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Oct 24 2010   12:30AM GMT

From ideas to polished videos: 3D animation workflow for free

Roger King Roger King Profile: Roger King

I teach an introductory 3D animation class at the University of Colorado in Boulder.  I’ve been asked from time to time what applications I would suggest for people who want to learn 3D animation, but don’t have lots of cash.  As it turns out, even a minimal workflow demands a handful of sophisticated applications.  Here are my suggestions for free applications.  (I am not really a Windows person, so I had to augment my list with a suggestion or two from a friend.)

Sketching ideas.

You might want to dive right into an animation application, but if you prefer to first sketch your characters, indoor and/or outdoor environments, and the layout of potential scenes, you might want to try Google Sketchup, which you can run on both Macs and Windows machines.  The fact that this is a sophisticated application has a downside and an upside.  First, it takes a while to get going with it.  But second, you can create precise 2D and 3D models with it, so it’s a good way of incrementally turning a fuzzy idea into a fleshed-out model.  Sketchup is free, which is amazing, given its capabilities.  (There is also a professional version, which is not at all free.)  GIMP is another great, free choice.

Creating and animating 3D scenes.

I teach Autodesk Maya, which is extremely popular among professional animators.  The problem is that it costs thousands of dollars – unless you are a student, in which case there is a completely free version!  It’s at the Autodesk site.  This is an incredible deal.  Note: when it comes time to export a video from Maya, you will find (or at least I did) that the student version has one limitation: it cannot render an actual movie, only a series of still images.  But simply drag your rendered images to Maya’s companion application, Fcheck, and in a poke of a mouse button, you can produce a full video.  Fcheck installs with Maya.

But if you are not a student, there is a free 3D modeling and animation application called Blender.  Be sure to download version 2.5x or newer, because it has been radically improved since version 2.49.  (At the point of this writing, 2.5 is in beta, so beware that it’s going to be imperfect.)  This is no open source toy.  It is a full blown 3D animation application that rivals expensive ones in its complexity and power.

Editing rendered videos.

Once you have built your 3D scenes and models, animated them, and rendered them to video, you’ll want to edit your video renderings together into a single video.  If you are on a Mac, while it is a bit simplistic in its capabilities, iMovie will do the job, and it ships with every Mac.  If for some reason, you don’t have it, it comes with the iLife applications, available at the Apple online store.  (If you have to download it, iLife is not free.)

For Windows applications, a friend of mine suggests Avidemux.  Another one she suggests is Windows Movie Maker, which shipped with Windows machines  until Windows 7.  Now, you have to download it, but it is still free.  Like iMove, it is not very sophisticated, but it gets the job done.

Adding sound.

In the process of editing your rendered videos into a complete, single video, you will have to add a sound track.  A very powerful app that is free and runs on both Macs and Windows machines is Audacity.

Note: You will have to import your sound track into your video editor, then edit it in as a layer with your video, and then export from your video editor a complete video, with sound.  You’ll also  have to work with your animation application to time the sound track to the movements in your animation.  I tell my introductory students to use something simple, like music or a few special effects sound (guns firing, feet falling, etc.), and to let the sound drive the pacing of your animation, not vice versa.  This way, you can focus on learning to animate, and not on mastering complex sound track editing.

Creating textures.

You are quite likely to want to augment the texturing capabilities of your animation application by turning various 2D images into textures for the characters and objects in your scenes.  GIMP, which is available for both Macs and Windows machines, has been around a long time, is quite sophisticated.  It’s another example of an amazing application that it is completely free.

Playing your videos.

Depending on the format produced by your video editing application, you can use Quicktime, which comes with Macs and can be installed on Windows machines for free.  Or you might want VLC for Macs or VLC for Windows, or DIVX (which runs on Macs and Windows machines.)  All of these are free.

In later postings on this blog, we will look more carefully at the issue of formatting and compressing various forms of media.  This is a complex issue that all animators must confront.

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