Getting Started: Autodesk Maya's Interface

Last Updated: January 4th, 2022
Update Notes: Article is released.


This article will cover the general layout and function of Maya’s tools and overall interface. Maya is used to create and animate 3D assets for mediums such as animated films, video games, TV shows, motion graphics, and video effects (VFX). Within the Ansin building, you will find this program available within the EML (3rd Floor), DFL (6th Floor), VEL (8th Floor), DPL1 (8th Floor), and DPL 2 (7th Floor).


That said, if this is your first time using the program, the user interface and controls may, at first, seem rather intimidating. However, with a brief and broad overview, along with time and practice, you will hopefully feel comfortable before long! This guide will not cover everything there is about the interface nor the program in-depth, for risk of being overly dense and long-winded. However, over time, you may find links to related or more specific articles added to sections of this one. Either way, hopefully this may serve as a helpful starting point in familiarizing and growing confident with Autodesk Maya.


This is the default workspace and layout of Maya. There are plenty of dropdowns, tabs, sidebars, and buttons to sift through. But to start off, I’ve broken down the interface into eight different sections of note, that we’ll go over in order. That said, this is not an exhaustive list as there is far far more to the program. With that, we will start with Menu Sets.


1. Menu Sets

Menu Sets will change your selection of dropdown menus at the top of your screen. Depending on the kind of workflow or the focus of your work session(s), you may want to ensure that it is set accordingly. Before long, you may find yourself customizing and organizing these in ways that work for you personally.


2. Shelves

Shelves are collections of tools and commands found within Maya. Similar to Menu Sets, they are sorted by workflow. If you intend to animate, looking in the Animation shelf will provide you frequently used commands in that workflow, and so on. We’ll briefly go over each shelf and their tools.


Poly Modeling


Simply put, in Maya or most other 3D computer graphics software: your scene, characters, and projects are made up of vertices, edges, and faces. Together, those are able to create three-dimensional forms. The generic term for shapes or forms constructed of these pieces are Polygonal Meshes. Basic shapes or meshes such as cubes, spheres, cylinders, and so forth are known as Polygon Primitives in Maya.

In the Poly Modeling shelf you will find commands to instantly spawn or create these primitives. Additionally there are tools to modify the form and topology of your given mesh. Topology refers to the characteristics of a mesh’s surface or the layout of its vertices, edges, and faces. Before long, you will likely be dealing with more complex geometry and topology, although you may still find yourself using these tools nonetheless.




On the topic of topology, the Sculpting shelf primarily carries tools for molding and modifying the surface of your mesh to your liking. Whether it’s lifting, smoothing, sharpening, pulling, or otherwise this shelf will contain tools to craft the desired form and surface of your mesh. In a sense, it's almost like working with digital clay.




Similar to the Poly Modeling shelf, Curves/Surfaces contain three-dimensional shapes and lines/paths you can spawn. Unlike the Poly Modeling Shelf,  these shapes are not primarily made up of vertices, edges, and faces in the same way that the polygon primitives are. These shapes are called NURBS primitives. NURBS stands for Non-Uniform Rational Basis Spline, which accurately represent curves and surfaces using mathematical equations and b-splines. This is, in a way, comparable to the difference between using Adobe Photoshop (Raster-based) and Adobe Illustrator (Vector-based). It is possible to model using these shapes, particularly if you need accurate curves and organic shapes. Although there are further uses, this article will not cover them in-depth.




This shelf contains commands for spawning different kinds of lights to illuminate your scene, assigning materials to your meshes, and options for Batch Rendering, which renders and exports your project's frames in the background.




The Arnold shelf contains lights and tools specific for use with the Arnold renderer. Arnold is a more advanced and computationally heavier rendering engine. It illuminates scenes in a method similar to how light physically behaves and interacts with surfaces and materials, resulting in more accurate reflections among other benefits. This renderer is more frequently used in upper level animation courses within Emerson.




Rigging carries tools for defining and constraining rigs/skeletons, frequently done when animating complex subjects such as creatures and characters.




The Animation shelf contains tools for previewing and visualizing your animation process such as creating playblasts, keyframing, and ghosting.


Motion Graphics


This is a mix of different tools combining MASH (mentioned later), poly modeling, geometry/texture deformation, as well as particle and simulation systems. All of these are, as you may have guessed, readily available for a Motion Graphics-oriented workflow.




Bifrost is an extension/plugin for Maya allowing you to create particle effects (ie. smoke, fire, snow) and simulations (liquid) with a visual interface for managing networks of interconnected nodes. This shelf provides tools to readily create liquid and aero kinds of particle effects.



This shelf contains tools to create effects/FX using Maya’s Nucleus™ dynamic simulation framework which includes particle effects (nParticles), clothing simulations (nCloth), and hair simulations (nHair).

FX Caching

Used in tandem with the FX shelf or any particle effects-based workflow. You are able to save frames/data from these simulations, should you find a certain configuration/result to your liking.


XGen is a system that allows you to populate a surface or scene with a bunch of polygon primitives such as adding a bunch of gravel to the ground or generating hair/fur on a character.


MASH is a procedural effects generation system used primarily in motion graphics and design animation. Similar to Bifrost, this also has a node-based editing system. Furthermore, a couple of the tools can also, appropriately, be found in the Motion Graphics shelf.


This is a customizable shelf for you to edit and use as you'd like for your scene/project. If you wish to pull your Toolbox commands (See #6) onto the shelf, middle-click then drag the desired tool onto the shelf. For commands from the program dropdowns up on top, Shift+Ctrl Click on the command you’d like to add to the shelf. By the way, this is not only limited to the "Custom" shelf.  All of the shelves are customizable! Furthermore, you can make additional ones (or delete a few) as you need.

3. Workspaces

Similar to the function of the Menu Sets, these modes/workflows change the overall layout of Maya's interface. The default layouts are those the developers consider to be optimal for the respective workflow that they're named after. Should you find that a different layout works better for you then this is also customizable, a pattern with Maya which may have already become quite apparent.


4. Viewport

This is where the majority of the visual work on your objects, scenes, and projects will be done. This window is essentially a preview of your current scene and its present configuration. That said, depending on what engine you're planning to use for rendering, this viewport may not accurately represent the final result. You may also find yourself switching to a different viewport renderer. By default, it is set to Viewport 2.0; however, you may also use Arnold as a viewport renderer. Word of warning, Arnold is a far more demanding engine.  Depending on your computer, you may start to hear your computer's fans whirring loudly while working with it in real-time. Please make sure your computer is able to comfortably support Arnold (or any heavy rendering engine) as a viewport renderer.


Furthermore, there are toggles for Viewport Display options at the top of the viewport itself. Each of these affect what's displayed. In the image below, going in order from left to right they are:


  1. Wireframe: Displays your scene showing the objects' form with purely its edges and vertices, without any materials and lights visible. 
  2. Smooth Shade All: Shows your scene with materials and basic shading/illumination.
  3. Use Default Material: Shows your scene using only the default material, whatever you've set it to be. Maya's default is usually a gray Lambert material.
  4. Wireframe on Shaded: Similar to the Wireframe toggle, except you can still see the active materials on the scene's objects.
  5. Textured: If you've applied textures/UVs, normal maps, and so forth to your objects, you will see them.
  6. Use All Lights: If you've added lights to the scene, the viewport will take those into account and illuminate the scene accordingly.
  7. Shadows: Your lights will now cast shadows.
  8. Screen Space Ambient Occlusion: Renders soft shadows along edges, niches, and interiors of objects depending on their exposure to the ambient lighting within a scene. Simply put, you will likely see these kinds of shadows in-between objects that are in contact with one another, or hollow objects.
  9. Multisample Anti-Aliasing: Smooths the edges of objects in your viewport to make them look less pixelated and jagged.
  10. Viewport Depth-of-Field: Assuming you have handled a camera, this allows your viewport camera to focus/sharpen on particular objects/distance within a scene. However, to do this, you will first need to enable Depth of Field for your active viewport camera in the Attribute Editor (see the Attribute Editor under #7).
  11. Isolate Select: With an object selected, this toggles off the visibility of all other objects in the scene to off. You will only see your selected object, until you re-toggle the option.

5. Outliner

This is a list of objects in your current scene showing the type of object they are, their names, and if they have any children objects grouped under them. You'll also see groups here, if any were made. It is strongly recommended to adopt a consistent naming convention as well as keeping tidy to minimize the time spent searching through your project(s).


6. Tool Box

As the name may suggest, this is where you will find tools for selecting and transforming/modifying objects within your scene. These tools will be briefly described in top to bottom order. Their [hotkeys] will be included between square brackets. With that said, the tools are as follows:

  1. Select Tool [Q]: Selects the object(s) or components (vertices, edges, faces) you click on or drag over.
  2. Lasso Tool: Selects objects or components by drawing a shape/lasso around your desired selection.
  3. Paint Selection Tool: Selects components by "painting over" the surface/3d form of the object.
  4. Move Tool [W]: Allows you to move your selection along one or several of the three main axes (X, Y, Z).
  5. Rotate Tool [E]: Similar to the 'Move Tool', only this rotates/turns the object or component.
  6. Scale Tool [R]: In pattern with the prior two, this scales/resizes an object or component. 
  7. Last Used Tool [T]: The previous tool/command you used will appear here, available for you to quickly reselect if needed.


7. Sidebar

There isn't really a specific name for this overall section, seeing as most of Maya's interface is generally customizable and reorganizable. However, by default under the "General" workspace, you will find three different windows, under their own tabs to the right.

Channel Box/Layer Editor

This is where you can numerically see and adjust your object's position (translation), rotation, scaling, and visibility. Furthermore, you will see the object's history under "Inputs". Specifically, the commands and modifications that have been applied to the object, and can go back and tweak their properties, if needed. HOWEVER, do note that most commands are destructive and, as such, may make it difficult to adjust retroactively like this.

Below the Inputs, you can also find the Layer Editor which allows you to organize your objects and animations into manageable layers. Display layers, under the "Display" tab allow you to group objects into layers whose visibility or selectability can be toggled. Animation Layers can be used for managing multi-layered/hierarchized animations as well as blending them together. 


Attribute Editor

This allows you to edit and configure your objects' attributes and properties far more in-depth. You are able to see different parts of your object such as its mesh and material. Those parts will have their own individual tabs with properties that can be adjusted. Furthermore, similar to the "Inputs" section in the Channel Box, you will see tabs for adjusting properties or previous commands/modifications applied to an object.


Modeling Toolkit

A collection of tools to help select your objects or their geometric components, and then mold the mesh to your liking. You may see some overlap in available tools with the "Poly Modeling" shelf. Finding the same tool in multiple places is another pattern with Maya. Choose whichever method is most suited to your individual workflow or project.


8. Timeline

This allows you to play or scrub through your animation. Additionally, if you have an object selected, and it has set keyframes, you will see those frames marked in red on the timeline. 


Basic Controls

Camera Controls

While holding the Alt key, your mouse buttons will each adjust the camera as follows:

  1. Holding down the Left Mouse Button and then dragging rotates your camera view.
  2. Holding down the Middle Mouse Button then dragging moves/pans your camera.
  3. Holding down the Right Mouse Button then dragging zooms your camera in or out depending on the drag direction.

Component Selection Modes

You are able to cycle through multiple selection modes for your objects. Each of these modes allow you to select a different type of geometric component in your mesh. With an object selected, hold down the Right Mouse Button, then drag the cursor over your mode of preference. Let go to switch over to one of these modes. From there on, you are able to manipulate these components using Move, Rotate, and Scale along with many of the commands found in the shelves and program dropdowns.


What’s Next?

After growing familiar with Maya's general layout and controls, you're all set to begin working on projects and gradually exploring Maya's features and workflows in more depth. Start small or however ambitious you feel. Regardless, only with more time and practice, can you truly master this tool. With that said, take your time, do your best, and have fun.

Next: Setting up a Maya Project

Further Resources

  1. Maya: Interface Overview
Was this article helpful?
0 out of 0 found this helpful
Have more questions? Submit a ticket