What is 3D Animation

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Stefan Vaskevich
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CEO & Founder Cyberfox
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3D animation has become so natural to our culture, it’s loved by our kids, and is appreciated by the experts in different businesses because it helps them save money on filming actors or drawing animation by hand.
People see 3D animation on their phones, on TV, on billboards everywhere and every day. Hence, we can assume that everyone knows what it looks like, but not many know what it exactly is and how it’s done. This article will guide you through this immersive topic, you’ll understand the basics, and you’ll know where to start, what tools to download, and what you need to learn to create 3D animations.

What to do if you need 3D animation

Generally, there are two paths: learn how to do it yourself or outsource it to a professional studio like CyberFox. Learning animation on your own can be very entertaining, competing and joyful if you really have the nerve for digging tons of manuals and watching how-tos. However, when you need a corporate-grade animation quality on a tight schedule and incorporate it into your project, your best bet would be on using professional services.

Advantages of ordering at CyberFox

CyberFox develops complete 3D solutions for the web such as simulations and configurators. Animation is just one part of the workflow with a team of in-house animators who use the modern approach for creating smooth and true-looking animations to compliment your project. Let’s say that your company builds custom sports grounds for campuses and neighborhoods. We can create an online 3D configurator with an animated character that shows use cases of this sports ground.

Punctuality

We give you a realistic assessment of the work completion time. You always get the job right on time.

Flexibility

Based on your project, we will suggest how to achieve the best result. Just send the materials you have.

Knowledge

Our experience and knowledge allow us to offer the best solutions to show your ideas. If you have questions, just ask.

Speed

We perfectly understand when you need visualizations urgently. We work fast.

Experience

We share our expert opinion on how best to present your project because we care.

Saving time

You do not need to understand the software or 3D imaging technology. Everything is available at CyberFox.

What is animation?

3D animation is a sequence of movements of objects on a timeline. These objects can be linked (rig) and standalone objects (meshes without a rig). Animation can include change of any property, be it position of a character’s wrist, ball shape transformations at the moment of the impact with the ground, or any other parameter, such as color of a chameleon’s texture that also can alter in time.
The animation contains keyframes and graphs that describe parameter changes between the keyframes. The graphs can have ease-in and out effects that reproduce velocity acceleration and deceleration like in real life. In other words, 3D animation is just an instruction that contains a sequence of movements. The animation data doesn’t take up much space like text files.
Very few 3D scenes don’t have any animation because even if you move the camera through a static 3D home interior, it’s still animation because the camera is an object that changes its coordinates and angle of view.
Cube animation path and motion Graph Editor in Blender UI

How does 3D animation work?

When we have an animation we can play it back. The animation can be exported along with the object to a third-party environment, like a game engine. Later, the engine will interpret the animation file, link it with a model and render an animation on a client’s hardware. Video animations are rendered frame by frame in the studio.
The animation can be easily modified or adapted and reused on another character in a different scene.

The difference between 2D and 3D animation

Although the difference is quite obvious just because the first one works in two-dimensional space, and the other one is 3D, there is more than that. The main things that make 3D animation stand out are the camera concept, and animation rigs.
From the animator perspective, there are different tools specialized in 2D animation, like Adobe Premiere, Apple Motion, and Toon Boom. They’re all based on layers and vector graphics. The animation timeline[/lanes/tracks] in 2D animation tools look similar and include parameter changes, such as position, size and other properties. However, they are usually related to vector shapes as a whole.
3D animation software, other than it naturally supports XYZ axis, also supports animation rigs, because model parts are animated separately, and it’s essential to have a camera. Also, meshes are not vector shapes, they are built with polygons and can be shaded with subdivision modifiers so you don’t see the rough edges of the wireframe. Also there are lighting and texturing that you won’t find in 2D animation apps.

The process of 3D animation

The process of 3D Animation is like a conveyor that involves multiple stages and spans across multiple teams of specialists. Let’s review what each step consists of and why it’s important for creating a great animation.

Modeling

First, we need an object to animate, be it a bouncing ball (easy), a more complex object with multiple moving parts (medium), or a character (hard). A 3D modeler should take into account that the object will be animated and follow certain modeling rules and patterns.
A model that’ll be animated should have more polygons at its limbs that will bend and distort the mesh in this area. A good example is a knight’s armor, it should have a flexible elbow, knees, and waist. The rest of the suit can be solid metal plates and pieces.
It’s also important to note that a video game model (GPU animation) will also be quite different from the video animation that will be rendered frame by frame and saved as a video. The number of polygons in the model is limited for GPU animation because it’ll be played on consumer-grade devices, while animation for render doesn’t have such limitation and it’ll be processed on a powerful video production workstation or an array of workstations.

Rigging

When we have a suitable model for animation, it’s time for rigging. It’s a process of building a virtual skeleton following the model mesh for the subsequent animation. Each bone of this rig is bound to certain parts (vertices) of the adjacent surface.

Vertice weights

To make flexible bends, vertices also may have a “weight” lower than one, which means that these parts won’t be fully affected by some specific bone.
Building a rig is such a complex task that it requires a separate article to cover all the nuances. However, both a good model and a functional rig that’s easy to be operated with are the base for a good animation. Without these components, animation doesn’t make any sense and it’s not linked to anything feasible.

Layout and animation

Now that we have a model and a rig, we can start animating. There are plenty of animation techniques, such as keyframe animation, motion capture with video camera.

GPU playback or rendering

It depends on whatever the animation has been created for: videogame or a video. In the videogame, animation is being rendered in real time by a GPU or CPU on an end user’s device. When we need animation for video, it’s rendered right in the studio frame by frame as a part of the entire scene. Later, it’s put together as a video and delivered to the compositing and post production stages before it goes to the tape.

Best 3D animation software

There are plenty of choices when it comes to 3D animation. Some of the tools are free, but generally, 3D software is used by professionals in Studios and it’s expensive.

Blender

Let’s start with the well-known free software that can be used for animation. Blender can be used for many different 3D-related tasks from modeling, texturing, lighting the scene, to rigging and animation. Actually, there are Open Movies created solely with Blender and you can check out the full list on their website and even see how they’re made and how characters are animated.
Although Blender hasn’t been an industry standard, and animation tools were limited and not convenient to use, its development speed is astonishing. The newer versions got the pose library as a part of the asset library that’s heavily used by animators. They can create the main pose, other poses, and morph between each other with ease. Despite the fact that it’s a free tool to use by anybody for any purposes, it attracted enough funding for development.
 Pose library in Blender UI of a girl character from Spring Open Movie

Maya

This is a well-known tool developed by Autodesk and used as the industry standard in the animation studios around the world. While another tool by Autodesk called 3D Studio Max can also do animation, it is mostly used for modeling and static scenes. Maya has brought the animation to the next level with better riggin, and specialized animation tools.
Companies like The Walt Disney Studios, and South Park Studios use Maya to do animation. Developers in the game industry, such as Activision Blizzard (now acquired by Microsoft) use Maya for animating characters for their bestselling titles.
Maya user interface with a showcase character

Cinema 4D

This tool is frequently used for creating 3D special effects, titles and simple animation. It is frequently used along with Adobe After Effects which is an industry standard for 2D animations. You can export animation sequences and layers from AE and bring them to Cinema 4D for building a three-dimensional animated scene. Actually, the fourth dimension (in 4D) is referred to as the time axis, so you can easily create movement in this tool, and it’s right in the name of the tool.

Modo

This is an all-round 3D production tool that lets you do modeling, rigging, and animation. Modo makes working with 3D projects simpler by reducing the number of tools and simplifying the UI. You use simple tools in a combination and create a pipeline of processing.
In Modo, animators can animate almost any object’s properties, like its geometry, placement, scale, etc. What makes it special for animators, you can stack deformers in layers and do morph animation easily. For more complex rigs, there are animation solvers also referred to as inverse kinematics.

Houdini

This tool works in a different way than all other titles in this list. It’s a highly professional tool built around complex simulations that is the power of the tool. The learning curve is quite steep and the user needs to know physics, scripting and other specialized knowledge to use the full potential of this tool.
While other tools introduce keyframe animation, objects and layers, this is a node-based tool where you create dependencies between objects, their properties and simulation systems. Professionals use Houdini to create physical simulations that are impossible to be created in other tools.

3D Animation tips and tricks

These suggestions will help you become a better animator if you already have some experience in this field.

Progress with technology

Animation technologies are being improved constantly in every tool or third-party plugins for animators. Check up on what’s new periodically and use new additions because they can dramatically improve your animation workflow, like a pose library in Blender.

Observe real life

Observing the physical world, noticing little detail on object movement, like how trees move with the wind, will help you create better animations. If you need to animate an animal, watch a documentary or go to the zoo to see how the animal moves and behaves.
There is a technique called rotoscoping when an artist draws animation over the video recording. This way, you can be sure that the natural movement will be transmitted to your animation.

Know the subtleties of human emotion

When it comes to animating characters and faces, everything gets way more complicated. You need to understand human emotions, such as happiness, joy, anger, and many others. Each emotion has a different set of eyebrows and mouth shape, wrinkles, and face muscles. Of course the animation rig should let you animate these nuances, otherwise you’ll not be able to animate the subtle emotions.

Beware of uncanny valley effect

When creating animations, be aware of the uncanny valley effect, it can get the animation viewers chills and an indescribable sense of fear. It happens when you see 3D models look and act like humans but still, your brain can tell that it’s not a real human.
A good example is a game that invited top actors, created super sophisticated rigs for 3D characters in the game and animated them for cut scenes. It wasn’t commercially successful, partially because of the animation being too close to the real actors.
Here is a full book with a scientific approach on this topic:
https://www.routledge.com/The-Uncanny-Valley-in-Games-and-Animation/Tinwell/p/book/9781466586949

Basics first, details later

Animation scenes might become unbearably complex very soon. It’s a good idea to animate everything roughly first. When it’s done and you see where it’s going, can compliment it with smaller movements, like breathing, face emotions, etc. to make it look more fluent.

What 3D animation is used for

Video games

The video games industry is on its rise and lots of people love playing on consoles, mobile devices, and computers. Great animations make players feel a part of the action. Developers spend lots of money on animations and use real actors to record their body movement and facial expressions with motion capture.
Later on, when the game is ready and we play it, we can easily relate ourselves with a nicely animated character, enjoy certain movements like if it were us who is acting in the game.
Character animation in Unreal engine 4.27

Movies and TV

There is a multi-billion market of 3D-animated movies. Some of them are historical, like the Lamp animated short made by Pixar. Some titles revolutionize the genre, like Toy Stories — first animation rigs, Monsters Inc. — fur animation, etc.
These companies use their own software to create animations because even industry standards like Maya frequently can’t work for something that pushes the boundaries of the technology.

Web and VR

3D animations will be the core of the upcoming web 3.0 with Meta verse and other products that use VR or AR technologies. In the current Internet there is a frequent inquiry for animating the elements on the website. There are several frameworks that can be used for animations to work in the browser, such as Babylon.js, Three.js, Unity 3D, and others.
CyberFox and create animations for your online solution and make them play with a web engine.

The benefits of 3D animation

As opposed to actor animation it’s very flexible. You can review, scale, and easily modify it just by placing the camera differently, attaching a new model to the animated rig, or using new render techniques.

Reusable

The animation you created once can be reused multiple times on different characters (if the models are of the same type, e.g., they’re both bipedal/humanoids). You can even modify the rig slightly and animation can be played just fine.
H3 Editable
You can edit and refine animation as deep as you want, there is just no limit to it. Create simple movements if this object won’t be noticeable on the scene, and spend time on the little animation details that’ll make it stand out and make it natural.

Scalable

You can easily animate crowds. Also you can make a cool particle animation which is very hard and expensive to film.

Entertaining

3D animations can be very eye-catching. You can animate a company’s mascot and it’ll be more likely to stick in the memory of viewers. Next time people see your logo or this character, they’ll remember the info you had previously put into their heads with this 3D animation.

The downsides of animation

The downside of 3D Animation is of course the complexity of the animation, but if you order a web 3D solution for your company or a website at CyberFox, you’re fully covered with this complex yet essential task.


16.02.2022
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FAQ
It’s a process of creating a virtual skeleton and binding its bones to an existing model and creating specific handles to operate it. Setting constraints to the rig is also important so that the animator can’t accidentally bend, e.g., the model's arms to the extreme angle. When the rig is complete, an animator can use the rigs to animate the scene.
You can do it for free provided the fact that you use a free app like Blender, not Maya, whose price point is too high for learning the basics. If you order an animation from the studio, the price will vary. Depending on the scene, number of objects you want to have animated and complexity of this animation it may take from a few hours to a week or so. Prices can vary from $200 to $2,000 for animating a relatively simple scene. This cost doesn’t include modeling, rigging, compositing, etc.
It’s a .blnd file that stores the animation sequence. It may include various properties, such as coordinates, etc.
Blender and Maya. Both of these tools work on macOS and Blender is a free tool so you are welcome to download and check it out right now. If you need to animate titles, create SFX and titles for, let’s say, YouTube videos, we can also recommend Cinema 4D.
Yes, creating a flat animation with layers in, e.g., Adobe After Effects is way simpler than creating a complex 3D animation.
It’s captive, it’s technological, and it’s highly engaging, because you can be a part of this animation, like in a video game. Also, you can animate things that are impossible to create or hard or expensive to film.
Of course. It’ll take time depending on your aim and your current knowledge and skills. If you created 2D animation, it’ll be easy for you to grasp. If you are familiar with the UI and concept of 3D tools, such as modeling, rigging, etc. it’s even better! You can learn the 3D animation basics and create a simple animation in one evening.
Yes it is in fact very difficult when it comes to character animation. First, you need to have a model to animate. At the animation studios, there is a special team that creates models, another team rigs and makes handles for animators and the third team of animation experts make the character live. Do you think that companies would hire so many people if it were simple?
It fully depends on the complexity of the animation. A simple animation like a moving cube can literally take a few seconds to make, while meticulous animation of the complex movie character may require months and a few animators working and refining the animation sequence.
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