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Basics of 3D Animation

3D Character Animation
3D Character Animation
Following on from our previous articles on the basics of 3D Modelling, the basics of 3D lighting and 3D materials and textures we now continue on to look at the basics of 3D Animation.

Computer animation is essentially a digital successor to the stop motion techniques used in traditional animation with 3D models and frame-by-frame animation of 2D illustrations. 3D animations are more controllable than other more physically based processes, such as constructing miniatures for effects shots or hiring extras for crowd scenes, and because it allows the creation of images that would not be feasible using any other technology. It can also allow a single graphic artist to produce such content without the use of actors, expensive set pieces, or props.
Creation of 3D character animation is a very complicated process which consists of four separate steps:
  • Modelling the character
  • Rigging the character
  • Skinning the character
  • Animating the character

Modelling the character

Views of a 3D Character Model
Views of a 3D Character Model
A character, especially a realistic one is one of the most challenging subjects to model believably. If a character is going to be animated, the task is even more challenging. When creating 3D models which are going to be deformed (such as a human hand), one must be extra careful when defining the structure of the surface. The structure (orientation and type of polygons) of the 3D model defines how well it is suited for an animation.

Rigging the character

Character rigging
Character rigging
Character rigging means a process of creating the bone structure for a character. The bone structure is a set of helper objects that correspond to bones in real life. The bones (helper objects) will be animated and the character will move and deform accordingly. Bones itself won't show in the final rendered image.

Skinning the character

Skinning a 3D Character Model
Skinning a 3D Character Model
Character skinning means the process of defining how exactly the character responds to the movement of the bones. In the skinning process one goes through all the joints in the bone structure and carefully adjusts how the 3D model deforms while a certain bone is moving. As an addition to bones there are also other special tools and modifiers designed to help in character animation. For example facial animation is often carried out by morphing the face between several predefined states.

Animating the character

Animation
Animation
The last step in character animation is the animating itself. Animating requires a lot of skill and practice. An animator should understand at least the basics of character movement such as the concept of anticipation. Character animation process can be fluid when rigging and skinning are done with care. 

For 3D animations, objects are modelled and 3D figures are rigged with a virtual skeleton. Then the limbs, eyes, mouth, clothes, etc. of the figure are moved by the animator on key frames. The differences in appearance between key frames are automatically calculated by the computer in a process known as tweening or morphing. Finally, the animation is rendered.
For 3D animations, all frames must be rendered after the modelling is complete. For pre-recorded presentations, the rendered frames are transferred to a different format or medium, such as film or digital video. The frames may also be rendered in real time as they are presented to the end-user audience.
Next up in the 3D Modelling and Animation series is the final stage, 3D Rendering.