to help others create. He is the ... More »
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