3D Character Animation: Everything you need to know about making things move

February 1, 2022
10 min read

Good 3D character animation is what drives your story forward. Yes, backgrounds, settings, music, and designs are important, but ultimately, it’s motion that tells most of the story. In this blog post, you will learn all about character animation, what makes movements exceptions, and how to animate within the 3D world that you’re building. Stick with us until the end to find out which four films and games had historical but groundbreaking animation made with motion capture technology. 

New technology equals new expectations for realistic 3D character animation

VFX artists can achieve a level of realism that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. Don’t believe us? Try watching Shrek without cringing at the old-school animation (but still loving that storyline!).

Back in the day, these fluid effects were cutting edge! In the 2020s and beyond, viewers expect humanoid characters to look life-like. You simultaneously need to avoid the uncanny valley effect while maintaining realistic motions. A feat that VFX studios, small and large, mostly achieve with motion capture

Create your animated character in 3D

Creating your character in 3D isn’t a simple task. For beginners who are new to animation, you should always learn how to model and, most importantly, rig a 3D character. This will help you understand how the joints can be manipulated.  As a professional animator, a 3D modeler, texture artist, and rigger will usually take this task off your plate. If you want to focus your time on animation alone, there are free 3D models of humans and animals available online, which you can download.

Rokoko character Bruno face modeling in Autodesk Maya. Bruno is a free fully rigged asset, download here.

Rigging a 3D character correctly is essential to excellent animation

Character rigging is a technical task that requires a keen mind and a bit of coding. Rigging is the process of adding moveable bone structure into the model. Like modeling, you have creators who specialize in rigging. As an animator, you should at least understand the basic concepts.

Workflow for Blender Auto-Rig Pro with Rokoko motion capture: rig a character mesh with a skeleton and then to retarget Rokoko motion capture animation data

What makes an animated character iconic? It’s all in the way they walk

As an animator, you need to think deeply about movement. And that starts with a walk. Understanding what lies underneath a character’s walking posture is step one in animating characters that feel real. Think back to a time you recognized someone you knew in a crowd - was it the way they looked? Often not, it’s the way they held their head or hunched their shoulders. Walking is a powerful identifier. 

How do I animate a walk cycle?

There are two ways - either you can use keyframe animation or motion capture. Keyframe animation is a staple that you should learn the basics of before attempting to jump into motion capture. Even the best motion capture recordings are often tweaked and adjusted by animators to better fit the rig and gravity of the motion. Here’s a quick tutorial on keyframe animation.

Using motion capture to animate is the fastest way to get a high-quality 3D character walk cycle

Motion capture is the process of recording a real person’s movements in 3D space and applying them to your animated character. Using your own body or a trained mocap actor can produce incredible results that would usually take hours or days to animate by hand. Here’s a quick tutorial on how to animate a walk cycle using Rokoko.

How to learn timeless animation techniques

Rokoko Creative Director Sam Lazarus animating Bruno the Mime in real-time in Cinema 4D with full performance capture, watch here.

Different animators have different styles and techniques to achieve the best results. When you first learn to animate, starting out in 2D is an excellent way to acquire the visual vocabulary you need to express personality and emotion. Animation in its simplest form often comes down to the ball bounce. Check out how this hand-drawn animation of a ball bouncing can convey some rudimentary emotion just by moving in certain ways. 

Once you learn how gravity impacts motion, you can begin considering the finer points such as squish and stretch, wobble, facial expression, micro-movements, and more. A great resource is the animator’s survival kit - available in DVD or book format.

How to use motion capture to speed up your animation workflow

Motion capture technology is used by almost every big production and studio. It’s the driving force behind many beloved VFX characters. The reason mocap is so popular is because it allows you to capture a performance rather than manually animating from scratch. 

It’s important to remember that, to create truly iconic characters, you need to apply more than just basic motion capture animations. Motion Capture forms the base of movement, but you will still need to adjust micro-motions. Even high-quality mocap does not account for muscles moving underneath skin, flesh wobbles, or squish and stretch - all techniques used by Pixar and Disney to make humanoid characters feel more lifelike. Remember, a motion capture suit captures body language accurately. So having a petite woman’s motions imposed on a model of a large muscular male gladiator will look “off”. Choosing the right actor for the right model will give you a major advantage.

The best software for 3D character animation

Autodesk Maya: The industry standard for 3D character animation. This highly advanced all-around tool is ideal for everything from modeling, rigging, character animation, simulation, rendering, compositing, motion tracking, and video editing.

Blender: A free and open-source 3D creation tool used by pros and amateurs alike. Blender is similar in function to Maya but is known for having a slightly trickier interface - be prepared for plenty of video tutorials! 

Cinema 4D: Cinema 4D is a favorite of Rokoko’s Creative Director, Sam Lazarus. It has powerful, easy-to-use, and reliable character animation tools and features. Many hobbyist animators get their start using Cinema 4D because it is so versatile. 

Houdini: Houdini is a powerful application for special effects and 3D animation. It’s particularly popular among VFX specialists and senior game developers. Unlike Maya and Blender, Houdini uses a node-based workflow that allows for multiple iterations. It’s also fantastic for animating fluid effects. 

Learn more about how Rokoko Studio Live integrates with your 3D software.

Get inspiration from these historical groundbreaking motion-capture performances

L.A Noire, Rockstar Games

Image credit: Rockstar Games

Released over a decade ago, this noir detective game from Rockstar Games was revolutionary in many ways—and most notably in the way it used face motion capture in its character animation. No less than 32 cameras were used to capture the correct facial expressions, which then were translated into in-game animation. In order to solve the case in the game, you have to rely on your ability to read other people's faces. Is the witness lying? Are these criminals telling the truth, or are the bar staff withholding information? This is up to you to find out. Just look closely at how the upper lip is trembling...

Kratos, God of War, Sony Interactive Entertainment 

Image credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Legendary actor Christopher Judge took over the role of Kratos for the eighth installment of the popular God of War series for PS4. Although the 56-year-old Judge used to be a professional athlete in his youth, some stunts are better left unattempted. That is why actors need stunt doubles. But where do you find someone who can accurately portray the pure brutality employed by this character? The producers behind GoW turned to YouTube, where they found Eric Jacobus, an experienced stuntman and martial arts specialist whom the producers discovered through his hilarious Street Fighter and Tekken in Real Life videos. The videos show Jacobus' enormous range and ability to mimic animated movement, but in a "human way." 

The combination of Judge and Jacobus proved to be the perfect match and resulted in one of the most memorable characters in gaming history.

Resident Evil series, Capcom

Image credit: Capcom

The trick behind good horror is for the audience to connect and relate to the protagonists. For the team behind Resident Evil, this is no news. To make their characters as realistic as possible, they were early adopters to motion capture technology—for both body and facial motion capture. For the second installment of the horror game, Capcom used real human faces as models for the characters. In addition, the motion capture actors who played the roles of Claire Redfield and Leon S. Kennedy were the same actors who voiced them. The result was a success, and the fans praised the new improved gameplay. Since then, the production team has been frequent users of motion capture for all following sequels. 

Andy Serkis as Gollum/Smeagol in The Two Towers

Image credit: Cinema News

Andy Serkis’ portrayal of Gollum in the second instalment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy is perhaps the single most important motion-capture performance in film history. This was when motion capture technology became a household term, making Andy Serkis a superstar in his own right. Almost two decades have passed since the release of this precious masterpiece. But even though much has happened in the field of motion capture since The Two Towers premiered, Serkis' timeless performance still holds up to today's standard.

Start playing with these pre-made animations

Want a head start? Rokoko has recorded and perfected thousands of motions using mocap in collaboration with the best studios in the world and made them available through Rokoko Studio under the Motion Library. They’re full of character and ready for you to use for game development, short films, and more. Download Rokoko Studio to get free access to 100 mocap animations or buy from the entire catalog at prices from $1 to $5 per asset. 

Book a personal demonstration

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Product Specialists Francesco and Paulina host Zoom demos from the Copenhagen office