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Studying Animation with Sophie Shepherd

Sophie Shepherd talked about the production of 3D animation, workflows, and useful resources for studying.

Sophie Shepherd talked about the production of 3D animation, workflows, and useful resources for studying.


My name is Sophie Shepherd and I am currently in my final year at Falmouth University, studying Game Development – Animation. I have been creating animations for games over the course of two and a half years. I have worked with a variety of teams full of skilled and interesting personalities, teaching me a great deal about teamwork and the animation pipeline. From this invaluable experience, I hope to find a job in the games industry when I graduate in a few months time.

I have always been creative from the start, drawing and sculpting clay in my free time. When I was fourteen I had my first animation project at school and I was hooked ever since. With a veteran Call of Duty mother, Crash Bandicoot expert brother and a dad with several max level characters in WoW, games have been completely ingrained into my lifestyle and so combining this and animation was the perfect match. I enjoy taking part in different animation challenges as there is always one on the go (most recently AnimChallenge). It helps me break away from university work and join in with the online animation community, usually through my Twitter.

Planning Animation

Whenever I start a new animation project, I find the key to creating my best work is researching and gathering reference. I might think I know how a person walks but everyone’s walks are completely unique and I have to think carefully about what personality I want to express. At this point, I will ask what emotions the character is feeling and start searching YouTube to brainstorm ideas.

I use Kinovea which is a tool for editing reference, it allows me to draw over videos so that I can identify key shapes and poses. I can scrub through frames and take out the key poses that I need for the block-out process. It also allows me to ghost my drawing so I can track sections such as the arc of the hand.

Drawing over a frame in Kinovea

When I struggle with finding a reference for a particular specific action, I tend to record myself instead. After seeing professionals use this technique, I realized that it’s the fastest and easiest way to get exactly what I want from an animation. Once I have my reference I will put it in Maya as a movie plane and key offsets of the video to change the timing. This makes it more impactful as animating from real life feels like it could be pushed further.

Filming myself for reference compared with my final animation:

Secondary Motion

Secondary motion is key to making a character feel alive and that they are thinking. I find myself asking many questions to try and sell the action – Do they look before they turn? What are they feeling? Where are they going? Etc. This allows me to think carefully about the smallest of movements, for example, even the simplest wave animation could be done 100 different ways.

During the planning phase of my animation, I can sometimes find myself acting the shots to understand it better. This helps me figure out if I’m being genuine or forcing a shot too much. I also ask myself which part of the body is leading the main action so I can focus on making that clear before worrying about smaller details.

As I animate, I will make sure that not everything moves/stops at the same time as this will give an unnatural feel to my work. I will offset small details such as cloth or hair even after an action is done so that the character is always feeling alive.

What truly helps me and I can’t stress enough to myself as a beginner, is getting critique. This is what pushes my animation further than I could by myself, as I have been looking at it for hours and may not be able to spot certain problems. I will upload my work to syncsketch and send it to various animation Discord channels, professionals or post on Twitter to get the most feedback that I can.

I try to help myself see problems better by hiding sections of the body, flipping a playblast, looking at only the silhouette or even reversing the animation. Seeing my work in a different perspective can really help me find problems in timing or arcs etc.

Swarm Bug Animation

When I first started animating with the swarm bug, I jumped straight into Maya just to test the rig. Playing around with the controls sparked ideas for me in how I wanted this creature to move. I realized that characters tend to stand out when personality contrasts looks (e.g Toothless is a dragon that acts like a cat in HTTYD). This gave me a great reason to watch cat videos on YouTube for referencing the bug.

I wanted to create a simple animation (a character encounters an obstacle), this means I can focus on getting the fundamentals correct without being distracted. I feel that I created the character by making the bug think before taking action. Before he jumps, he finds his feet and wiggles in anticipation, showing that he is getting ready like a cat.

One of the most useful tips I learned as a beginner animator was how to use locators in order to keep feet in place. I use this for all my walk cycles and it is useful for on-the-spot cycles too. I make sure the root moves linearly before constraining the foot to a locator on the floor. Then I key where I want the foot to stay, make sure it’s linear in the graph editor and finally delete the locator.

My Technical Workflow in Maya

There are a few important tricks and bits advice that I have learned so far on my journey when it comes to animating in Maya. When timing my animations, I will create the most important poses of my character and key the whole rig in that position. I work in stepped preview (enabled by right-clicking the timeline) so I can focus on creating the biggest contrasts in posing and the difference in timing for an effective animation. This enables an easy workflow of moving all the keys across the timeline to experiment different timings until it feels right. I learned not to be afraid of breaking the rig in unnatural ways, as the audience will not notice over a few frames, and it allows the animation to have a bigger impact through posing. It is similar to producing smear frames in 2D animation.

Examples of me squashing/stretching the rig

Hotkeys are an important part of making my workflow faster. If there is a button I use a lot (e.g graph editor, show nurbs) then I will either create a custom button or find one online. Every one less click made will save time in the long run so I can focus on animating. Jonathan Symmonds has some really useful scripts for some of these buttons. I learned how to create and assign custom hotkeys here.

Show/Hide nurbs hotkey:

Layers help me to organize my animation and have control over the weighting. I tend to start out by exaggerating movements to see clearly if they work or not. Then I will lower the weighting of that layer to find how much that part of the body should move. I try to keep all my base animations in the main layer so that I’m not accidentally changing the poses throughout. I also use layers to show and hide parts of the body when I need to focus on a particular section.

Showing/hiding parts of the body with layers:

The Timeline Colour Marker is a helpful tool when splitting up sections of my animation. I use this to note sections that I need to work on or to break up my animation into different workloads.

My favorite ways of tracking arcs are using motion trails and the grease pencil tool. These help me visualize the journey of the motion as well as its spacing. I will dot points with the grease pencil tool in order to find where parts of the body might “pop” and show unnatural flow. I use motion trails to refine my figures of eights and rainbow arcs.

Animation Resources

  • Every animator I know has a copy of the Animator’s Survival Kit as the principles are there for any type of animation 2D or 3D. I highly recommend this book and I have found it most useful for creating personalities in my walk cycle animations.
  • I also recently got the Game Anim: Video Game Animation Explained which released early in February 2019. Jonathan Cooper goes through everything there is to know about game animation, with useful interviews and tips along the way. As the book was released, Azri (a free rig) has been available to download and I have enjoyed animating with her so far.
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  • Jason Shum has some brilliant tutorials which are where I learned about the locator trick in keeping the feet placed down. He also goes very in-depth about gathering references and I learned how he used Kinovea and importing his videos into Maya.
  • The Animates stream on Twitch every Sunday, these are a group of professional animators that give tips and discuss different topics. Sometimes there will be interviews with other animators or the chance to watch how they animate. It’s a great place to ask questions and to join in with the animation community as they are a bunch of lovely people. Their videos can be found on YouTube and they also have a Discord where you can post animations for critique.
  • Kiel Figgins releases rigs on his store regularly, some of which are game ready. There are a few free rigs, but I find each of them worth their price! This is where I bought the swarm bug rig.
  • Kevin Parry has some great youtube videos such as “50 ways to sit” or “100 ways to walk” which makes great reference material.
  • AnimState is another group of professional animators that do podcasts and interviews. They also do the Animation Exchange, a whole day of brilliant talks streamed on Twitch for free, this year it takes place March 19th. The Tea-Time 48 hour animation jam also takes place the weekend before which is a great thing to be involved in. AnimState also have a Discord here.
  • Though I have not personally taken the iAnimate course, I have heard great things from the people who have and I am hoping to take it some point in the future.
  • Twitter has been a brilliant resource for me in finding useful tips from professional animators. It also becomes a great motivator seeing everyone else posting their work and processes. Through this I found tutorials, reference videos, and workflow tools, I can personally recommend becoming a part of the animation community on Twitter.

What Makes Animation Special?

Animation is special for me because it’s about making people believe in characters that aren’t real, that may be an inanimate object is sad or a tough guy is scared. Animation became a medium for us to share stories, experiences, and emotions that capture us. It is possible to be attached to these characters and for them to make us laugh or cry and I believe that is very powerful.

I love animation specifically for games as I feel it goes a step further in actually being able to interact with the characters you’ve personified. I can press a button and the character responds to me, I can learn their stories or even feel that I am that character in the game.

Thank you for reading! I can only share my knowledge, advice, and tips as a beginner looking to get into the games industry but I hope it has given an insight into my processes and thoughts. If you are interested in seeing more of my work then you can find me on my Twitter @smshepherd23.

Sophie Shepherd, 3D Animator

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

If you found this article interesting, below we are listing a couple of related Unity Store Assets that may be useful for you:


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Comments 4

  • Tomasz Wikliński

    Great stuff. And many thanks for those tuts by Jason! They helped me a lot.


    Tomasz Wikliński

    ·5 years ago·
  • JJJ

    Those animations look amazing!! Great job!



    ·5 years ago·
  • Felipe Triviño



    Felipe Triviño

    ·5 years ago·
  • Anonymous user

    You did an amazing job here!


    Anonymous user

    ·5 years ago·

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