Maya is the culmination of three 3D software lines: Wavefront's The Advanced Visualizer (in California), Thomson Digital Image (TDI) Explore (in France) and Alias' Power Animator (in Canada). In 1993 Wavefront purchased TDI, and in 1995 Silicon Graphics Incorporated (SGI) purchased both Alias and Wavefront (due to pressure from Microsoft's purchase of Softimage earlier that year) and combined them into one working company, producing a single package from their collective source code. In the mid-1990's, the most popular pipeline in Hollywood films was a combination of tools: Alias Studio for modeling, Softimage for animation, and PhotoRealistic RenderMan for rendering. This combination was used for numerous films, such as Jurassic Park, The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The combined company was referred to as Alias|Wavefront. It took Alias|Wavefront two more years after the merger to release the highly anticipated Maya.
Both Alias and Wavefront were working on their next generation of software at the time of the merger. Alias had taken a Macintosh product, "Alias Sketch!", moved it to the SGI platform and added many features to it. The code name for this project was "Maya", the Hindu term for "illusion." The first scene ever animated with Maya was the cave-mouth from Disney's Aladdin.
After much discussion it was decided to adopt Alias' "Maya" architecture, and merge Wavefront's code with it.
In the early days of development, Maya used TCL as the scripting language. After the merger, there was debate amongst those who supported TCL, Perl and Sophia. Sophia was much faster than the others and won out. However, once error checking was added, it ended up being equally slow.
Upon its release in 1998, Alias|Wavefront discontinued all previous animation-based software lines including Alias Power Animator, encouraging consumers to upgrade to Maya. It succeeded in expanding its product line to take over a great deal of market share, with leading visual effects companies such as Industrial Light and Magic and Tippett Studio switching from Softimage to Maya for the animation software.
Later Alias|Wavefront was renamed Alias. In 2005 Alias was sold by the cash-strapped SGI to the Teachers' pension fund of Ontario and the private equity investment firm Accel-KKR.
In October 2005, Alias was sold again, this time to Autodesk, and on January 10, 2006, Autodesk completed the acquisition and Alias Maya is now known as Autodesk Maya.
Maya has also been used to animate popular television shows. Maya is used in combination with Corel to animate the cartoon South Park, and has been used to make 3D segments on Futurama and games such as Xenosaga and Resident Evil.