Learning Maya Animation – One Step at a Time

By Geoff Beatty

Has this ever happened to you?  You’ve just finished a marathon session putting the finishing touches on a project when (who else?) the client stops by with a lot of “helpful” revisions.  All that time you put in, all the invitations you declined, all the social engagements you postponed, that Netflix rental lying on the top of the DVD player you put off watching… all those sacrifices wasted because now you’ve got to put even more time into this project.  What a headache!

Working in stages allows your work to develop complexity and depth.

This is a real situation that many students and professionals face.  In creative professions such as 3D animation, this is the norm.  Work hard, critique, make changes, critique, undo those changes, and repeat.  Now, if you work smart, this cycle of work and constructive feedback can actually help you make the best product possible.  But if you don’t understand this cycle, you are just going to be frustrated in your efforts.


Fortunately, it’s not too difficult to work smart if you can remember one phrase – “one step at a time.”  Whatever you’re tackling, whether it’s a screenplay or a website layout or a music video, it’s important to work in stages.  This is called working “iteratively.”

Working in Stages
Since I teach the pro and teen Maya classes at DMA, I’ll take this general idea and apply it to the process of 3D modeling. 3D modeling, like any part of Maya, can be very complex, so it is even more important to work in a systematic way and give yourself room to backtrack if necessary, whether based on client/teacher feedback, or simply your own judgment.  What that translates to in the context of modeling is: work with as little detail as possible, make some adjustments, add more detail, make some adjustments, add some final detail, make final adjustments, and smooth it out.

Changes, adjustments, refinements – these are an inevitable part of the process, even if you are working alone.

So, I share with you this cautionary tale from a university class I taught several years back.  The project was to model an environment – architecture, some props, and some effects.  It was the final project, and students had about a month to finish up their fairly complex scene.

One student, who did not understand the process of working iteratively, started working on a banana for a bowl of fruit that existed in the center of his scene. I urged him to do a rough pass on it, like a simple cube stretched out.  Then he could return to it later, add a little bit more detail, fashion that into a closer approximation of the banana, and then move onto something else.  Finally, he could come back, smooth it out, and that would be that.

Well, he didn’t really listen and, like so many novices, started out with an extremely high-resolution cube that he was nearly impossible to change except by moving each row of points, one at a time, to match the profile of the reference imagery he had imported.  And that’s how he spent the rest of that class, face close to the screen, picking and moving, picking and moving, picking and moving.  When I arrived to class the following week, there he was, hunched over, moving those points, and with hundreds to go before he was going to make it look like a real banana.

In the end, he spent hours and hours of his time working on that banana, and never really got to finish the rest of the scene.  By the last week, it was really too late.  The banana didn’t even look that great.  Because all of those points had been moved individually, it ended up looking like a bumpy yellow root.

Lesson Learned
This poor student made a very common novice error.  In 3D modeling, it’s tempting to try and jump to the end by adding lots of detail (i.e. points and edges) to a model because that’s what they look like when their finished – high-resolution geometry.  But that’s a last step, not a first step.  It’s important to work with as little detail as possible, getting the underlying structure and proportions and the contour of the model right before you start adding a lot of detail. You need to develop a workflow that accounts for change.  The student in my story slipped on the proverbial (and literal) banana.  You can avoid that fate by taking things one step at a time.

Continue the lesson here:

Part 1: Learn Maya Animation – Bouncing Ball

Part 2: Learn Maya Animation – Bouncing Ball

Part 3: Learn Maya Animation – Bouncing Ball