Art is notoriously subjective and very often, the technical process of creating art is almost as subjective as the finished product. Here I’ll discuss the particular way I go about getting it done.
I’ve run into a lot of artists who seem to feel that working off reference is considered “cheating”, as though they should be able to pull an amazing drawing or animation right out of their heads with no trouble at all, but the opposite is generally closer to the truth. Working with a great deal of reference as often as possible also creates a mental library of poses one can call on whenever they need.
The same goes for animation.
I generally start an animation by shooting reference or looking some up online if the movement is particularly complex or non-humanoid. Sometimes it’s fun to just futz around in Maya and animate on a lark without reference, but if you have a specific goal in mind, it will save you a lot of time. For game animation, I’m always sure to get several different angles of the same movement and a few different takes.
Once I’ve got good enough reference, I’ll double check my frame rate in Maya and start setting up the key poses based off the video. The key is to find the poses that comprise the essence of the movement you’re looking for, and be ready to push and pull keys around to correct the timing. I was originally taught to use stepped curves when laying out my keys in order to check the timing, but in practice I generally prefer splined curves—stepped curves can be jarring to me and I find I have an easier job with timing if I go with splined. Throughout this process I’ll be checking on the graph editor to adjust the tangents. After that, it’s all in the noodling and finagling to get the movement just right.
Another important part of the process is recognizing that Maya can take care of a good chunk of the in-betweens for you. Animating in 3D doesn’t work the same way as 2D; you don’t need to tell Maya what to do in between every frame beyond correcting the curves if they need it. Every time I create a new animation, I always rediscover how less is more when it comes to keyframes. Half the time if I have a movement issue, I’ll end up deleting a frame or two and that will solve it.
Another important note about art in general: sometimes it’s best, and easiest, to scrap a piece and start over than to try to salvage it. Don’t be afraid to start over if whatever you’ve made isn’t making you happy. You’ve already made the good parts of it once before; undoubtedly you can recreate it.