Whether you're modeling or animating in Maya
having some type of reference is critical for creating an accurate model, and an accurate animation. When modeling a character, vehicle or an object that needs to match a certain design and proportion it's difficult to do without following along with your reference, and simply having your reference on a separate monitor that you periodically glance over to won't provide the most accurate results. Instead, you need to bring your reference directly into the Maya scene so you can use the reference much like a surface you can trace over.
In Maya there are several different methods you can use to setup image planes, which are the nodes that you import your reference image to. These can be positioned in different camera views and scaled up or down to fit your needs. In this article we'll walk you through the many different ways you can go about setting up image planes in Maya.
This first method of creating an image plane is very quick to setup and is dependent on the camera you are currently looking through.
In your perspective camera you can navigate over to the View drop down menu. Toward the very bottom you'll find View, with that highlighted it will open another side menu. You can select Image Plane>Import Image. This will open up a dialog box, letting you navigate to where you have your reference images save.
Once you import the reference image you should see that an image plane gets placed directly in the viewport. If you begin to orbit around the perspective view, you should see that the image plane stays in place, and doesn't rotate. That's because it's placed in the perspective camera, so it will always follow along with the camera, so it looks as if it's staying perfectly in place. However, if you press "Spacebar" to bring up the other three orthographic views, you'll see that when you rotate the view in the perspective camera, the image plane actually rotates in the front, top and side view.
You can have the image plane only show up in the perspective view by selecting the image plane and going into the Attribute Editor and under Display choose "looking through camera" this will only show the image plane in the camera that you created it in, which is the perspective camera.
Now, when working with reference images you probably don't need to have an image plane placed in the perspective view. Instead, you'll want to have your orthographic views setup, like the front and side views of your character sheet. To do this, go into your front view by going to Panels>Orthographic>Front or by pressing "spacebar" and choosing the front view.
In the front view you'll do the same thing you did in the perspective view, go to View>Image Plane>Import Image and navigate to where you have your reference image. This is going to place the image plane in the front view.
You can scale the image plane by selecting it, and in your channel box highlighting the width and height options and choose a value that fits your needs. You can translate the image plane by highlighting either the Image Center X, Y or Z axis and changing the value.
To add more image planes to your scene simply repeat this process in the camera view that you need to add an image plane to. It's also a good idea to put your image planes on a new display layer, so you can set them to reference, so you don't accidentally select them when you're modeling.
Depending on how you setup your image planes, there may be times when your modeling in the front view, and when you switch to the side view, you're mesh is not over the reference image anymore. That's just because you didn't properly setup the two image planes to match.
You want to make sure that their width and height is both the same, as well as their Image Center Y value. You'll also want to figure out the best way to place the image plane in your scene. For instance, in this scenario the character's feet on the image plane were placed so that they are directly on top of the grid line. Because of this, you want to make sure that your other image plane matches this.
When working with multiple image planes you may start to notice that your viewport can get a bit cluttered, with the many different camera locators visible. There are a few different ways you can remedy this. If you don't want them to be visible in the perspective view you can simply turn off the visibility of the cameras by going into the "Show" menu. However, this doesn't really work for the different camera views, because turning off the visibility of the camera will also turn off the image plane. So what you can do select the camera, and go into your attribute editor and under Object Display set the Locator Scale to a very low value something like .1 or even .001. This will scale the locator enough to where it's too small to even be visible, and it doesn't have any effect on the image plane itself.
Free Image Plane
This next method is a little bit different in that the image plane is not attached to the camera. Instead, it's one that you can transform directly in your scene.
To add a free image plane go to Create>Free Image Plane. You should see a blank image plane get placed directly at the center of the grid. Now you need to apply your reference image to it. Select the image plane and go to your attribute editor. Select the folder icon next to the Image Name dialogue box and navigate to where you have your reference image saved.
The free image plane is visible in all camera angles. To add another image plane you can repeat the same process, or you can simply duplicate the first image plane, and go into the attribute editor and swap out the image for the one you want.
Since the free image plane isn't dependent on the camera angle, anytime you create a new one it's going to be placed at the center of the viewport. So if you need to setup an image plane for the side view, you'll need to create the free image plane and actually rotate it until it's positioned toward the side view.
Image Plane with Movie File
If you're an animator you can also bring in movie files in the exact same way you brought in images.
In the perspective view go to View>Image Planes>Movie File and navigate to where you have your movie file. This will drop in a movie file directly into your perspective view. The image plane gets placed within the perspective camera in the Outliner.
If you want to scale the image plane simply select the imagePlane1 node inside your perspective camera and highlight the Size X and Y axis in the imagePlaneShape1 node in the channel box to scale it to the size you want.
You can also use the Offset X and Y axis to position the movie file different in the perspective view. If you go into any of your orthographic views you can place the movie file in those cameras the same way you did with the image planes.
Now you should have a strong understanding of the different ways you can setup image planes inside of Maya. If you have any questions be sure to submit them in the comments below, and check the in-depth modeling tutorials
at the Digital-Tutors library.