Our guide to Maya
Hotcourses Editor

Our guide to Maya

First published date November 14 2013 Amended date April 22 2015

Named after a Hindu term for illusions, Maya is a ground-breaking 3D animation program. Launched in 1998, and acquired by current owners Autodesk in 2005, it allows users to create 3D computer graphics in the form of animations, simulations, modelling and rendering. Maya is used throughout the media, and it represents one of the most advanced programs commonly used by computers nowadays. Indeed, there’s a high chance that you’ve seen something made using Maya in the last month…


Hiding in plain sight

Maya has been used in numerous motion pictures (see Maya at the Movies below), but it also underpins the production of landmark TV programmes like Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones. Its use in computer games is typified in the iconic Halo 4, and it has also been deployed in the creation of adverts and animations around the world.

Because it is compatible with PCs and Macs, Maya can run on whatever hardware a company or individual prefers to use, and as computers become more powerful, it can be used to achieve even greater things. Indeed, it is the development of computing power that has allowed modern movies to make such superb use of CGI, compared to 20 or 30 years ago. Software like Maya has been at the forefront of these advances, alongside its sister product 3ds Max, which is also marketed by Autodesk.


Whatever you want it to be

One of the reasons why a course in Maya is so valuable is because this program can be extended and adapted to suit the differing needs of individual users. This is known as open architecture, and in this instance, it came about when Walt Disney took an active role in Maya’s development, during the creation of their computer-animated movie Dinosaur in 2000.

The ability to add customisable options to Maya gave it real depth and value, but it has also made this a difficult program to become fluent in – hence the importance of taking a Maya course before attempting to use the software. By the time students move onto technical areas like polygon modelling workflows or vector displacement mapping, online tutorials or instruction guides will probably be wholly inadequate. Simply loading up the package and surveying the vast amount of available options can seem daunting to a rookie user, whereas a Maya course can guide students through its different functionalities one step at a time.


How it works

Maya allows you to create a blank scene and then add effects into it. Clever and sophisticated software enables the replication and accurate depiction of anything from fluids and gases to clothing and fur. Clouds can be moulded into all manner of shapes, light can catch on different surfaces in varying ways, impact collisions can be showcased in super slow-motion, and multiple camera shots can be merged together to create one seamless animation sequence.

Much of Maya’s processing involves taking real-life physics and allowing it to be manipulated and distorted. A basic skeleton can be clad in any skin imaginable with double-jointed limbs and improbable extremities, while rain can “fall” upwards and grass can shimmer in a rainbow of colours. In an environment freed from the constraints of gravity or oxygen, incredible things can be made to happen, as fans of Pixar movies will know. Indeed, Pixar have even created their own plug-ins for Maya, in recognition of its power and flexibility.


Maya at the Movies

The list of films made using Maya is incredibly lengthy, encompassing many of the most famous and popular cinematic releases of all time. Here are just some of the films that wouldn’t have made it to our screens (certainly not as we know and love them!) without the processing power of Maya…


Finding Nemo

Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets/The Sorcerer’s Stone

Ice Age

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring/The Two Towers

The Matrix

Minority Report

Monsters, Inc.



Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace/Episode II - Attack of the Clones

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

X-Men/X-Men 2


Why should I study Maya?

The obvious careers where a Maya course would be useful are creative ones, from advertising or broadcasting roles through to dedicated computing and graphic design positions. Because Maya is limited chiefly by the imagination of its end users, it often appeals to people who might otherwise choose to work as an illustrator or artist, allowing their creativity to run free. However, a Maya course will also be useful as a stepping stone onto more advanced computing studies, from its sister package 3ds through to degree or post-graduate computer courses.

Since much of Maya’s polygon modelling relies on mathematical principles and an appreciation of real-world physics, it may also be of interest to people studying geometry or physics courses, allowing them to put theories into practice and experiment with different techniques. However, a Maya course also has plenty of appeal for the enthusiastic amateur, letting people create their own YouTube animations or cartoons.


By Neil Cumins

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