Welcome to the world of 3D animation! A huge forest with so many paths it is incredibly easy to get lost in the middle of it. But fear not adventurer, for today we will give you a headstart to get on the right path!
Where do I even start?
The first and most haunting question of all is generally where most of us get stuck at, so first things first. 3D Animation as a whole is a tree with many branches: modelling, texturing, rigging, animation, rendering, compositing, you name it. It is extremely easy to get lost in the process by doing too much of any of those things. In order to keep things simple for today, we will only be focusing on 3D Animation software and tools.
Many people I know (myself included) spend weeks or even months just investigating on the internet which 3D software should be getting, which is the easiest to learn, fastest to work with, overall best, industry standard, etc.
My one answer to this question is this: it doesn’t matter!
Don’t get me wrong, there are some advantages some have over others, Maya is generally used by big companies, Blender is a completely free software, Cinema 4D is said by many to be the easiest one to learn, so on and so forth.
But at the end of the day they all have the same essential tools: a 3D Viewport, a timeline, a graph/curve editor and a properties window. Their keyboard shortcuts will differ, but these tools are always there (just in different places). What you learn in one software will most of the time transfer to another. The potential of what you can do with each software is only limited by your imagination.
So unless you’re at a school that teaches you any specific program and want to learn on your own by relying on the internet, there isn’t really a definite answer.
With all of that being said, I personally started this journey with Blender since it was a trending topic when I was getting into this journey (plus being free and easy to obtain); and have been migrating to Maya and Cinema 4D in my spare time, each software has a completely different layout but knowing beforehand what I need in order to do animation and just locating each specific tool or it’s equivalent from blender is way easier than you’d think. This basics guide will mainly show how to do things in blender but it applies to whichever 3D software you decide to pick. The main goal here is to get started and practicing as soon as possible, everything else will come along with time.
1.-First things first: The Viewport (/layout?)
Regardless of the software you chose, it is important first and foremost to get familiar with it’s layout and where your tools are. I know Maya specifically is daunting at first but trust me, it’s still all the same.
As you can see in the examples above, the main animation tools you will need are on the left side of the screen, the timeline on the bottom, and the properties tab on the right, this is of course customizable in each software.
Before even opening a file I advise you to just navigate here for a couple minutes until you’re comfortable with a 3D scene. In blender you need a 3 button mouse, and combining “ctrl” and “shift” with the middle wheel will let you zoom and pan around the scene, using the middle button alone allows you to rotate your view in the 3D space.
By default a newly opened blender file will always look like this, but we can change the layout to fit our needs based on whatever task we will be doing.
The animation layout will organize things in an efficient standard way to work, but you can create and save new ones based on your preferences.
On a fundamental level, 3D animation is taking virtual objects and moving them around as if they were in real life. There are 3 dimensions/axis here and each is independent to one another, objects can move, rotate or even be scaled in any axis as we see fit.
4.- Our timeline and graph editor
Basics of the timeline
In 3D software we organize our keyframes in a window called timeline and it’s generally at the bottom of the screen. Here we insert those keyframes to tell the software where we want it to save information of an object’s rotation, location, and scale. In 3D Animation, you can insert keyframes separated by as many frames as you want, and the software will automatically create all the frames in between automatically.
Inserting keyframes and autokeying
In Blender you just hit the letter “I” with the object to animate selected, and choose what kind of keyframe you want to be inserted, it could be either location, rotation, scale, or a mix of them. The frames in between are animated automatically. If you don’t want to constantly be doing this, you can use an option called autokeying, which will insert frames everytime you change any of the above mention attributes of the object. This lets you just move objects or make poses without worrying about setting the keyframe after each change you make (if you don’t have this enabled and forget to insert a keyframe everytime you move, rotate or scale your object, those changes won’t be saved)
5.- Making a ball bounce in Blender
Here is a file to get you started with a simple (but effective) exercise to learn how to use the timeline and graph editor: the ball bounce!
As you can see, the first frame is already set for you to start playing with it! In order to make a simple bounce, you need to scroll in the timeline before the blue marker towards the frame you want the ball to hit the ground at, then just drag downwards the ball by clicking and holding on to the Z axis controller. Since autokeying is already on, blender will save the keyframe and do the inbetweens by itself.
From here onwards we can just move the slider in the timeline a couple frames and adjusting again the height of the ball, making it lose momentum little by little until it stops bouncing.
Now you might be tempted to hit the little play button at the bottom of your screen and realize that it looks… odd.
If your animation looks like this do not worry for there is a reason behind it, it is totally normal. The reason for this motion to look so weird, is that our 3D software interpolated the motion between your set keyframes automatically, this by default makes the motion ease in and out of each keyframe. For this to look right we are going to work with the tool mentioned previously: the graph editor.
As you may have noticed each window in blender has on it’s top left corner this icon, it represents what you see in the window, and by clicking it we are able to change any window we want into another one. We are going to choose the graph editor from the pop-up menu we get, in order to get a visual representation of the motion we get.
Do not be scared as this is a far less complicated tool as it may seem at first. These graphs are here to show us how much the values of each attribute of the ball change. The black dots you see along the curves are the keyframes we previously inserted, and they can be moved, rotated and scaled just like any other object in the viewport, and so can the pair of handles that come with them.
If you get lost in it, selecting the curves you want to focus on and hitting “.” On your keyboard will center your graph editor to what you have selected, if you want to select all curves just press A. You can also click on the small arrow on the left of your graph editor to see all the attributes you’re using, and by clicking on the eye icons of each you can filter those you don’t want to see here (for example, rotation and scale in this moment).
Here we can see how the Z (height) value of our ball eases in each time it goes to it’s lower point, which is not how balls bounce off the ground in real life. In order for us to edit these curves properly, we select the black dots in the graph editor (our keyframes), and press “S” to scale them, they can also be rotated and moved from here by using the shortcuts “R” and “G” respectively.
To achieve a more realistic ball bounce, scale up the upper keyframes in the curve, and/or scale down the lower ones; this will make it so that the ball eases in and out of it’s peak height, and immediately bounces back from it’s bottom point.
A little extra homework
If you noticed, keyframes were inserted on the green (Y) and red (X) curves too, if you drag-select them, then hit X you can delete them, and create a curve to make the ball move however you want in these axis too. Here I just moved out ball in the X axis, rotated the first keyframe of the dopesheet, and scaled the last one; try giving this a shot too!
Rendering is the process through which 3D software converts what virtual cameras inside it capture, into a sequence of pictures or video format. For many reasons it is typically set to render individual images which we then compile together to make a video in video editing programs; since this is a short and simple animations, just this once we will render it straight as a video.
This process DOES vary a lot within each software. In blender it’s relatively simple, you can just head to the render tab in the up left corner, and choose “render animation”; but if you do this alone it will not be saved properly.
Remember how earlier we mentioned the properties window? Here is where we setup most of the things of pretty much any object in our blender file. All of the icons in this tab represent a certain type of property (if you hover over them their names will appear). To tweak how we want to render our animation, head to the Output properties tab, and here we can set the resolution of the video, as well as the frame start and frame rate of the video. I suggest changing the frame end to the last frame you inserted a keyframe at.
Now under Output, we can click on the folder shown here to select where we want the render to be saved, and in file format we change it from “PNG” to “FFmpeg video”. As you can see there is a new tab under the color settings, called encoding, for now you only need to make sure your container is MPEG-4.
NOW you can go to the render menu and render your animation! Just like that. Like it? love it? feel free to share your animation with us at anim8.io or in the discord server, these are the first of many steps to get you started in 3D animation, welcome to the journey!