The process of creating an animation is to first determine your story and purpose, then decide the core technical format of the animation (frame rate, resolution). And then you begin creating the assets for your animation before eventually moving on to the stage of actually rigging the models and creating the animations. Then when everything is done, click that render button and watch your finished animation come to life. A good 3D animation software will allow you to follow this process with ease, but does Blender?
Blender 3D is a good choice for creating 3D animations as it has all of the required tools to create and render animations from start to finish. You can define your render parameters, create and rig your entire 3D scene, and render your final product all within Blender if you need to.
While Blender is a good choice it may not necessarily be the best choice for creating a 3d animation depending on what that animation is going to be used for. There are several quality options for artists and companies for creating a 3D animation clip/advert/film etc.
Blenders Animation Track Record
The Blender Foundation occasionally promotes a new version of Blender with a short film that will have been constructed from the ground up using Blender itself. Below is a shortlist of some of the films that have been created using Blender 3D…
- Big Buck Bunny
- Agent 327
- Tears Of Steel
- Cosmos Laundromat
All of these are animation shorts and act as a proof of concept for what you can do using Blender. Big Buck Bunny was released in 2008 and if you were to watch that short compared to the more recent spring (2019) you will see how Blender has come as an animator and even since then Blender has continued to develop at a fantastic pace.
Eventually, we may begin to see more projects built around Blender as its popularity continues to grow both in terms of the animation industry and of course its global online community. For example, there will be adverts that use rendered assets, or even 3D animated cartoon shoes created using Blender.
Render Settings, Optimization, And Output Formats
A good animator should do more than simply creating the animation itself. The software first of all needs to be able to use 3D models and position them in the scene. It is not strictly required for the software to have the capabilities to create 3D models so long as it can import them, and Blender, being a 3D molding program by trade, is fully capable of both workflows.
Ideally, you will want to be able to do as much of the work in a single application as possible so having a suite of 3D modeling tools is a big plus.
Any animator will also have access to at least one renderer so that the software can render out the movie frame by frame when all is said and done. Blender is compatible with a growing number of render engines but by default technically has three, although the workbench renderer is not really an option for animators.
The other two certainly are though, as artists will have a choice of either using EEVEE or Cycles to render out movie files. This is a very important choice for artists early on in the process as both engines behave very differently and will have many rendering options that the other won’t.
Eevee is referred to as an ‘online’ renderer, which means that it produces clean renders at a real-time pace at the expense of realism. Using the Eevee engine creates a more basic look for your render where everything is recalculated and virtually instant when using the default settings.
You can activate additional visual features like bloom and screen space reflections to improve the quality of the final result, although it will gradually increase the render times as well.
This render engine is best used in scenarios where either speed is a key determining factor, or if there is no need to push for realism.
The alternative option is to use Cycles, which is classed as an offline renderer, meaning that is not meant to be rendered in real time. Instead, it uses samples to render out the image or frame over time, the more samples you set the cleaner the final result.
The key disadvantage here is time, as rendering frames in Cycles takes much longer than in Eevee. The advantage of Cycles though is that it creates much more realistic images using raytraced lighting and automatically calculate real-world properties like ambient occlusion.
Most animations may only require the use of the Eevee engine, but if you want or need the best possible results then you should go cycles. Remember to choose your render engine before you begin creating the assets.
With Blender, you have complete control over the settings of the render itself. The properties panel allows you to define the frame rate of the animation, as well as the total animation length and the resolution. From here you can also define the render output for your animation. All of these should be done as early as possible.
A few tips from me on optimization for an animation. 60fps will give the most fluid results but not always the most natural. Going with 30 or even 24 frames per second can still offer excellent results while dramatically saving your render time, especially when using cycles.
Don’t forget that Blender renders 1 frame at a time, so if you have a 10-second animation that’s either 240, 300, or 600 frames that need to be rendered. If it’s not a requirement to go full 60 frames per second, then avoid going that high, it’s not a video game after all.
The second tip is to render at a lower resolution first. This way you get a good impression of how your animation looks and what changes need to be made. For example, if by target resolution is 1080p then I will test render at 540p to preview the animation, then switch when I am happy with the changes made.
Blender offers a few file formats for outputting your rendered movie file. The primary choice here in most cases would be the FFmpeg video format. This has a lot of flexibility as you can use a variety of different file containers and various video codecs, we won’t get into detail about how video compression works but our preferred setup here is to use the MP4 codec, but most other options are perfectly viable for general use.
A key tip for Cycles users, in particular, rendering takes a long time when creating an animation, and Blender is not immune to crashing. If it does so while rendering you lose all the time spent waiting for the render to finish. We recommend this slightly longer, but much safer approach.
Instead of setting the render output to a movie format at all, set it instead to a picture format instead, like png for example. Then you will render the animation as normal, but instead of it being saved as a movie file, each frame is saved as a separate image, labeled as 001, 002, 003, and so on.
The key advantage here is that if Blender crashes you keep all the frames that you already rendered and can just restart where you left off by selecting the 1st frame not rendered. It’s an extra step but well worth it.
When the animation is complete, open up the video sequence editor and import all your png frames at once as an image sequence. Then change your output settings in the properties panel and change the output back to a movie format, then hit render animation again. The render is much faster and will convert your entire sequence into a single movie file in seconds.
NOTE: When you have any content in your video sequencer the render animation will prioritize that over what you have in the 3D viewport.
Rigging And Animation Toolkits
The core of any application for creating an animation is the variety of tools that it possesses and how intuitive it is to use those tools.
All the tools necessary for creating animations are found in Blender, however, it should be noted that there is a bit of a learning curve here in order to use them properly. The basics are easy enough, as Blender uses a keyframe system to mark the start and endpoints of an animated object’s motion. More keyframes equal more complex animations, such as with a typical bouncing ball, which will require a keyframe each time the ball hits the ground as well as when it reaches the desired height.
Using the bouncing ball as an example, we can use the timeline to playback, rewind, pause, and fast forward our animations in the 3D viewport. This allows us to preview how the animation will play out. We can then use the dope sheet as our main tool for editing the positioning of our keyframes, making the animation appear either faster or slower depending on the positioning.
The behavior of these keyframes can be altered using the graph editor. With this editor, the artist can control the falloff from when keyframe to the next, making the animation appear more natural. For our bouncing ball, physics indicates that the amount of kinetic energy is reduced as it rises into the air, and once that hits 0, the ball stops rising and then begins to fall as a result of gravity.
With the graph editor, you can adjust the falloff of the keyframe to mimic this behavior in your animation, making the ball slow down as it reaches the determined height, and creating an overall better-looking animation.
That’s quite a fair bit of work just to get a ball to bounce, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to animation in Blender.
The process of rigging actually takes place before animating an object. Creating a rig allows an object to move its various smaller parts in different ways, adding a lot more complexity to the model. The rig is referred to as an armature object in Blender.
The process begins with the creation of the bones that form the armature, positioning them inside the object at the points where they will want to eventually control the way the object can be animated. Control bones are normally added outside of the mesh object and these are used to control the actual movement of the model.
It should be noted that this is all done before the armature is connected to the model in question. Once the rig is finished it then needs to become the parent object of the model, so that when the rig moves, the object moves.
But that’s not all, as you then need to define the weighting that each bone has on the mesh in weight painting mode, which will determine the level of control each bone has. The initial positioning of the bones is not the most important aspect for the rig to work, but does make it much easier to use.
Like animation, the process of rigging is a steep learning curve and it takes time to get it right. Make sure to watch plenty of tutorial content on Youtube and practice rigging with different object types to get the hang of it.
Comparison With Other Options For Animations
It is not the only option for creating professional quality animations and renders, and for many would not even be considered the first choice.
First, you have the AUTODESK options for 3D modeling and animation which are 3Ds Max and Maya. These are considered the industry standard in animation and in game design and Maya in particular is popular for its incredibly impressive feature set for 3D animation, while 3Ds Max is more focused on the modeling aspect.
While these are professional-grade tools you do have to consider that, like many of the alternative options, it costs a lot of money to license these applications for commercial use and even general use. n the UK for example it can cost around £1980 for a one year license for an independent developer.
Cinema 4D is another popular option for professional artists as it too has a greater range of tools for modeling, texturing, lighting, and animation. It’s a little bit cheaper than the Autodesk options while still maintaining a professional-grade toolset. Its primary purpose is 3D animation which is an advantage over a multi-purpose application like Blender because the workflow is more geared towards animation in Cinema 4D.
Houdini is another option for animators and has tons of potential thanks to its procedural workflow, and it can also be used to create 3D animations of various levels of complexity. A one-year license costs around $269 (No price for £) making it comparatively cheap as an alternative compared to the other choices. That said, Blender is free for all purposes so the price war is always going to tip in Blenders’ favor here.
All choices will have a notable learning curve but some are steeper than others. Of the five listed above, I have tested each one and will put cinema 4D on top when it comes to learning the software. Houdini is the most difficult due to its procedural approach to scene building and animation.
Who Should Use Blender For Animations?
Blender will get the job done regardless of the context whether being used to create adverts, animation shorts, or even motion graphics. It can go toe to toe with many of the more professional applications when it comes down to the quality of the final result.
If you have the budget though, you should consider other options besides Blender for their more intuitive layouts and additional tools, as well as the improved level of system support.
For beginner and freelance animators Blender is a perfect option. It has all the tools that you will need for most projects and you get all of that for free.
This also makes Blender a terrific first choice as a learning tool for 3D modeling and 3D animation. While it does possess its own quirks the process of creating animations is basically the same on Blender as it is other applications. On top of that, you will find more learning resources on places like Youtube for Blender than the alternatives.
Should You Use Blender If You Are Working In A Professional Capacity?
If you are working for a major animation company like the Disney animation studio then you will likely have been directed to use a certain application anyway, which may or may not use Blender. In terms of raw capability, there is little reason why you would not want to use Blender other than fact that there may be slightly better options elsewhere.
Should You Use Blender To Help Create Products And Animations That You Can Sell?
Again Blender is fully capable of producing animations fairly close to what Pixar can achieve, all the animators at Pixar themselves are masters of the software and can create some visually stunning animations. If you want to create an animation and then sell that animation or its assets on the appropriate platform, then that is indeed an option you can take with Blender.
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