Maya is one of the most powerful tools for doing 3D modeling, animation, rendering, lighting, dynamics, scripting, and more. Most people take years to discover Maya's power and capabilities. I've been using Maya since 2005, and I'm still learned what its capable of.
You can pretty much do anything in Maya. This is a blessing and a curse. Learning how to use Maya shouldn't be daunting, intimidating, frightening, and/or frustrating, but it is. The main reason for this is its interface and power.
So if you're new to Maya and want to start learning it, my recommendation would be to go through this instructable and play around with its interface until you feel like you've gotten to know Maya on a deeper level.
Also, I'd recommend acknowledging to yourself that you're not going to understand everything at once, and thats okay. Using Maya is a fun flow inducing activity once you've figured out the basics of its interface. So lets dive in and start exploring, poking around, playing with Maya.
Step 1: Interface Overview
Maya's interface is cluttered with icons, views, shelves, tools, menus and more. I've divided Maya's interface into bite size sections so they are easier to understand and learn. Check out the image above. I've labeled sections that I think are useful and important, they are briefly described below:
The rest of this instructable will tackle one section at a time. We'll start with the Panel Layout and more clockwise until we are at the Script Editor.
Step 2: Essentials
Here are some super essential things that will help you navigate Maya's interface quickly:
You'll probably want to get these commands down ASAP, they are super useful!
Step 3: Panel Layout
The Panel Layout section contains buttons that change what is displayed in Maya's main view or panel.
Essentially these buttons change the main view that is shown. This is super useful for when trying to view your scene from different perspectives. Here is a list covering the different options:
Above I mentioned a couple things that you might not be familiar with. They are described below. Its important to get a general overview of these panels, because you'll run into them in the future if your animating, rendering, creating materials, and complete scene hierarchies.
Phew, hope you made it through that. I know its a lot, but you can also treat this instructable as a reference guide. After playing around with Maya (which is what I recommend for anyone learning it) you can always come back and read the relevant sections.
Step 4: Tool Shelf
This "Shelf" is where you can find commonly used commands in Maya. The tabs can be used to switch between various different sets of commands. For example while modeling you might be creating many cubes, thus pressing the cube icon will quickly get you into the "Polygon Cube Tool". Click anywhere inside the view and you'll see a cube show up.
There are many tabs and icons here. Explaining them all would make you fall asleep and make my hands super tired, so I'll highlight a couple key Tabs to checkout:
Curves: Allows you to create various different types of curves and a couple preset curves (circle, square, etc).
Surfaces: Allows you to create various different types of nurbs. Also, this tab has surface building commands for lofting, revolving, extruding curves.
Polygons: Allows you to create various different types of polygonal meshes. In addition there are options for creating chamfers, extruding faces/edges/etc.
Step 5: Mode Selection
The dropdown menu allows you to change what top level application menus are shown. Check out the images to see what changes when you select another option. This menus is super important.
For example, if you're modeling with polygons and you want to perform a smooth operation, you'll need to access the Mesh menus and select Smooth. If you were in the Animation mode, then you won't be able to access the smooth command quickly via the top menu bar. There are other ways of getting to the smooth command, but they aren't the most intuitive for most beginners.
That said, there are many ways of accessing commands / tools in Maya, so hopefully that will make the interface less daunting.
Step 6: Render Tools
The Render Tools for quick access to commonly used Rendering commands.
Step 7: Channel Box / Layer Editor / Attribute Editor
The Channel Box shows you object properties. If you create a cube in Maya (Create -> Polygon Primitive -> Cube) and selected it, the Channel Box would allow you to edit the Cube's properties and parameters. For example you can change where it is located in space, its rotation, scale, and whether its visible or not.
Within the Channel Box, below the Cube's Transform Properties, there are two other sections (SHAPES and INPUTS). The listed items in the these sections are clickable and their parameters can be tweaked there. For example if you wanted to modify how many subdivision the cube had you could click on one of the text boxes and enter a new value.
Go ahead and make a cube, center it in the scene, rotate it until you're happy, and then give the cube more subdivisions.
The Layer Editor is very much like Photoshop's or Illustrator's Layer Editor. Here you can create new layers, delete layers, rename layers, and turn on and off layer properties. There are a couple different types of layers that Maya has, I'm going to focus on the Display Layers and Render Layers since they are the most used.
A Display Layer contains objects in your scene that you want to see in the main view. If you turn off the layer's visibility here, they will no longer show up in the main view. You can add an object to a display layer by selecting the object and right clicking on the display layer and selecting the "Add Selected Objects" option. If you create many display layers, keep in mind that an object can only belong in one display layer. This is the key difference between Display Layers and Render Layers.
Render Layers are useful when multi-pass rendering is needed. For example if you want to render separate images to capture different render properties of the scene (such as specular lighting, occlusion, diffuse lighting, etc,). Thus you can add your objects to all the render layers and configure each layer's render pass options.
There is one more panel that is important, its the Attribute Editor. The Attribute Editor is like the Channel Box but shows even more properties or "attributes." For example if you created a cube and wanted to see what kind of material was on the cube, you can select the cube and open the Attribute Editor (by pressing on the third icon from the right in the top right hand corner of Maya's Interface, shown in the fifth photo). You can use the small arrow buttons (shown in the sixth photo) to cycle through the tabs until you get to lambert1 or the like.
Step 8: Timeline
The timeline is located below the main view panel. Its essentially there to help use understand where we are temporary in our scene. When working with an animated scene, the timeline will be your go to tool for selecting a range of time you would like to see. The timeline's playback controls are located on the right of the timeline. They include the standard controls, such as play, stop, play backwards, go to the next /previous key frame, go to the start / beginning.
You can change the duration of the timeline by clicking on the number box left of the text "No Anim. Layer" (shown in photo three). Additionally there is a range slider (shown in the fourth photo) that allows you to zoom in / out. This is particularly useful for when trying to navigate an animation sequence.
Step 9: Script Editor
Up until now we have been using Maya's interface to access tools and commands. These tools and commands can also be executed / accessed by the Script Editor. By default the Script Editor is very small, but we can expand it and let it breath. Press the button on the lower left corner of Maya's (shown in the first photo). Another way to expose the Script Editor is by using Maya's Window Menu and then selecting General Editor and then Script Editor.
With the Script Editor open, go ahead and create a cube like you would normally. Then look at the top part of the script editor, you'll see that Maya has echoed a couple commands (shown int eh fourth photo). Now copy the line: "polyCube -ch on -o on -cuv 4 ;" and paste it into the bottom of the Script Editor. Make sure the MEL tab is selected. Delete the cube you just made and then highlight the text and press control + enter. Maya will execute the command and create a cube centered at the origin!
This just shows you can script things that would normally take a lot of time using Maya's visual interface. The great thing about scripting in maya is that Maya logs every commands you preform. Thus if you don't know what the MEL command for a specific tool or action, just preform the action and check out the script editors log output.
Step 10: Final Remarks
Congrats! You made it to the end!!! See, its not that hard or crazy. Just take one section at a time and play around until you've uncovered what each button has done. The key here is to be fearless and make a lot of mistakes. This is the best way to learn Maya.
If you felt I left out anything super essential for learning Maya's interface, please let me know. I'm still learning and very much human.