The 3D animation production pipeline has finally reached its peak. After the objects and characters are properly designed, 3D modeled, rigged and textured, they are ready to be “animated”; or moved in a way the viewers think the characters are alive.
The animation stage is all about injecting (the illusion of) life into still 3D objects through carefully designed movements. Every single movement you see in an animated video is created during this stage; which is usually the most time-consuming part of the production. The standard frame-rate is 24 frames per second and each frame is analyzed to make sure it is what it should be.
But just because something is moved in a 3D animation does not mean it is “animated”. There has to be a story behind these movements; they have to look alive. Moving 3D models in a 3D software is not that difficult, but making those objects move with purpose and life takes an artist to do.
Let’s take a look at some of the standard procedures to animation stage of a 3D project in an animation studio.
What is animation in the first place?
Animation is basically nothing but creating the illusion of life or movement in animated characters or objects; by showing a group of slightly different still images in a sequential order with sufficient speed. This definition has captured the essence of “animation” since the age of 2D hand-drawn cartoons. But it’s still relevant today with the advent of new methods and techniques such as 3D animation.
Regardless of the tools and techniques, the core mechanism remains the same: Animators make slight changes frame by frame; in a way that the audience believes the inanimate objects on still frames are alive and moving.
What happens during the animation stage of the 3D pipeline?
The starting point for all the efforts that’s going to be done during the animation component of the 3D animation pipeline would be the 3D layout. When the characters, settings and cameras are set, the final performance or movements can be added.
Animating a performance is all about creating smooth movements and proper balance in the animated characters and objects. Thus, it is important for an animator to have a strong knowledge of motion, weight, balance, timing and of course acting.
That’s where the basics of animation steps in: The 12 basic principles of animation. Regardless of the medium, any animator must understand these principles to design realistic animations. Let’s take a quick look at these principles:
The 12 basic principles of animation
The twelve basic principles of animation were first introduced in the 1981 book “The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation” by Disney animators. These principles were designed to create the illusion that cartoon characters adhere to the basic laws of physics and look appealing to the eyes of the viewers.
The twelve basic principles of animation were originally intended for traditional, hand-drawn animation. However, they’re hugely relevant and frequently used in 3D animation as well. The principles are:
- Squash and stretch
- Straight-ahead action and pose-to-pose
- Follow-through and overlapping action
- Slow-in and slow-out
- Secondary action
- Solid drawing
3D animation Techniques
As 3D animation technology has developed, different techniques have emerged in the industry. There are currently three main 3D animation techniques that can be used to animate 3D objects for various purposes: keyframed animation, motion capture and procedural animation. Major productions may utilize all of them.
1. Keyframed Animation
A key location or pose of an object or character that an animator creates for a certain frame is called the keyframe. Keyframed animation is the most well-known and probably the oldest style of animation. Modern keyframing techniques have not changed much; most of the principles still apply. However, 3D software packages have made it much easier.
The process of keyframed animation includes positioning of an object or character in a particular position or pose and setting a keyframe. The animator will then move to a new position in timeline and set a new keyframe with the object or character in a different position or pose. The computer will do the in-betweening of the keyframes to complete the action.
2. Motion Capture Animation
Unlike keyframing which is a precise but slow process, motion capture is fast but less precise. Here the performance of an actor is recorded through a set of cameras and a special suit with trackable marks. The recorded data is then transferred to a 3D software package, applied to a character rig and translated into 3D animation. Markerless options are also available by which the motion data is directly delivered to the computer.
Over the years, motion capture technology has made huge progress. Facial and finger animations are also being added to the original motion capture capabilities. But it usually needs cleaning up to some degree to correct potential mistakes. After cleaning up the data, the animator will give the movements a final touch or add some exaggeration where needed.
3. Procedural Animation
In procedural animation, the motions are created by the software and the animator just sets the necessary parameters to make it respond in a specific way. This method can greatly increase the productivity of the production pipeline by having the computer animate characters in real time. Procedural Animation is becoming more popular among a number of industries like Video-game animation.
Basic Animation Workflow
The process of animating a 3D model, such as a character, follows a certain sequence in an animation studio. This sequence might be slightly different in various animation studios but the overall path is something like what is being implemented here at Dream Farm Animation Studios:
The lead animator provides the assignment for a shot or sequence; including what is expected from it along with the layout file. The 3D layout includes character positions, a basic setting and an approximate timing, camera staging and camera movements plus the voice over.
2. Reference Building
After carefully reading the assignment, the 3D animator will find or create proper video references to have a better understanding of what will happen.
Keyframes will be fully created based on the references, the assignment and the animator’s interpretation of the action. These keyframes will then be checked (and possibly corrected) by the lead animator in close collaboration with the director.
When the keyframes are approved, the animator will fill the in-between frames to shape the complete motion. If the output is satisfactory, the animator will then smooth out the motion and add final touches to the scene, including secondary actions.
The job of a 3D animator in an animation studio
Creating believable and entertaining animation is a difficult task that requires a lot of skill and practice. Even perfect models and seamless lighting cannot compensate for an unrealistic motion in a 3D animation. That’s why professional 3D animators are highly sought-after in the industry.
Not every 3D artist can be a 3D animator; it requires a completely different skill set than 3D modeling. In fact, 3D modelers are rarely good animators, and animators can rarely be great 3D modelers. Therefore 3D animation studios hire dedicated animators specifically.
Animators have one of the most difficult jobs in the 3D world. They must completely understand the shot they are working on in order to give the audience what they need to see. They also need a strong knowledge of motion, weight, balance, and timing.
3D animators don’t typically need to be very technically inclined. However, their software knowledge must be utilized with a comprehensive understanding of acting performance and keen observational skills. Character animators are basically actors. They must have a comprehensive understanding of physical acting performance.
3D animation stage is actually the peak point of the 3D pipeline. With the layout file as the starting point, the final objects and characters will be “animated” so that they look alive. The animation stage is all about creating the illusion of life in still 3D models through carefully designed movements.
The process of animating a 3D model might be slightly different in various animation studios but the overall path is something like this: Assignment, Reference Building, Keyframing, In-betweening. It is usually the most time-consuming part of the production.
Making still 3D objects look alive and believable is an animation artist’s job and requires a huge amount of skill and practice. Animators must have a strong knowledge of motion, weight, balance, timing and of course, acting performance.
A 3D animator animates almost everything but elements like fur, water, fire, cloths or dust. These elements are created in the next step of the 3D animation pipeline: 3D VFX.