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From Body Mechanics Animator to Character Performance Animator; Documenting the Learning Curve

by Revlyn Schreiber on 03/22/18 01:33:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Hi, my name is Revlyn Schreiber. Currently, I am a masters student at NHTV Breda, where I document the process of how I, starting as a body mechanics animator, become a character performance animator by creating a believable character performance scene using dialogue. The animated scene serves as data for a paper, where I research what factors are beneficial in the process of learning performance animation while also sharing viable information and advice about the subject.

The first step to learning performance animation

Once you have learned how to animate body mechanics: how to make a character move with weight, solidity, and believability during an action scene, the next logical step is to learn how to apply acting choices and emotions to your animations. Animating a believable character performance to dialogue is an excellent way to learn this. We call this performance animation.

However, there is no such thing as “simply” learning performance animation; as a body mechanics animator, there are pitfalls during the process of learning performance animation, as it requires a different skillset which most body mechanics animators are not familiar with. The first, most important objective is how to apply acting to your animations, followed by other essential skills, such as animating to dialogue, facial animation, working with the exposure sheet, animating the lips, etcetera. Additionally, learning a new skill requires viable information and expert guidance, which might not be accessible, or within one’s price range.

The importance of an ideal learning environment

When learning a new skill, viable information and expert guidance are essential, especially when it comes to performance animation, which is a skill that cannot be taught overnight. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to these resources, which inevitably hinders the learning process. Without credible information about the subject, the risk to unknowingly rely on inaccurate information, or adopt misguided animation methods, is much more likely; and without expert guidance, no one will address it, causing you to regress as a performance animator without even noticing it.

Avoiding inaccurate information and improper guidance was my main reason to find a learning environment that I believed I would benefit the most from. This has brought me to the master’s program, which offers me the ideal learning environment; it allows me to animate a performance animation scene by using dialogue, under the supervision of Ralph Palmer, a former Disney animator. It is safe to assume that the given information and guidance is of reliable and authorized nature.

Documenting the learning curve

During the master’s program, I will write a paper that documents how I went from point A to point B; from body mechanics animator to performance animator. The main goal of the project is to determine what factors aid a body mechanics animator to reach a certain level of sufficiency as a performance animator while lessening the risk of regressing or not improving their performance animation skills efficiently. This goal is further supported by sharing viable information and advice that the reader can trust.

Summarized, the project’s definition of a body mechanics animator is someone already familiar with various aspects of Character Animation; it is required to be able to animate a character with weight, solidity, and believability during an action scene (such as running) in their preferred 3D software, such as Maya or 3Ds Max, and should have knowledge of “The Twelve Principles of Animation” and be able to comfortably apply these principles to their animations.

Currently, specifics of the required sufficiency level as a performance animator cannot be determined yet, as it can only be specified at the end of the project; it takes shape and changes through the process. I have provided a prediction of the expected sufficiency level; the initial goal, whereas having a standard to work towards increases productivity. The initial goal and outcome will differ. Naturally, this part is the most subject to change since a beginner cannot precisely predict when and what specifics of the goal will be reached, without experiencing it first-hand.

Since the project is aimed towards body mechanics animators, terms known to animators will be used frequently, and I will assume that the reader is comfortable with using their preferred 3D software. Therefore, it can be difficult for beginners or non-animators to understand the paper’s content.

The planned content of the paper

As previously mentioned, the project aims to determine what factors are beneficial to progress from point A to point B in a productive manner while also decreasing the chance of failure to reach point B. The given content provides an outline of what is recommended or should be avoided for aspiring performance animators, which one can benefit from. Please keep in mind that, since the master's program is in progress during the publication of this article, the paper's described content is subject to change, though unlikely. The core of the project will remain the same.

The animation project consists of two phases: the “research and preparation” and the “animation” phase.

Phase 1: research and preparation

The research and preparation phase is basically the groundwork you lay before you begin animating. It is essential because you cannot successfully animate a performance without the required preparations and by gaining the required knowledge, especially when you are new to this. As a body mechanics animator, you first learned the principles by animating a bouncing ball before you were able to make a character walk. You can only make the character move convincingly when you understand why the body moves the way it does; how the principles affect the body.

The research requires you to study essential objectives that you are not familiar with yet, by looking up information from viable sources. Some examples are acting, facial animation, working with the exposure sheet, etcetera. In the paper, I will provide the material I have used during the research phase, along with given advice from my supervisor, and my own experience.

The preparation consists of all the essential material for your specific scene that you need to create before you can start animating. For instance, you need to choose the dialogue, then assign each word and letter to their matching frames in the exposure sheet. The Maya file requires a modeled background, a camera, and the chosen rig needs to be optimized to load quickly. Most importantly, you also need to discover your character and understand who he/she is and listen to the dialogue lines over and over till you feel them, then listen to it again. These are a few examples.

Phase 2: animation

Presently, the animated scene is an ongoing project, which means that details cannot be given yet. In the future, I will provide an outline of my workflow, including a schedule with time estimates, which is applicable on any animated performance scene. Material that applies to my specific scene will be received information and feedback, an explanation of my thought process throughout the project, and a self-reflection.

In conclusion

The outcome of the project aims to determine what benefits the body mechanics animator to become a performance animator and to reveal and avoid potential pitfalls. During the process of creating the animated performance scene, I will learn valuable information the reader can use; by testing out what does, or does not work, the reader can avoid certain trial and error situations, thus, use this knowledge to work more efficiently.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope that the finished project will prove to be helpful to you, and other aspiring performance animators.

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