The Exciting, Cumbersome and Mathematical Process of 3D Animation

For as long as I can remember, I have been creating art. If I could find a quiet space with my pencils, erasers and sketchpad, I was good to go. Sometimes I would add colored pencils or paint to the mix. OK, not paints. I didn’t like painting at all. It was too messy, and I was too impatient to develop it into a skill. That’s why I started doing more art on the computer. There was more direct control, up to 100 undos if I made a giant mistake and, most of all, no mess to clean up.

Things were relatively simple then: come up with an idea and execute it using Photoshop or a traditional medium. But then I found animation. I loved animation — I grew up on Disney movies and Pixar animations — and always knew it was something I could do. But with animation comes complication. Just take a look at the 13-step process in this infographic from Veetil.

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Animation requires artists to wear many hats — part character artist, part set designer, part director, part special effects coordinator and part gaffer. Not only do artists set up a scene artistically using 3D modeling and illustration, but they also have to make it move and move in a realistic and not-at-all-awkward way. Accomplishing that requires a few distinct steps:

  1. Use references to figure out how a thing moves
  2. Keyframe the thing in a scene (prepare the animation)
  3. Render out the scene (save every frame into a movie file)
  4. Review the movement of the thing. If it’s good, move on. If not, repeat the steps.

But wait, there’s more! The biggest adjustment I had to make as an animator was not the keyframes, the references or the scene rigging, but the math. Yes, the math.

Look at the production process section of the infographic, where the images are all geometric and grid-like. It’s an accurate representation of animation. Everything you do requires some level of math.

Sometimes it’s simple arithmetic, but other times you wish you had paid more attention in algebra and geometry classes. For instance, in my first animation, I found myself using the Pythagorean theorem to measure the length of a diagonal arch in a vaulted ceiling. I’ve gone from artist to mathematician. Instead of getting out my colored pencils and sketchpad, I’m calculating the area under the curve when I want an object to speed up or slow down a certain way.

Still, I find animation compelling, challenging and just plain fun. The motion graphics industry is on the rise, and there are always new skill sets to learn and add to your repertoire. Every day presents a new challenge, and I get to use my creativity to come up with the best solution for the client.

On the other hand, you start to look at the world in a very different way as an animator. You’ll find yourself obsessing about seemingly ridiculous things. “How does an egg yolk fall once the shell is cracked open?” “How does a hose sway when it’s being pulled?” These are the things that keep animators up at night.

So remember, if your agency’s animator is pulling his hair out, it’s probably not because of you or the client. It’s because he just can’t get that thing to look right when it moves.

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