You might think that the dawn of powerful computing technology has made animation a one-click process for creating beautifully rendered 3D content for the masses. It’s true that computers have certainly helped pave the way for innovation in the field of 3D animation, but there are many pieces to the production of computer generated imaging (CGI) that many people are unaware of. Computers give us endless possibilities for creativity, which can complicate our decision making processes when trying to decide exactly what to create or how to produce our vision. Whatever your goals may be in your pursuit of understanding 3D animation, it never hurts to gain knowledge about the steps involved in production. Here are the most typical, if not vital stages of production in 3D animation for video production:

  1. Concept/Storyboards: One of the best ways to slow down production and create more work for your team is to skip the process of concepting and storyboarding your project. The reason concepting is so valuable is that it gives your client and team a vision. It lays out the style, color schemes, mood, story and overall purpose for the project. Without it, you’re shooting blind and will inevitably run into confusion, lack of direction or worse – missed deadlines. Always have a plan, but don’t worry if you have to pivot. As long as you have a strong support structure, you can be flexible along the way. Remember, story should always be the focus and you should never get completely married to an idea.
  1. Modelling/Sculpting: Modelling is the process of building characters, props, and environments based on the concept art of your project. Modelers typically take 2D drawings and convert them into polygonal objects in 3D space that will be animated later in production. There are a number of different approaches to achieving great looking 3D models, but for a model that will be animated there has to be attention given to topology. If you have good topology, then the “flow” of the edges along the surface of the model will compliment all of the bends and arcs that are created during animation. This is a daunting task when dealing with faces, especially the mouth. Luckily there are many resources and templates for achieving good topology online that can guide you through this process.
  1. Texturing/Shading: Texturing/Shading refers to the application of “maps” to the models’ polygons. If you’re lucky, the modellers will have taken the time to UV map their models before sending them down the pipeline. A UV map is the “unwrapped” or flattened interpretation of the polygonal faces on the model. If the model has been unwrapped properly, there will be no anomalies with the textures once they’re applied. There are a number of maps that a shader artist uses to beautify a model: diffuse, normal, bump, displacement, specular, roughness, illumination, sub surface scatter, alpha, and many more. Lets just say that you can go crazy with the amount of detail or the style that you are trying to produce in this stage of the pipeline.
  1. Rigging: Perhaps the best way to describe a rigging artist would be the skeleton builder. There are ways of producing animation without using bones, like blendshapes or morph targets, which we’ll save for another blog post. However, with most animated characters you’ll need a skeleton to drive the model. The way this works is you have a model that needs to be controlled, so you create bones/joints inside the model with “skinning” properties that manipulate the 3D mesh. This is a tedious process that can require some script-writing skills depending on the complexity of the character. Skin weights refer to areas on the mesh that are driven by particular bones at varying intensities. In order for the animator to easily manipulate the character, the rigger will create controls for each body part (hips, hands, feet, etc.). These controls will retain all of the data for movement in the x,y and z coordinates. The best riggers are the ones that understand the animation process and can foresee any issues that can arise when producing complex movement in 3D space.
  1. Animation: My favorite part of the pipeline! A wise animator once said, “Computers are just a tool. The principles of animation are universal.” I couldn’t agree more. The 12 principles of animation that the nine old men at Disney pioneered are just as true for 2D hand-drawn animation as they are for 3D. This means that if you thought that 3D animation would be a breeze, you’d be sorely mistaken. Although the sky is technically the limit for animating in 3D, the rules for achieving appeal and believability have to be incorporated with care. This phase of production is what brings your story and characters to life. An animator is a special breed of actor. They have to internalize the characters’ back story, their desires, intentions and internal emotions. Without that understanding of the character, they’ll be unable to communicate those actions to the audience through grand gestures, subtle body language and facial expressions. This is why reference footage is crucial to creating believable animations that sell. A second, third or thenth eye is also important to make sure the animation is working. Pixar is famous for having “dailies” which involves the directors and other animators coming together to meticulously analyze every shot that will potentially go into their films.
  1. Lighting and Rendering: Depending on the size of your team/studio you may have lighting specialists and rendering specialists or a team that handles both. Regardless, these are the people that make everything look beautiful. One of the biggest leaps in technology over the past three decades is the rendering power that computers have provided us and will continue to improve as demand for more powerful GPU’s increases. What once took weeks to render a single frame can now be completed in minutes or hours depending on the size of the resolution and level of complexity. Render farms (a group of networked computers used to render a large quantity of images) are commonplace with studios that need to cut down on render times for quicker iterations and approvals. Having a knowledgeable lighting and rendering specialist will cut down costs and decrease those agonizing waiting periods so you can see results fast.
  1. Compositing and VFX: Once you have your beautifully rendered images it’s time to make them even more beautiful! Compositors take all of the render passes and bring them into editing software like After Effects or Nuke to be color corrected and adjusted to perfection. The VFX team will add stuff like smoke, flashes, explosions, lens flares, liquid simulations and any technical effects required to blow the footage out of the water. This phase is intended to take the quality of the project from great to amazing.
  1. Editing: Finally, it’s time to cut everything up and shape the story with what’s been created so far. It can be difficult for someone creating a personal project to cut out scenes that have been painstakingly designed, reworked and refined. However, as we mentioned before, the story is everything. Sacrificing story just to keep a few of your favorite shots can be detrimental to the production if your audience is lost in translation.

That wraps up the process of 3D animation for video production! There are so many aspects involved in this art form that we could delve into further, but we hope this helped you gain some high level insight into the ever-growing industry that is 3D animation!