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8 Steps of the 3D Animation Production Pipeline

3D animation has brought us several unforgettable films. They can suspend our imagination and allow us to travel to different unique worlds. When we think of 3D animation, the likes of Toy Story, Frozen, and Shrek come to mind. What we fail to realize is that making these films is a labor-intensive and time-consuming process.

There are several steps required to complete a 3D animation project on time. These steps include coming up with a story, scriptwriting, storyboarding, animating these ideas, adding music and sound effects, and so much more. With the number of steps, it can be easy to lose track of what animators need to do to finish a project.

Getting a 3D animation project off the ground can be difficult without a properly working system for everyone involved. Fortunately, the 3D animation pipeline is a system that keeps all of the moving parts of the project on track, efficient, and up to quality standards. 

Phases of the 3D Animation Pipeline

character opens up a blueprint plan for an origami model

GIF from South Park via GIPHY

The 3D animation pipeline is segmented into 3 phases, each with its steps and procedures. These three phases are the pre-production, production, and post-production phase. Each phase must be completed in that order to create an animated series or film effectively.

The pre-production phase will be where all of the planning for the project will happen. This includes researching concepts, brainstorming, scriptwriting, and storyboarding. Once the concept, script, and storyboard are approved, the project can then move on to the production stage.

The production phase will translate the ideas from the script and storyboard and animate these assets in a 3D space. These include creating the 3D layout, making assets and characters, animating them, adding VFX, and more. After rendering these animated assets, the project can then move on to the final stage of the pipeline.

The post-production phase adds the finishing touches to the 3D animation project. These include merging all of the rendered animated assets into the frame, adding the final VFX, color-correcting, and more. After these are done, the rendered 3D animation is complete.

While all of these phases are crucial for a successful 3D animation project, this article will focus on the more technical and time-consuming side of the three stages, the production phase. 

The Uses of the 3D Animation Production Pipeline

1) Time Management

man with prominent beard looks at the camera and points to his watch

GIF from Chris Kläfford via GIPHY

As mentioned above, creating 3D animation films and series is a time-consuming process. Even a small mistake can delay further steps in the procedure. Over time, these delays can accumulate and might even domino their way into making the project fail.

However, using the 3D animation production pipeline lets you manage the time allotted for each step and prepare for any setbacks while the animation process is ongoing.

2) Budget Usage

character in a suit presses buttons on a calculator to calculate

GIF from SpongeBob SquarePants via GIPHY

The amount of time it takes to complete a 3D animation project from start to finish requires a large budget to keep all of the parts moving.

The 3D animation production pipeline can serve as a blueprint for spending the budget in a controlled manner while keeping everything in the production process moving. The detailed time frame will dictate when and how the budget can be spent in the best way possible. 

3) Team Organization

a team of people congratulate each other on a win in a video game

GIF from BLAST via GIPHY

Some animation projects can employ teams of up to 500 members when working on animated films and tv series. These members are split into different groups that will need to coordinate with each other to produce the final product, which will then be shown on the silver screen and our televisions. 

With the help of the 3D animation production pipeline, it ensures that all of the team’s members are on the same page throughout the whole process; making the project as efficient and productive as possible. 

4) Structure and Standardization

an animated gif of surreal pathways in space where hundreds of men traverse through the walkways

GIF from kidmograph via GIPHY

Big animation studios can produce multiple animation projects for a variety of clients in a single year. With the amount of work needed to satisfy all of their clients, a well-thought-out plan is needed to complete each of these tasks on time and up to quality standards.

The 3D animation production pipeline guarantees that each animation improves clarity and quality, boosts productivity and morale, and enhances customer service. A standard and optimized procedure prevent animators from guessing what to do next and will give team members a chance to master the process while refining their skills. 

8 Steps of the 3D Animation Production Pipeline

1) 3D Layout Designing

3d software configuring the layout for a room

GIF via Tenor

Firstly, the 3D layout design takes the storyboard from the pre-production phase and establishes a good foundation for the rest of the animation project. Designing the 3D layout is a process of conceptualizing and creating the characters and the environment where the story will be taking place. 

Sometimes, the design for the layout can come as early as the storyboarding stage in the pre-production phase. These can take the form of rough sketches of the set, which can then be further stylized and adapted following the project’s stylistic choices. 

Once the settings and environment are finalized, the artists can translate them into a 3D virtual space. These environments and settings are built using software from the computer. During this stage, the models will take the form of low-resolution polygons.

This way, the director and everyone else involved can get a rough idea of how the scene’s composition will play out. This includes how the characters interact with the environment and the movement of the camera. 

2) 3D Modeling

3d rendered shapes transform to different shapes in an animated loop

GIF from Apocshat via Tenor

Once the 3D layout is finished, the production process moves into the modeling stage. 3D modeling is the process of creating 3D models that will replace the low-resolution polygons found in the 3D layout.

Artists will create models for all of the characters, backgrounds, and even small props found in a scene. They’ll take the design data given to them, including drawings and sculptures, and use them as references for when they start creating the models. 

To do this, they manipulate points called vertices and form them into various shapes to recreate the models called meshes. Artists will also need to consider that their models will need to move around.

Therefore, they will need to accommodate the movements done to their models by creating deformities in the mesh. Doing this will optimize the mesh when it is animated later down the line. 

In general, all of the 3D meshes will be created in a flat gray color. The next step of the production phase will then bring these meshes to life. 

3) 3D Texturing

a texture is applied to a 3d model in a 3d modeling software

GIF from warmanw via Tenor

The job of a 3D texture artist is to apply realistic textures to the gray meshes created in the 3D modeling phase. Giving the meshes physical properties makes the models more authentic, if not photorealistic, to the viewer. 

To do this, artists will need to research available materials and colors they can give to the models. Research can be done in several ways. Some examples include looking for reference images and researching the setting’s specific time and location.

Depending on the scale of the project and the budget, texture artists may even get the chance to study and observe similar objects and textures in the real world. Experienced texture artists can also opt to save these references to build a library for future projects. 

The first step to texturing will be to unwrap the 3D mesh into a 2D map which the artist can then assign colors and textures. Some software such as Maya or Photoshop offers a few tools that let the artist automatically unwrap the mesh.

However, a texture artist can also choose to manually unwrap the mesh. This can be more time-consuming but can make the painting process much easier. 

Once the mesh is unwrapped, the artist will then assign colors and properties to the mesh. This is done by putting different types of maps onto the unwrapped mesh. The artist will need to think about the material’s surface properties and how it behaves and reacts to light. 

These include a displacement map, a roughness or glossiness map, and more. If the wrong material or property is assigned, the model might not achieve its job of making the 3D texture photorealistic to the audience. 

4) 3D Rigging

a 3d model is rigged for animation and does funny poses

GIF from etiel via Tenor

Rigging is a crucial step in the production pipeline. It’s a process that creates a bone structure for the models so that an artist can freely animate how they move and interact with objects. 

Most, if not all, models can be rigged to be animated and do not necessarily need to be a human model. A model of an animal, a door, a spaceship, or even an entire solar system can be rigged to mimic real-life. 

It’s also important to note that the bone structure of a model does not need to follow the exact bone structure of its real-life counterpart. The artist will only put in the number of bones they deem necessary for the character to move in the way that they want. 

5) 3D Animation

an animated walk cycle of a red 3d bird

GIF from DLGNCE via GIPHY

Once the models are rigged, the production pipeline then moves on animating these models. The animator manipulates the bones found in the model by moving their position, rotating, and even scaling them to mimic different poses and movements.

If an animator is happy with the position of the model, they will then save these positions on the timeline by keyframing the bones at certain points during the animation. 

This process can be time-consuming, as artists need to animate multiple scenes that span the entire length of the project’s runtime. Animators will also need to review their animations to make sure that the movement of their models is smooth and seamless. 

6) VFX

a gif of vfx on water simulating a ripple of water

GIF from KillerPhoenixS via Tenor

The production pipeline’s visual effects or VFX stage focuses on animating the minute details that the other artists did not move during the animation stage.

The reasoning behind this is that some of these elements can possess more complex textures that may be too resource-intensive or too difficult to animate in 3D software. Examples of these elements can include hair, fur, explosions, water, and the like. 

For this step, artists will usually turn to physics-based systems to generate the textures and motions of those elements. The artist will need to set the parameters such as gravity or air movement, then the system will take into account these parameters when it simulates movement. 

7) Lighting

light from a city skyline reflects on a river

Image by Abbas Mohammed via Pexels

Effective lighting can enhance a 3D animation scene by being able to support a scene. It heightens the scene by depicting the mood of the shot, the time of day, location, and more. An experienced lighting artist can even manipulate where the viewers should look if they use the right lighting. 

By using a combination of lighting techniques, a 3D lighting artist will make both the set and the models look realistic. Inversely, a poorly lit scene might not be able to look convincing as the models may look flat to the viewer. 

8) Rendering

a man holds his face looking distraught exclaiming "it takes 2 months to render"

GIF from CorridorCrew via Tenor

The final part of the 3D animation production pipeline will merge all of the elements done during the production stage. The layout, models, textures, animations, and others will be combined and rendered into a still 2D image or frame. 

In some cases, different aspects of the scene will be rendered separately. For example, a complex scene of a spaceship landing. The background, foreground, and spaceship may be rendered separately. This will give the artists in post-production more options to tweak and fine-tune the effects, and adjustments to the final scene. 

3D rendering software such as Blender or Unity is responsible for rendering the scenes. Depending on the complexity of the scene, rendering can take as much time as a few seconds to even several days. 

Once the renders are done, the production process will then move to post-production where artists add the final touches to the scenes. 

Summary

A 3D animation pipeline is a useful tool for streamlining the 3D animation process of a project. It’s mainly used to manage the time, budget, and team members, and serves as a useful standard for the whole animation process. It’s split into three phases: pre-production, production, and post-production phase. 

The objective of the production phase is to translate the ideas and designs generated in the pre-production phase into a 3D space. This can be done through multiple steps. 

The 3D layout artist will create the scene using low-resolution polygons in place of the actual 3D models. Once the layout is approved, models will then be created for the characters and environment. These models will firstly be in a flat gray color. 

These models will then be given physical properties such as roughness or smoothness, their interaction with light, and the like. A model will be fitted with a bone structure to help artists animate their movements. Once all of the models are rigged with bones, the animation process can begin. 

Other elements of the scene that may be difficult to animate such as hair, fur, water, and the like are animated separately via VFX. Lighting is then applied to enhance the scene. Once all of this is done, it can then be rendered and sent to post-production for the final adjustments. 

Simply learning about 3D animation’s production process won’t teach you everything there is to know about it. However, familiarizing yourself with the different steps greatly broadens your knowledge of creating and animating 3D models for your films. 
To become a successful animator, you will need to learn both the business and technical sides of animation. If you’d like to learn how to start an animation studio, we suggest you check out Business of Animation’s free masterclass and download a copy of their free handbook.

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