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Animation isn't just about the sequence of movements that a character performs. Animation infuses a character with personality and emotion. The 3D animators from Plarium Krasnodar would like to share with you some of their secrets about bringing a character magically to life.

Animator on the job

Bringing things to life is what an animator does. Characters shouldn't just move; they must come alive. The best way to achieve that goal is to channel your acting skills into the character’s body. In other words, to animate a goblin, you must become one. No need to go live in a cave—you just need to build up a vivid image of a goblin and transfer it to the character.

Watch the actors in this video and see how their movements are translated into the animated character’s movements:

An animator needs to practice constantly, and practice isn't limited to animation competencies. Movement and mime classes will help improve acting skills, while knowledge of anatomy, biomechanics, and psychology will be handy, too. Of course, artistic skills are a must.

An animator also needs to be a keen observer in order to understand the physics that underpins all kinds of movement. Over time, an animator's brain stores a huge variety of movement patterns. If you notice that the animator you're talking to has suddenly fallen silent and is staring at you intensely, don't be alarmed. Chances are that the animator has noticed something interesting in your facial expression and is now filing it away for future reference.

Animating a character

After we have developed a 3D model and a design spec, it's time to work out just who the characters are. The way they move depends on what they are thinking and feeling, regardless of whether they are a goblin, a seagull, or an ax—or an ax pretending to be a seagull while being chased by a goblin.

Before you embark on character animation, your character has to be well thought out. If it is not, the end result might seem lacking. An animator's work is only 20% creative, but if you fall in love with your characters and understand what makes them tick, the technical part becomes much easier.

After nailing down the character's personality, we proceed to create the actual animation. We rig the model—that is, we provide it with a skeleton that determines how the character's body parts will bend. Then it's skinning time: we attach vertices to the bones.

We select the animation method on the basis of how long and complex the animation will be. If, say, we need a looped animation of breathing, we just need to choose an appropriate pattern out of our vast collection and transfer those movements to the character. Another option is to use a simple shape (a cube, for example) to try out the movements on something basic and later copy the movements to the model.

To create a more complex animation, references are a required source:

  • Video references are movements that we record on camera or take from someone else's footage. In the first scenario, having the skill to act out the movements is very useful. Not only will these reference materials work with realistic animation, but they can also be used to make an exaggerated, cartoonish version if we speed them up by 30%.
  • Montage references are made of bits and pieces of several clips, different takes of the same video, or separate clips entirely. Montage is a reliable solution when we can't find or make a certain sequence of movements. Let’s say the character is going to jump over a hurdle and then run, trip over something, and fall down. It would be very hard to act out the entire sequence, but we can shoot it phase by phase and stitch the phases together to create a whole reference. The main thing to keep in mind is that the beginning and end of each phase have to match the key character poses.

2D planning requires that you draw the character's key poses, which are later transferred to the model. The images don't have to be detailed, but artistic skill, a knowledge of anatomy, and an understanding of proportions are still a must. Drawing the movements by hand helps you convey a vision of the character and makes the character more expressive.

After the animation has been transferred to the 3D model, we pay special attention to animation curves in Graph Editor. The curves must be as smooth as possible to avoid creating "noise" in the movements and to make sure that the poses look good from every angle.

Look how smooth the animation curves are in this video:

Motion capture technology: to use or not to use

Motion capture technology (“mocap”) makes animation incredibly realistic but doesn't work well with mobile games. More often than not, users see characters on the relatively small screen of their smartphone. On such screens, expressiveness is more important than realism.

Motion capture technology can be advantageous under certain circumstances:

  • When you need to quickly create a large number of animations that don’t require high quality.
  • When your project is full of complex cutscenes (noninteractive sequences in a video game, often moving the story line forward) that call for realistic animation. To include micromovements that are impossible to recreate manually, consider hiring professional actors for recording the animation—but be prepared for plenty of takes. Loads and loads of takes!

Mocap also has some limitations and disadvantages:

  • Mocap cannot be used for movements that cannot be performed by an actor. That means that mocap will not help for animations of animals, non-humanoids, or acrobatic feats.
  • The use of low-budget equipment might produce poor recordings, forcing you to clean up the animation. The clean-up will undoubtedly take longer than if you'd done the job the old-school way.

Hard work and thrilling results

Quality animation requires in-depth knowledge and constant practice. The level of concentration required is comparable to that of a conductor of an orchestra: you need to envision the composition as a whole while guiding the individual elements and keeping them in rhythm. It's hard work, but you'll never forget the thrill of bringing something to life.