3D Animation, Frame By Frame

One of the most difficult things about being an animator is understanding your work as a process. Especially for 3D animation, but also in all other forms, there are many stages to any animated piece that one must go through in order to arrive at the completed animation.

For the sake of this example (and since it is what I am working on at the moment), let’s talk about the 3D animation process. It all starts with your models. These are the objects, characters, and environments that will make up the animation.

Then, you work on rigging any characters or objects that will need to be animated. I say characters or objects, because even an object such as a swaying tree or a driving car will need controls of some kind for animation, even if its just creating morphed states for the object to use as a target. A swaying tree, for example, can consist of two models; one straight and one bent. To animate it, you simply increase the value of the morph between “straight” and “bent” states.

After rigging, the next step is to block out your animation. This is commonly called creating an “animatic.” Basically, an animatic is an animated storyboard that 3D animators can use as a reference point for their animations. When creating an animatic, you usually focus on the key frames, blocking out the important poses and motions for your characters and objects.

After the animatic is complete, it is time to focus on getting it to move naturally between the key poses. This is probably the most time-consuming part of any type of animation, since it requires strict attention to detail and the patience to go through your animation frame-by-frame.  3D animators have the benefit of a program that can automatically fill in the gaps between poses, but 95 percent of the time, this motion needs to be edited anyway since it almost always looks unnatural.

After the final animation fill-ins have been completed, it is time to work on special effects. These can be water, sparks, fire, lasers, clouds, or any other effect an animator can dream up.  We usually save these for last because they are normally affected by our characters or objects, so it is important to have their animation finished so we can use it as a reference, and because special effects usually take the longest time to test render.

So there you have it, the 3D animation process laid bare. But keep in mind that this is only one version of the process; at DDA, we evolve the process to accomodate our clients’ needs. Do you just need particle effects over live-action video? No problem, we can skip straight to that. Additionally, the process can be modified based on time constraints or even the individual animator’s preference. But remember that behind every 3D animation that you see on the DDA site, no matter how elaborate or simple, there was some sort of process involved that took that animation from concept to (virtual) reality.