Making a 3D Animation Video

3D animation software is the obvious solution.

If you thought, as I did in 2005, that such software must be too expensive, think again. I found a powerful program on the Internet called Blender and it can be downloaded for nothing! It is “open source” and hence you can use it freely. See the website for details.

Powerful stuff

With Blender you can create virtual sets, virtual actors, set up “lights” and have as many “cameras” as you like. You create a “solid” model layout which you can manipulate in virtually unlimited ways. For movement Blender uses “key frames” and will generate the intermediate frames for you. You can duplicate and distort objects, create effects such as smoke, fire, liquids and much else. Human and animal figures can be realistically animated using a system of “bones”.

Since I first found Blender it has been regularly and massively updated. Version 2.5 was a complete rewrite giving the program a more rational look. The range of features is now mind-boggling and there is plenty of support in the way of books (see Amazon) and tutorials. The snag is that articles written pre version 2.5 need some interpretation; they cannot be followed slavishly.


This was my first serious attempt at animation and its main purpose was to familiarise myself with Blender. It took about two months to make. I chose simple objects to animate: cubes. This led to the idea of toy-blocks and the age-old “toys playing” theme. The designs on the cubes are mostly clipart, in some cases enlarged to form abstract patterns.



Special effects can range from adding a gun muzzle flash to creating a whole fantasy world but for us is most likely to be providing short clips that cannot easily be shot with a camera.

Shadows and reflections

Whenever computer models are combined with real life the two obviously need to match in colour, lighting etc. Something easily overlooked is shadows. Should the model be casting shadows in the real life scene? If so they may have to be faked e.g. by modelling part of the real world as transparent objects onto which translucent shadows can be cast. Sounds weird but in the virtual world many strange things are possible.

Here we see a CGI ship which I prepared for the Bristol Films production Uncertain Proof. Declan Smith provided the excellent background video. The dark area below the hull is not shadow but reflection. This was provided within the model by adding a “mirror” which was textured with the same video as the background.

Camera distortions

A Blender virtual camera can be made to behave more like a real camera by faking things like depth of field.

You need only look at TV to see how the professionals are using 3D animation for titles, adverts, promos, CGI, illustrating documentaries etc.

There is no reason why we amateurs shouldn’t get in on the action.

John Howden

August 2012


These two stills from Encounters with John Wesley (BFVS) show Blender models combined with real life video clips. This type of CGI work can be much more demanding than cartoon animation; the scene has to look real to the viewer.

Research is usually required before you can start. Images of computer models tend to look too perfect so a lot of work has to go into “grottifying” both the model and the “photography”.

One problem with an animation is that there is no “natural” sound; it’s up to you to devise the sound effects.


Creating pure animation from scratch is time consuming. My 2005 Annual Trophy winner Get Animated, made in less than a month, demonstrates some ways around this. I kept the protagonist, a robot, simple and combined animation with live action   I reused sets from other projects including Blockhead.

The title sequence needed a “statue” of a human for which I used a mesh from the open source internet project Makehuman

This scale model of Claverton pumping station on the Kennet and Avon canal is a good example of an animated mechanism.  In a virtual model the various objects (wheels, beams etc.) do not, by default, interact with each other. Like ghosts they will happily pass through one another.

Their movements need to be linked so that the parts seem to be connected. In this example animating the water wheel makes all the other parts move. In some cases Blender’s physics engine can be used to make objects interact more naturally  or govern the motion of cloth or fluids. This is useful for making flags that behave realistically in virtual “wind”.

illustration: Courtesy Bristol Films

The actual shadow of the ship was also added to the scene.

Here is another shot set up for Uncertain Proof. A castle wall, gateway, portcullis and drawbridge were modelled and animated in Blender for use in several shots. The horses were filmed against a plain sky so that they could be separated from the background.

The processed shot of the horses

was then “projected” onto a transparent screen in the model, behind the arch. “Depth of field” was used to throw the foreground out of focus.

illustration: Courtesy Bristol Films