The Maya Journal: An Introduction to the User Interface

The Maya Journal is a series of articles that chronicles my journey as a 2D artist learning 3D software for the first time. Each installment is designed to help other 3D beginners get started by outlining some of the basic skills and knowledge necessary to work with Maya. The articles are also centered around describing my personal experiences and reflections on learning 3D software. My intention is to help others by explaining the basics as I learn them and by sharing my own learning strategies and unique perspective as someone who's worked primarily with 2D apps. For those of you just tuning in, you can get a fuller explanation of this approach in my introductory article, The Maya Journal: A 2D Artist's Perspective on 3D. I will begin this current installment with a brief look at some of the perceptual challenges of learning to work within a 3D virtual space. Then I will continue the remainder of the article with a general overview of Maya's user interface, breaking it down into sections, and describing how each section functions.


Challenges to Learning 3D Perspective

Learning to work in a virtual 3D environment for the first time is a strange experience. I think it's because 3D is both so similar to, but different from, reality. When I see a three-dimensional object like a sphere rendered within Maya's viewport, I always feel as if I'm looking at something familiar, yet also foreign. The sphere is familiar because it looks real enough to touch, however, its strangeness comes from knowing that I can't. I think this is a type of cognitive dissonance that one has to overcome in order to work effectively in 3D. Part of overcoming this requires us to attend to something we seldom think about: the difference between the movement of an object and the movement of our perspective. I'll illustrate this with a real world example: Every day my coffee cup sits at my desk next to my mouse. If I want to see the side of my cup that is presented to me, all I need to do is simply look at it. However, if I want to see the opposite side of my coffee cup, I must execute one of two actions:  1) Either reach out, grasp the cup with my hand, and rotate it around or 2) Get up out of my chair and move to the opposite side of my desk. Simply put, I can either move the cup or move myself. If I choose the first option and simply turn my coffee cup around with my hand, I've chosen to change the cup's relationship to myself. But, if I get up and move to the opposite side of my desk, I've chosen instead to change my relationship to the cup. Although these two distinctions are obvious in the real world, they become harder to differentiate in a virtual 3D environment. This confusion in 3D arrises mostly from a lack of physical references to the physical world and to our own physical bodies. These are two things we often enjoy in everyday situations. When I move my coffee cup, I have objects that orient me to it, like the desk it sits on, the office space, and my own hand reaching out. The same goes for option #2. However, in a virtual world these references can be absent or few in number. When I move a 3D object in virtual space, I again have two options: 1) I can rotate an object using the software's move tools or 2) I can change my (i.e. camera's) perspective of the object by orbiting around it. However, both of these movements can appear as if I'm doing the same thing. That is, orbiting around a 3D object can look exactly like moving the actual object itself. However, this is just an illusion, a type of spatial confusion you have to get used to in order to work effectively in 3D. [caption id="attachment_32902" align="alignnone" width="800"]sun Photo by Anupam_ts[/caption] A similar type of illusion was responsible for our ancestors believing in a geocentric world where the Sun revolved around the Earth and not the other way around. They, like us, couldn't feel the Earth rotating, so it was a safe to assume that it wasn't. For beginners in 3D, a similar experience happens because of the lack of physical references (i.e. a desk, an office, our bodies). Within the empty spaces of 3D environments, learning to move objects and then move your perspective can be a bit like rubbing your head while patting your stomach.

Going off the Grid

Luckily, 3D programs provide a great feature to serve as a reference point for any movement of an object vs. movement of the camera. This reference is the gridded plane (or "grid") located in the center of your viewport. The grid is always tied to your camera movement. When you orbit, it turns with your camera's perspective. In contrast, when you turn just the object, the grid remains stationary. Even though the grid can be turned off, it's helpful to keep it on because it helps you understand how your perspective is changing. To illustrate how the grid helps orient you in 3D space, I've provided a video of me turning the grid on and off while orbiting around an object. It also shows me rotating the object versus orbiting around it. It should become clear how these two perspective changes can be confused with one another.

Changing the Camera's Perspective

Moving around in Maya's 3D viewport takes the mouse and the Alt key. Each mouse button used in conjunction with the Alt key will alternate your perspective in three distinct ways.
  1. Alt+LMB. This combination will obit your perspective around an object and/or the grid. Clicking and dragging anywhere outside of an object or on the grid itself allows you to orbit from side to side, top to bottom, and anything in between.
  2. Alt+MMB. This lets you move the camera only along the X and Y axis as if it were 2D. This is helpful when you need to center your objects within the viewport.
  3. Alt+RMB. Moving your mouse from side to side also moves your perspective closer or farther away from an object. It's good for getting a wider or closer view.
We'll discuss how to move an object in the next installment of the Maya Journal. For now we'll continue with learning Maya's user interface.

Face-to-Face with the User Interface

The image below is a screen capture of Maya with almost every UI element visible. The sheer complexity of it is enough to make you want to throw your hands up and quit. I mean, look at that simple little 3D cube sitting there quietly on the grid, surrounded by this incredibly complex, intimidating and aggressive grouping of buttons, menus and tools. It's almost like I've chosen a chainsaw as the best tool to carve a toothpick. All_UI However, to help myself overcome this initial feeling of intimidation, I'm going to break Maya's UI down the into several different parts that are easier to understand and then assign basic concepts to each. As the old saying goes "How do you eat an elephant? Answer: One bite at a time." Apparently, working in 3D requires an enormous amount of control. As someone who's used to working in 2D space, that extra dimension really makes a difference! When you look at the Maya interface, often what you see are controls and functions for only one part of the entire software. For example, a large part of what set of menus you can use depends on what menu set you currently have selected. I've color coded some of Maya's UI to make it clearer how I divided it into sections. I will update this color coding as I proceed. The intention here is just to get a general understanding of how Maya's UI is laid out. I will be turning UI elements off and on to eliminate crowding of the screen shots, so be aware that the UI images will change as we proceed.

Menu Set

The menu set (orange) is a drop down box that lets you choose what set of menus you want to access. In other words, the menu set lets you "set" the menu. Changing the menu set sort of puts Maya into different work modes. When I select the menu set, I see drop down options like animation, polygons, surfaces, dynamics and several others. There's even a "custom" option, which I'm not even going to think about exploring yet. The option to "customize" anything, regardless of what anyone tells you, means this is the area for people who know what they're doing. Right now, all I want to know is "What does this and that button do?" and "What happens when I click this thing?" More importantly, the menu set's purpose is fairly easy to comprehend. It's a switch of sorts whose settings allow me to access various parts of Maya. So I feel comfortable with this concept. menu set

Main Menus

The main menus (red) at the very top of the Maya screen appears very familiar. In fact, it looks like every other software's menu. It has File, Edit, Modify, etc. So, I feel at home with the main menus, at least until I open one up. More importantly, however, I understand how the menu set changes the menus, even though I may not know exactly what all of these options do yet. In the screen shot below, the main set is set to "surfaces," which displays a specific set of main menu options for working with surfaces. main_menu And here's what the main menu would look like if I changed the menu set to "polygons": polygon_menu_set_short As you can see, many of the same menu options on the left side are the same; however, many on the right have changed to fit the Polygon work mode. Understanding that the main menus can change to this degree tells me that I will need to pay close attention to what menu set I'm in at any moment. I can certainly foresee moments when I'm completely perplexed about why I can't find a menu option that was "just there," only to suddenly realize that I'm in the wrong menu set. So, I plan to pay particular attention to this feature. Generally, I will define the main menu as a list of names containing a lot of sub-menus for things I can do. Menus are fairly complex and dense, so I need to work carefully in this section.

Status Line

Right below the main menu is the Status Line (blue), which begins on the right side with the menu set and moves left across the UI. The status line has familiar tools such as New Scene, Open Scene and Save Scene. Running along the right are also a series of icons that involve selection commands and snapping settings (represented by a little red magnet symbol, very clever). What's comforting about the status line is that it doesn't seem to change like the main menu. You can collapse and expand sections, for sure, but basically what you can see at any moment is what you get. Its tools seem more specific and constant. Overall, the status line seems more manageable, because many of its tools are straight forward. status line


The area containing shelves (green) makes up a pretty big chunk of real estate on Maya's UI. You may also hear this section referred to as the "shelf" as well. It has a tab layout that runs across the top, beginning with the labels General, Curves, Surfaces, and moving through to Custom. All of the tools that sit on a particular shelf change as you switch from one tab to another. The shelve's tools look interesting, their purpose understandable. I know when I switch to, say, the "Muscle" tab, I'm looking at tools on that shelf that are used to build up or "flesh out" a rigged skeleton. However, it will probably be a long time before I get to this tab. For the foreseeable future, I'll stick with the first four tabs: General, Curves, Surfaces and Polygons. shelves What's helpful to remember about shelves is that their name is a great descriptor of what they do. Shelves hold important and powerful tools for creating and animating your models. Selecting one tab will bring up a different shelf containing a collection of different tools. You can even customize your shelves, consolidating often-used tools onto one shelf. Most of these shelves contain a lot of stuff I don't understand yet; however, it also seems like a place with lots of potential for doing great things.

Panel Toolbar

The panel toolbar (yellow) rests just below the shelves and contains some important settings represented by icons. For example, the panel toolbar contains the on/off setting for the grid, which we discussed earlier. It also allows you to cycle through different ways of viewing your models: wireframe, smooth shade, etc. So a lot of these buttons are for setting specific ways of viewing your objects. There's also a menu included in the panel toolbar that contains six different options: View, Shading, Lighting, Show, Renderer and Panels. These menus could add another layer of complexity to the panel toolbar; however, it's good to know that many of the listings under each menu are actually just repeated functions within the panel toolbar's icon list. For example, you can also find the same viewing options for "wireframe" or "smooth shade" under the "Shading" menu. So, the good news is that the panel toolbar has some redundant functions.Therefore it's only about half as complicated as it looks. panel toobar

Tool Box and Channel Box

The Tool Box and Channel Box (purple) are located on opposite sides of the UI, but they serve similar functions. I've color coded them the same because it helps me remember their connection. The tool box is on the left side and contains all of the most commonly used tools for selecting, moving, rotating and scaling your objects. To use any of the tools in the tool box, all you have to do is click on their icons and select your object. In the image below, I have the move tool selected, which allows me to translate my cube through the red-, green- and blue-arrowed handles displayed in the cube. FYI: if you move an object, it's often called "translating", as in "I translated the object." This means the same thing as "I moved the object". The channel box on the right allows you to translate and position objects as well, only in a much more specific way. While the tool box contains icons to activate tools, the channel box has entry fields for entering specific numbers. Also, when you directly translate, rotate, or scale an object with any of the tools in the tool box, that object's position and size is also instantly displayed and updated in the channel box fields. That way you know exactly where the object is in 3D space. What I mean is you know where it exists numerically. It's usually pretty obvious where the object is physically placed inside the viewport. However, not always. channelbox In the channel box, there are three separate sections labeled "translate", "rotate" and "scale" along with numerical fields for each. If I select my cube and move it around, the numbers within the translate field begin to change. These new numbers indicate my cube's current coordinate position with respect to those XYZ coordinates. If I were to rotate or scale the cube, those "rotate" and "scale" fields in the channel box would then change accordingly. The video below shows how these channel box fields change. Notice that when I move the cube in all three XYZ coordinates, all three translate fields change accordingly.

Time Slider, Range Slider and Playback

Now we're really entering familiar territory with this section of Maya's UI (aqua blue). This section functions and is set up essentially like the time line of a lot of editing software. In editing, the time line is where you place all your images, cuts, key frames, etc. The time slider works in a similar way and is used in animating your models. For example, you can set up key frames on the time slider and scrub through it to see how your animation looks. Or you can use the playback feature (on the right hand side) which will play through and loop your entire section. You can also alter the frames per second just as in video production. The range slider, which sits just below the time slider, works just like Final Cut Pro's clip range adjustment, where you can adjust how long your time line is displayed. You can stretch it out so far that you can see each individual frames, or you can slide it inward so that the entire time line is compressed into one short section. Of course, compression makes it harder to do fine adjustments and extending the range slide can create an extremely long time line to work wth. timeslider

Command Line

You'll also notice below the time slider/range slider/playback section, that there are two short, squaty windows running along the bottom of the screen with the letters "MEL" (Maya Embedded Language) sitting to the left. That's called the command line and it's where you enter specific commands you want the software to perform. That in a nutshell is all I know about it. I didn't color code it because if I did it would be black. That is to say, I don't look to be going there for a very long time. I consider the command line the Area 51 of the Maya UI. That's because I have no idea what actually goes on there. But I will...eventually.


These eight sections I've covered and color coded certainly don't include every part of Maya's UI, but they make up a good deal of it. More importantly, identifying them is a good way for me to familiarize myself with the UI in general. As a visual summary, I've provided a screen shot of the entire UI with each color coded section, from the main menus to the MEL. full screen colored What I will try and do now is memorize these sections, learn what they basically contain, how each section is different and similar to the others, and which one's I am most and least familiar with. For example, I know that the time slider, status line and tool box are the sections that I am most familiar with. So, I can use my previous knowledge and analogies to other software (Final Cut Pro) to help me understand these sections. I know that the tool box and the channel box perform similar functions. And I've shown how they are directly connected. Most importantly, I now have identified what I know the least about (i.e. main menus, panel bar, command line). This gives me a better picture of my strengths and weaknesses so I can be better prepared. This method of learning Maya's UI is a broad-based leaning approach that looks to get an general understanding of the UI and then break that broader view down into smaller and smaller chunks. This will be my entire approach to learning Maya from here on. So, join me next time when I will be continuing with Maya's interface, learning how to create and save projects, how to create primitive 3D objects, and how to move them around inside the viewport. Until next time...