Introduction to the Maya User Interface

Learn the basic overview and layout of Autodesk Maya

If you've settled on Autodesk Maya as your preferred 3D graphics software, there is always something to be learned. If you're stilling shopping around for the right program, you can download a 30-day trial of Maya directly from Autodesk.

In this guide we'll provide a general overview of the application and how it is used.

Maya's User Interface (UI)

Maya default user interface

Open Maya and take a moment to study its layout. The following landmarks can be used to make sense of the basic operations.

  1. Toolbox: These icons allow you to switch between the various object manipulation tools. Move, scale, and rotate are the most important for now, but there are also some useful hotkeys.
  2. Menus and shelves: Atop the screen, you'll find Maya's menus, of which there are seven. These can be used to control and implement virtually all of Maya's tools, settings, and capabilities.
  3. Channel Box/Attribute Editor/Tool Settings: This space is primarily used to set and adjust geometry parameters. 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 interactions occur.
  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.

Navigating the Viewport

Maya Camera Tools Menu

Once you have an idea of Maya's layout you'll want to learn how to get around. Navigation in Maya is "alt-centric," which means that almost all viewport movement is centered around the alt key. It is also important that your mouse has a middle mouse button or scroll wheel.

Left-click the main viewport to ensure that it is active. Here are 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, but 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 to get a feel for their operation. Most of the time you will use alt-navigation, but occasionally your advanced camera movements will come in handy, particularly when composing images.

You can cancel any tool at any time by pressing q.

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, allowing 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, 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 it, as it is a common operation in Maya.

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 to any of the orthographic views, create a new perspective camera, or bring up other windows like the hypergraph and outliner.

After You've Learned the Art of Viewport Navigation

Once you've learned the basics, you can ​read our guide on Maya's file management and project structure. Knowing how to properly organize your project will prevent a lot of headaches in the future.

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