Introduction to the Maya User Interface

Programers in office using CAD program on computers

Monty Rakusen / Getty Images 

At this point, we'll assume you've decided on Autodesk Maya as your 3D software of choice and have successfully installed it on your computer. If you still don't have the software, make the jump and download the 30-day trial directly from Autodesk.

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Maya's User Interface (UI)

Maya default user interface


Go ahead and launch your version of Maya. When the dust settles, you should be looking at a screen that appears more or less like what you see above.

As you can see, we've marked off a few of the major landmarks to help you get acquainted:

  1. Toolbox: This array of icons lets you switch between the various object manipulation tools. Move, scale, and rotate are the most important for now, but they've got hotkeys that we'll introduce shortly.
  2. Menus and shelves: Atop the screen, you'll find all of Maya's menus (there are dozens). There's a lot of material to cover here, so menus will get an in-depth treatment later on.
  3. Channel Box/Attribute Editor/Tool Settings: This space is primarily occupied by the channel box where geometry parameters can be altered. You can dock other input windows here, most commonly the attribute editor and tool settings.
  4. Viewport panel: The main window is known as the viewport or panel. The viewport displays all of your scene assets and will be where the majority of your interaction occurs.
  5. Layers Editor: The layers editor lets you manage complex scenes by assigning sets of objects to scene layers. Layers allow you to selectively view and hide model sets.
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Navigating the Viewport

Maya Camera Tools Menu


Now that you've got an idea what you're looking at, you'll probably want to learn how to get around. Navigation in Maya is "alt-centric," which simply means that almost all viewport movement is centered around the alt key. It is also essential that your mouse has a middle mouse button or scroll wheel.

Left-click in the main viewport to make sure it's active, and we'll run through the three most common navigational commands:

  • Alt + Left Mouse Button: Holding this combination will allow you to "tumble" or rotate the camera around a central pivot.
  • Alt + Right Mouse Button: "Dolly" or move the camera in and out. This can also be accomplished with your mouse's scroll wheel, however, the dolly command is more precise.
  • Alt + Middle Mouse Button: Allows you to track the camera, shifting the viewport horizontally or vertically while maintaining a constant angle of view.

You may also access an extended set of camera tools with the following path:

  • View > Camera Tools

Play around with some of the camera tools and get a feel for what they do. Most of the time you'll be using alt-navigation, but occasionally your advanced camera movements will come in handy — particularly when composing images.

Cancel any tool at any time by pressing q.

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Switching Between Panels

Maya Four-Panel Viewport


By default, Maya's viewport displays a perspective view of the scene. The perspective panel uses a camera that closely approximates human vision, and allows you to freely navigate your 3D scene and view your models from any angle.

However, the perspective camera is only one of many panels available to Maya users. With your mouse pointer positioned in the viewport, press and release the spacebar.

  • Your screen should switch to the configuration pictured above. What you see here is Maya's four-panel layout, which typically contains the perspective camera and three orthographic views: top, front, and side.
  • Maya's panel layout is fully customizable using the menu set outlined in red — with these tools you can toggle between 4-panel, 3-panel, and 2-panel (either top/bottom or left/right) configurations.
  • Finally, to maximize any one of the four layout panels, simply move your mouse into the viewport you'd like to enlarge and strike the spacebar. Try toggling from your four-panel layout into each of the orthographic cameras to get the hang of this process — you'll be using it a lot.
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Changing a Panel's Camera

Maya's Panels menu


You can customize which camera is being used in any one of the four layout cameras. Using the panels menu, as pictured, we can switch our current camera into to any of the orthographic views, create a new perspective camera, or bring up other windows like the hypergraph and outliner (which we'll explain later).

If You Think You've Mastered the Art of View-Port Navigation

Meet us in the next section where we'll discuss ​file management and project structure. Knowing how to properly organize your project will prevent a lot of headaches in the future.