Capturing Movements & Animating in Maya

Capturing Movements & Animating in Maya

Joe Toole talked about the way he animates characters in Maya as well as gave advice to novice animators who are looking for ways to improve.


Hello! My name is Joe Toole, I'm a freelance animator from Melbourne, Australia. At the moment I'm working out of the shared office space in South Melbourne called The Arcade. All the things I've been recently working on are under NDA! But before that stuff, I have worked on Paperhouse's title Paperbark (which came out a year ago) and Route 59's Necrobarista (coming out really soon!). I've also worked on many other small to medium projects over the last 2 years of my freelance career, mostly games but also some apps.

Update: Joe has currently found a full-time job and is no longer available for freelance work.

Education for an Animator

I studied animation at Qantm College (now called SAE). The bachelor's degree covered way more than animation though, and it was quite overwhelming and broad. I wasn't sure if I wanted to do animation when I just started. In fact, I wanted to dive into ZBrush sculpting first. However, one day someone saw one of my sculpts and contacted me. It appeared, that they were working on a movie and needed animators. For some unknown reason, this person thought I would be good at animating giant spiders and it turned out he was right. From that moment I knew that animation was for me. I've grown a lot since then, but that was the moment I decided to be an animator.

I did take a few workshops - usually, my goal is to take at least one per year. I've done the Creature Course at Animation Mentor, Advanced Body Mechanics at AM and iAnimate, as well as two courses with an animator named Rusty Grey who has his own small animation school Rusty Animator. I'd encourage any young/new/inexperienced animators to give him a try! He is really great at helping people nail down the fundamentals.

Can one become a professional animator without a certain kind of education?

I think yes. It comes down to your definition of a "professional animator" though. Once you start working you almost immediately meet people who are more skilled than you and often those people become your unofficial mentors. So it's kind of tricky to become a pro without any outside contact.

Animator's Working Days

What software do you use to animate?

Speaking of the software, I use Maya. Recently, I've been learning Motion Builder (Mobu) a bit, but I think the best use for it (at least personally) is to utilize it as a sort of "mocap stitching and clean-up bridge" back to Maya.

How much time do you usually invest in animation on a regular basis?

If I'm working on freelance tasks full time, which does happen from time to time, I invest a full workweek and sometimes a bit extra. However, if I'm not animating, I apply for more freelance jobs or contact people who may be able to help find extra work for me. I don't like to sit still for too long. I think that especially with animation your eye can get a bit soft, and it takes time to get back into the swing of things.

How much time does it take you to complete a personal/enterprise project?

Some personal projects take a week, some take an afternoon. Some client projects take 6 months, some take a week. It's all case by case.


Where do you find inspiration for your animations?

Sometimes, I get inspiration simply from looking at a character/rig. I love seeing a design and getting hit with all the ways things could move. Sometimes, I can just daydream and get new ideas. I actually like to float in those isolation tanks, ideas might come to me in there.

How is the in-between process organized from the generation of an idea to prototyping and polishing?

For almost all of my personal stuff, I usually just jump straight into Maya and start laying down poses and pulling out key sections from my imagination. For client work, the approach might be a bit different, especially at the beginning of business relationships. Sometimes, it requires reference filming for long complex motions, sometimes - lots of back and forth to get the exact right idea across. Again, it's case by case.

Capturing Movements

On the one hand, there are certain methods to "capture" realistic movements, just the same as there're methods for animating fictional characters. However, I think mostly every animator has their own way of doing things. So I will describe only my approach - but keep in mind that it may be different for another animator.

For realistic movements or even semi-realistic (for example, the guy with the umbrellas) I used reference from this guy on twitter, trimmed and re-timed it, then put it on a camera plane in Maya.

From there, I copy the key poses of the movement. It tends to look quite swimmy and soulless at this point, so I usually remove the reference and rely on the animation principals and whatever style I'm choosing to go for. Every now and then I look back at the reference for specific details (things like foot pivots, weight distribution, and noise throughout the motion).

For fictional characters (creatures), I try to pull things similar to what I'm trying to create from references. It's a LOT less structured though. I hardly ever place reference into the scene for such work and just try to work from my own imagination. This is what I did for the dragon shot. I looked at a bunch of GoT dragons videos and tiger/lions roar footage, and then just started creating the animation! During the process, I also use Josh Sobel's dragon rig for the first time, so it took some time just to set it up how I wanted. But once it was all correct the process was fairly easy and free-flowing.

Advice for Novice Animators

Whenever I think of advice for animators, I always hear my AM mentor's voice in my head. He would say "if you want to improve you need to animate every day. You need to animate EVERY DAY". That really stuck with me over the years, for good and bad reasons. I get quite a bad impostor syndrome from time to time, and sometimes not animating or not having a billion clients all going at once makes me feel like I'm not improving and not doing everything I can do.

What would I say to the novice animators? The main thing you should be focusing on is walking before you can run. A LOT of novice animators jump way in the deep end and try to animate a complicated 16-second long-acting piece with 4 characters and it's just the worst possible try to improve at the beginner level.

Spend time learning the principals. Spend time really mastering things like strong posing, anticipation, overlapping action, timing, and spacing. One walk cycle isn't going to get you there, it's about repetition and honing the craft. I feel that my words might sound a bit harsh, but that's because I tried to run (many times) before I could walk with animation, and it wasn't until I went back and focused on the fundamentals that I made good progress.

Definitely check out Rusty's animation courses, I believe Augmented Animator is running right now. It's an affordable and good way to dip your toe into the animation ocean. If you still think you're into animation after that, try to do a few semesters at AM, iAnimate, or AnimSchool. They all offer very similar things, just with slightly varying approaches. I believe if you throw yourself at these courses as hard as you can you'll make a profit.

What software should one learn first?

Try Maya - that's how I did it! With that being said, Blender is getting really solid these days and I think many small/medium studios will opt for using it (since it is open source). Either way, the student version of Maya is free - so just install it and get going. There's a wealth of introduction content for Maya out there, both free and paid.

Do you teach animation?

I do not teach animation, but I would love to! I've thought about Patreon, but I'm still formulating ideas on how exactly I would need to do that for it to be both valuable for potential students and not a massive time sink for me. I also have troubles thinking that I have anything to offer when it comes to educating animators (as I still feel quite inexperienced at times). Perhaps, in a year or two I'll make the jump and start teaching!

Looping Animation

As a closing note, let's look at the looping animations. The most important thing for the loop is to flow,  there should be no "hitch" or "pop" when the loop occurs. There are a couple of different ways animators like to do this. For me, offsetting curves and adjusting tangents so they blend into one another is the way to go. This is fairly entry-level stuff, but it might be useful for someone, so here goes!

Here's a typical cycle for a trans Y. Technically, this is an animation loop but because of Maya's Auto Tangent, there's an ease at the start and end of the motion which is causing it to appear off at the start and the end of the loop (typically, you'd see this on the arm sway or the hips. Sometimes, it's less noticeable because it's mushed in with all the other motions but sometimes, it shows up as a really bad pop).

You can fix this by moving the tangents in the start and the end frame. With infinite tangents turned on in both directions you can see that the loop does, in fact, flow into itself.

From here you can offset this, and/or adjust the keys between the loop points however looks best.

For example, here are two curves. The one from earlier version plus another curve that has been offset. This setup has a good left-right motion coupled with an offset up-down (sort of like a walk).

This is a pretty good place to start with when creating loops, as it gives the animator lots of control over timing and offsets without setting additional frames or messing with already created stuff. It does have its drawbacks though - once you start offsetting curves you need to have a strong sense for which keys are where so you don't accidentally ruin a cycle by adjusting a pose in a section of the curve that is outside the offset. Or, if you like to keep all the animations for a character in one timeline, the offsetting curves method breaks that workflow a bit.

Joe Toole, Animator

Interview conducted by Daria Loginova

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