5 tips that made my 3D animation life easier

3D animation tips

Watching your animation upside down might just make you a better animator, plus other pro advice

A lot of people might think that jumping straight into Maya or any other 3D animation tool is how you get ‘started’ on a piece of animation. But, as Escape Studios animation tutor Amedeo Beretta points out in these handy tips for 3D animators, it actually pays to do some crucial prep work fist.

Beretta has worked at DNEG, Scanline VFX, and Ilion Animation Studios and been an animator on films like John Carter, Paul, and Planet 51. Here’s his useful guide to starting on an animated sequence, looking to reference and, even, the importance of watching your animation upside down.

#1 Keep your hands off that 3D software – Write a beat list, instead!

Let’s say you’ve got a shot to deliver, or you have decided which shot to animate. That’s fantastic, just switch on Maya (or Blender) and crack on, right? Maybe, but unless one is really, really (and I mean really), experienced, that’s probably not the best approach. And yet, for a significant amount of time I did open the software as a first step, when I started.

3D software is a double-edged sword, which often adds complexity to an already fairly articulated discipline like animation. Whenever I went straight into 3D without planning a shot, I regretted it later on. Before you even know it, you will have lost sight of the story you want to animate and will be busy juggling technical issues, story, and animation. It does not sound like an easy thing, does it? That’s because it isn’t. Not only does it take longer to animate that way, but it is more difficult and does not guarantee a successful outcome.

3D animation
Amedeo Beretta.

A better approach would be to start by listening to the soundtrack (if any) and reading the story.

Then write down a beat list. I think of an animation beat as an event which needs to happen on screen before an audience can understand the story. Imagine a shot in which a character observes an object until they understand something important about it: in real life you would not necessarily see the moment someone understands a concept, but in animation you do need to show that moment on screen, so that an audience who does not know your story can be made part of the inner life of your character, of their mental process. Without showing that moment, the audience simply would not understand your character’s thinking process, and the story would be left untold.

In the above example, that moment of epiphany your character is experiencing is an animation beat your story can’t do without. Whenever I took the time to write a beat list, I thanked myself later.

#2 No, really. Keep your hands off that 3D software – First, draw some sketches and find your poses

Story beats help identify the key poses the character has to go through in order for a given story to be told. In the previous example, we figured out we need to show a character understanding something after observing an object. Writing down the beat list helps identify the essential poses to support the story. Posing a character in 3D still takes a significant amount of time: an animation rig might have hundreds of controls.

In general I found it a lot faster to sketch the key poses before even touching the 3D software. That does not mean you need to spend time producing beautiful art. Beautiful art might better inform the process, but you could plan your animation just the same by drawing a few rough stickmen topped by smileys. You do not need to be a skilled draftsperson to do that.

Amedeo Beretta was an animator at DNEG
Amedeo Beretta was an animator at DNEG on ‘John Carter’.

Imagine the story of a character hammering a nail into a wall. You will need at least two poses to make that work: one with the character holding the nail in one hand and the hammer in the other far away from the nail but aimed at it, and one with the nail driven deep into the wall and the character holding the hammer on top of it.

These two poses alone represent the minimum amount of poses needed to tell the story. By alternating these two, the story already works. You can sketch those in few seconds and in no time you will be able to know whether your poses are enough to tell your story, whereas if you started working straight into a piece of 3D software you would still be busy finding which way is up from a technical standpoint and would not be any wiser about the story itself and its delivery.

The process of producing rough sketches to pre-plan your animation is usually called sketching, or thumbnailing for animation. Google it, there are many examples online! Also, while you are at it, search the terms “gesture drawing for animation”, there’s a whole category of drawings out there that focus on delivering attitude and story, rather than high fidelity art.

#3 Nope, no 3D software, yet – Find or film references

Aw, it is always so difficult to avoid jumping into Maya (or Blender) when you are itching to animate. However you will thank yourself later if you invest some time in research, first. Going back to the nail and hammer example, find pictures of people hammering nails, see how they do it.

Find footage, film yourself doing it, do it several times, then cut and edit the video together until you are satisfied. Filming does not take long, and once you have a filmed sequence that works and delivers the story, you’ll know for sure you have a good base to start your animation from.

'Paul', another project Amedeo Beretta worked on.
‘Paul’, another project Amedeo Beretta worked on.

Come to think of it, now you know your story, which beats are necessary for an audience to understand it, which poses can deliver such beats, and have a visual representation of the story through video and sketches. And all of this without having to juggle 3D software in the meantime. Not bad, right? Now open Maya (or Blender)!

#4 Find your key poses…

The first time I ever shot references I went into Maya, imported the reference video as a background plate, and tried to trace the video with the 3D character from the first frame onward. It did not work, of course, and it would mean throwing away a good part of the research one has done so far. In my experience the animation process was always smoother after I made sure to identify in the video reference, the key poses I discovered through my previous research.

Only then I could start to flesh out the animation piece by blocking out the key poses. Starting from the two most extreme poses defining any action makes sure I give priority to what’s most important in the scene: the poses without which an action could not be told on screen.

Inside Escape Studios
Inside Escape Studios

#5 …and block them out in 3D space

Making sure the poses make sense in 3D space helps a lot later on while splining and helps troubleshooting issues. While it’s true that the animation has to work in camera, and that to a certain degree we do animate to camera, it’s also true that especially for naturalistic animation, posing the character so that it is anatomically coherent, at least at blocking stage, usually makes for more believable poses and motion. I find it happens more often than not that the animation works in camera once I made sure it worked in 3D space, first.

#Bonus tip: Watch your animation upside down. I am serious, do it

Your brain is clever, especially when you don’t want to spend time polishing an animation that does not work as well as you wanted. Your brain will want you to spend time tweaking minute details that carry no significance to the outcome of the scene. Even if your brain is less sneaky than that, it will still try to put order into what it sees on screen and will make it harder for you to spot issues in your animation. Outsmart your brain (is this even possible?): watch your animation upside down, download a video player that can flip the video for you, both vertically and horizontally, like DJV.

Below: check out Beretta’s animation reel.

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