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What is Layered Animation?

The last weekend of January I had the incredible opportunity to take a masterclass by Pixar Animator Michal Makarewicz. The 18-hour programme of lectures, Q&A, and live demonstrations in Maya covered important topics for animators such as planning, acting and performance, animating dialogue, polish, and many others. However it was Mike’s explanation and many live demonstrations of the layered animation approach that I found most interesting. I hadn’t heard of it until the lead-up to the weekend, and although I had an inkling what this might be, the masterclass clarified Mike’s layered animation practice in detail.

Since the masterclass weekend I’ve been researching online for resources about the layered animation workflow, although there’s no substitute for participating in a learning opportunity like that in person. The live demos in particular left even seasoned animators floored by Mike’s ability to speedily get CG characters acting convincingly! Given attendees were requested not to record the sessions, here’s my notes for animators of what I learned about layered animation, using online references to explain things more visually and to point you to further resources.

Summary

Points covered in brief:

  • Layered animation is an approach, like straight ahead or pose-to-pose. It doesn’t necessarily use the animation layers feature of Maya etc.
  • The idea is to animate the main driver of a character’s motion in your shot, usually the Root, maybe the Head, for the whole shot. This is like a base layer. Then animate the next most important controller for the whole shot, then the next, building up the whole performance, layer by layer.
  • Mike treats each component on each controller, ie. a single spline in the Graph Editor, as a “layer”. Other animation teachers seem to treat something like a limb as a “layer”.
  • The expertise Mike showed in movement analysis and the concept of portraying the energy of the movement, rather than being guided by golden key poses, seemed to be pivotal in making layered animation, as Mike uses it, especially effective.
  • Mike’s demonstrated the concept of a “Master curve” by copying and pasting keys from one spline to another, then adjusting the pasted spline for its new component in the Graph Editor. A way of speeding up his animation workflow.
  • This article discusses drawbacks to the layered animation approach.

I hope the greater detail in the full article is helpful especially for anybody wishing to try out this approach to animation. Read on for some video examples, too!

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