Maya is one of the most comprehensively featured 3D applications available. It’s vast and capable, which means that as you learn the workflow and navigate the menu systems, certain tasks can be harder to complete.
This isn’t a failing, as artists working in particular fields will build the muscle memory to do what’s needed, but for the many generalists who only rarely use certain tools, it can be frustrating. This is where the community comes into play, with either smart artists writing scripts or canny developers spotting the need to make odd jobs easier.
There are many ways that Maya can help improve your workflow (check out our Maya tutorials for some ideas) but plugins are something most people are familiar with and they generally have better support than random MEL scripts. Plugins tend to be developed by companies or larger studios, with proper teams, development cycles and support available.
Here we've rounded up some top plugins for Maya that can help with accomplishing specific tasks, from generating crowds through to helping you make the move from 2D to 3D. Costs for plugins can vary hugely, with some reaching prices similar to Maya itself, but many of them are free, or have at least a free trial.
- Price: 30-day trial / starts at $5 a month
Animbot, made by Alan Camilo, is a set of tools for Maya aimed at speeding up workflow. “It can really streamline your animation,” says Milk’s Chris Hutchison. "Say if you wanted a character to look more screen left and you've been animating him looking screen right the entire shot, all of a sudden you can just tweak one controller and it will re-adjust everything to go left instead of having to tweak each individual controller manually afterwards. There’s so many little useful tools in there."
02. Studio Library
- Price: Free
A free tool for managing poses and animation in Maya, Studio Library hails from Kurt Rathjen. “It’s able to store animation,” says Milk’s James Berkley, "so if you've got poses, you can select sets and click on specific poses, and it brings it straight up. If you do all the work beforehand, if you set it up properly, then it really helps just speed up the workflow."
03. Massive for Maya
- Price: Free evaluation period, then $3,500; renting available for $500 per month
If you are a Maya artist there may be many reasons for you to need to create crowds, small or large, for your projects – not only as a visual effects artist, but if you work in engineering viz or architecture. There are a few options out there for generating crowds but Massive for Maya is one of the best-known and it is now fully integrated into Maya.
The Maya version provides you with the simplest workflow, using Maya tools, so you can navigate your scene attributes using familiar tools like the Outliner or Graph Editor. This makes for a streamlined and intuitive workflow with less of a learning curve. Stay in one application to build hordes of zombies or armies of mounted apes, or populate your streets, bridges and buildings with realistic townsfolk.
- Price: 15-day trial/ $1,000
The high-volume particle rendering plugin Krakatoa comes with full Magma support, higher particle counts, and PRT surfacing over and above the previous verions. Creator Thinkbox Software has also fine-tuned existing features so that all platforms are now feature equivalent and more than fully capable of handling anything artists throw at them.
Krakatoa can work with a single data source to then render in either voxel or point format, meaning that billions of particles have even more power and versatility than ever.
- Price: Version 1: Free; MG Tools Pro3: from $70
Designed by an animator, for animators, Miguel Winfield’s plugin MG Tools has a number of features that aims to make the life of an animator that much easier. By downloading this plugin, you'll benefit from a floating channelBox, specialised for animation, a selection of constraint tools to speed up the process, a MG to MA converter, motion path animation calculator and much more.
Dubbed the animator’s utility belt, MG Tools can seriously save time and create a more efficient workflow. Winfield generously offers the first version of this tool as a free download (compatible with Maya 7 to 2010), with the latest iteration of the software starting at $70.
- Price: Free
Onion skinning is a technique used by animators to see multiple frames at once. By using this technique, artists can easily see how to alter or adjust an image based on the previous image in the sequence.
This free script by animator and rigger Brian Horgan provides a different but helpful approach to onion skinning in 3D. Maya's in-built ghosting tool shows semi-transparent animated objects in a scene to give an overview of the animation created.
But BHGhost takes it one step further, creating an onion skin that creates actual 3D outlines of your animation in the Maya viewport, making it easier to see the relation between poses and refine your animation even further.
07. Maya Bonus Tools
- Price: Free
Who better to get some free Maya tools from than the makers of the software themselves? The helpful folk at Autodesk not only provide a huge amount of supportive information on their online community site Area, they've also uploaded this brilliant free collection of useful Maya scripts and plugins.
Installation creates an additional pull-down menu, which provides easy access to a variety of every day tools and utilities. And so not to confuse you, tools have been organised to mimic the layout of the standard Maya menu sets, with each sub-menu containing a number of related tools, which can be torn off and floated just like standard Maya menus.
08. Miarmy - Crowd Sim Plugin
- Price: Free (non-commercial licence)
If you want to create your own battle or crowd scene but have no idea where to begin, crowd simulation software Miarmy may be just the solution. This complex Maya plugin offers a range of features, including the ability to enable agents to be affected by forces or Maya Fluids systems, for a believable performance.
The full professional version will set you back almost back $2550. But, if you're starting small, take advantage of the non-commercial licence, which is free. You can also take advantage of completely free demo scenes, presets, samples and tutorials, to get you up and running fast.
- Price: Free
Every animator out there will know how time-consuming keyframe animation can be. Originally created by 3D character animator Justin Barrett but now in the hands of Alex Widener, the purpose of Maya plug-in TweenMachine is to greatly simplify the process of creating breakdown poses between key poses.
TweenMachine significantly reduces the amount of steps it takes to create poses for your character with stepped keys. Barrett doesn’t claim TweenMachine creates perfect breakdown poses, but says it "helps you get closer to your goal a lot faster than other methods".
10. Advanced Skeleton
- Price: Free / Commercial license from $750
Since working on various feature animated films such as Happy Feet and The Legend of the Guardians, technical director Oyvind Nostdal developed Advanced Skeleton to make character creation a much more efficient process.
A collection of Maya tools for doing character setup, this useful plugin creates a complex motion system from a simple joint chain. This is a brilliant, time-saving tool, and will have your characters up and running in no time.
11. Blue Pencil 2
- Price: $65
If you're a 2D artist making the move into 3D, you should check out this sketchpad for Maya, Blue Pencil, which provides 2D drawing to Maya's 3D viewport. The useful plugin features a grease pencil tool that allows artists to plan, annotate and illustrate shots.
Like most painting tools, Blue Pencil 2 benefits from drawing tools that include the pencil, brush, eraser and eye dropper. It also has built-in pressure-sensitive controls of line thickness and opacity. But don't expect the quality of other 2D imaging software such as Photoshop, Blue Pencil is simply a multi-purpose tool designed for roughing out ideas.
Parts of this article were originally published in 3D World, the world's best-selling magazine for CG artists. Subscribe to 3D World here.