Maya Basics

This beginner tutorial is to help familiarize anyone completely new to Maya with basic scene and animation functionality. Once completed, the reader should understand how to set up an animation scene with the provided character and create basic animation.

Below are the default areas of the Maya scene referred to in all following tutorials.

NOTE: Maya icons and other visual details are liable to change slightly with each annual release. Download Maya for educational purposes via the link on the Resources page.

01. Viewport Navigation

Starting with an empty scene, it is essential to be able to move the camera and view from different angles. In the perspective viewport (Viewport Menu: Panels → Perspective → persp if not already open) the camera controls are as follows:

  1. Rotate with Alt+Left Mouse Button.
  2. Move with Alt+Middle Mouse Button.
  3. Zoom with Alt+Right Mouse Button or Middle Mouse Button Roll.

These controls similarly work in the orthographic front, side & top viewports (Viewport Menu: Panels → Orthographic→ front/side/top) , minus the ability to rotate.

Make any viewport full-screen by tapping space, and select different viewport layout combinations from the menu by right-clicking the layout icons stacked vertically on the left edge of the screen. Quick-select different viewports (as well as other shortcuts), by holding space and LMB-dragging out from the Maya option.

02. Object Manipulation

The primary method of manipulating the majority of character joints is via rotation, with position reserved mostly for the main body joint and IK (Inverse Kinematics) when hands and feet are required to lock to a point in space. (Scale is rarely used when animating video game characters).

  1. Create a simple cube (Maya Menu: Create → Polygon Primitives → Cube).
  2. With the cube selected, hit F to focus in on the cube.
  3. Switch between move and rotate manipulators via their icons on the left of the screen, or more easily with the W and E shortcut buttons.
  4. Move the cube around the scene. Select the translation manipulator’s yellow box then click and drag to move it freely, or arrows for individual axes.

Importantly, switch between local and world axes to move and rotate relative to the object’s or scene’s axes respectively. Do this via the radial menu by holding W or E down respectively and LMB-dragging between the Object and World options.

03. The Time Slider

In game animation we tend to typically export animations from frame 0 so it’s a good habit to get into. Let’s set the time range to something that makes sense for our quick animation test. Under the Time Slider you’ll see 4 sets of values, two either side of a gray bar.

  1. Enter the left-most value as 0. This will be our animation start frame.
  2. Enter the right-most as 100. This is our scene’s end frame (100 is just a good number to show the time range slider at a good size).
  3. In the 2nd-leftmost box enter the value 20, and double-click the gray bar. The two centre-most values represent the zoomed time range – you can double-click to easily swap between ranges of 20 and 100 frames.

The zoomed time range allows us to repeatedly play a smaller section of a larger animation, allowing us to focus on just that area such as to see how a cycle might play within a larger Maya scene potentially containing multiple game animations.

04. Setting Keys

Moving a cube around is all well and good, but there’s no animation on it unless we set some keyframes that will replay on playback. Set your cube back to the origin, (zero position) if it isn’t already by LMB-dragging over all the Translate and Rotate numerical values in the Channel Box and entering a new value of 0.

  1. With the cube still selected and the Time Slider set to frame 0, hit the S key to set a key in the current position. Notice all the values in the Channel Box turn red.
  2. Next, move the Time Slider to frame 10 , move and rotate the cube to a different position and orientation, and hit S again.
  3. Finally, copy the original keyframe to frame 20 by right-clicking frame 0 on the Time Slider Copy, then moving to frame 20 of the Time Slider and then right-click →Paste → Paste
  4. Hit the Play button in the lower right of the maya screen. Congratulations – you made your first looping animation! Now hit the red Stop button and we’ll further prepare maya for animating games.

To avoid having to hit S after every manipulation and potentially losing your changes, turn on autokey to automatically set a key when an object is moved or rotated via the icon in the lower right of the Maya screen.

LMB-clicking and dragging the current key forward and backward in the Time Slider allows you to “scrub” the animation to see it without playing, allowing you to get a good idea of how something might play out as you work on it.

05. Layers & Display Settings

Next we’re going to add the cube to a visual layer so we can hide it – handy in more complex scenes when we might want to view an animation unobstructed by the many elements often contained in a scene.

  1. With the cube selected, create a new display layer (Layer Editor: Display Tab → Layers Menu → Create New Layer from Selected). found in the lower right of the maya screen.
  2. Toggle the layer contents’ (the cube’s) visibility by clicking the V.
  3. Toggle visibility during animation playback via P.
  4. Click the third option box between blank, T and R. These refer to Normal, Templated (wireframe) and Referenced respectively, with the latter two being unselectable to keep them safe from accidental selection & manipulation.

Adding items to layers and changing their display settings allows you to group-hide non-essential objects so as to focus on your animation. You can change the overall scene’s display settings via the shortcut keys 4 (wireframe), 5 (shaded) & 6 (textured).

Next: Part 02 – AZRI Rig Basics…