Charcoal - it’s smokin’!

Posted on Tue 06 October 2015 in blog

When you’re shopping around for something new – whether it’s a cool new piece of software or just a kitchen gadget – it’s not uncommon to tell yourself, “man, I wish I had thought of that.” But what’s really impressive is when you see a polished product and you say to yourself Dammnit, I absolutely thought of that!, or I’ve been wanting this exact thing for years!. It’s a rare thrill when you stumble across something that seems as if it were a gift from some future self, come back to give you exactly what you wanted in a way that only you, yourself could.
One of my coworkers found one of those little somethings the other day - a product that will make pretty much any TA go feel like Christmas came a little early.

The Charcoal Editor from Chris Zurbrigg is a slick, polished replacement for Maya’s script editor. It’s a plugin (available for Maya on Mac, Windows and Linux) that offers many of the features of a slick Python IDE right inside of Maya. Some of the key highlights include

  • Syntax highlighing
  • Autcomplete (including your own code and also the entire Maya cmds api)
  • Smart indent and dedent
  • Bracket matching

but the feature that will sell most Maya veterans instantly is the fact you can execute lines or scripts without the familiar Select > Enter that has deleted countless lines of your test code down the ages.

Charcoal Editor Overview from Chris Zurbrigg on Vimeo.

That one feature alone would probably be worth the price for most people who do a lot of scripting. But the whole package is thoughtfully put together in a way that clearly says the author wrote a tool for himself – and that he shares a lot of the frustrations that have driven you and I bonkers for the last 18 years of Maya history. A great example is the addition of quick help for Maya commands: if you (like me) can never remember the difference between the flags for listConnections and those for listRelatives, Charcaol allows you to pop up a quick in-window help view or to open the relevant documentation in a browser: a welcome alternative to the maddening ritual of entering “cmds.whatever” into Chrome and being directed to the Maya 2011 Japanese docs by the mysterious imps of the internet.

In general, Charcoal shows a lot of attention to the nuances of scripting work. For example, it allows you to quickly toggle layouts: Charcoal allows you to quickly flip back and forth between the usual split view and a full panel of either script or history, so you don’t have to give up coding space to see your printouts or vice-versa. Likewise, you can set font sizes and color schemes for the scripting panel and the history panel separately – a big help if you want to save space on your printouts or if (like me) your eyes are going and you need to bump up the font size for coding. The history panel even supports highlighting – separating errors and warnings clearly from regular printouts, for example. All in all it’s a collection of small touches that offers a much-appreciated sense that the program has your back and that the author has wrestled with many of the same irritations you’ve had.

The product also ventures into territory that’s useally associated with full-fledged IDEs. It particular it offers an “outline view” which displays the classes and functions in the current scope - a big help for navigating around in a longish file, as well as a handy way to remember what you’re working with. There’s also a “project view” which displays all of the scripts in a project folder tree – more or less the same as the project views in Sublime Text or Atom (two other scripter-friendly editors you should check out if you’ve never seen them.)
These IDE features will be very helpful for folks who’ve been soldiering on with nothing but the Maya script editor and Notepad. If you’re already using an IDE like PyCharm, Wing, or PTVS they may not be quite enough to wean you out of your fancy environment – particularly if you’r gotten used to using a real debugger instead of littering your code with print statements. Charcoal’s project features are functional but – given the nature of the task and the audience – are not as fancy as the equivalent features in big budget development environments. If you really prize the ablity to inifitely noodle on color themes, or a built-in style guide, you may find yourself wandering back to one of the bigger packages. That’s not a knock on Charcoal, though – it’s just a reminder that it’s a specialist tool for Maya users and not a general-purpose project management powerhouse.

For myself, I plan on sticking with PyCharm for long coding sessions (btw, PyCharm fans, you’ll be incredibly pleased to hear that Charcoal allows cut and paste directly from PyCharm, unlike Maya’s wonky script editor. Whoop-de-doo!) However Charcoal more than justifies itself as a replacement for the vanilla script editor with a lot of juicy productivity features. I’ve already gotten a lot of productivity bounce by using MayaCharm to bypass the Maya script editor whenever possible – but I still spend quite a lot of time in the clunky old Maya pane nonetheless. I’ve got high hopes that Charcoal will save precious brain power for real problems and allow me to focus more on doing my job and less on frantically hitting Undo after my last attempt to execute a line accidentally erased an hour’s work.

Charcoal offers a free, non-saving demo; an individual license is $49 US (site licenses are available but you’ll have to negotiate them with the author).