3D Animation Confidential

I am given to whims, distractions, and new hobbies. Last week I decided to try 3D Animation. I thought it’d be a fun way to spend time with my 7 year old son who likes to draw and invent monsters. So we downloaded Blender, and open source 3D program for Linux. Unbeknownst to us we were about to embark on a process that would involve about 24 hours of hair pulling stress, but also some learning.

To start, I chose the wiki tutorial, Your 1st Animation in 30 Minutes, partsI and II. It looked easy.

The tutorial guided me through the basic steps of creating a 3D gingerbread man, much like the one that is being tortured in Shrek. It’s a simple character, but the process was far from simple. To save my dear readers the pain, I’ll explain the steps briefly here from memory:

First you draw some boxes.

Next, you subdivide some boxes, creating a little grid over them. All the points on this grid will points on your creature

Then, you activate a “mirror” mode so that your boxes will replicate themselves horizontally, creating half a body

Now you have 3 grid-covered boxes, one on top the other. Now you need to “extrude” some of them to lengthen limbs.

If your character doesn’t need to move, you can now design the surface, lighting and camera

Now you can see the “wow” moment where you preview your cool looking character in the light. Ours was primitive, but it had a cool cookie-like surface.

BUT, if you want to animate your character (and of course we did), it gets a LOT harder.

Now you create an “armature”, which is a structure that will be the skeleton. You then carefully place bones within your character, who can be rotated in a 3D space. The more bones you make, the more your caracter can move. It was this step that made me realize why a lot of 3D actors (like Shrek’s girlfriend) move the same with that weird head-duck gesture. It’s probably because the studios share characters around, or at least the very time-consuming armatures.

Now you have to connect these bones to the body over them. You can view the body in “mesh” mode which means that it looks like chicken wire over the bones. You then select ends of bones and points on the grid and connect them. Then when the bone moves, the body moves with it.

Now if you haven’t done so you can add the surface material, lighting, etc. and have your “wow” preview moment.

This whole process took about 6 hours. The last part, connecting the bones to the mesh, was incredibly frustrating and kept me up until 12 am. The next morning, in a dizzy blur, I realized it was because I had selected the armature before entering “object” mode, instead of the mesh. I was therefore in the wrong “context”.

Blender, and any other 3D animation program, I imagine, has a dizzying array of modes, contexts, settings, and choices. It allows you to create extreme creatures and give them life. It’s really not unlike creating a robot, because after you set up the bones right, you can use the mouse to make your creature move in any direction. Then you can move him around the area in paths over time – voila – an amination!

Well, I’m a mom with a 3 year old and a part-time job. I’m not paid well by Pixar. And I definitely don’t have time for this. In the 12 hours of intense learning and pain, I sweated out a little blue man who could twitch his arm a little. But I developed respect for the process of creating these creatures. It must take hours and days to create each little Nemo or donkey or whatever. Blender does have a lot of time saving keyboard shortcuts and I’m sure the pros know them all. Would I want to spend picky hours on a computer connecting the thighbone of a bee to 3 points of tissue around? Sure! If you have an entry level opening at Pixar, drop me a line!!!

At the end of the weekend, I had decided not to make this my new hobby. My son had watched captivated for a few hours, but he too grew frustrated and didn’t want to try again. Was the weekend a waste? I don’t think so. We got a taste for this stuff. Now my kid knows exactly how hard it is, but how amazing. Maybe one day when he’s 13 he’ll return to Blender.

For now we’ll try some other stuff, like Stop Motion. We’ll set up his Bionicles, knights and Pokemon and move them around the room, taking pictures. Then we’ll make photo sequences, add soundtracks, compress them into films and send ’em up to Youtube. And one day my creative story telling kid will become the next George Lucas.

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