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Creating a Lava Lamp in Maya 2009

By Kristina Johnson
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Date Added: 10th November 2009
Software used:
Maya
112_tid_maya_lava_lamp_tutorial_final.jpg
This tutorial presents a step by step project for the modeling, shading, lighting and rendering of a realistic lava lamp. The steps should be straightforward for beginners to follow.

This tutorial was written because I like to give something back to the 3D community. I wrote it rather than creating a video tutorial, as is so popular these days, because I have found that many beginners in 3D prefer to learn from text-based tutorials. The pace of a video can often be too fast, and when starting 3D modeling it can be difficult to discern what the key points are - like listening to a new foreign language! It is also useful to have all of the steps in front of you, rather than scrubbing along a film timeline trying to find the part where they said the thing about the tool that did that function. You know what I mean! Anyway, I hope you find the tutorial really useful, and that I find the time to write some more of these in the future.

Three Button Mouse

Maya is designed to be used with a three button mouse. Throughout this tutorial the following abbreviations are used:

  • LMB = Left mouse button
  • MMB = Middle mouse button
  • RMB = Right mouse button

Selection Tools

Located in the top left corner of the Maya window are the selection tools. These are used to move objects, or parts of objects, around in 3D space (Fig.01).

112_tid_maya_lava_lamp_tutorial_01.jpg
Fig. 01

Setting up Maya

Open the Maya program. In the top left hand corner of the Maya window is a drop down menu list. Select Polygons from the list (Fig.02).

Create a LavaLamp project in Maya. Go to File > Project > New and the New Project window will open.  Type "LavaLamp" in the Name text box. Click the Use Defaults button. This will add useful directory names to all of the other text boxes. Click the Accept button.

Go to File > Save Scene As. In the window that pops up, set the file format to Maya Ascii (.ma) and save the scene as "lavaLamp1.ma". It is important to save work frequently, and useful to do this across multiple files. For example, after a major change it may be a good idea to save the new work as "lavaLamp2.ma", and so on. This is good insurance against file corruption (which thankfully does not happen too often).

The project is now set up and you are ready to start modeling!

112_tid_maya_lava_lamp_tutorial_02.jpg
Fig. 02

Modeling the Base

Maya should be currently displaying the Perspective viewport.

Go to Create > Polygon Primitives > Cylinder. LMB click in the perspective window and drag to create the base of the cylinder. Release the mouse button, and then click and drag again to give the cylinder some height. Any cylinder dimensions are OK at this point. To see the cylinder as a smooth shaded object, press the number 6 on the keyboard.

For the next step the cylinder will need to be selected. LMB click on it and see that it is highlighted. On the right side of the Maya window, the Attribute Editor is currently displayed.  Select the polyCylinder1 tab. Set the radius value to 6.75, the height value to 14.5, the subdivisions value to 32 and the subdivisions height value to 7.

Click on the pCylinder1 tab. Set all of the Translate values to 0.0, 7.25, 0.0. This re-positions the cylinder in 3D space.
In the text box at the top of the panel, rename "pCylinder1" to be "pBase"(Fig.03).

112_tid_maya_lava_lamp_tutorial_03.jpg
Fig. 03

Change to the Front viewport. Hit the space bar on the keyboard and then LMB click in the viewport labeled Front. If the pBase object is not fully within the viewport window, press the A key on the keyboard.

LMB click and select pBase. Then RMB click and select Vertex from the pop-up menu. LMB click and drag to select the 3rd and 4th rows of vertices. LMB click the Scale Tool in the top left corner of the Maya screen. Finally, LMB click the green square handle of the scale tool and drag upwards to move the two rows of vertices closer together, as shown in the image below (Fig.04).

112_tid_maya_lava_lamp_tutorial_04.jpg
Fig. 04


For the next few steps, a selection feature called Soft Selection needs to be turned on. To do this, LMB double-click on the Select Tool in the top left corner of the Maya screen. The Attribute Editor for the Select Tool (arrow pointer) will be displayed. Select the Soft Select option of it is not checked already.  Set the falloff radius to 4. Select linear from the Curve presets, so that the falloff curve is a straight line as in the image below (Fig.05).

112_tid_maya_lava_lamp_tutorial_05.jpg
Fig. 05

LMB click and select pBase. RMB click and select Vertex from the pop-up menu. LMB click and drag a box around the 3rd and 4th rows of vertices to select them, as shown in the image below (Fig.06).

112_tid_maya_lava_lamp_tutorial_06.jpg
Fig. 06

Uniformly scale the vertices down by 65%. This can be done either by grabbing the yellow square at the mid-point of the Scale Tool and watching the values change to approximately 0.65 in the text box at the bottom left of the Maya screen. To be more precise, a value of 0.65 can be entered into the X, Y and Z text boxes in the top right hand corner of the Maya screen (Fig.07).

112_tid_maya_lava_lamp_tutorial_07.jpg
Fig. 07

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Readers Comments (Newest on Top)
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(ID: 234513, pid: 0) Sofia on Mon, 18 November 2013 1:36am
Great tutorial! I followed it and learned a lot, thank you!
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(ID: 91487, pid: 0) Writer650 on Wed, 07 March 2012 9:43pm
Very nice tutorial with some very terrific material settings.
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