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8 Things Maya Noobs Must Know

So, you’ve always wanted to learn animation. You’ve heard of this software package called “Maya” and that it is the industry standard for 3D animation. Friends and advisors have told you to download the free trial of Maya to get an idea of how it works. But there’s one big problem: you’ve never worked in 3D before, you have no idea what in the world to do with this software package, and you can’t manage to open a file, let alone start to animate something. You’re hit by a wave of panic and self-doubt; you start to wonder if you should even be thinking about being an animator anymore. Sound familiar? We’ve all been there. Good news: we’re here to help! Read on to learn the 8 things you need to know when you open Maya for the first time.

– The Animation Mentor Crew

1. How 3D space works and how it is represented by the computer.

Real life exists in 3D, but our computers screens are 2D. Maya, like many 3D software packages, represents 3D by using 3 axes: the X, Y, and Z axes. The intersection of these axes is called the origin and is represented by the coordinates (0,0,0). Think back to the classic Super Mario Bros. video game. Mario’s world is represented entirely in 2D space, aka. the X-Y plane, X for the horizontal line (ex. the bricks Mario walks along), and Y for the vertical axis (ex. short Mario vs tall Mario).


Now, imagine how you would bring Mario into the 3D universe. You would need to add a 3rd dimension, which is where the Z-axis comes in to play. The Z-axis is how you build out Mario’s hat, the tip of his nose, or the bristles of his mustache.


2. Hotkeys are your friends.

Hotkeys are a way for you to work quickly in Maya and streamline your workflow. This is a life-saver, when you consider that our students spend upwards of 20 hours per week in Maya! Common actions such as move, rotate, and scale have associated “hotkeys”, meaning that you use a key on the keyboard to perform that action instead of using your mouse. Check out the full list of Maya hotkeys and then go ahead and give ‘em a try.

3. Google is an even better friend than hotkeys.

When in doubt, look it up on Google. Can’t figure out how to select the vertice on your polygon? Try a Google search. Maya just crashed and gave you an error message? Look up the error message on Google to see what happened and how to prevent it from happening again. The internet is full of resources, including Autodesk’s Maya User Guide, several tutorials on YouTube, and discussion forums about Maya. Maya has been around since 1998 and is the industry standard software for animation – after 15+ years, thousands of animators have worked on countless films, shows, video games, and various other projects. If you need help in Maya, chances are very high that someone else has experienced the same thing and posted about it on the internet.

4. .ma vs .mb files – What are they and why do they matter?

In Maya, you have the option to save your scene file as either “scene.ma” or “scene.mb”. “.ma” stands for “Maya Ascii” and “.mb” stands for “Maya Binary”. There’s no difference to the visual look of your scene based on how you save it. The difference lies under the hood. Saving your scene as a “.ma” file essentially saves your scene as a text file of commands. This allows you to open the file in a text editor, such as WordPad or Notepad, and edit the scene directly within the script of the file. This is handy if your file ends up corrupted and you want to try to restore it using scripts. By contrast, saving as a “.mb” file strips out the text information and compresses it into numeric values, reducing your file size, but making it impossible to edit the script from a text editor. “.mb” is the default saving method established by Maya, so if you do not anticipate editing your scene from the text file, “.mb” should work just fine for you.

Screenshot of a .ma file opened in WordPad; you can see how a savvy coder can read the script, find an error, fix it with some keystrokes, and save your animation!

5. Save! Save! Save!

The saying goes, “It’s better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.” The same idea applies to saving your work Maya. We’ve heard from students time and time again…it’s 1 o’clock in the morning, they’ve been refining a scene for hours, and then, wham, Maya crashed and they lost all of their work! If only they had been saving versions the whole time, they would have lost only minutes of work instead of hours. Trust us. SAVE YOUR WORK.

6. What the heck is a NURB, exactly? And how is a NURB different from a polygon?

NURBS and polygons are both ways you can create objects in Maya. NURBS stands for Non-Uniform Rational B-splines and are great for creating objects with smooth curves and surfaces. Polygons can be thought of more as a mosaic of pieces assembled together to create your object. Take the simple objects below:

On the left, a simple NURBS sphere has been modified into a bowl, with smooth curves forming the shape of the bowl; on the right, a simple polygon has been modified into a dumbbell, which has harder lines. NURBS are great to model a complex shape and then convert it to polygons. Textures are easier to map on polygons rather than NURBS. It really depends on what you are trying to do. Industry standard tends to lean toward polygons rather than NURBS. Figure out what works best for your project.

7. Use the different views to refine your choices.

Maya offers you different ways to view your object in 3D space. You can look at it from above, below, in front of, behind, or from the side of your object. By default, Maya provides you with perspective and orthographic cameras (front, side, top, and a free-moving perspective camera). Use the perspective view to view your object from all angles, and use the side, front, and top orthographic views to examine a flattened version of your work (basically, you just see two of the axes). You can also view your objects in wireframe, shaded, textures, or lighting views and high, medium, or low resolutions, which can be toggled on or off via hotkeys. The different views allow you to get a good look at what you are doing, and to refine the placement of your object in 3D space.

8. There’s more than 1 way to do just about everything.

In many software programs, there’s at least three ways to save your work: the File > Save menu; Ctrl + S; or clicking a Save icon. Likewise in Maya, there’s multiple ways to do several commands. For example, you can add a NURBS object by either using the Create>NURBS Primitives>Sphere menu OR by selecting the Surfaces tab and clicking the Sphere icon. This may be confusing at first, after all, with so many options, how can you ever decide which is the “right” way. Here’s a secret: it’s up to you! As you grow as an animator, you’ll start to learn which workflow works best for you. Experiment and play; learn and grow.

Do you dream of becoming an animator?

Your animation journey starts with learning the tools of the trade! Learn how to use Maya so you’re ready to start Character Animation Courses with pro animators working at major studios. Get more information today about Animation Mentor and our Maya Workshop for beginners.


  1. This Is Completly Awesoem, I’m just a beginner to Maya and I;ve not tried anything yet on it, I’m happy i found this awesome blog.

  2. These are awesome, I think ! But I still wonder that Maya connect to architecture or not ? Is it similar or completely different ?

    • It works just fine.
      Most of what is said here however is Maya specific. I believe a quick google search can help when finding exactly what you are looking for.


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