Are Blender character animation tools getting outdated?

Hi, do someone think that the last years development focus, mainly on rendering and on modeling, have left animation tools of blender quite old for today profesional standars?

Well, Blender animation is pretty much one guy…

Pardon the lack of updates here over the past month(s). As you may have noticed, it’s been a rather hectic few months for me as I’m currently locked into a soul-sucking death march tussle with my PhD project (also known as the dreaded “write up”). There’s still a few short/long months left before I’ll be done with it; whether it’s short or long depends on your worldview - short when it comes to the mountain of work remaining (eek!) and long when thinking about the amount of time/energy required to get it all done (double eek!). On the bright side though, come May 1st (all going to plan, fingers-crossed), I’ll finally be able to resume work on my ever-growing backlog of 1000x more exciting projects… Hang in there Blender animators - there’s heaps of goodness just around the corner!

However, this year has not been without updates:

and some experimental stuff:

Aligorith updates tend to come in accumulated chunks.

Blender’s animation tools are unlikely to see a major upgrade in capabilities until 2.8 is released (when the new Depsgraph is complete and made default).

I mention the Depsgraph because it is the primary thing holding back animation tools at the moment (the activation of the new replacement alone will significantly increase the possibilities with the existing tools).

Absolutely they are. That said… no 3D package has what I would consider “great” animation tools out of the box. Animation itself hasn’t changed much since the early 1900s. The process is still very much the same in 2D as it is in 3D. Blender, with some addons, makes this process fairly painless. What’s lacking in Blender are the tools that ease the other parts of animators’ lives. An improved NLA and Dopesheet will go a long way, and a proper linking system is long overdue. Real onion skinning and true OSD implementation are also big features that are taken for granted in pretty much every other package. Rigging and auto/assisted weight setup have also come a long way since heat weighting was implemented in Blender (although I will give credit for a very speedy implementation of Delta Mush last year in the form of the Corrective Smooth modifier) and I think this is an area ripe for relatively easy improvement. As pointed out though, a lot of the Animation pipeline is contingent on a modern depsgraph, and that’s on the way.

It’s an an odd situation, because if you show blender to any 3D worker, before giving it a quick look and watching the main works did with it, they will come telling you that blender is mainly a 3D package mainly focused on making animation films whith characters like pixar ones.
But atention by developers and comunity get mainly focused on things as rendering, modelling and in animation side on motion graphics.
I think that the innerent dificulty of animation for artist and the trend for developers for technicall problems is leaving blender out of the main focus on tool making.

well, to be fair to make animations (as in movies and such) you also need to do modeling and rendering, quel surprise! :wink: As an OSS development depends on coder interest and/or funds, so there you go. There is currently a focus on rendering and the viewport, and those are big projects to undertake. What do you propose could be done to improve this situation?

The work on the viewport right now is arguably more important than updating the animation tools at the moment. The animation tools are a little weak in some spots, but they are still usable in complex setups.

The viewport meanwhile will practically come to a standstill in cases like scenes heavy with particles and large meshes in editmode (making it largely unusable). A good chunk of the drawing code hasn’t been updated since the NaN days and is a primary source of complaints among users (and even more so, it is not possible to fix with addons).

I work in 3DSMax and Maya at my day job. First of all, Maya is really the only App out there anymore that has any kind of “Good” animation system. Max is incredibly limited and I usually hate working with characters in it. Being that, I really have to wonder what people mean by “Animation tools”? I mean, there’s needs to be a graph editor, dope sheet, you need to be able to make keyframes and have the curves be Stepped, etc. Having an NLA (which Blender does have) and a layer system are welcome features but don’t make or break the system. To me, animating in Blender is not the issue. It’s rigging and skinning.

If you Look up “Easy Rigging” you’ll see some videos showing some of Blenders features. Bendy Bones in Blender is one of the most advanced features of any animation system. There is nothing like this in any other package. You would need to build a long chain of bones and attached them to a spline or “Ribbon” distribute the twist down through the chain, etc. In Max it’s really a pain in the ass to do this. It’s maybe a little easier to do Maya but mostly because there are so many helpful coders who have made scripts to automate the process a little here and there.

But in Blender, you can do this with a single Bone and some simple constraints. So the fact that Blender has them is pretty amazing. The impact of which, I don’t think most Blender users even entirely understand. And this is exactly the kind of ‘thinking outside the box’ development that we need to apply to rigging in general. Normally someone would say, hey, I need to make Bendy bones in Blender and some developer would just look at how it’s done in Maya and see that it’s this complex process of splines, constraints, helpers, etc. and set to work developing these same features. Bendy bones supersedes all of this by allowing bones simply be splines and thus bendy by nature.

The easy rigging tools are the kinds of tools that Animators really need. Because most animators are not riggers but they need rigged characters. So having this stuff just built into the basic bones is really the key to making it easier. I would love to see the approach taken to the next level with skinning tools now. For instance, there’s probably a way to use the type of joint that the bone is to inform how it should deform. for example, we all know how an elbow should look when it deforms vs a shoulder vs a neck/spine/tail. You could make a system joint type identifiers and specific deformation behavior with each one would be used.

So, yes Blender’s “Animation Tools” could use some work but it’s mostly in the realm of rigging/skinning tools rather than trying to improve the actual animation workflow.

By the way, “Heat mapping” may be old technology but it works better than most other methods and in Blender it works much better than in Maya or Max. Hopefully something like, Elastic Implicit Skinning will show up at some point. But it’s important to recognize that no other App has this technology right now. Heat mapping and geodesic voxel mapping are the order of the day.

Also, I never use nor have I seen any other animators using the “onion skinning” features in Maya or Max. Most animators would rather use motion paths and or just focus on the single pose rather than see them jumbled up and overlapped. One thing I would love to see is spline handles on motion paths in the 3D view. Not so much for character animation but for camera and object animation it helps a lot.

We’ve seen this before but just as a reminder:

I definitely mean motion paths when I wrote onion skinning. I’ll blame it on lack of sleep.

Currently, my favorite “replacement” for heat weighting is more of an extension of it which I was able to play with all too briefly in VooDoo. Basically, their bones have envelopes that can be scaled in any direction. Once your envelopes are more or less scaled to fit your mesh geometry, a heat weighting process calculates influence from the nearest envelopes and interpolates in a smart way. And for most meshes, this was a real-time effect, so you could then adjust weight gradients as needed after the fact without re-weighting. From there, I was told, something like 80% of the time the animators would just slap a Delta Mush onto the modifier stack, add a muscle system or lose sculpted features, and call it a day. What those animators and riggers were able to pull off with a team of ten was much more impressive than what I’ve seen out of teams of 50 or more.

Yeah, VooDoo has some amazing technologies in there. I’d love to get some of that make it’s way into Blender (other than Delta Mush of course which is already there). The Envelope thing is tricky because I think it makes people think of how Blender used to work before they had weight painting. Also, Max has a kind envelope implementing too but it’s not at all intelligent like Voodoo. Voodoo uses them to find the skin but then the delta much handles the smoothing of the weights.

It’s funny because I’ve used delta mush in Max, Maya and Blender; sometimes it’s a life saver and other times it’s a strange conundrum. The issue is that it needs to work only on the skin and somehow not effect the deformations that occur under that. But of couse, there’s no way for that to happen. Skin needs to happen before things like shapekeys/blendshapes and other desecrate deformations otherwise weird things happen. But then the delta mesh (which doesn’t know about the other deformations when it’s applied) treats them as unwanted errors and tries to smooth them out. So, yeah, not much you can do about that. In some programs you can define a weight map to control how it effect the mesh. But then, it negates the smoothing effect in those areas.

But yeah, a more flexible envelope driven, guided heat mapping would be very appreciated. :slight_smile:

Also, on the topic of outdated animation technologies: Just last year, Maya got a full pose space defomation system… !!! Last year folks! Blender has had this feature since Big Buck Bunny. For those who don’t know, this is the ability to sculpt or even just model corrective shape keys/blendshapes on a posed model. So, say you wanted to correct the shape of the elbow when a character bends it’s arm. Before you had to use specialized scripts or plugins to extract the delta between the model and the deformed shape from a copy that you had sculpted on. The “Shapes” plugin made this easier but it was still a bitch. This is something that people at movie studios like Pixar, Disney and Sony have been doing for years now with antiquated scripts and plugins. Blender has had this features, built in, for years now. Remember “AniSculpt”? that was back in the 2.4 days. You couldn’t do that Maya… That’s why they would import the animation into Blender and sculpt it and send it back the Blender. Ha! So funny.

I was thinking more on posing tools, the fact that blender is seted to build your own rig and work with it is a good aproach for the top level of profesionals, but the top level of profesionals even dont use maya, use the studio software. So as you say

Because most animators are not riggers but they need rigged characters. So having this stuff just built into the basic bones is really the key to making it easier
even in the little animation studio, the need is to have character generators with quick asnd easy posing and puppetering tools. Of course the hobist or students will not start making a rig.
Blender have a quite good character generator in the Manuelab addon, but is only a generator, lacks of the posing tools.
And what mean from posing tools: Full body inverse kinematiks seted as default in the viewport, and automatic change to forward kinematiks when using posing body maps on a external tab.
Have pose libraries that include face expresions with shapekeys in one unified and visual (have an image of the pose and the expresion) workflow to store and use it.
More advanced ways to mix and puppeter expresions and poses, lacks of any puppetering set as i know.
Ready to use low level mocap systems with kinect or other afordable devices.
That all features are not the hig end technologies, but are the decisive on low level profesionals as studios working for advertising companies or for hobist or students.
It’s great that blender have such a good technology as bendy bones, but leaving the low end users without easy and quick tools dont seem the best strategy for a software as blender.

Dont forgeting for example that as a particular addon manuelab runs in their own objetives, now another diferent team is building crowd addon, but without character generator and disconected from the manuelab one. Thats and absurd development aproach blenderfundation would help to getin integration between decisive addons teams.

This has turned into an interesting discussion.

I was tempted to post earlier to ask … When posing questions like this about Blender animation tools … which other apps out there, is it supposedly being compared to ?

As far as I can tell there is possibly only one other serious fully featured 3D character animation app out there right now ? As in one that is also seeing rapid robust development for high level 3D character animation. Especially now that Softimage has been culled ?

I also use Maya a lot in my day job. Mostly in rigging and animation and pipeline set up. Max not so much anymore, but I used to use it a lot in the past and it was my main app many years back. As far as I can tell Max’s animation tool set is getting very little development right now ?

Personally my focus has certainly shifted to Maya and Blender as the two solid character animation options for working with for the future. Possibly Houdini will be one to watch too. But right now for me. All the interesting stuff is happening around Blender and Maya on the character animation front.

The biggest obvious weakness I see with Blender right now is in the pipeline side rather than so much the quality of any individual tools. The problem is it’s not always clear how to link everything together. How to set up a robust animation pipeline designed to work well across a studio network with a small to mid size team. Documentation is this area is also very patchy and limited and often outdated. At some point in the future it would be good if some sort of proper organized tech support was set up. Something that serious and professional users could pay into and help support.

Agree so much about the thinking outside the box approach and the bendy bones example. There could be so much future use for them as in becoming a possible muscle solution too. Adding soft body dynamics even ? But the beauty of it would be that it would all be within one multi functional bone system for everything.
This is what I see as Blenders ultimate potential and the best of what it can offer. And there is so much in Blenders animation tool set which is already superb. I personally just love the dopesheet. I think it’s my favorite feature of that kind I have used anywhere so far.
Agree also. More focus on streamlining and speeding up the skinning workflow would be good next. More thinking outside the box and radical new solutions to tired and creaky old workflows.