What is 3D Animation? A Beginner’s Guide
10 May 2021
10 May 2021
From our favorite Disney movies to our favorite video games, 3D animation is present in most things we watch and enjoy. Technology continues to improve, and our graphics get livelier, sharper, cooler.
The entertainment industry is not the only consumer of 3D animation, though. The latter is widely used in education, medicine, architecture, and of course, advertising. From all the various animation styles, 3D is by far the most demanded one, especially by younger generations.
It’s easy to see why people love 3D animations: They’re super exciting, engaging, and a great communicator. It’s no surprise so many businesses rely on them for brand storytelling, building a friendly image, and attracting more customers.
Today, we’re going to uncover 3D animation, how it’s made, some tips and tricks, what 3D animation software to use, and how to create your animation online even if you’re not a pro animator.
Ready? Let’s get started!
3D animation is the process of placing objects and characters in a 3D space and manipulating them to create the illusion of motion. The objects are made based on 3D models assimilated in a digital environment with 3D modeling tools. Alternatively, real-life objects can be scanned into a computer and become blueprints for 3D animated objects.
The goal of 3D animators is to move objects and characters in a given scene as realistically as possible. You can create the perfect cartoon character, but if its movements are uneven, robotic, or awkward, all your hard work will go down the drain. That’s why animators spend quite some time studying the basic principles of motion to make their animations believable.
Did you notice how fluid and lifelike the 3D characters’ each movement was in the example above? Even though the story takes place in an animated world, the latter is still consistent with the physics of our world — well, for the most part.
We hear you; the names themselves give away the difference between 3D and 2D animation, but let us expand just a bit more on this subject to show the difference in the creation processes.
2D animation is flat as it’s based on a two-dimensional plane with x and y axes. Think of Pinocchio, the original Aladdin and The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Rick and Morty — we could go on forever. With the help of an additional axis, 3D adds a perception of depth to animations, making them more realistic.
2D animation achieves motion through the rapid succession of 2D scenes, each slightly different from the last. 3D animation is done by building 3D models and maneuvering them in a three-dimensional setting. The addition of a third axis gives way more room to move and arrange objects in a scene, making character animation more flexible.
Now, onto the more practical part — how does 3D animation work? The pre-production is not too far from that of 2D animation. It starts with developing a storyline and a storyboard, sketching the 3D characters, setting up the backgrounds, and laying the foundation for the production process.
The full animation process is pretty complex and nuanced, but here are the main phases of 3D animation.
Before we can have a functioning scene with character interactions, we first need to build our 3D characters. Characters are based on 3D computer models, and their creation is called 3D modeling. A basic 3D model is a mesh of points, lines, and curves arranged in a way to map out an object. A computer sees models as pure geometric shapes. It’s not until colors and textures are added that the map starts to resemble a real object.
Much like humans and animals, a character needs a controllable skeleton to be able to move. Rigging is the process of producing that skeleton. Once the skeleton is formed, the 3D model (also called skin) is attached to the rig to get the character ready to be moved around.
When the 3D characters are all set, it’s time for character animation — i.e., putting characters in their respective scenes and animating their movements with 3D animation software. As you’ll see in the video below, the first stages of the animation process are quite rough; movements and transitions are sharp and unnatural.
Such a rough first draft is produced because animators first create only the starting and ending poses of any motion. These poses are known as keyframes. The lighting, camerawork (picking the angles and depth of a shot), effects, and other details are added much later to achieve the final, smooth animation that we see on our screens.
The last part of the animation production process is rendering. This is when the animation is finalized and exported. This step requires great attention to detail to ensure the final render is perfectly polished.
Here, the main production process ends and is followed by post-production, where special effects, music, voice-over, and sound effects are added and synchronized with the whole animation.
The variety of 3D animation software can seem overwhelming, but your current skill set will help to narrow down your choices. If you’re just getting started with 3D animation, look for beginner-friendly programs and upgrade your software once you’re truly ready. Most tools offer free trials, so take full advantage of those before choosing 3D animation software to commit to.
Specifying your animation needs is another critical step to picking the right animation software. What features are you looking for? Do you need epic visual effects, real-time rendering, motion capture, a tool specialized in human models, or one for product design?
To ease your search for a suitable program, we have gathered a list of the best 3D animation software tools. Check them out below:
While it is true that 3D animation can be a laborious process, there are a bunch of tips and tricks to make the workflow a lot smoother. Of course, your work process will naturally become quicker and more productive the more experience you get, but here are some 3D animation tips to help you make the most of your efforts.
Technology evolves; there are constant updates, new computer software, improved features, and it can be hard to keep up at times. But if you’re determined to stay up to speed with your field, you need to grow with technology.
3D animation software has advanced a lot, and the right tools can save you time to work on more projects. Be sure to pick 3D animation software that corresponds with your level of mastery. You never want to go for fancy, complex systems you won’t be able to use proficiently.
Once you pick your 3D animation software, you really need to make it yours. Familiarize yourself with the program, learn the shortcuts, tailor the tool to you, so it best supports your workflow.
As a 3D animator, you’ll come to notice that the more time passes, the more of an observer you become. After all, your goal is to make your 3D characters and objects as realistic as possible. And the best way to imitate real life is to know how it functions.
Observe and study the physics of everyday life. This doesn’t mean, though, you should pursue a physics diploma. Just doing some research and understanding the effects of gravity will do the job. Basic knowledge of gravity will help you give reasonable weight to your objects and make their movements more convincing.
It’s always useful to have a real-life reference before you start working on your animations. Want to animate a jump? Get up from your desk and perform the action yourself! How do you gain momentum before taking the jump? How do you land? Where do you keep your arms? Motion capture can go a long way in 3D character animation.
If your animation includes 3D characters and complicated interactions between them, you’ll need to spend a good chunk of your time working on facial animation. Knowing how to portray complex emotions is key to transforming a good animation into a great one.
It’s difficult to connect to an animated character unless it expresses human-like feelings. Learn how to mimic facial expressions and what emotion each of them is tied to if you want to master facial animation. Your observation skills will again come in handy here. Watch how people communicate, how they react to their environment, and how they convey certain emotions.
You can grab a mirror and study your own expressions if you’d like. Whatever approach you choose, remember that facial animation gives your character a personality, making it much more relatable.
It’s easy to get lost in the animation process and start picking at details, losing track of the bigger picture. It can save you a lot of time and frustration if you smartly arrange your priorities — basics first, details later.
Focus on your key poses first, as those are imperative to move the storyline forward. You can always come back and fill in the details later, but first, make sure you have your keyframes nailed down. Not only will this allow you to keep track of timing, but it will also help to focus on your characters’ main motives instead of getting distracted by trivial details.
Our next tip is not for the animation process itself, but 3D animators will certainly benefit from it. Whether you’re applying for a job, project, or contest, the way you present yourself speaks volumes about your professionalism.
An animator’s demo reel is the best medium to introduce yourself and your work. In short, a demo reel is a compilation of clips that present your best works and skills to clients or employers. Your demo reel doesn’t need to be very long, but it does need to be polished. Aside from sending it to potential employers, you can also share it on social media to increase your personal brand’s visibility.
If you don’t want to take on mastering 3D animation software, there’s a simpler way to create 3D animations. Our online video maker provides tools to help you make cartoons, educational videos, explainers, product promos, or anything else you wish to create.
The video editor is user-friendly and easy to work with, even if you have no experience with animation. A great choice for creating 3D animations is our popular 3D Explainer Video Toolkit. It offers ready-to-go 3D characters and animated backgrounds that you can customize with your content.
All that’s left to do is pick the scenes that suit your video script, arrange them in your preferred order, and add your images, videos, and text.
The color palette, transitions between scenes, as well as music can be altered to meet your animation needs. You can add voice-over to your project if it needs narration. Feel free to upload a ready-made audio file or record your voice-over on the spot with our built-in tool.
Once your beautiful animation is done, preview the project to make sure you’re fully satisfied with the outcome. If you find your video needs a little more refining, go back and re-edit it as many times as you wish. All done? Export your video animation in your chosen quality and download it in an instant.
3D animation has taken over more aspects of our lives than we often imagine. It’s a key player in filmmaking, game development, social media, medicine, engineering, architecture, and the list goes on. As 3D animation software steadily progresses, the gap between animation and the real world seems to grow smaller.
Unlike 2D animation, 3D takes place in a three-dimensional environment — hence the name. This article discussed the main process of 3D production, its difference from 2D animation, 3D animation tips, the best animation tools to use, and their online alternative to get your animated videos ready in minutes.
We hope this post was useful to you in some way. Keep creating awesome animations!
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