Whenever some great piece of animation or visual effects is posted online, invariably the most repeated questions is “What software did you use?” CGI has been around for decades, yet the impression that software is responsible for the art still persists. Schools tout their cutting-edge computer labs and 3D packages, claiming to teach what studios want to see. Students are forced to buy software books with horrendous-looking CG characters on the cover, and follow tutorials that don’t result in anything even resembling industry standard art.

Let me make this clear: Software does nothing without the artistic skills necessary to use it creatively. In the case of character animation, software is often a hindrance to the results you want to achieve. For every useful feature in Maya, there’s another one you have to work around or compensate for (this goes for any program, but since Maya’s caused me more headaches than I can count, I don’t feel too bad about singling it out). I have an entire skill set devoted to forcing Maya to do what I need, just so that I can get to actual animation techniques. Hundreds of third-party scripts and plugins exist out of necessity because, after all these years, fundamental animation tools are not included out of the box.

The is no “animate” button. No amount of button pushing will result in a good character performance unless one knows the principles that were around long before computers even existed. Students have to focus first on artistic study and then learn how to achieve it with modern tools. There is a reason why in every medium, be it CG, stop motion, hand-drawn, cut-out, etc., the first lesson is the bouncing ball. Not how to set a key on a timeline. Not how to build an armature. Not how to render a face. The bouncing ball is universal, and contains most of the lessons needed to move on to more advanced assignments. Each medium has different methods to get it done, but the goal is the same – a two-dimensional visual representation of a sphere moving through space with believable physics and, in some cases, personality. Software doesn’t make that happen; artists do.

You’ll notice that none of the links I’ve included in my “Resources” page have anything to do with learning Maya. Every one of them is devoted to learning the craft and not the tools. And the tools that I’ve linked are only there because they force Maya to better serve the craft. It’s important to know enough buttons to actually make the software function, but then you can move on!

The first skill that students should start developing is an understanding of posing, staging, timing and spacing. Not how to achieve them technically, but what they mean and how they can be applied to any movement. Just like there can be no physical life without oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, there can’t be animated life without posing, staging, timing and spacing. A good eye for these things is of paramount importance in the day-to-day work of an animator. This takes time and practice to truly understand, and I’ll probably keep refining these skills for the rest of my life.

So don’t waste time learning program after program, and stressing that you don’t have the latest version of this or that. Masterful performances have been created for decades with much more primitive tools than what you have access to now. Technology will continue to evolve, and who knows what we’ll be using twenty years from now. The fundamentals will never change. If you really know the basics, you’ll be able to have a career no matter what tools are put into your hands.

-Chris