Probably your story is similar to that of many animators around the globe. Not everyone can afford an education at the big schools, and sometimes there isn't even a small school where you live. You may guess that you are on your own since there's no other way to learn. This article is meant to give some input about getting started in animation, from the basics to the software. This article is not meant to teach you how to animate or what steps to follow from the begining to an outstanding reel. I am just here to give you some information that will prove very useful along the way.
When you are starting, the obvious question is: "where to begin?" The obvious answer should be "books and the internet." There are some very good sources on the internet where you can learn a few tips. Animation is a combination of principles and observation. You can watch an animated character and notice that at a certain moment the arm moved in a weird manner. You have "observed" the movement and noticed something wrong. You may or may not how to fix it, though, and this is where the principles come in. One of my favorite sites is Larry's Toon Institute.
A website will never go as deep as a book when it comes to teaching you what you need to know. Places such as Amazon carry tons of animation books. One of the most famous books of all time is The Animator's Survival Kit. Some people have asked me why the book is full of stick figures and not completely drawn figures (or better yet: 3D figures). The reason is that the book is designed to teach you the art of animation, not the art of drawing or computer graphics. Also, when it comes to movement and posing, stick figures are always easier to read than detailed figures.
Now imagine that you are already into Maya, XSI, or a similar program. You may be tempted to pick a "Character Animation in Maya" book (or "Character Animation in XSI" if that would be the case) and even if this may sound like a good idea, most of the time you will learn much about how your software operates, but little about animation. Setting keyframes and editing function curves is an easy to learn proccess, however, knowing what balance is and when to use it is not. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that you should not buy that "Character Animation in Maya" book. I am just saying that you should first learn the principles and then focus on the tool.
Another obvious thing is that it will usually take you two or three times more time to learn all that by yourself. It doesn't really matter, though, since you know what you are after, and you know you will eventually get there. If there's something you always have to have in mind, it is your goal. You want to be an animator, right? In that case you have to practice, practice, and practice until you become that master animator you want to be.
As a moderator in three forums here, I can tell you that the most frequently asked question is "which program to use?" How do you know what tool is right for you? Some programs, like Poser, are very straight forward, while programs such as Maya are very technical and can scare away many newcomers. The first question would be if you want to work in 2D or 3D animation.
If you have been following my column, you should now be familiar with Anime Studio Pro and Toon Boom Studio. The first one focuses on "cut-out" style animation, laying out bones on top of your figure for animation. The second one is a traditional animation software, which means that instead of using bones, you animate using the "frame-by-frame" method. If you haven't read the reviews yet, you should do it now to get a better sense of what I am talking about. There are more 2D animation programs I am not familiar with, and while they all have their very own "killer features" the workflow is very similar to these two.
If we talk about 3D animation software, there are plenty of options to choose from. You may or may not know most of them, so I will mention a few (the ones I have experience with) so you know which one may be better for you (depending on the kind of work you want to do). If you are on this site, surely you know Poser (either because you use it, or because you've heard about it). One of the strong points in Poser is the pre-loaded content. You have a lot of different figures (humans and animals) to choose from, ready for animation. This is a good thing because you don't get trapped in the rigging proccess; you can jump directly into the animation.
A program very similar to Poser is iClone. I actually reviewed iClone version 1.0 and 1.5 (you can read the review of version 1.5 here). Just like Poser, iClone ships with some pre-loaded figures to work with, as well as pre-loaded animations for your characters. The issue is that, as a character animator in the making, you won't want the program to do the work for you, right? This is no problem at all, because, as you know after reading the review (and you surely read it already... and if you haven't, you should really do it), iClone includes a Motion Editor where you can work on your animation from start to finish.
While at first iClone may not feel like a very friendly animation package (mostly because of the lack of inverse kinematics), it's being constantly updated with more features. iClone 2.0 is now available and it has a lot of nice features to keep anybody interested (especially if you want to create a full short film, or something like that). I will be writing an article about iClone 2.0 soon, so you may want to keep your eyes opened.
There are also "the big guys" as people call them. Professional 3D software such as Maya or 3DS Max offer powerful animation tools that will let you work faster and better. The problem for newbies is, however, that these programs won't make things easy for you at all. Unless you find free animation-ready characters for download (or buy them), you will have to model and rig your characters yourself.
Most of these programs include forward-kinematics and inverse-kinematics blending, non linear animation, scripting (used to write sequences that can output different results, such as particle effects), and many other things that won't be available in Poser, for example. These programs offer demo versions that you can try before you decide whether or not to buy. Maya offers a "learning edition" (although it seems that it hasn't been updated to the latest commercial version yet), while others will give you a temporary license (usually 30 to 90 days). This seems to be the rule for most professional 3D software packages, with the exception of Blender, which is free.
We go back to the original question: "which program to use?" It really depends on the kind of work you plan to do. In this case, the next question is "why do you want to learn animation?" Do you plan to get a job in the animation industry? Maybe you want to make animations for your school projects or shortfilms. Are you interested in 2D or 3D animation (or a combination of both)? If your goal is to work as a character animator in a big studio, then just focus on what I mentioned at the begining of the article. The basic idea will apply if you want to become a modeler, concept designer, or technical director. But instead of animation books, you will have to buy drawing books, modeling books, or scripting books.
I focused on the animation side of things mostly because that's the area where I have more experience. But, as I said before, the basic idea applies to any digital discipline. Whatever path you want to follow, there is no rule of the thumb that will tell you to choose program A over program B. I can only give you the advice that I would give to anyone (the same advice that most of the people will give you). Get the demos, try them out and see for yourself which one you like more.
Remember that whatever you do, you must always keep your goals in mind if you want to reach that which you wanted in the first place. Also, remember that in the forums there's always people willing to help you. It's true that sometimes you will get answers like "read the manual!" However, that is going to happen, so you'll just have to learn not to pay attention to that. I hope you found this article useful, and if you have anything to say, feel welcome to use the message box at the bottom of the article.
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