Learning the Basics of Blender Animation Tools

In some of the previous Blender articles, we learned about rigging inside of Blender, now we're going to dive into the basics of animation and learn how to utilize some of Blender's animation tools to set keyframes, and adjust the movement through Blender's Graph Editor. Blender_Animation_Screenshot_01 Toward the bottom of the Blender UI is the animation header, this displays the timeline, frame range and your keyframe properties among other things. By default, Blender runs at 24 Frames Per Second, which is the standard for film animation. However, if you want to change this to something like 30 Frames Per Second you can open up your Render settings in the Properties panel and adjust the FPS there.

Adding Keyframes

The best way to get comfortable with a software's animations tools is to just start with the very basics, setting keyframes. At the bottom of the timeline you should see a few keyframe options. In order to set a keyframe on an object is to first set what channels you want a keyframe set to. The two key icons allow you to place a keyframe on your current position on the timeline, as well as delete a keyframe. However, if you have your object selected and choose to set a keyframe you should get an error that says "No active keying set" that just means we haven't told Blender what channels we want to animate, for instance, do we want to translate the cube, scale it or rotate it? Blender_Animation_Screenshot_02 When you select the box next to the key icon you'll see a list of options, since we are first just going to translate our cube we can select "Location" this means the translate X, Y and Z axis will be the active keying set. Blender_Animation_Screenshot_03 When you select the key icon it should now say, "Successfully added 3 keyframes for the active keying set" which are the translate channels. keyframe icon Now we just need to click on the timeline and drag to where we want to place the next keyframe, I just moved the timeline forward to frame 20. At frame 20 translate the cube up in the Z axis, and select the Insert Keyframe icon to lock in another keyframe. Now you should have a cube that moves up in space. You can also use the shortcut "I" to set a keyframe. Blender_Animation_Screenshot_04 Blender also has an auto keying function, so anytime you make an adjustment to your object in 3D space it will place a new keyframe, or update the keyframe you're already on. To enable auto keying you can select the red button icon next to the keying set option box. If you're familiar with animation then you know how helpful something like auto keying can be. Blender_Animation_Screenshot_05 When you want to set keyframes for anything other than the location of an object you can change the keying set. For instance, the "LocRot" keying set will allow you to animate both the translate and rotation channels. With "LocRotScale", it will allow you to animate all three channels; it just depends on what you need in your shot.

Graph Editor

Now that you know the basics of setting keyframes it's time to learn about the Graph Editor, you can split your view horizontally and select the Graph Editor header. This will change the 3D viewport to the Graph Editor view. So we'll have the 3D view in one panel, and the Graph Editor in another. Blender_Animation_Screenshot_06 When you open up the Graph Editor you should see the channels on the left side, since I only have the active keying set to Location we only see the X, Y and Z locations. If you've ever used Maya's Graph Editor you'll likely feel right out home in Blender's as it's very similar. The numbers on the bottom represent the frame numbers, and the numbers going vertically represent the position. For example, if you have an object rotate 90 degrees the keyframe will be in line with "90". To navigate inside the Graph Editor you can press MMB and drag, this will pan around the editor. You can select the individual keyframes with the RMB, and just like in the 3D viewport if you press "B" it will allow you to marquee select a group of keyframes. You can also zoom in and out by using the MMB wheel. You can also shrink and stretch the curves by holding down Ctrl and dragging with the MMB. Just LMB clicking and dragging inside the editor will allow you to scrub the animation, as you do that you can see the animation in the viewport scrubbing below. You can also easily add a keyframe by selected the curve that you want to add to, and hold Ctrl and LMB click anywhere on the curve and a new keyframe will be dropped in at that position. This is great for when you need to just add a keyframe for a single channel. Blender_Animation_Screenshot_07 Each keyframe is also going to have a tangent handle, if you've used any other animation software you're probably familiar with how curve editors work. When you select a keyframe a handle will be displayed, you can select just one side of the handle, and move it up down, or shrink and stretch it to adjust the shape of the curve. Selection works the same as it does in 3D space, so you'll select the handles with the RMB as well.

Tracking Arcs

When it comes to animation, tracing your arcs is extremely important. You want to make sure that everything is flowing smoothly. It's also vital to make sure that your spacing is working how it should. Luckily, in Blender you can track both of these things extremely easily with Motion Paths. Blender_Animation_Screenshot_08 I've created just a very simple animation of a cube traveling up and over in an arcing motion. With the cube selected, you can go over to your toolbar and under the Animation tab you'll see the Motion Paths option. Blender_Animation_Screenshot_09 All you need to do is select Calculate and it will allow you to set the frame range, in my case the animation is only about 45 frames long, so I set the Start frame to one, and the End frame to 45. Once you click OK it will calculate the motion path. Blender_Animation_Screenshot_11 Once it's calculated it will display the motion path of the cube, so you can exactly what the arc looks like. The great thing about the Motion Path inside of Blender is that it not only displays the keyframes in orange, but it also shows all the individual frames with white tick marks. This allows you to see exactly how the spacing is working in you animation. When you adjust the cube, the motion path will automatically get updated to reflect this. While this was just a very basic overview of the animation tools inside of Blender it should give you a good starting point, and allow you to begin creating your own animations. In later articles we'll dive deeper into character animation and take on more complex projects.