Animated Singer - All time Low

Animate Characters Like A Pro In Blender using Animation Layers

When I animate characters it is always an enjoyable time, but quite frankly, I do too little to satisfy my appetite. Nevertheless, this workflow helps me tremendously throughout the process

First things first, Let’s import the rig. If you’re not sure what the best way is, you could read this post on linking and library overrides in Blender.

As always accompanying this post is a video, this time a small series. If that interests you then watch it, when you prefer written posts or just want a recap of the video, read on.

With complex models and high poly characters, a scene might not always have the most graceful playback. More often than not an animator’s Blender runs a 5 fps.

You could easily bring this up to 25 fps if you like. It takes only a few clicks, it’s up to you.

You go to the properties panel and in the render settings go to simplify.

Check this button to activate the simplify function, and then basically turn everything down to zero. You could set the texture limit, and set a low value for example 256.

And that should fix it.

Animation Layers in Blender

It’s time to install our secret weapon: Animation Layers. 

If you don’t have this add-on, you can download it through the Blender Market.
*Please remember that MVARTZ may receive a commission when you click on these links and make a purchase. This, however, does not cost you any extra. 

In preferences install the addon, navigate to the zip file through Blender, and Animation Layers will be installed. To verify, type it in the search bar Animation Layers, when it pops up you can check the box in front of it. This will activate the addon.

What I like to do is unfolded and see if there are any updates available.

So this creates a new tab on the right-hand side animation under the pose library

With the checkbox, we can turn on the animation layers for the current animation. Hit the plus sign to create two layers, the base layer, and the animation layer.

I usually leave the base layer empty and animate on the first layer, the animation layer.

You can rename them to anything you like.

Set up Constraints

For this animation the microphone should follow the hand, this is best achieved using a Child of constraint. A benefit of using child of constraints over regular parenting is the handy influence slider. Which can be animated if your character needs to release an object, for me that would be ‘drop the mic’.

For me, it’s best to get the constraints out of the way as soon as possible. To fully indulge in the animation process after.

Be sure to test your constraints out, and see if it follows, but also try the influence slider and see where the object ends up.

It’s good to test in the A or T-pose, but also try moving the rig around a bit more, if everything looks stable, buckle up cause it’s finally time to animate!

Blocking Pass

The first pass of animation is often referred to as the blocking pass. Your blocking pass should be one animation layer if possible.

Whether you like to block in spline or in stepped mode when you animate characters are totally up to your preference.

You gathered reference footage. Pro-tip, edit, you’re reference clips, to compile a perfect reference video. You can’t act out stylized timing and spacing, so feel free to speed up, jump cut, or timewarp your reference footage.

It doesn’t have to stop there either, if you have multiple takes, with different acting choices, feel free to combine those using your editing software.

Sorry for that tangent, but your reference is key during the blocking pass. During this stage, you should focus on getting through the key poses as fast as possible. Not that you have to hit a certain time or anything, don’t worry about that. 

No, it’s just too easy and fun to lose yourself in posing details. When you focus on getting the blocking pass to look decent, it will be easier to tweak from there. 

This stage is meant to get the action and rough acting choices down. Getting appealing poses and perfect inbetweens will come later. 

To make it simple for yourself, you can sketch over your reference to give an indicator of key poses. 

It always surprises me how many keyframes you will end up with in the end.

Blender is your friend but not the best inbetweener when you animate characters. It’s better to leave as little as possible up to Blender’s interpolation.

Experimentation with Animation Layers

As you animate characters you’ll find that sometimes the reference you shot was incomplete, or could be pushed even further.
For this, you want to now add a new animation layer.

In my case I’m going to call this foot placement then what I want to do is use this layer system to get a chance to experiment with some new animation on top of the animation, we already have.

You see, sometimes it’s good to break the animation down in steps because if you want to experiment like I’m doing here, you have to fight your current animation.

Right now, if you create a new layer, you can animate on top of it and you could just delete it, if you decide you don’t like it, without screwing up the existing animation.

In this case, I’m experimenting with a food adjustment to see if this will add something to the acting I did in my reference shot.

Left ImageRight Image

I hinted at this already, but using animation layers is a way to work non-destructive.

So I added a new layer.

For example, for the breathing animation.

As I already said, it is a nondestructive workflow and in this non-destructive workflow, you can choose to break your animation down into layers, which will give you a far better overview of the animation you’re doing.

Also, a very nice feature of the animation layer is the influence. So when you’re done with the breathing animation, You can dial the influence back to point five.

Then review what this is doing. When you are happy leave it, if not, bring it up to 0.75 for example.

Let’s move on.

Spline Animation Layer

When you have your blocking pass ready to a point where you’re content with it.

You want to continue splining the animation. Spline in this context refers to an interpolation type, the keyframes you set, have inbetweens which Blender made for you. The interpolation type predefines what the default spacing is going to look like. Spline, or bezier as it is called in Blender, lets you use handles to influence the curves.

Another great use of the animation layers addon is this feature.

This time, you’re not going to create a new animation layer from scratch.

In the animation layers panel, go down to the back operators and say, duplicate this layer.

Here you could duplicate the blocking pass layer, which is set to constant most often. 

Until now, all of the layers had been set to combine. This takes the animation layers below into account and mixes them as a Mix RGB node would do.
Imagine on one layer you set a keyframe, for your object to be 1 meter to the left. Then on the next layer, you could do the opposite and place your object 1 meter to the right. By setting the layer on top to combine, the result would be that the object sits in the middle.

When we instead set our layer blend to replace the animation layer on top overrides the layers beneath it. Following our previous example, it would only display our object on the left side, no matter what we set the influence of the base layer.

What we’re going to do now is let the layer on top replace the layers below.

And that’s fine because the layer below is just a block-out pass.

Now you could select all the controllers and all the keyframes, and make sure that none are hidden in the curve editor.

Then in the Curve editor, you’re going to set the interpolation type to spline, instead of constant

So this is the time to start and polish the animation.

Polishing animation

It is highly recommended that you work from the core out because usually the adjustments you make at the core translate into the neatly clean curves you worked so hard for in the fingers, toes, or hands for example.

This is not a hard rule, just work smarter not harder kind of advice. For example, my character was sitting, with very limited hip movement. Normally I would polish the hips first, yet with little motion going on there I think we would be okay to start with the belly and chest as our core.

I’m not going to use the hips that much because they’re not translating up or down, left or right.

What you want to see, I usually use motion trails to visualize this, is a clean arc in the motion and there is not a janky, hard movement that pulls on the animation. Also, the motion trails give you an indication of where the spacing of your movement is off.

Those are the two main concerns I focus on at this stage.

You see, I tried to incorporate some overlap and drag into my blocking pass animation already. However, if you prefer to do this at a later stage, this would be a good time. You can use the curve editor to overshoot, drag and build in anticipations.

Lip sync or Dialogue animation

It’s usually best to focus on small sections of a larger animation. It can be overwhelming to tackle the whole thing at once.

With everything but the face controllers hidden, we can find our pose bones. Right-click one of the pose assets and choose ‘Select Pose Bones’. If you’re not familiar with the pose library check this video.

To continue the workflow of the previews video, and keep a nice overview of our animation we can add a lip sync animation layer.

Listen carefully to the audio track to find vowels and phonemes you need. 

Okay, Let’s set the first keyframes. For these, I’ll keyframe all channels.

Double-tap the shape in your pose library to switch between them.

For example, I start with a closed mouth shape and open to a UU sound. To begin saying: “Cause”. I might need a consonant shape in between there. At the apex of the word “Cause” there is an Ah shape. 

This shape however is not the full AH shape we have in our pose library.

To get the shape we need, we must blend the ah shape with the shape before.

To do so, set a keyframe for the AH shape 2 or 3 frames behind your last pose. 

Then find the frame on the timeline that has the shape closest to what you need and set a keyframe. Now replace the UU keyframe with this blended shape. 

Sometimes when you don’t find the right shape straightaway, you could place the closest thing you can manage there as a placeholder. Because the aim is to get the first pass done as soon as possible. It’s easier to spot mistakes and tweak when you got something on the timeline.

I know this can sound obvious, but it happens to everybody sometimes. You get lost in a specific section and lose time finicking to get it right.

Sometimes the poses are just a starting point, that gets you 90% there. And keep you in the mystical flow. 

Animate character emotions

You don’t have to do this but for this tutorial, I’ll make a new animation layer to add some emotions on top of the characters.

Using the mouth controls we can add a frown, smile, sneer, or whatever is fitting for your animation. One downfall of the addon is, Animation layers don’t work flawlessly with the in-betweener in Blender.

With a few tweaks of the mouth, the character looks sad to start with and fairly neutral when he starts to sing. The rest of his demeanor betrays his mood, so for readability, I kept the shapes neutral here.

Then Ending on the mmm sound here I want to ease into a sad version of the mm. A couple of frames in front of this pose is where a hold frame of the neutral state should be keyframed.

When the other characters join in, the main character’s mood increases and we can allow a subtle smile to come through here. Raise the corners of his mouth slightly, and pull the around the teeth a bit more.

Let’s also create a new animation layer to animate the face details.

When your mouth opens up, the cheeks should come in, because of the stretch you lose some volume there. 

That’s not the only detail we can animate on this layer. Let’s add some blink animations. I created a closed-eye pose asset already to speed things up while animating. 

Some blinks are open to close and back straight away. For the first one I wanted a more deliberate blink, so with a hold frame or 2 in the middle, I think that comes across nicely

Then duplicate the blink, and maybe get rid of the hold frames in the middle. Then distribute the blinks strategically. Where should you add blinks? Fast and or big head movements, usually go paired with a closing of the eyes. 

Also, don’t be afraid to experiment with holding the eyes closed for a moment.

The face becomes much more animated when we animate the eyebrows. You can match the up and down with the blinks. Experiment with sad brows or relaxed ones. Scowl if you have to, this is where you can have fun with your animation.

Asymmetry is crucial to create organic feeling animations. Even if it is subtle the break in symmetry creates contrast and interest. Try to follow the line of action when you break symmetry for the most appealing poses.

And that should be enough to lead to an awesome final animation!

You are well on your way, In addition, I’m going to suggest this video next with another essential skill that will make your animations look much better.

As always, stay creative, I’ll see you next time. Ciao!