Updated: September 28, 2011
If you're into 3D animation, then perhaps the one and only program you will ever want and need is Blender. Well, this is a bit of an exaggeration, but it sure is a mighty program that does a lot. In fact, it does so much that you will feel quite intimidating even browsing the menus. Luckily, there are a plenty of books that can help you around.
A few months ago, I reviewed the Blender 2.5 HOTSHOT book, which taught us lots of neat tricks into getting started with the software. Now, let's step it up a notch or three. Today, we will take a look at the Blender 2.5 Character Animation Cookbook, a 308-page work by Virgilio Vasconcelos. Officially, the book is a collection of 50 great recipes for giving soul to your characters by building high-quality rigs and understanding the principles of movement. Unofficially, it is a tremendously powerful guide to 3D animation, with focus on art and anatomy and patience. Let's take a closer look.
I will begin by quoting a bit from the publisher's book page. The Character Animation Cookbook offers clear, illustrative and easy-to-follow recipes to create character rigs and animations for common situations.
Supposedly, the book achieves its ambitious goal by offers clear, illustrative, and easy-to-follow recipes to character animation. You are also taught the principles, techniques and approaches involved in creating rigs and animations. Each chapter is supposed to one lengthy tutorial, with detailed explanations, screenshots and support files to help you understand the concepts behind each topic. There are also numerous examples and screenshots, logically separated into tasks. The topics are divided by region of body and then additional, specific topics for further clarity. All of the work is done using built-in tools, without scripting. Sounds daring. Well, we shall see if the book can live up to its expectations.
Chapter by Chapter
The book runs 308 pages long, it has 10 numbered chapters and an additional sort-of tips and tricks appendix chapter. You can - and you should - also download the complementary 125MB of reference work, which includes all of the models and projects discussed in the book. You will find it much easier to follow the contents as well as practice the listed examples with the aid of the Blender files.
Chapter 1, Get Rigging explains the basics of animation, revolving around the rigging, a set of pivots and pulleys that lets you control your characters. It's simply and nicely explained, but the book also promises quite a bit of work ahead of us. Moreover, it demands good spatial coordination and understanding of human anatomy to achieve any kind of realistic and authentic results. There's quite a bit of references to future chapters, which can be somewhat confusing. All combined, the requirement for imagination and the human bone structure knowledge is simply daunting. For example, take a look at the bone list on Page 29, it could really frighten you. Next, the chapter elaborates in some detail on skin stretching and muscle compression. There's also a very important mention of Forward Kinematics (FK) and Inverse Kinematics (IK), which are basically bone constrains to avoid silly ragdoll physics.
Chapter 2, Rigging the Torso continues the basics introduced before. You learn about creating a stretchy spine and other parts of the body. I must admit I did feel a bit lost after reading it. Chapter 3, Eying Animation focuses [sic] on eye dynamics. It goes into a lot of detail, including how to control eyelids and pupil dilation. This kind of detail is truly overwhelming and can make a person waver at this stage. Once again, the knowledge of anatomy plays a crucial part.
Chapter 4 is all about facial expressions. An important aspect of mastering this part of the book is to avoid the so-called uncanny valley effect, where even slight deformations and differences from expected human-like behavior tend to look zombie like. The chapter also teaches about using the Shape Keys for facial expressions, which are otherwise extremely difficult to achieve using bone constraints. Typical expressions include brow sad, mouth puck, cheek puff, and more. You can mix different effects to achieve complex emotions.
Chapter 5 is about controlling limbs, including fingers, a three-pivot foot, shoulders, hands, etc. Once again,
there's a very important emphasis on constraints and how the body behaves in general.
Chapter 6, Animation Workflow is somewhat difficult to follow. Now that we can take the anatomy exam with ease, the next step we want is to make the animation of all our little things combined. The chapter teaches us about working in layers, grasping and throwing objects, using video for background reference, and more. But it's extremely non-trivial, including a supposedly simple bouncing ball examples, which also demands a good understanding of physics. One thing that stands out is the use of video to get the human dynamics for different scenes properly. On the other hand, I am not quite sure if I followed what silhouette and mirror rendering effects are. Moreover, I am not sure what Non-Linear Animation (NLA) Editor does, either.
Chapter 7, Mastering the Basics is another difficult chapter, with a somewhat misleading name, since the things we are working with are hardly basics. We learn about adjusting and tracking the timing, anticipating actions, squash and stretch, etc. Like the previous part, it is quite difficult to follow, as some concepts still seem rather alien. The one important thing taught here is the principle called Solid Drawing, which is universally true for both 2D and 3D art. It's the concept of breaking the symmetry to make things look more imperfect and thus more natural.
Chapter 8, The Mechanics of Body Movement uses a tennis serve as an example. There's also a mention of heavy
metal, not in the musical sense, which is about adding the feeling of weight to objects, to make them look
believable. It is important to use pivots, just like in real life. Furthermore, we learn about cycled
animations, which can be used for repetitive actions like running.
Chapter 9, Animation Refinement is about character multitasking, like walking and checking the wristwatch at the same, glancing sideways, scratching, all those little things that we normally do, which make us appear human. A crucial concept of the animation refinement is that characters should never be 100% still, but also to avoid too many random motions, which can also look unnatural. The chapter also teaches about animation with appendages, like long ears, tails, antennas, hair, neckties, etc. Finally, there's a section on refinement using AniSculpt, which is somewhat like working with clay. It allows softening of shapes for better looking, more human characters, but it should be used sparingly.
Chapter 10, Drama King: Acting in Animation is about feelings, objectives, desires, talking and walking with
style, etc. It tells us that blinking is critical, humans tend to walk with some degree of swagger, gestures
are important, and facial expressions must always be used. Lastly, there's a brief mention of using audio
effects with visual feedback to helping create mouth shapes for lip syncing.
The last chapter is a sort of a summary chapter, focusing on the non-technical part of the animation work, like creating thumbnails with Grease Pencil, naming conventions, extremes, breakdowns, etc. You might also want to consider using a drawing tablet for this part of the work, if you're serious about 3D animation.
Did I like the book?
Yes I did. Was it simple to master? Not at all. in fact, using the words simple and easy should be stricken out from the vocabulary when discussing pretty much any topic related to Blender, this book notwithstanding. I will repeat it again, you must be a very skilled artist to use the Animation Cookbook, even if you're blindly following the instructions. If all your drawings of a human resemble spuds with hair, then you will probably achieve very little at the end of the day, feel frustrated with your lack of success and probably blame the book.
The thing is, the book is well laid out and it comes with a ton of awesome examples. But they all cater to higher brain functions, so if you are not a skilled painter, sculptor or artists of any sort, you stand no chance at mastering this book and its contents.
Blender 2.5 Character Animation Cookbook is a great work. It's interesting and compelling. The book is well laid out and written, although some of the forward references to other chapters can be frustrating. The one big problem with the book is that emanates false easiness, because there's nothing easy about being a master artist. Some chapters need a bit more clarification, especially the middle chapters that focus on complex subjects like non-linear animation and the breaking of symmetry.
If you are already somewhat skilled with Blender, you will find the flow of topics logical and convenient and will be able to follow them with little difficulty. But if you're only getting started in the world of animation, this book will be a hard read. But then, perhaps, there's nothing to bridge the quantum leap between being an artistic newb and a skilled user of digital software.
The combined price for the printed and digital edition is GPB28.04, which is a very decent tag for this work. Overall, the Character Animation book gets 9/10. That would be all.