Breathing Life Into Your 3D Character
By Mike Petrik – Art Director
SolidLine Media
3D character animation is in many ways similar to traditional 2D character animation. They follow the same exact basic principles of animation, as learned in my previous post here. They also share the similarity of detail over form, aka the only way to do character animation. What this means is that, before you start animating a character, you must plan out exactly what you want your character to do. Stage your character in the scene, key the main form movements in, and then add in the detail animation over the form. Example, animate the character moving from left to right first, then once that is ready, add in the hair animation over that.

In 3D animation, we have the luxury of having everything available to us to animate and make changes on the fly. If one part of your character animation is not really working out, you can go ahead and change just that part, without having to go back and re-draw a bunch of frames like you would in 2D animation.

For each SolidLine Media production that requires a 3D character animation, I perform a number of tasks in a very specific order. I have broken down each one for you in order to provide you with a clear understanding on how to ‘breath life’ into your character.

Your Characters Voice

Voice selection is very important to the character. It will define who the character is. How the character will move. Is your character a chubby chef type of dude? Then find that voice that best suits him. At SolidLine Media, this is a very important process, and everyone from the client to the animators gets involved. We will send out an audition with a sketch of the character to voice talent sites such as www.voice123.com. We collect all of the responses, pick out our favorites, and then forward those auditions on to the clients. From there, it’s narrowed down, and the voice of your character is selected. As the animator, you must support the voice selected, because you are the one who is going to be listening to it for the next several weeks.

Main Body Movement and Rotation

Once you have planned out your characters moves and acted them out over and over again, it’s time to set that first key frame. I always begin with the characters main body form position and rotation animation. Carefully breaking down the voice characteristics, I think about how I would move if I were the one saying the lines. Then I just exaggerate them. If you can watch the scene of your character moving with just the body, no arms or hands, eyes or facial animation, and can still read the scene, you have done your job.

Head and Neck Movement and Rotation

Next in line is the head and neck animation. Depending on what emotions your character is feeling, the head will move a certain way. Think about it. If you are sad, you hang your head low.

Arms and Legs

Pretty self explanatory. I usually move onto the arms and legs animation next. Depending on the character, the scene, or how I am feeling at the time, I will pick one to do over the other. Again, act it out before you do anything. How are you moving your arms? Are you flinging them over your head in excitement? Exaggerate your movements. The arms are tricky, because they are a main form of their own, yet are smaller details on the form of the body. How do they react with the movement of the body? If your character falls down and lands flat on the floor, how will the arms react to the movement?

If your character has legs, that’s a whole new ball of wax. Having legs means that most likely your character will be walking or standing, and needs to behave with the forces of weight and gravity in a believable way. Having a flying character frees you up from dealing with these issues. Likewise, in the case of SolidLine, your character will be on screen with text or video, so if the character flies, it will be much easier to control the scene. But if you can accomplish having a character walking around your corporate video, you will hit a home run out of the park.

Fingers

The arm animation is in place, so it is time to move on to the fingers. For whatever reason, finger animation is generally neglected in popular character animation. Yet, I feel it is extremely important to getting your characters emotions across. Again, act it out, and you will begin to discover all of the amazing things you can have your character do with their fingers.

Eyes and Eyebrows

If you are able to convey the emotion of your character through body gesture and movement, then adding the eyes and eyebrow animation will add that extra level of believability to the character. A lot of folks rely on the eyes to convey the emotion, which works well with live actors, but in animation, you must rely on the characters weight, gesture and movement.

Mouth

Same story goes for the mouth animation. Having a mouth is like an added bonus to your character animation. Once everything else is done, then move onto the mouth. In 3D animation, the 3D modeler sets up a number of morph targets, or phonemes, with which the animator can call up at any point. The big advantage of this is not only ease of use, but the opportunity to combine different phoneme targets in order to get the best result for your character. Here’s an example. Let’s say your character has the line, “My glass of milk fell off the table.” If the character is feeling indifferent about it, you can just go with the standard phoneme targets with little variation. But if the character is sad about it, you must animate accordingly. A frowny face would help. Or, if they are excited and happy about the glass of milk falling off the table, how about a big teethy smile when they say the line.

The Details

This is the point when you move onto your secondary animations. The character is set. Now it’s time to go ahead and move back to the beginning of your animation, and start animating that hair. Or dress. Or tail. Or hat. Or whatever secondary detail animation that may be attached to your character. Are they holding onto a balloon on a string in the scene? Great! Save that for last.

Here are some characters that I have worked on, using these same exact steps.

You can contact Mike Petrik at mpetrik@solidlinemedia.com
To learn more about SolidLine Media, visit us online at www.solidlinemedia.com. Or call 312-939-8600.
Copyright 2009 SolidLine Media, a division of KV Media Group, Inc.

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