We’ve all seen 3D animation in features, video games, advertisements and television series. It is an artform that has its origins in experimentation during the 1960s but didn’t become mainstream until the 1995 classic Toy Story. Now 3D animation is a ubiquitous and ever-expanding genre that is highly competitive to get into. If you want to make it your career the first question you will ask is how do you make 3D animation and where do you start?
How to make 3D animation
The 3D animation process is complex and involves a number of stages that mirror filmmaking in its early and later stages.
Stages of 3D Animation:
Rigging & skinning
Compositing & VFX
Music & foley
Let’s take a closer look at these steps to give an overview of what’s involved.
The concept is the original idea or storyline of the piece. Companies such as Pixar will spend up to two years getting the script right before any sketches are even hand drawn up. This has been the secret to their success as they work to perfect the story before starting production. Unlike live-action filmmaking, any changes to the narrative made during the animation process would blow the budget and throw the project into chaos.
Once the script is finalized it is pre-visualized via a storyboard. Each scene is sketched out showing character action, shot selection, the sequence of action and cinematic direction. It is an important blueprint which guides the production process.
Storyboard from Toy Story. Credit: Disney/Pixar
3. 3D Modeling
Modeling is the construction of objects and characters via mathematical representation of all its elements. Rudimentary compositions of primitive shapes such as cubes, spheres or planes are created using vertices (points in virtual space) to form a mesh. These points are mapped onto a 3D grid and rendered into 3 dimensional objects.
Once the 3D object has been created it undergoes texturing, which is the outer layer finish of the object. This could include skin, clothing or hair for a character; a metal finish for a car or machine; brickwork for a house or building; fur for an animal, etc. In a studio environment teams of texture artists focus on this stage of the process.
5. Rigging and skinning
Rigging is constructing the muscular skeletal basis of your animation. Character rigs allow the joints and moving parts of the object that will allow it to move in a believable way. Riggers create these working skeletons on 3D animation productions.
The next step is skinning which is smoothing out these joints, think of this as providing the skin which covers the mechanics underneath the object.
Maya offers tutorials on rigging & skinning 3D characters as well as other how-to videos on the Maya Learning Channel.
Now that you have built your 3d character or object from scratch you can animate them through a sequence of movements or through a scene. This is where the full storyboard is animated to realize the script.
Rendering, or image synthesis, is the process of generating the 3D animation via a graphics processing unit (GPU). This is done by inputting the render equation into the software which will output a complete animated sequence. During this process elements such as shading, texture mapping, shadows, reflection, translucency, depth of field, motion blur, etc can be formulated into the sequence.
8. Compositing & VFX
Multiple render passes will need to be combined to produce the final animation, this is called compositing. It is a process of refining elements such as lighting, shading, colors, etc which involves adding layers to a single image or series of images.
Visual effects are added in much the same way as compositing. The illusions and visual tricks that enhance the scenes and characters are added as separate renders and layered onto the existing animation using a compositing program.
9. Music & foley
All the sound elements of animation are created in a sound studio. This includes the recording of the score, all the musical elements and flourishes required for the animation. The music is timed to accompany and complement the visuals.
Foley is the production of all the sound effects required for the piece. Once these audio elements are finalized they undergo a sound edit and mix to sync with the action.
Even though animation is strictly storyboarded it does need an edit to time out the sequences, cut to the scenes and final sound edit.
11. Final output
Once all the elements have been animated, rendered and refined it is time for the final render. When production is complete and the final polishes are in the can the render button is pushed and there is no turning back! Animation completed!
Pixar's classic animated short For the Birds was a simple story told well. Credit: Pixar
How to start your career as a 3D animator
This is the process for how to make 3D animation on a large-scale production. If it sounds like something you’d love to be a part of you can start working on your own small animations. You are in charge of a mini version of this process.
Write out your script. Who are your characters? What is your storyline? It could just be a small scene or scenario. Practice storytelling through visuals, sound, character and sound.
There are a range of 3D animation platforms on the market, with Maya being the industry standard. You can start by self-learning with your own experiments in 3D animation, however navigating your way through the complexities of the genre can be daunting as you push yourself to produce more sophisticated work. To take your skills to expert levels and build a professional portfolio you will need formal training and guidance. That is where CG Spectrum's courses can help launch your career.
Trace how Pixar has changed 3D technologies with each of its titles. View part 2 here.
Ready to make your own 3D animation from scratch?
At CG Spectrum we offer a comprehensive 3D animation course that will guide you through the production process and equip you with the skills to land yourself a job in the industry. Taught by professional animators who will act as mentors during the course, you will be trained in the basics of animation, how to set up workflows, and build a professional portfolio of your own work.
Anyone can learn how to make 3D animation on their own by studying the principles of animation and downloading 3D animation software from the net. If you want to make it your career consider the valuable guidance that experts in the field can impart to you. It is an invaluable investment in your future as a 3D animator.