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Top 20 3D Animation Techniques Freelance Animators Swear by

“For as long as humans have crawled upon the surface of the earth we have held a fascinated with art and motion.”

Rob Redman, Animator, and Creative Editor

3D animation has taken the animation industry by storm in recent years. The rising popularity of animated television shows, video games, and feature-length films has ensured no shortage of demand for 3D animators of all skill levels.

This is also a popular medium for films because, with the right preparation, 3D animation can be quick to create and it has a wide variety of uses ranging from film and television to games and even marketing campaigns. 

But keeping up with demand and making sure you provide the best service to your animation clients can be tough. For this reason, you need to be in the know of important 3D animation techniques to improve your production time and the quality of your animations. 

In this blog, we’ll go over some of the most important 3D animation techniques you can implement to speed up your animation process and ensure that you consistently produce high-quality animations.

3D Animation Techniques To Learn To Improve Your Production Time

There are countless 3D animation techniques – some basic, others more advanced – and a few that you can implement to help speed up your production time exponentially.

These include motion-capture animation, inverse kinematics, and rigging. Let’s take a look a look at these techniques to see how they can help you save time animating. 

  • Motion-Capture Animation
motion capture animation is a 3d animation technique thatll help with movement

GIF via Conical

Real-time animation, also referred to as live animation or real-time performance capture, is the process of using a motion capture (mocap) system to puppet a 3D character live and in real-time. 

Mocap technology helps make the movements of characters as realistic as possible, and it enables 3D animators to stage any scene. It can be used for previsualization, so a director can preview an animation while the mocap actor is performing.

Mocap is used to record the movements of an actor (human or animal) for character animation, and it can sometimes be used as a reference for further manual character animation. 

The main advantage of using mocap is that 3D animators can immediately correct the weight and timing of the character without any repercussions for any other stages in the production pipeline. Changes that might have taken weeks with a traditional pipeline can occur in minutes or hours.

The performance capture capabilities of real-time animation software such as Adobe Character Animator drastically speed up the process of scripted character animation. 

As a 3D animator, you can now tell stories that you might have assumed were out of the scope of your budget because of rendering time

In addition, engines like Unreal Engine 4 make it easier and faster to work on a mockup because they help with pre-rendering and allow you to see the whole scene at once. 

  • Rigging
3d animation techniques of rigging can help reduce animation time

GIF via Autodesk

Creating a character rig is the most important 3D animation technique in the production pipeline. Achieving smooth and complex 3D animations is entirely dependent on the quality of the rigging phase in the animation pipeline.

3D animation rigging allows animators to limit the movement of their characters to be more realistic. This 3D animation technique also simplifies the animation process and improves production efficiency since rigged characters and objects can be controlled and distorted as needed.

The advantage of animation rigging is that it grants animators easy control over the movements and deformation of the model, making it relatively simple to animate a character. Although there is a disadvantage in the fact that complex projects can take a very long time to rig, it ultimately saves time because of the control it offers animators later down the production line.

By spending the time and effort to perfect the animation rig early on in the production process, riggers cut down on the number of problems that might pop up when animators start to flesh out characters. 

  • Inverse Kinematics
reverse kinematics is a 3d animation technique that can help animation time

Image via GitHub

Inverse kinematics is often used in rigging, and this 3D animation technique mimics the motion of skeleton joints to give the subject an illusion of natural body movement. 

This allows 3D animators to make their characters move automatically, as long as they prepare the bone chain properly. This 3D animation technique allows animators to simplify their animation process and create advanced animations with less effort.

This is an animation technique that aims to find a set of joint configurations that would provide the softest, fastest, and most accurate movement to the given points. It is most often used to work out the movements of the arms and legs of characters and is applied to models of any characters or objects created using skeletal animation.

Using inverse kinematics, 3D animators can achieve realistic movement by positioning the last bone in the bone chain where it needs to be. This will make the other bones position themselves automatically.

Watch this video to understand more about inverse kinematics.

Other Techniques to Improve Your Production Time

Besides 3D animation techniques used to create animations and speed up the production time., there are also other things you can do outside of the animation process to help save you time. 

Sometimes the thing slowing down your production time isn’t as obvious so you don’t know where to start with a solution. In this case, it might be best to take the time to observe your daily and weekly activities to figure out what’s slowing you down. 

The issue can range from poor schedule planning to the work itself taking too long. 

Let’s go over some techniques you can use in your daily routine to help speed up your production time:

  • Plan Ahead
you have to plan ahead as a 3d animator

Image by BluBlu Studios via Behance

Planning is a crucial 3D animation technique you need to adopt to help save you time. 

Before you begin any shot, it’s important to study references, work out your thumbnails, and make your timing and acting decisions on paper. While this may seem like an extra and unnecessary step, it will save you time in the long run, and your 3D animations will be of a higher quality because of it.

Planning your projects can ultimately save you time and frustration later. Starting a project is much easier when you already have an idea of what you will be doing.

  • Take Breaks
you have to take a break every once in a while as a 3d animator

GIF by Kue Ching via Dribble

When deadlines become overwhelming, we often forget about ourselves and neglect to take much-needed breaks to reset our minds. Not taking breaks can cause a lot of mental and physical stress to your mind and body. 

This can cause fatigue which might make you miss out on important details or hurt the quality of your animation work which will all the more slow down your animation process. If you take more breaks, it will improve the quality of your animation as well as your happiness. 

  • Use A Good Quality Rig
using a good quality rig will help speed up animation time

Image via Concept Art Empire

Using a quality rig is necessary to optimize your 3D animation production pipeline. It helps you to be more creative and free when animating while also helping you to have a faster animation time.

A reliable rig allows you to easily make character changes, reducing time and making your animation more dynamic. You can outsource coming up with a good rig if you can't come up with one. Understanding inverse kinematics and having them in your rig can help you know if it is good. 

  • Update Your Animation Software
a common 3d animation technique is to simply update your software

Image via GISuser

Keeping your animation software up to date is also very important for speeding up your production time. Out-of-date animation software will slow down your computer or tablet and impact the time it takes you to create 3D animations. 

You should also experiment with other animation software to see what works faster on your computer or drawing tablet compared to what you’re using now.  It might take you time to get used to using new animation software, but it will allow you to speed up your animation time.

  • Recycle
animation recycling when done right is an effective 3d animation technique

GIF via Gallery Roulette

Recycling elements from previous 3D animations is one of the easiest ways to speed up your production time. This is especially true if you’re working on a series or if characters appear in more than one animation. 

You can start by seeing what keyframes you can recycle. According to Skwigly Animation, animators shouldn’t waste time blocking a character again. You should copy and paste keyframes and modify them, especially when the poses are very similar to each other. 

Copying and pasting keyframes and tweaking them is faster than blocking everything and creating similar poses from scratch every time. 

You can even recycle animations if you feel your deadlines are creeping up on you. This can also be done by simply copying and pasting keyframes.

For example, for a walk cycle, you will need the character to walk and do something with its hand, like pointing at an object. You can recycle the walk cycle animation and make new keyframes for the other body parts of your character when necessary. Recycling animation will leave less work for you and save you a ton of time.

If you keep your old animations, you will most likely be able to use them again in the future for your animation projects.

You don't need to manually add all details in the timeline in a sequence of keyframes. Eye blinking is the most common example; instead of manually opening and closing the eyes in the timeline, simply copy and paste keyframes to reduce the work requirement.

You can also use your old animations as a reference if you’re unsure about how you animated something before. 

3D Animation Techniques to Create Better Quality Animations

Creating good quality animations is key to becoming a successful 3D animator. While investing in good quality software and hardware, as well as time practicing your skills, there are other 3D animation techniques you can try to improve the quality of your animations.

  • Find Real-World References
using good references will help 3d animators animate quicker

Image by J.K. Riki via Animator Island

To animate characters, creatures, and environments well, you need to know how they behave and move in real life. An easy way you can improve this animation skill is by simply becoming a keen observer of the world around you.

Watch how people move or stand while you’re waiting in a queue at the supermarket. Look at how the birds move when they look for food on the pavement and watch how the trees’ leaves and branches respond to a breeze versus a strong wind. 

The opportunities to observe the behavior of the world around you are limitless, and before you know it, you’ll be keenly observing everything and everyone around you without even trying. This is an incredible tool to improve your animation skills daily.

Finding real-world references can help you animate complicated pieces of anatomy, like faces, effectively. It’s also a good idea to look at recordings of voice-over artists to observe their facial movements to ensure that expressions are captured convincingly. 

You can also use yourself as a reference by looking in the mirror and observing how your face moves with different words and sounds. 

  • Keep It Simple
a common 3d animation technique is to just keep it simple

Image by Mike Kappel via Forbes

Depending on how fast your computer is, you might want to consider just working with the basic models of your 3D animation so there’s no lagging and you can focus solely on your animated characters. This is especially important if you’re working on multiple animation projects at once and are short on time.

You may see your system working too hard when you use a high-res model, and this can dramatically slow down the animation process. When you playback the animation in real-time, you may not see every frame. 

If you are working on the motion of a character, use a simple proxy 3D model to prevent this problem. You can then work more effectively with movement and return the more complex model to the process later.

Steemit also suggests you keep the polygon minimum while you animate character models and hide the background if it’s not essential for what you’re currently animating. This way, you can focus solely on the character and its movements, ensuring that everything works and moves in perfect harmony. 

This is great for trying to improve specific animation skills or edit a very difficult sequence. It also works great if you’re simply practicing mastering a difficult animation skill. 

  • Look For Feedback
you have to look for feedback as a 3d animator

GIF by DeeKay via Dribble

Feedback is an essential part of artistic development, especially in the competitive world of 3D animation. You should seek commentary from knowledgeable animators who can help you improve your 3D animation skills. 

Feedback can be a valuable learning opportunity that will help you make the result hit the spot much more convincingly.

Having said this, it’s also essential to pay attention to constructive criticism rather than simply choosing to ignore it.

Most examples of constructive criticism aren’t about offending you, and friendly advice can play a pivotal role in helping you improve the quality of your 3D animations. 

  • Improve Your Keyframing
keyframing is a 3d animation technique that takes time to master

Image via Autodesk

The keyframes in 3D animation videos are the first and last movements in any sequence, and they are therefore important to your 3D animations. Creating these first and last poses first in your animation process means that you can make them as memorable as possible. 

You can also learn to offset your keys. Offsetting your keys is a 3D animation technique that will help your animation look more believable and lifelike, which is something that will definitely make your animation business stand out from the rest. 

Using this animation 3D animation technique helps you to ensure that your characters’ movements look realistic by not moving their whole body simultaneously at the same time and speed.

It’s working on animation skills like these that will make you one of the best 3D animators out there.

  • Pay Attention to Rhythm
paying attention to the rhythm of 3d animation helps with animation

GIF via GfyCat

The best 3D animations have a strong sense of rhythm and a natural movement flow. Many inexperienced animators have found themselves animating too fast or slow. 

Timing and spacing between your frames create movement in your animation, and with time, you will get a better idea of how many frames you need to move the object from point A to B.

Practicing timing different key poses is crucial when improving your 3D animation skills. 

To achieve this, you need to first master the key poses by making sure they move in sync with the audio; then, you can focus on the speed from one pose to the next and figure out the poses that need to be in between to make the scene come to life.

As a 3D animator, you often deal with “time-sensitive” scenes where you must get the timing perfect for a sequence to work. Practicing this 3D animation technique on the side will ensure it’s a breeze when you need to do something similar for an animation client.

  • Balance in 3D Animations
you need to balance all elements in 3d animation

GIF by Katie Coughlan via Behance

When making a list of how to improve your animation skills, practicing balancing your characters properly should be at the top.

If a character navigates rough or uneven terrain, their movements and posture will differ from walking or standing on straight, even terrain.

Take the time to create different terrains and practice animating your characters according to that terrain, making sure that you adopt their posture as needed. This will prove to be an invaluable skill when you do out-of-the-ordinary animations for clients. 

Making sure that your characters continue to appear lifelike and balanced in whichever terrain or environment they find themselves in will make your animation shine.

Tips For Organizing Your Life to Become a Better 3D Animator

you need to organize your 3d animation career

GIF by Mirian kokiashvili via Dribble

Becoming a skilled 3D animator is about more than just practicing and implementing the 3D animation techniques we’ve discussed. You also need to adapt your life and the way you do things to make sure you produce the best 3D animations possible promptly. 

  • Automate Social Media and Email: Automate your follow-up emails to keep in touch with studios and animation clients even when you're away from your computer.
  • Have a Work Cycle: A good ratio is a 45-minute set time to completely concentrate on work, followed by 15 minutes of leisure.
  • Regularly Update Spreadsheets: Keep separate spreadsheets for income, business expenses, and donations; this will help you keep track of your income, receipts, and losses and fill your taxes quicker.
  • Create a Daily Schedule: Update your must-do list with 3 to 6 items every day. Managing your animation business with consistency and discipline will help it grow and expand your circle of influence.
  • Build a Workspace Haven: Clean and organize your workspace to be work-ready always and help you concentrate better. Incorporate inspiring artwork, plants, and sunshine around your work area to keep your motivation and improve your craft.

3D Animation Techniques To Improve Your Production Time and the Quality of Your Animations

There are many 3D animation techniques you can use to improve your production time and the quality of your animations. 

If you follow these techniques, you’ll be on track to be one of the most sought-after 3D animators in the industry with your impressive turnaround time and quality work.You can also check out our free marketing handbook and master class, as well as our blog post on how to start your own animation studio.

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