From Beginner to Expert - Grow Your Animation Skills Faster
Animation is arguably one of the hardest things to truly master. It can take years and years of practice and dedication to get where you want to be. There is one thing you must keep in mind though; animation is never really mastered. As an animator you should constantly be learning, even if you think you know it all.
As with most other steps within the 3D pipeline, there are always new things to be learned. There are, however, great workflows and techniques to utilize in order to grow your skills as an animator faster. By taking the right approach to learning animation you can go from beginner to expert in a shorter amount of time than you may think. This article will cover the essential workflow to go from animating your first ball bounce to complex acting shots.
Get the Right Material
You may have been inspired to learn animation from watching Warner Bros. cartoons or from your favorite Pixar movies. Whatever the case may be, there is one key thing that most of the animators working on your favorite movies have in common: they more than likely studied the same books. The Illusion of Life and The Animator's Survival Kit are two books most animators have at their desk at all times.
Both books apply to 2D animation, but the techniques and principles taught are just as applicable in today's 3D animation. Before you do anything else, if you don't already have these books you should pick them up. This will give will access to some of the best animation techniques and principles taught by the pioneers of animation. This should be your first step in your journey to learn animation.
If you want to see how the techniques in those books apply to 3D animation check out this Learning Path on Animation Principles in Maya to give you a crash course in the animation principles.
Master the Basics
Your first instinct when starting to learn animation may be to tackle a walk cycle or a fun acting shot, but doing this will not improve your animation skills if you don't have a foundation in the basics. Trying to take on an animation above your skill level is setting yourself up for failure; it will only frustrate you and produce undesirable results. This isn't to say you're a bad animator. It's just that your animation abilities may not be at that level yet.
Consider this, a person just learning 3D modeling doesn't start out by taking on a complex character model. Instead they start out simple, learning the basics of modeling and the tools within the application. Eventually they will get to that level, but not right out of the gate.
You should be learning in very small chunks, starting with a simple ball bounce animation. This is the first animation any animator must master. Check out this quick tutorial that walks you through the steps of animating your first ball bounce in Maya.
Once you've finished that, move on to animating a ball that's moving across the screen, instead of bouncing in place. Then throw a wall into the mix. Have the ball bounce, hit the wall, and roll back to a stop. Next you can animate a ball with more of a personality, incorporating anticipation and squash and stretch, and then add a tail to the ball, to experiment with overlapping action.
You can start to see what's happening here. With each new animation you tackle, you are incorporating a new animation principle into the mix. With each new shot you complete, your skill level will grow. With each new animation, you are adding on a new challenge for yourself to complete.
Working in these small chunks will ensure each technique is mastered before moving on. Gradually the difficulty will grow with each animation, but so will your skill level.
Find Your Inspiration
Finding what inspires you as an animator is extremely important, and one of the best ways to improve your animation skills. Get your favorite animated movie and frame-by-frame it. Find shots that stick out to you, and ask yourself what makes them so good? Why is this particular shot more appealing than the one before it? Study how the animator implemented the principles. Maybe their arcs were flowing smoothly or the timing they established really helped sell the shot. This way you can learn how they did it, and try to implement their techniques into your own work.
You should be using this time to encourage yourself to try to get to their skill level, but keep in mind it can be very easy to get down on yourself when you are watching these amazingly executed animations. You may start thinking, I'll never get there. How did they even do that? Sure, right now you probably aren't at their level, but they have also been doing it a lot longer. So make sure you're using this time to inspire you. It should make you want to jump onto the computer and start animating, and not make you want to give up.
Nail Your Body Mechanics
Once you know the basics, it's time to start learning body mechanics. Body mechanics can be just as fun to tackle as an acting shot, and you can't animate great acting shots if you don't know body mechanics and how a human should move. The best way is to look at reference, people walking, running, gymnastics, etc. Study how the human body moves during these actions.
For your first body mechanics shot, you shouldn't jump straight in and try to take on some complex parkour acrobatics. Instead, start with a simple walk cycle. You can check out this great Creating Walk Cycles in Maya tutorial to learn how a professional animates a believable walk cycle. Once you have that nailed down, then try to animate a character walking and coming to a stop, then a character standing up from a sitting position.
These repetitive techniques are the same way you mastered the basics, except they're how you can learn body mechanics - one step at a time. Each shot will be a little more difficult than the last, and each one builds upon your skill level.
Keep the shots very short, three to four seconds at the most. If you try to tackle a fifteen second long body mechanics shot, you're not broadening your range. Instead, you're sticking with that one body mechanics action that could end up taking way too long to finish. When you could very easily finish twenty short shots in the time it takes you to complete a single long one, you'll be amazed at how much you progress.
Improve Your Acting
Once you're ready to take on some acting and dialogue shots, the first thing you should be doing is studying live action films. Look up some of your favorite actors, and ask yourself, what makes them so great? You can even pick your favorite scene in a movie, and animate it action for action.
Try to get your animation to match as closely as you can to the actor's movements. This is a great exercise to do for your first acting shot, teaching yourself how to incorporate those very small nuances that can be found in great acting. Of course, since you are basically copying the actor, this isn't something you should have on your demo reel , but it's a great skill building exercise. Once you're more comfortable animating these complex types of shots, you can start acting out your own animations.
Another great book to pick up is Acting for Animators. This will teach you some great techniques for creating believable and appealing acting for your animations.
As an animator, getting feedback is something you should be doing for all your shots. If you're the only one who looks at your animation, it can be very hard to give yourself feedback and notes. It's easy to get tunnel vision and not see mistakes clearly. A bad shot could start to look good the longer you stare at it.
Ask your fellow animators or friends to take a look at your animation. Even if that person doesn't have animation knowledge, they can see when something just doesn't look right. As an animator, you'll need to develop a hard shell. Don't take it personality if someone gives you a whole list of suggestions and notes on your work, and don't try to force an idea on them if they aren't understanding it. As with any of the other disciplines within the pipeline, sharing your work with others is a great way to improve.
Learning animation is an ongoing process. By learning animation in chunks, and having the mindset that the more shots you animate the better you will get with each one will ensure that your animation skills grow faster. Remember, it's not really the length of the shot that makes you become better, but rather how many completed animations you get under your belt, and how you push yourself with each new shot.
Get more practice animating with 3D animation tutorials and read more 3D animation articles for tips and tricks to make you a better animator.