To Animate, or Not to Animate

April 7, 2007 3:20 pm

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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Animation Alley is a regular featured column with Renderosity Staff Columnist Sergio Rosa [nemirc]. Sergio discusses on computer graphics software, animation techniques, and technology. He also hosts interviews with professionals in the animation and cinematography fields. 
April 9, 2007

Article Comments

Click2Move ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 10 April 2007

Good article, useful tips and info!

NukedBug ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 10 April 2007

Very good article, as you said, the software is a tool, the technique is important. I would like anyone interested to seriously consider these 2 books, that I think are a must if you are serious about animation: The animator's survival kit The illusion of life

RorrKonn ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 11 April 2007

Who Am I that is responding to the Article ? I am RorrKonn that has been in 3D since 1998. I can model, rig and animate characters in App's like TrueSpace,Lightwave,C4D. Once you get the idea of any main 3D app you have the idea how they all work. never got a book,never went to any school.learned it all from manuals and forms. if not for the forms and helpful 3D Artist I would still be going oh that's a cube, cool,what do ya do with it ? I think you wrote a fine article and have no disagreements with anything you said. Just want to talk about some more stuff. What is practical for a single 3D Artist not working in a big Studio that has to do all the work them self's ? App's like LW,Modo,C4D,Max,Maya,XSI. It is not Practical for a single person to think he is going to make a 30 minute video all from scratch all buy him self in app's like this. unless they plane on spending years and years to make a 30 minute video. App's like LW,Modo,C4D,Max,Maya,XSI are killer. If you have a studio full of PC's and experienced 3D Artist that can do anything and everything. But a single Artist with a single PC what would they need with a $7000 app ?. LW is alot more affordable and does a hole heck of alot. Now if you go asking for a job at ILM best to have mastered all these app's LW,Modo,C4D,Max,Maya,XSI. Some app's have plugs for Poser,but if the app or Poser gets a upgrade there may be problems. Then there are cheaper apps like Silo,Hexagon.would do good to model meshes for Poser. If you buy meshes from places like TurboSquad meshes cost alot more then here. RenderFarms cost alot. So unless you have the $$$ for a RenderFarm you need Real Time Renders or you will spend years and years rendering. Can we get a killer 3D Card and do real time renders in Poser ? iClone promotes real time renders killer one-man show app for video game looking animations, --------------------------------------- First wall to get past. Need a killer 3D card to do real time renders with or a Render Farm iClone is the cheapest, fastest. most limited and gamish looken. DAZ Stuido or Poser. We all know what they can do and the meshes sold at affordable prices. would not try dynamics in real time renders. Could get Poser and Vue.not sure if ya going to get away with any real time rendering thou. Could get Poser and 3D main App like C4D and Vues optional. It's getting complicated at this point and could get $$$. Could get XSI,Maya and a studio full of experienced 3D Artist. Would take alot of $$$.but ya could make a killer video. RorrKonn

nemirc ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 11 April 2007

Thanks for the comments. I think you have made some good points here. That's why I mentioned that the app should be based on the work that the person wants to make. Not everybody will need that 7K dollars app and all that, specially if they don't plan to work professionally (like running a company or getting a job in one). That's also the reason why, being a 3d artist, I decided to make this article open enough to cover both 2d and 3d apps.

UVDan ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 12 April 2007

Thanks Sergio, I always get told to RTFM!8^)

MRC1 ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 12 April 2007

I like reading your articles. It is nice to stay up with what is out there nowdays to animate with. I started to make animations in 1969 using stop frame techinque with a 16mm movie camera with a cable release on a stand and pin board for the art on acetate. Presently I still use Flash MX and Director MX because I am still confortable with creating the work for each frame and then placing it into each cell of the program, just like using camera to making art work for each frame for the animation. Plus I like the options of being able to program the animation as well along with able to have video files in animation as well.

radstorm ( posted at 12:00AM Sat, 14 April 2007

Nice article, Segio.. I have to agree not eveyone can afford the ridiculously priced software out there for animation. I sure know I can't. I looked at iClone the other day, but it was like 175 megs for the demo and they don't support resume on downloads. I am on dialup and I thought that was pretty lame for a big site to do. Seems like too lots you find you find is just another plugin for Max..which in my opinion anything that costs that much should never need a plugin..and if so..they should be free..if a person spends thousands for a program..they should get some sort of break..we aren't all Of course too, no matter what program's site you always looks easier from what the author displays on site than what it will for you, once you buy it.

Khushrenada ( posted at 12:00AM Sat, 14 April 2007

great article lots of useful tips in ...but for UVDan...I have always found that the manuals that come with high end software are written by people who,with the best will in the world can not put themselves in the mind of someone just starting,manuals frustrate most poeple,a tutorial done by someone who has gone through the learning curve is much better,just my opinion:)

nuggets ( posted at 12:00AM Sat, 14 April 2007

Rxcellent article, everything in it is true and i agree with it 100%. I also think that actually taking the time to read the manual is highly underrated. Its ok to not know something but, i think that if you take any program you are working with, not to mention a 2, 3, or 7k program, lets hope we can take the time to just Read The Manual on it to find out how it works, at the very least.. my common sense tells me that thats where they hide most of the information one needs to know about it the program, but i guess i could be wrong about that. I agree that its a matter of personal taste when it comes to choosing your 3d weapon of choice, i try every demo that comes available and right now C4D has been my 3d app of choice, but i am all too aware that it doesnt stop there. To become a valuable asset to any high-end production company any aspiring animator better have all the major 3d apps down to a science, and as your article suggested, the best way to do that is to try them, see which ones do what best, and become proficient in more than one. Once again, very inspiring article, nuggs

lankybonez ( posted at 12:00AM Sun, 15 April 2007

Great Help! The resources and info on this article is very useful! It's reminded me somewhat of why I started animating. Thanx!

radstorm ( posted at 12:00AM Sun, 15 April 2007

I agree about reading the manual. However not all manuals are created equal. Some take you step by step where others assume you are a rocket scientist. For the latter my opinion is if I knew that much, I would have just written my own program. Nothing still beats advice from a seasoned veteran when in the learning process. They know the ins and outs and even some tricks even the software author never thought of. Also Poser is not so bad a tool..and it does introduce you to animation in a limited way :o) Once again, Sergio..nice job

0oseven ( posted at 12:00AM Sat, 17 May 2008

nice article well done! Another application woth mentioning is Cararra available from DAZ. can use poser figures and Daz content .. Around 500$ Pro version but is often on special like right now bundled with a heap of software for rediculous price. I am just a hobbyist and find the whole field of animation daunting.Ive come to realise that apart from the creation of animation you need many other skills - a script , voiceover and sound effects,directing the animation, graphics and set design etc etc so realise that anything approaching a professional quality video clip/movie is probably a team effort. Worth mentioning then is the Machinema approach. Antics and Moviestorm are both great applications (and free)though I hate the moviestorm interface characters are a bit "yuk" but if you are interested in creating a short animated story definitely worth exploring

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