3D Animation Production on a Budget – Time and Money saving Tips


Want to make your own 3D animated short movie on a budget? I wish to share some tips to help make it happen.  This is especially for those that are planning their first production.

First off to do a reality check.  Second see what happens if you don’t.  3rd thing I can give are these tips. I’ve touched on many of the following points before, but they are worth repeating.

The idea here is that time is money and while things like rendering can be speeded up with more computing power(=more money), you should first do everything you can to optimize your work – try make the project take less work and less render time.  There are some choises that can ease your way.  Having said that an animation production is always plenty of work – I’d lie if I said otherwise.

Story focus

If we take pointers from industry leaders, and we should, see how Pixar goes from success to success. They focus heavily on story. If you read interviews you know they really polish the story until it shines. Why not do the same?   Story, storyboards(and animatic) are by far the least expensive way to builda good a base for any movie.

Style choices

Second quite obvious Pixar-lesson is that even though their enviroments become ever more detailed and life-like, the characters stay cartoony. Why? Cartoon is highly expressive, gives all sorts of freedoms in anatomy and motion and allows using caricatyres. Also cartooony is design for sympathy and emotional impact. Set realistic character style against this and it loses big time.

Additionally we people know realistic humans, usually see many of them every day, and hence have an uncanny ability to notice if there is anything unreal about a realistic character on screen.  We can’t help but notice these things which brake the illusion and flow of the story, whereas cartoony figures don’t receive same scrutiny or critisism. And finally cartoony is easier and hence faster and cheaper to make.

Enviroments could have same stylistic approach or you could use photo-cutouts or paintings. Think about 2D-animations and how much they achieve with fairly static backgrounds and how much leeway these fictious works are given.  Almost anything goes because we don’t expect real world rules or logic apply to cartoons.

Modeling & Texturing choices

Again choosing cartoony helps here. Cartoony models don’t need much detail and you may not need to paint textures at all – you may not need to have 3D-painting or sculpting software at all.

Animation choices

Cartoony style gives leeway for animation too. It allow animations that are too fast to be real and that whisk from one dramatic pose. This is easier do than natural motion that can’t have as dynamic suddent starts and stops.

Also going very stylized characters, or having animated items for a characters such as Pixars Luxo Jr. lamp character, can reduce animation work.  Luxo-lamp there is no facial features or legs, it is like a body with a head jumping arond – less to animate.

If you choose to make a silent story(no dialog), you cut the workload.  No mouth is another way to save and so on it goes.  The animation however will not be any less effective -you will find the audience can sympathize with almost anything as long as it is well animated and has a good story. I’m not saying cut it all down to a simple shape – just keep in mind that you can simplify.

Filmography and Rendering choices

What do you need to show to tell the story? Taking cue from old masters of cinema, a horror not shown is often more effective than the one shown. Our brains are filling in the blanks all the time, anyway – you can tell stories with far less images than you may expect.

Real-world-ish lighting and rendering is easy to overdo or waste too much computing power on. You can achieve dramatic and functional lighting with just a few spotlights. Don’t go for GI(global illumination)-features straight away, for they mean longer rendering times, are more likely to cause flickering when rendered images are played together as a video.  And also GI does not replace hand-placed lights. Lighting specialist exist for a reason – lights are storytelling tools.

Render to series of images, not to video.  Rendering to image series’s make software crashes less troublesome and images give you far more options in post-production.  Also almost never render all things to one layer – instead render foreground, midground and background separately for futher editing and compositing possibilites.

If your images need enhancement or fixing, and they often do, push as much you can of that to post-processing(After Effects or similiar). Effects that often are toublesome to both setup and render may be a breeze to add as a post process.

You can check more tips for rendering here and some tips for modeling and animation here.

Hardware choices

As long as you optimize your work, the computer you work on doesn’t have to be an expensive beast.  With something like 1000 dollars you can have a fast enough computer. Just make sure you have a decent processor and enough work memory(ram). Graphics card can be anything middle range as middle range is, these days, very powerful already. You will need some storage space too, but that’s cheap and getting cheaper every day.

Software choices – some affordable options for animation production

This section is here to merely give ideas.  I know only some softwares and other and better combinations are possible. Also your selection of tools depends on what you need in addition to modeling and animation (sculpting, 3D-painting, post-processing or HD-video editing – or none of them). And of course  software features and pricing are subject to change, which is why I’m not trying to list any prices. Also note that I’m not listing 2D-image editing software here and don’t touch on music or sound at all – yet these are all important.

Goes from free to cheap and to affordable softwares

  1. Blender+some free video editing software(many available).  Blender does almost all, now even compositing I hear, and is free. Blender is also an invaluable addition to other combos for the excellent simulation (cloth, fluids, particles) and animation tools, and hence is included in every following combination.
  2. Wings 3D + Blender +Vegas Movie Studio HD Platinum. Wings is a fine polygon modeler and free. Vegas(this particular version) does a lot for reasonalbe price. In this combo you would still animate, do dynamics and effects and render in Blender. Vegas is used for video editing and basic compositing and effects.
  3. Wings 3D + 3D Coat + Blender + Vegas. 3D coat adds sculpting and 3D-painting.  In this combo too most will be in Blender unless 3D Coat now includes a timeline for animation rendering.
  4. Silo (+ 3D Coat) + Blender + Vegas. Silo has modeling and sculpting.
  5. Silo (+3D Coat) + Messiah + Blender + Vegas.  Messiah is for animation and for rendering.
  6. Modo + Messiah + Blender + Vegas.  Modo has modeling, 3D-painting, sculpting and rendering.
  7. Modo + Messiah + Zbrush + Blender + Vegas.  Zbrush offers advanced sculpting and fine 3D-painting.
  8. Modo + Messiah + Zbrush + Blender + After Effects/Vegas Pro. Now we have advanced tools for all.   After Effects brings a whole new post production dimension to the mix – makes getting a fine look easier and moves many effects from 3D to post process(2D).  Vegas Pro is the cheaper alternative, is great for video editing and does ok for basic compositing and effects.

So, that was some optimizing tips for making a 3D animation short on a budget.  I hope it will help someone out there going into their first productions.  Drop a comment below to let me know what you think.

Animation Character Creation Tutorial – Modeling Tools

Here is  a look into the modeling tools and technique used in coming Animation Character Creation Tutorial.  The tools I use are very standard fare, hardly new to anyone who has done polygon modeling, which is all good – the goal is to keep it easy and fun. The method is the interesting bit. Techinique shown in the video is something I’ve talked about before, too.

Even if this is all familiar to you already, you can watch the video as a brief example of what my video tutorials may be like.  This video is an early(and very very small) part of the final tutorial.


Click Vimeo-link in the video to watch it in HD at Vimeo.

Music:  Eighteen Pieces by Soda and Sevenhundredbeats by Duncan Beattie.

The tutorial develops well and more info will come.

Stay Motivated

Hey all dear sentient beings out there.  I missed the update last week – sorry about that.  I have fever but damn me I won’t let this week pass by unblogged.  So here is little something that’s been on my mind..

How to stay motivated? This was one of my problems several years ago but I didn’t recognize it as such.  What I knew is I kept starting on ideas but finished very few.  I thought it was matter of technique, that either I wasn’t fast enough or just did something important all wrong.  That wasn’t it.  Rather I didn’t have proper motivation.  Motivation is what makes you productive, keeps you going and pushes you to finish.

For most folk motivation is the pay they receive from work and that’s that.  For most creative people it is the work plus the pay.  For creative people starting out there is no pay, just personal work, and unfortunately often that isn’t enough.  So, what to do?

Ways of motivating yourself

  • Don’t get discouraged.  You don’t know if you’re cut out for it or not until you give it your best shot, and you can’t do that without strong motivator(s).  Well, some rare people have discipline and faith in themselves to keep personal work rolling like clockwork just by deciding to do so.  You don’t have to be one of them to succeed.
  • Find colleagues, a group with similiar interest. For those lucky enough to have a suitable school around that is your best ticket.  Number one benefit I hear from people that have had the schooling is the connections they make while at school.  That’s networking for future jobs and those are the people that you can work and compete with – kick each other forward.  If there is no school to be had, why not join some active online community for artists?  I see lots of people making friends of sorts online and collaborating, giving each other feedback and critique.
  • Develop goals, an inside motivator.  Simply write down your short and long terms goals and then sub-goals, tasks, that push you towards the major goal.  Then do a task-list for, say, a month.  Set deadlines.  Likely you will at first have too high aims and fail, but that’ll just teach you make the next list better.
  • Join projects, competitions and the like, get outside motivator(s). There are lots of quality game and other collaborative art projects online.  Many are willing to take on people, even folks with limited experience, to help them grow and go forward.  Even better if you can have project like that with colleagues you already have.  There is nothing like a common goal with a producer breathing down your neck or team members waiting your contribution to get their task done.  If you can’t find or get any of these, try joining a competition like CGchallenge.  That gives you a goal, competition, possible rewards and critique for your work.  Or start something like a scetchbook thread on a forum with strong critique and put new work on it as often as you can.  Granted not all who comment are pros or good educators, but on the whole it helps.  And the thread and the people there are your motivators.
  • Find a mentor for the best critique. This is an option for only a few, sure, but those of you who spot the change to connect with a professional do yourself a favor and jump for it.  There is no critique like that of a pro you know.  That feedback and advice will keep you going for a long time.
  • Blog about your work. Blog is an easy way to document your work and to setup a personal gallery.  Blog also nags on the bag of your mind to keep on updating and the more followers you have the worse(=better) it gets.
  • Send your best work out to competitions, galleries and such and hopefully get accepted/rewarded.  Some recognition goes a long way in keeping your creative engine eunning.  And if all you get is no reply at all, perhaps it will piss you off enough to make you try harder.
  • Find someone to share your life with, the significant other.  There is hardly any better motivator to improve your craft and to find a job than having someone to take care of, possibly also financially.

Certainly there is many other ways to keep your motivation up, but that’s what I got right now.  Feel free to add what I forgot or critique things listed.

Low polygon 3D worth anything anymore?

What is good low-poly and what good are low-poly skills anymore anyhow?  Many years ago, when then current generation games had progressed beyond low-poly models,  I wondered if I should ever learn to do low-poly.  What use does it have?  But I did learn and am glad I did.

Good low-poly 3D does a lot with little

The limitations can be very strict, especially in the mobile and similiar platforms, so we play within the limits.  Clever placement of polygons gets the shape down with minimal polycount while still maintaining animation capacity.  Virtuoso-like uv-editing maximizes the use of texture.  Great texturing makes one texture serve the same role as many.  That’s good low-poly.

The low-poly I’m talking about in this article is really low-poly – work done with very few polygons.  Don’t confuse this with ‘low-poly’ models often featured on forums such as Zbrushcentral.  There, when artists model for games, they usually model for kick-ass consoles and strong PCs, and call the in-game model ‘low-poly’ even though it weighs somewhere above 7000 triangles.  In that use ‘low-poly’ is just an expression, just a way to say ‘in-game model’.

Low-poly is anything but dead as a field of work

The demand keeps on growing.  Mobile and similiar platform have recently acquired computing power to run low-poly scenes up to 1000 triangle-polygons and above, which could be full a scene with ground, a character and some props.  It could actually be a small scene from a game production I’m in.  Our game runs on game engine released in 2002 for PC.  Now similiar stuff rocks on mobiles.  Imagine that.

Other than on mobiles low-poly is used extensively in handheld devices and online-gaming – anywhere really where resources are limited and/or game features tons of characters at once.  World of Warcraft too is low-poly.

We’ve established that low-poly takes skill to do well and that it is still viable as a field of work, and growing.  Ok, so are the skills learned at low-poly useful anywhere else?  Hell yes!

What does low-polygon work teach?

  • Good 3D model is optimized for light-weight and for animation – polygons are placed only where needed to make shape or help animation deformation.  Good model also has an easily read profile and personal look, good design.
  • Good UV-mapping maximises the texture usage, re-uses parts of texture creatively so that you don’t notice it is the same bit repeating and weights important areas over others.  Low-poly restrictions force people to explore these things.
  • Low-poly texturing means painting everything to a colour-map: shadows, highlights – the works.  It’s not unlike painting a picture.  You need to learn about painting, how surfaces react to light, where shadows go and more.
  • Low-poly animating puts attention to intention and the big picture.  Small motions get lost with blocky models, and there will be no close-up of a facial pose, so it is better make clear and profilic motions and learn to get the message across using the whole body.  Very good to know.

I think my point is made.  If you don’t know how to do low-poly yet, don’t hesitate to learn.  Have you avoided low-poly work?  Or have you found it useful?  If you do low-poly, what platform is it for?  Please don’t hesitate to share your take and experiences.

Character Creation in brief

Animation ready character creation steps very briefly (for animation production or games).  These are for those wondering how to go about it in general or for those wanting to compare workflows.  Includes tips.

Backstory in design

Backstory, motivation and emotion –  we expect these things from characters.  Who is your character?  What drives him?  What kind of life he leads?  How do all these things show in his appereance(design) and behavior(animation)?  Solid characters have solid stories.  Little of what you write may make it to the screen, but just having the story in hand supports everything, makes choices easier and gives your character feel of history.

Match story with style

What visual style is the most effective to tell just this story?  Cartoony may give you more freedom in expression, but may not deliver as much information as you could with a more detailed style.  You may find the story changing too, to meet the style.  There is no style better than some other, but overall I find realism usually a poor choice, for it ups the challenge in all aspects yet can’t tell a story any better.  Pixar for one knows this.  They stick to cartoonish characters even though their enviroments are getting more and more real and detailed.

Draw your character

Goblin design for a story of mine You might be very fast at modeling and wish to visualize there, but I don’t think it can ever compete with a pen.  More to the point, you need at least front and side-view pictures of you character to ease your modeling and for making sure you stick to the chosen style.

Choose a modeling method

Modeling gurus may go directly to shaping final model in polygons leaving the fine detailing to a sculpting software.  Yet, if you have the option, more organic way would be to sculpt first without worrying about polygons.  You might for example start with Zspheres in Zbrush or from a volumetric blob in 3D Coat and sculpt like crazy.  Then you would build the lower polygon-mesh on it and project the detail from old to this new mesh.
Pick the method that you are most comfortable with.  You can mix and match methods as you go.

Model for animation

Make sure your surface flow is optimized, edgeflow supports the directions of the motions and allows extreme poses and the joints have loops and volume where it is useful.  The better and simpler your base model is, the less problems you will have at rigging, animating and later when making changes.

Build simple and flexible animation rig

The less bones you use the smoother(organic) transitions you’ll get in their areas of effect.  And the simpler you rig is, the easier it is to animate and change later if need be.  When done make some action poses with your rigged mesh to test if it is all working correctly.

Fish UVs

UVW-map it

Automatic uvws, such as AUVtiles in Zbrush, may be all you need for animation production and pretty much make UVW-mapping trouble free, but please note AUV-tiles work only with 3D-painting.  For games, and often for animation production too, you need well planned and carefully divided UVW-islands.  These help painting textures in 2D, understanding what you are working on, and allocating more texture space to what is important(like the face).

Paint textures.

I recommend 3D-painting softwares for most of the work and 2D like Photoshop for futher detailing and colour&contrast correction.  Be sure to generate normal- and displacement-maps from your high-detail mesh.  Normal maps are defacto detailing tool in games these days and can replace displacement maps in animation production as long as the character isn’t viewed too close.  Also don’t look down on bumb-maps, ‘old tech’ as they may be.  They are great for small details.

Fisman textures

Light and render your beauty

First, with character in relaxed or T-pose, create even lighting with global illumination and bake out an ambient occlusion-map.  It works  as a dirt-map for animation production and games, helps bring out skin folds and other crevices, and for games gives sense of realistic lighting, too.  Now pose your model.  Make the pose asymmetric and such that it shows personality.  Remember to give the eyes a focal point unless you want a zombie-look.  Make your model ‘pop’ with 3-point lighting(or similiar) and render using at least the following texture maps: color, specular, ambient occlusion and normal/displacement.

That’s it, animation ready character creation in brief.  Do you do things differently?  Feel free to give critique and share your approach.

Animation Production Reality Check

Here are some things good to think about before going into animation production for the first time.  Main message is just this:  Think what is doable and how you can reduce the amount of work.  I’m not saying don’t do anything cool – just make sure you can finish it too.  The following is bound to stomp on many toes, egos and dreams about animating wonders, but I mean well.

Animation production is literally producing everything in an animated movie, not forgetting the managerial part, marketing and all the rest. Usually the studios doing these things have from tens to hundreds of people on they payroll and still they outsource tasks.  Even smaller productions are epic in work hours.  One has to be nuts, absolutely loco, to go at it alone.  Yet some people do.  Someone like that needs to be a generalist with very wide and adaptable skillset or have unlimited production time.  Even then I would not recommend doing it alone.

My team for a small production (5+ mins, final cut 3min 33s) was a sound guy for sounds and a friendly musician gave me song of his to use.  I did everything else.

The tough decisions – kill your darlings

Many personal animation productions are born from big ideas and die for the same reason. Please be a realist.  Scrap all big plans and start with a short story.  Also don’t aim for the production values big studios buy.  Rather make many effort saving choises with your storytelling, cinematography and overall design – create something less grand but still absolutely wonderful.

Some questions for those planning animation production

  • What’s the problem your protagonist has, how does he solve it and what challenge(s) does he face on the way? That and the main message of your story is all you need. Anything beyond this is likely just extra your short story can do without.
  • Do you really need many characters? Try staying with just protagonist and the antagonist. 3 characters is the effective maximum for short story – more is just a distraction.
  • Could all take place in one room or other limited enviroment?
  • Could the story happen within one day or even an hour or less? Make that one momentous occasion in the life of your protagonist.
  • What could be said with less?  Often non-flashy way of getting information across has more impact.
  • What do you really need to show to tell the story and what can you leave to the imagination of your audience?  Comic books rely heavily on imagination – most of the story takes place between the frames and the frames you see and read have only some key moments.  Film and animation can do similiar things.
  • What design is the most effective in telling the story and capture the hearts of your audience?  Don’t go for realistic characters just because you think or know you can.  There are reasons why even the great Pixar avoids that.  More stylised the design is the more forgiving your audience is towards the faults in any visual elements. Also the more cartoony/stylised you go, the easier it becomes to design sympathetic characters.

Plan it, Test it

Get your story core down to few sentences.  Run them by your friends, family and your cat, and get their opinions.  When you have something that really works, write the rest.  Remember to take brakes from writing, days or even a week, to regain sense and perspective.  When you and your testers are happy, draw the few key story moments.  Here is a good moment to define the style you are going for.  If it the key moments work and connect both visually and  storywise, continue.

When pivotal moments are pictured, draw all important moments between them.  It doesn’t have to be art, just something understandable.  When you have all main things pictured, as if it were a comic book, put them in order and on a timeline(in Flash, video edit – any software with a timeline).   Soon you should have a storyboard you can watch as a video – an animatic.  This is the true stress test.  If you story still works and resonates, you have something worth creating.  This is also where you can pre-cut your movie, try different pacing and order for things – shape the movie before ever going into actual production.

I’ve written a few stories(most about nice goblins) and made animatics for some of them.  Most tests soon showed the story wasn’t working and the animatic was never completed.  I think I’ve only finished one which passes the stress test, more or less.   I’m including pictures from different animatics.

Animatic screen shotAnimatic screen shot

Animatic screen shotAnimatic screen shot

Animatic screen shotAnimatic screen shot

Focus

It is easy to lose focus in production.  Maybe you want to add one more cool enviroment, a bit of backstory or just a little more detail in that one rock to make things more interesting.  Don’t do that.  Rather finish what you started they way you planned and tested it and only after, if you still feel like it, add things.

That’s it for now.  So, did I do my animated movie like this?  Nope.   But I should have.  The details are here.

Do you have an animation production experience to share?  How well did you plan yours?

7 Animation Production Tips – Render

I wish to encourage lunacy that is Personal Animation Production.

How to make a render despite hardware(budget) limits common to personal productions?

Here are some techniques to help you get it done – these are possible in several softwares. This is my 2nd collection of Animation Production Tips.

Note that these are Tips and so very brief.  Some could be expanded to full tutorials.  I may do that for some, later.  For now I just wish to get the ideas across.

Tips for animation production renders

  1. Render to image sequences(not video!) and combine to clips later. This is a no-brainer. There is so much you can do with the image sequences in post, and really to get the full benefit of post process you have to use image sequences.  And don’t forget that if your video rendering crashes, you lose the video.  But if your image sequence rendering crashes, you lose only one frame and can continue rendering from that point onward.
  2. Brake animation scenes to sub-scenes, render as separate passes and combine later.  Main reason for this is to ensure you can render at all – a way to combat the oh-so common lack of resources.  Other major benefit of having them all as separate passes is you can later adjust the look of each element and their timing.  So, begin by breaking you scenes into character, background and effects scenes (and so on).  Then render scenes separately.  In each scene use full version of current main subject and very simplified versions of all the other stuff, if they are needed at all, and set them to render as masks/invisible/shadow casting depending on your needs.  You might find different objects/effects work better with different lighting – here breaking to separate scenes helps too.  In the end you bring all passes together in a video editor or in a post production tool.
  3. Break sub-scenes to sub-sub-scenes according to where the camera points at.  This goes even futher in making sure you can make the render but isn’t needed if previous Tip is enough.  If  your camera shows only 180 degrees of your scene for a while, then that you can split that to a new scene and that’s where you can remove things.  Always remove objects that won’t be seen, reflected, cast a shadow or otherwise have an effect to the render.
  4. Light scene without global illumination. Not using GI is one good way to save in rendering time.  You may still want the GI-look.  Check if there’s any plugins for faking it for your software.  If there’s none, think how light would bounce around in your scene and place lights around to fake the effect.  Like a red wall in a well lit room should have some red coloured lights pointing away from it(towards nearby objects, floor etc.).  Granted this is more work for you, but it renders faster than GI and gives absolute lighting control.
  5. Create HDR-enviroment from you scene for rendering optimization. This approach only works in scenes where only your character moves and only in a limited area with no props(chairs, tables, anything) close by AND where your character is not casting a long shadow on the scene.  If these limits suit your story, this tip is dynamite.  In short you create a scene as normal but with one extra camera where the character is – lets call it character-camera.  Hide your character and render one image of the scene with regular camera.  Then use the character-camera to create a HDR-probe image(or similiar) of the scene, look up how to do this in your software, after which you no longer need the scene objects or lights – just the HDR and character.  Create another scene with just the character and light the scene with your new HDR. Then render the character animation to image-series with transparent background.  Combine this pass with your background image, the very first render you did, in post process.
  6. Move everything you can to post process.  There is nothing unprofessional about ‘faking’ something in post process  – only results matter.  I would move all effects that are doable as 2D-versions to post production right away.  2D-effects are faster to set up, render very fast, and are non-destructive – you can change them without having to re-render your 3D-image.  Lately post production softwares have begun to incorporate full or semi-3D tools tranferring even more power to post.  You don’t necessarily need After Effects, Fusion or similiar specialized software, though – I have done lots of simple post processing in regular video editing software.
  7. Render different shading types as passes and combine in post process. There is no sense tweaking look of your render endlessly in 3D-software when you can do it faster and with more options in post process.  So brake for example your character pass to image sequences for each shading type.  They could be color, specular, reflection, ambient occlusion and depth.  A good software should let you render these all  at once.  Fun part is that you can adjust intensity and pretty much everything else for each in post process and also how they interact as layers.  One huge benefit is that you can use depth-pass to create depth of field effect very quickly, whereas it is very slow to render in 3D.  In short you render once and get a million ways to change the result after.  And no change you make this way is destructive.

Do you use these methods in your productions?  Anything you would add or change?  Is there a tip you’d like to see expanded to a tutorial?

8 Animation Production Tips – Modeling and Animation

I wish to encourage lunacy that is Personal Animation Production.
This is Animation Production Tips collection 1.  These were born from problems I’ve faced, from the neurons burnt.  Read and save yourself a great deal of trouble.

Note that these are Tips.  Many could be expanded to full tutorials.  You may find futher info on some of these tips somewhere – maybe even here, later.  Important for now is to get the ideas across.

Tips for animation production

  1. Use each software to their strenghts.  Build a ‘pipeline’. May sound like a costly solution but doesn’t have to be(Wings for modeling+Blender for animation, effects and video&audio editing= all free).  You can build an affordable pipeline even with commercial software and have it all under the price of one Max or Maya licence.  One example of such a combo would be Silo, 3D Coat, Messiah and Vegas Pro.
  2. Model your characters for animation – use edgeloops to create surface flow that deforms well in animation.  See the above picture?  Your model has to be good to get that range of motion without problems.  This is crucial especially in the joint and face-areas.  In short your polygons should mimick the major muscle flows under the skin.  Surface flow is a major topic by itself.  If it is a new concept for you, I suggest you start from the following classic modeling document.  http://www.theminters.com/misc/articles/derived-surfaces/index.htm
  3. Don’t go super low-poly with your character models.  I’m very familiar with the obsession to optimize, but if you go exceedingly low in polys your character deformations become too large – no longer in your control.  A bit more polygons is better for displacement too – it displaces with more reliable results.
  4. Use displacement for detailing.  Sculpt or model the detail in a software that lets you bake it into a displacement-map.  In production use less detailed models and use displacement-maps to bring the detail out at rendertime.  Advantages are a lot lighter animated models and scenes meaning generally better animating conditions, faster manipulation and hopefully less crashes too.  Also you get faster overall rendering as detail is generated only where and when it is seen.  Most software should allow linking displacement to, say, camera distance.  Or you can set the amount of subdivision happening per pixel – meaning only the area that shows well in your current camera frame is subdivided for detail.
  5. Use as few bones in your rig as possible. Unless you’re creating the ultimate in realistic muscle deformation, you can get by with very few bones.  The less you have the smoother deformation created by them can be.  You know, organic.  In reverse the more bones you add the more you have to adjust bone influence or use muscle bones between them or corrective morphs or what have you – all to get rid of the too sharp deformations many bones bring.
  6. Transfer animation from one software to another with MDDs.  MDD is an universal way to transfer Mesh Deformation Data.  It transfers every deformation of the mesh in your animation software, even morphs, meaning all animation, to another software.  This way you can animate in animation specialized software and do the rest in whatever software you like. MDD-support should be common.
  7. Brake your animation into sequences.  Don’t try to animate all in one project-file and don’t try to export long animation mdds. The files can get corrupted and then you lose all at once. And long animations, especially with complex meshes, become huge as mdd-files.
  8. Set your character rig up so that you can do mesh or rig revisions with ease in production.  Lets say you find, right in the middle of production, that you have to change geometry in your characters shoulder area.  It will be an absolute pain if, to get the changed model moving again, you have to re-weight it and set the your mesh-based tricks(morphs and such) up again.  Instead use an animation software that gets by with bones and weight fields and such – so that all is in the rig and not tied to the mesh in any way.  Then you can change the mesh around the rig as much as you like, change to other characters even.  Messiah works like this.  Your software, if other, might not but may have some other way to save you from re-weighting-hassle.  Find it out and test it before you start animating.

Do you use these tricks in your productions?  What would you change?  What would you add?  What tip would you like to see expanded to a tutorial?