12 Steps to a Great Walk Cycle Animation
Updated June 1, 2020
Let’s begin with a summary of the 12 easy steps to take when learning how to animate a walk cycle:
Find a video of a walk cycle reference.
Create the contact position.
Create the down position.
Create the passing position.
Create the up position.
Refine the up-and-down weight.
Refine the side-to-side weight.
Refine the chest movement.
Add drag and lead, and follow to the arms.
Fix any knee popping.
Flap the feet.
Polish your walk.
Let’s get into more depth on each of these 12 steps. But first…
What Is a Walk Cycle?
A walk cycle is a series of animations that loops infinitely to create the illusion of a character taking steps. Walk cycles are something that every animator needs to know because they are used in everything from video games to commercials and film.
Creating believable walk cycles can be a hard thing to do while maintaining high quality, but doing so is of the utmost importance if your audience is going to find the walking motion believable.
Follow these 12 steps to learn how to animate a walk cycle realistically.
Step 1 - Find a Video of a Walk Cycle Reference
Video reference is every animator’s best tool. Before starting your walk cycle, you need to study how the human body moves during a walk. How do the hips rotate? Where is the weight centered? How many frames does it take for each step? These are the types of questions you should be answering while you study your reference.
Even though there are many video references online, it helps to make your own video reference of yourself so you can feel the motions your body makes as you walk.
Step 2 - Create the Contact Position
The first of the four main positions in a walk that you must block in is the contact position, which is the foundation for your animation.
The contact position is the start and end of each step and sets the stage for how your walk is going to look. This is the moment when the front leg is at full extension with its foot beginning to contact the ground. The back leg is also in contact with the ground, but the back foot’s heel is lifting up. Don’t hyperextend the leg or have it perfectly straight. Instead, keep a slight bend so as to eliminate some of the popping in the knees. The weight of the body is split between each leg. Make sure the character is grounded by animating ground guidelines.
Step 3 - Create the Down Position
The second main position in a walk cycle is the down position, which is where the full weight of your character goes down and shifts to the contacting foot. Since this is the lowest position in the walk, you can show the weight of the character by how far their hips drop. Make sure not to overdo it. You don’t want your character to bob up and down too much, so keep the body up high. The back leg is partially blocked by the front leg.
Step 4 - Create the Passing Position
The next pose you’ll create is the passing position (or half-way pose). This is used when one of your character’s legs passes the other.
For this, the weight of your character will start to go up for the passing position. To keep it from looking off balance, the weight of your character needs to be over the supporting foot. At this point in the walk, the back foot is off the ground but still pointed backward, putting your character midway through the stride position. In other words, this pose is basically the same as the first position, but the legs are reversed.
Step 5 - Create the Up Position
The up position (or, falling point of the walk) is the last of the four main positions you need to know when learning how to animate a walk cycle. The character is now at the highest point of the walk so the leg is swinging forward as it prepares to plant the foot on the ground.
The character’s weight should be leaning forward and the heel of the back foot is off the ground, so it should be rotated up.
After your character has this position blocked in, you should repeat the four main positions for the opposite leg. Once both sides are blocked in, you can simply cycle the animation before starting to refine it.
Step 6 - Refine the Up-and-Down Weight
The weight of your character is something you want to get correct. For the proper weight, adjust the up and down parameter (usually the Translate Y) for the root control.
Think of your character’s hips as a ball bouncing up and down. Use this visualization to help you adjust the curves to get something similar to a bouncing ball. You may notice this has an effect on the legs, but don’t worry about that yet. With most animation, you’ll want to refine the shot from the root control down. This is because any changes you make to the root will affect the legs, so you should make sure everything up in the hierarchy looks good before fixing the legs.
Step 7 - Refine the Side-to-Side Weight
After you get the up-and-down movement looking and feeling correct, it’s time to refine the side-to-side movement (usually the Translate X). Make sure the spacing is correct by adjusting the curves in your graph editor. In most cases, there is no need to add extra keys at this point as you can usually get it looking believable by just manipulating the tangent handles.
A good rule of thumb to go by is to have the hips directly above the planted foot. This ensures your character feels balanced when their weight is shifted from side to side.
Step 8 - Refine the Chest Movement
Since the upper body of the character can add so much life and appeal to your walk, it’s important to refine the chest movement.
If your character has big, broad chest rotations, it can give the character a bit of an attitude. If that’s what you’re going for, use this to your advantage. If that’s not what you want, keep the chest rotations relatively simple to increase its believability.
Remember, if the arms are moving, so is the chest. No one walks with a chest that is perfectly still.
Step 9 - Add Drag and Lead, and Follow to the Arms
Once the chest is refined and looking great, it’s time to go in and adjust the arms. This is the point where you can start adding nice lead and follow, and drag in the arm joints. For example, think of the arms as a chain of movement that mimics the chest. The shoulders move first, followed by the upper arm, the elbow, and finally the wrist.
Have fun with this and experiment with the amount of overlap and drag that you incorporate into the animation.
Step 10 - Fix Any Knee Popping
After all the work on the upper body is complete, it’s time to focus your attention on fixing any issues with the legs. Usually this means addressing the popping in the knees because they will likely be occurring at this point. This issue is simple to fix and you have a couple of options for doing it, depending on your particular project.
Take advantage of a leg stretch control that may be available on your rig. Try to shrink or stretch the leg slightly to get rid of the popping. Don’t overdo it, though! This should be used sparingly.
Adjust the hip control to eliminate any popping. The amount of tweaking necessary should be minimal if you kept a slight bend in the knee when you created the contact position.
Step 11 - Flap the Feet
A great way to sell the weight of the character is to have the feet slap firmly on the ground. The feet should go from a raised position to flat within one or two frames. Ease out of the first pose, and plant on the next. You can even raise the toe up to add a bit of drag during the ease-out pose.
Step 12 - Polish Your Walk
The final step in learning how to animate a walk cycle is to push the walk to the next level.
Add the fine details in between the main positions to enhance the animation.
Track all the arcs of the feet and hands.
Add some drag in the fingers and head.
Alter any parts of the walk cycle to create personality.
Refer back to your video reference to find things that you think will benefit the animation and add that final 10% of the walk cycle.
If you get stuck along the way, refer back to the following step-by-step Pluralsight tutorials: