Quick start with Maya for Visualizations

From TOI-Pedia

This article covers an introduction in Maya geared towards using Maya for visualizations.

If you're interested in using Maya for modeling in the architectural Design process, refer to Quick start with Maya.


So what is Maya?

Simply put, it's a computer program that enables you to create advanced virtual 3d models.

But to be more precise, Maya software is an open and integrated 3D modeling, animation, effects and rendering application.

Maya can be used to:

Using Maya for visualizations

XXL: A.van Hees, J.Breider, B.Meijerman, E.den Hartog, C.Leung, M.Flint, S.Mulders

You can use Maya to create visualization at several stages of the design process:

Conceptual design
research design decisions regarding the basic shape and geometry of the design, but also properties such as colors, patterns and texture.
Preliminary design
Communicate the design between the actors in the design process (the specialists), but also to other stakeholders.
Final design
create photo-realistic or hyper-realistic detailed renderings of the design to communicate the design to your clients or other stakeholders.

Maya Help

When you start working with a program as versatile as Maya, you're bound to come across several challenges. Don't let this deter you, because there are plenty of possibilities to find an answer to those problems.

One of those is the Maya help. Maya has an excellent and extensive help system that can be accessed by pressing [F1] key on the keyboard:

Maya help.jpg

The general help screen opens from where you can look up your specific problem, either by browsing through the help files:

Maya help contents.jpg

or by searching:

Maya help search.jpg

But the quickest method usually is selecting the help file directly from the window where you've ran into a problem:

Maya help duplicate.jpg

This opens up the correct help file:

Maya help duplicate open.jpg


The TOI-Pedia is an ever growing database with loads of useful information and tutorials. You can find solutions to most common problems with Maya, AutoCAD, Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver and Premiere.

Because all the information on the TOI-pedia is cross referenced, there are multiple ways to reach a certain piece of information. You can navigate by:

  • Subject: find information related to a certain topic
  • Software: find all information for a specific application
  • Course: find information that is relevant for a specific course
  • Search: find practical information by entering one or more keywords

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You could also use the Search bar to find a specific piece of information.

Running Maya

Maya should be installed on all computers at the faculty of Architecture. The software has been made available to students to install on their own laptop or computer as well. You can find out more on how to get your copy of Maya as a student of the faculty of Architecture on the Maya for Students web page.

When you're running Maya on your laptop or computer at home, you have to make sure you're connected to the TU Delft Campus network to be able to use the TU Delft license for Maya. When you're connected to the wired or wireless network of the TU Delft, you should be OK. When you're working at home using your own internet connection, you probably need to use VPN to connect to the TU Delft network. More information can be found on the Maya for Students web page mentioned above.

Maya Interface

Every program has an interface to communicate with the user. The layout of an interface has a certain logic to it, so the user can easily find a function without having to know all the positions of the different functions by heart. So if you know how an interface works you will find everything a lot faster.

Mostly you will work from left to right, from top to bottom; the commands you will use first (like opening a file) are placed in the upper left corner, and information about created objects can be found on the right.


The layout of the menu bar is the same as the overall interface; frequently used commands are placed on the left. Because Maya has many menus for various tasks, the menu bar has been split into a fixed part (File, Edit, Create, Select, Modify, Display, Windows,[...] ,Cache, Help) and a part that can be set to a specific task using a Pull-down menu. This pull-down is located on the left side, directly beneath the File and Edit menus:

Maya Interface pulldown.png

When you change the pull-down menu from Modeling to Animation, the menus after 'Windows' are changed to the menus specific for animation:

Maya interface animation.png

And below when set back to Modeling:

Maya Interface modeling.png

Let's take a closer look at the 'Modeling' set menu bar. It starts with four items for polygonal mesh objects: Mesh, Edit Mesh, Mesh Tools, Mesh Display. Mesh contains commands for changing polygon objects. The next two menus are Edit Mesh and Mesh tools: functions to add/remove polygon objects and/or components to polygone meshes. Mesh Display contains helpful display functions for polygonal objects/components.

Menus Curves and Surfaces contain commands related to NURBS curves and surfaces.

It's impossible to know every command by heart. But when you see the logic of the way all commands are structured in the menus, it shouldn't take too long to find what you're looking for.


On the left side next to the viewport you find the toolbox. Here you can find the selection tool and the Transformation tools you can use to move, rotate or scale objects. The Show Manipulator Tool offers a more advanced manipulator that allows multiple transformations simultaneously and is geared towards custom operations on specific objects.

Below these tools you find the viewport tools; one perspective viewport, 1 perspective and 3 orthogonal viewports, and viewport with outliner. In the outliner you can find a list of objects in your scene.

Maya Interface toolbox.png


Below the Menu bar we find the Status Line. Various functions are located here: first the file buttons, then the selection options and masks, snap buttons, rendering buttons, the input box and finally the sidebar buttons.

Maya interface statusline.png


By default the workspace shows one single panel with a default view of your scene (with standard grid). This panel shows your scene as viewed from the standard perspective camera (persp). When you navigate through your scene the camera you look through is actually moved.

Interface 0.jpg

You can use the Quick Layout Buttons (below the Tool Box) to change to the Four View. This will replace the single panel with 4 panels: 3 orthogonal views ( front, side and top) and one perspective (persp).

Interface 3viewports.jpg

You can quickly switch from the Four View to a Single View by tapping your space bar while hovering your mouse over the panel you want to enlarge. When you tap space again, you will switch back.

You can change the camera that is shown in each of the views by using the pull-down menu Panels in the panel. Here you can switch between the different cameras. You can find the cameras in either the Perspecitive or Ortographics sub-menus, depending on the type of camera.

Maya Viewport panelsmenu.png


To navigate in 2D and 3D space you have to use Alt in combination with the mouse buttons.

Alt + left mouse button: rotate (tumble)
Alt + middle mouse button: pan (track)
Alt + right mouse button: move closer or farther (dolly)

Using Alt + Ctrl + left mouse button will allow you to draw a box to move closer or farther (dolly). In most cases you can also use the scroll wheel on your mouse to dolly in or out, although it may be less smooth and precise.

When you are moving around keep an eye on your coordinate system: the y-axis should point up.

Interface navigate.jpg


The Channelbox is on the right side of the screen. In this menu you will find all the properties of the selected object, and you can change those properties. If you apply a certain operation on an object, Maya will remember this. This is called the construction history of an object and that is also shown here.

Interface channelbox.jpg

If you create an object in Maya it will automatically get a unique name. When you are building a large building or model it can be useful to change the standard name of an object to something that makes a little more sense to humans. This can help you finding and selecting objects in larger scenes. You can change a name by clicking on the standard name in the channelbox. When you have already used a name, e.g: door and you name another object door, Maya will automatically suffix a number, making the name unique. So your new door will be named door1 and so on.

Interface channelbox2.jpg

In the Outliner you can select objects by name, so giving them a logical name can be very useful.

Display options

Maya has different options for displaying the objects. When you start Maya will show objects as green lines (when selected) and blue lines, when not selected, the so called wireframe mode. You can also get to this mode pressing 4 on your keyboard. If you want to see shaded objects you press 5. (See below)

Interface displayoptions.jpg

Other display options you can get by pressing 6 and 7. 6 will show you textures and 7 will show the light setup and possible shadows.

If you press 8 the Paint Effects panel will become active. By pressing 8 again you will go back to the normal view. You can go back to a 'normal' tool by selecting the Select, Move or any other tool from the Tool Box.
If you press 2 or 3 when one or more polygon objects are selected, Maya will change the display for these objects to smooth display. Press 1 to go back to the default display.

3D geometry in Maya

While this tutorial doesn't cover modeling of 3D geometry in Maya, it's good to have a little insight in the basics of geometry in Maya.

If you're looking for a tutorial on modeling in Maya: Modeling an orthogonal pavillion is a very good starting point.

Maya uses three different types of geometry. Every type has it’s own purpose. The three types are: Polygons, NURBS and Subdivision surfaces, often called subdivs. Each of them requires a different method of editing. Therefore a basic understanding of each geometry type is necessary when you start modeling.


A polygon is a surface that consists of three points called vertices. The three vertices together form a triangular surface called a face. The edges of this face are straight lines connecting the vertices, so a face is always a flat surface. A polygonal object is constructed out of these faces. In Maya a face can consist of more than three vertices. This is for easy editing purposes, but in fact the faces are always subdivided in triangular faces.


Modeling with polygons is a fast and easy way of modeling. Editing a polygonal object is basically moving vertices of faces the object is build off. Therefore polygon geometry is suitable for most common modeling tasks. The downside of polygons rises in the fact that faces are always flat. In cases of curved surfaces, polygon geometry is always an approximation of the curved surface. By adding more subdivisions, i.e. more and smaller faces, it is possible to create a better approximation. This however results in more data and a 'heavier' model.

Poly Subdivisions.jpg


NURBS is an abbreviation of non-uniform rational B-spline. NURBS geometry is created by two or more curves defining the surface in between. The way those curves are generated, makes NURBS geometry very flexible. A curve consists of a start point, an end point and several control vertices in between, defining the tangent of the curve. Depending on the 'degree' of the curve, defining the amount of control points, a curve can be linear, with straight angles, or curved. NURBS surfaces consist of the aforementioned control vertices (CVs), defining the tangent of the surface, and curves lying on the surface, called isoparms. Those isoparms are the curves the surface is build from.

NURBS Geometry.jpg

NURBS geometry allows you to create surfaces curved in multiple directions. This geometry type is very useful for more complex and curved objects. The amount of flexibility is very high. Calculating NURBS curves and surfaces however, is a lot more demanding than polygon geometry. The choice of geometry type for a certain modeling task depends on the demand of flexibility, modeling speed and precision.

Subdivision surfaces

Subdiv geometry is a sort of a combination of NURBS and polygon geometry. In search of a geometry type with the flexibility of NURBS and the easy editing of polygons, subdivs were developed. Subdiv geometry will not be discussed in our courses, so for more information on subdivs we direct you to Subdivision Surface on Wikipedia or other sources.

Geometry types in relation to other applications

Polygons (meshes) and NURBS are the most commonly used types of geometry. Each with its unique strengths and weaknesses.

fast, especially when used for rendering, but not very precise for curved geometry
high precision for curved surfaces, advanced modeling tools

  • Revit to Maya: Polygons
  • Rhino to Maya: mostly NURBS, but polygons are also supported in Rhino
  • Sketchup to Maya: Polygons

Selection and Object transformations

Selection Tools

There are a couple of ways of selecting objects in Maya. If you are still in another tool, make sure that the selection tool in the toolbox is selected or press Q on your keyboard. Select an object by clicking on it. By holding the Shift key it’s possible to select multiple objects. Clicking and dragging a window around the objects is a faster way of selecting multiple objects. With the lasso tool in the toolbox you can drag a non-rectangular selection around the objects. To remove objects from the selection hold the Control' key while clicking the objects.

Selection Tools.jpg

Pivot Point

Every object in Maya has a pivot point, which can be seen as the center of gravity of that particular object. All transformations of the object, like moving, scaling and rotating, act around the pivot point. When one of the transformation tools in the toolbox is selected, the pivot point is visible as the red, green and blue axis. By default the pivot point is in the center of the object, but it can be moved to every other position. To change it's position press the ‘insert’ key on you’re keyboard to ‘unlock’ the pivot. Then click and drag the pivot to the position you want. Press the ‘insert’ key again to ‘lock’ the pivot. Now all transformation act around the new position of the pivot point.

Pivot Point.jpg

In some cases you want the pivot point back in the center of the object. Via Modify » Center Pivot the pivot point is placed in the center of the object.

Center Pivot.jpg

Transforming Objects

When an object is selected, it can be transformed. To move, rotate or scale, select the particular tool in the toolbox. Click and drag the manipulator on the colored axis of choice to perform the desired transformation. When selecting one axis, the transformation is only performed on that particular axis. For transforming in all directions click the yellow icon in the center of the manipulator

Transformation Tools.jpg

For example, if we want our object to scale in the z-axis, we select the object, we then select the scale tool in the toolbox, the manipulator is shown and we click and drag the blue cube to scale the object.

The transformations are numerically shown in the ‘Channel Box’ on the right. You can input the transformation values manually here. So the use of exact measures is possible this way instead of dragging the manipulator a random amount. For mirroring objects it is possible to input a negative scale value in the channel box.


Managing a 3D model


It's important to keep your work organized. Especially when working with scenes that include texture files. A texture file is usually an image of a material or pattern (for instance a brick wall). Maya needs a Project structure to organize these files to be able to find them.

A Maya project consists of a specific folder structure. This ensures that all required data can always be located. You main May file, called a scene, is typically located in the scenes sub-folder of the project. File textures reside in the sourceimages folder.

When you forget to tell Maya about this project structure, you're bound to run into trouble, especially when working with file textures or referenced files. When you continue working on an existing project you must make sure to let Maya know which project (folder structure) to work in. This is known as Setting your project. You must do this every time you start Maya, before you open a scene file. When you're starting a new project, you need to create a new project. whis can be done using the Maya Project editor.


Maya was originally designed for the film and animation industry and has therefore a variety of options of assigning materials to the 3D geometry. As a high-end tool it supports a range of methods and types of materials to generate high quality images. With a wide range of render options available, different styles of materialization and rendering are possible to generate a variety of styles of images.

Hypershade shadersPR.jpg

Materialization of objects in Maya is done by shaders. Shaders take care of the visual representation of objects when rendering your scene into an image. They contain all the information of the material, such as its color, transparency, whether it is shiny or not, etc.

There is a variety of shaders available in Maya. Each shader has it own characteristics and typical application. Luckily you only need to know a few of them in order to be able to do materialization for architectural purposes in Maya.

Materials as we know them from the world around us have various properties that determine how we perceive them. When creating your shaders in Maya, it's important to recognize the specific (visual) properties. Once you have a basic understanding of these properties, you can recreate them in Maya.

Basic principles of materials covers the most important visual aspects of real world materials and their 'counterparts' in shaders in Maya. For architectural applications, only a few shaders are essential.

Maya has a set of Base shaders that are supported by all rendering engines. But for architectural applications the Mental Ray Architectural Shaders (MIA) are more popular and useful. They require that you use the Mental Ray Render Engine.

Shaders are managed and created in the Hypershade. You can even connect shaders into a shading network for more advanced features and options.

The Maya Hypershade

You can access the Hypershade through: Window » Rendering Editors » Hypershade

The Hypershade has the following components:

Menu- and Toolbar
Menu's and buttons for frequently used functions
Overview of all the shaders that are present in your scene. Note that there are tabs for other types of shaders, besides materials, as well.
Create Bar
Overview of all types of shaders that are available. When you click an item, a shader of that type is created. It will show up in the Work Area, but also in your library
Work Area
Shaders may be linked to create advanced shader networks. This is done here.

You can navigate in the Library and Work Area using the same navigation as in the Maya viewport: Alt + MMB to pan, Alt + RMB to zoom.


Courtesy of Mental Images, www.mentalimages.com

Rendering is the process of transferring a view on a 3D scene to a 2D image of that scene, according to the position of the viewer. Typically one would use a camera in a 3D computer model to determine the view. The computer can then calculate the 2D image: rendering.

The picture shows a rendering technique used centuries ago to get the perspective right in 2D sketches. It uses a raster (grid) to get the positions right when transferring the view to the 2D image. You could compare this to the grid of pixels that is used by modern computer renderings. The 'needle' makes sure they eye is always in the same position (moving it, would change the view and thus the image). You could compare it to the camera when rendering a 3D computer model.


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