3D Animation in Practice is More than a Truckload of Work
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Working in animation can be an excellent thing to strive for at a young age, especially after being gripped by various traditional animation movies by Disney and Dreamworks. Gaining insight into how many sheets of paper are used for a feature film, learning about various animation styles from numerous and acclaimed animators can give you a real appreciation as to how your favorite 2D animated movie was made. The same can even be said for 3D animation. Except, with 3D animation, there's a lot more to do than painting a matte background or filling in keyframes or nailing down the art style (although there is certainly a lot of that and them some).

I have an appreciation for animation in videogames, as I have practical insight as to how 3D animation and 3D modelling is done. I'd like to offer you that insight, so as to maybe dispel any romanticized misconceptions that designing videogames--specifically in the animation department--is "easy". I’ve seen and heard of people complain about how they feel certain aspects of the game are subjectively subpar to them without necessarily knowing the process behind said aspects. I’m wanting to offer up my own experiences as a sample to what actual 3D animators have to go up against for every 3D project they do. I’m sure you can extrapolate the parallels.

3D animation has become a typical expectation since videogames could be powered by a 3D engine, and it has moved from janky idle animations to full-blown motion-captured sequences. Even with the aid of motion-capture, animating a character still isn’t quite that easy (though I feel mo-cap has certainly made animating humans a lot easier for authentic and realistic depictions). I used to believe that 3D animating was a thing that was done without a hassle, but it really isn’t.

With 3D animation, the principles of traditional animation still apply, such as "squash and stretch" and "anticipation", but you also have virtual depth, ambient lighting, rigging, modelling and more to drag yourself through. One of the most importantthings that I've learned during my first, and probably last, year of learning 2D and 3D animation is that studying it requires true passion and not just an invested interest, otherwise you may soon lose your drive for it, or possibly being crushed by it.

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During my time studying, my entire class was given a massive live project, which was to design and animate a 3D environment to be projected as a background for a live play of some old stage production about a wife wanting to reclaim the lost body parts of her husband, or whatever. Needless today, the project itself was a collaborative effort between two departments in the college: the animation department and the performing arts department. Similar to how the art team has to talk with the design team in a developer studio, we had to communicate with the other guys about what needed to be done, and what could be done in the time that we were given.

When animating a 3D model, sure you have to build the model from the ground up from 2D drawings and concepts, but--as I’ll say again--there’s more to than that. You’ll have to slave yourself through the better part of a tireless week to make sure your 3D model is sculpted to perfection (and if you pull all that off in a singular week, then good God you’re going places!) You’ll have to create a perfectly anatomically-correct human/humanoid (but that’s of course depending on the art style) with enough polygons to make sure that all the limbs bend the right way. That’s the easy part. The part after that is to then rig it for animation.

You have to rig your model with its own skeleton, making sure that each appendage of the skeleton is respective of each appendage of the model you’re animating. Once you’ve done that, you have to tie each the appendages of both the rig and the model together, so that when you move one it’ll move the other and vise versa. Then you have to make sure that the model doesn’t contort or disfigure whenever you move the rig, so that it bends smoothly and flawlessly and so that it doesn’t clip into itself. Then you have everything else to worry about after that: lip-syncing, facial expressions, eye movement, subtleties and all that jazz. Luckily, I didn’t have to go through that advanced part during the first year of the course I was studying, but you can image it still being a right pain in the neck to do regardless.

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By the end of it all, your 3D model is as perfect as you can make it in the allotted time that you are given. You notice that there’s still a fair few minor things that need to be fixed, but now you need to hurry on up with the rest of the project--to keep the schedule on time. Now you need to painstakingly make sure that the sequence you animated is the best you can make of it, ensuring that each movement is as authentic as its real-life counterpart as possible under the conditions it is contextualized in.

Is it always perfect? No, because you have to work within the constraints of the hardware your animation will later be played on. Is there anything you could’ve done to make the animation better? Probably. Are you proud of what the end result is? Of course you are, because you’ve just spent the last two years or so contributing to this title with your top-notch animation skills!

No doubt animation in videogames will become much more authentic to the real thing as technology and developing methods improve, and if you’d like to get in on the action, you’d have to have a creative drive for both art and design, be it in traditional or digital mediums. It’s better you have a real passion for the subject instead of a passing interest, but don’t let that dissuade you from trying it out for yourself anyway. I didn’t have all that much fun with the subject, but who’s to say you won’t?

Kieran Mackintosh
Kieran Mackintosh
@KingSongbird

Contributing Writer
Date: 05/09/2014

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