Maya and Blender have very responsive, malleable particle and dynamics systems. Their ability to create particle effects, smoke, fire, and liquids for small and large scale scenes is impressive. In both programs VFX artists and animators have a lot of options for complicated simulations that look great and do not take ridiculous set up times. More importantly the systems can be tweaked to allow for renderings that may only take days or possibly just hours.
Particles (Old School)
Maya and Blender both come equipped with a particle system that is very intuitive and operate in real-time unless there are millions or billions of complex particle interactions. These old particle systems are equally good at simulating sparks or fireworks. They are not a good choice for fire, water, or smoke. VFX artists used to have to be able use techniques and tricks to make sprites or voxels from these particles interact and look like fire or smoke, now all you need to do is basically press a button. Both Maya and Blender have a newer, better simulation system for fluids, smoke, and fire.
nParticles and Simulations (New)
Maya and Blender’s newer systems came out around the same time: Maya in 2008 and Blender in 2009. They use very similar approaches. They both use an object as an emitter and a box, within which simulations are calculated. Maya calls these newer particles “nParticles” and Blender just calls the effects “simulators.” Since fire and smoke behave like fluids it is best to use Maya’s fluid effects for fire and smoke.
For fire and smoke these new simulation features are excellent. Both systems are fast with simulation calculations (rendering has sped up but it still takes a lot longer than solid geometry meshes). Both systems can interact with collider meshes or other simulations. Forces and gravity can also be tweaked.
Many compositors and motion graphics people have been cutting their teeth on Blender, using it solely for the outstanding VFX they can create with little training. It can be used like a very expensive plugin for experimenting solely with environment effects. The particles can even be exported to other standard 3D programs like Lightwave or Cinema 4D. Blender has presets for smoke, fire, and fluid that automatically load an emitter and a domain with the appropriate settings. They are decent starting points for good simulations.
Blender also has adaptive domains. An adaptive domain conforms to the boundary of a simulation, cutting down on simulation time when the simulation needs a smaller space and expanding when the simulated element goes past the confines of the box. This is a great feature and a highly advanced one.
When paired with the Cycles rendering engine Blender can do what extremely expensive 3rd party plugins can do. There are some issues with artifacts and banding on “thinner” fire and smoke that just never go away even when resolution settings are cranked up extremely high, too high for animation rendering. Blender is really good at handling thick smoke and more opaque flame.
Both Maya’s nParticles and Blender’s Fluid Simulations are lacking when it comes to liquids. Even the best renders from the most highly skilled VFX artist can not create photo-realistic water. The fluid systems are great for thicker liquids like blood or honey but fall short with thinner liquids that do not stick together. Blender’s fluids system is especially lacking and can not produce droplets. It can only make medium-sized beads. Blender’s fluids also tend to oscillate (like jello) in a very unnatural way no matter how the settings are tweaked.
“Bifröst is a procedural framework that can create simulated liquid effects using a FLIP (fluid implicit particle) solver. You can generate liquid from emitters and have it fall under gravity, interact with colliders to direct the flow and create splashes, and use accelerators to create jets and other effects.” -Maya 2015
Maya incorporated Bifröst starting with Maya 2015. It is absolutely fantastic. Liquid dynamics are set up with a single click. Any object can be assigned as a collider and grouped to a specific Bifröst container. This cuts down on simulation times if there are several different liquid containers.
Simulation times are lightning fast and a green and yellow highlighter overlays the timeline when processing the simulation, giving the VFX artist quick feedback of the progress. Let me stress again, it is fast which is always great but even better: simulations are calculated in a native, separate program in the background. That is right. You can keep working in Maya with little or no impact on GUI viewport response time, it does not add lag. You can even adjust objects involved in the simulation and Bifröst just auto updates.
Bifröst is hassle free. Not only is it easy to set up but it offers ways to keep simulations looking realistic while keeping the calculation times within reason. It allows for voxel resolution to be decreased or increased, saving time or increasing detail. But the game changing feature is the ability to stop physics interactions with droplets. Calculating for every single drop of water in a scientific simulation would take several very powerful, specialized computers and a lot of time (weeks or months). Bifröst allows the user to set a threshold for when droplets reach a certain size, after which they will not be calculated as effecting the body of liquid. In addition, there is an easy slider that adjust the amount of air bubbles produce for a liquid container and the speed the bubbles surfacing.
So Bifröst is easy and fast. But does it look good? Renders are absolutely beautiful. The shaders for Bifröst liquids are intuitive. A VFX artist can create honey, sea water, green goo, wine, or any other liquid surface in seconds. With the addition of Maya’s Adaptive Aero Solver in Bifröst artists can use this great tool for photo-realistic atmospherics like haze and mist and retain decent render times suited for animation, not just stills.
Bifröst brings Maya’s liquid dynamics to a new level, but it still is not as good as Phoenix HD or Real Flow. It does look like Autodesk is making major strides with Bifröst and letting the original creators (Bifröst was originally Naiad). A lot of people think this might be the end of what could have been a great product because Autodesk has a tendency to acquire assets and ruin them (cough Softimage cough cough). It is great news that Autodesk wants the original creators to continue development.