Character Animation

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Character Animation Stumbling Blocks in 3dsmax. In this short tutorial we’ll talk about character animation in 3ds Max.

I am writing this with design and viz people in mind having a good understanding of 3ds Max in general but little or no experience in character animation. We won’t touch the artistic principles of animation for this a vast and software agnostic topic. Instead we’ll talk about the more technical issues you may come across if you don't have a rigging department or good scripting skills. This tutorial will show you how to master such technical speed bumps, have lots of fun with characters in 3ds Max and achieve some great results. OK, let’s get started…

concept rig render



If you have tried character animation in 3ds Max in the past, you might have experienced some really poor viewport performance. It is definitely worth checking out the newest version of 3ds Max with the latest service pack installed. Morpher modifier as well as skin modifier have greatly improved in terms of speed. Still, you should try to have a clean modifier stack on your character's mesh. Ideally that mesh has just a morpher modifier and a skin modifier. If you have an Edit Poly on top of a morpher modifier, performance will likely be impacted.


In case this is your first time trying to do character animation, you perhaps shouldn't be trying to create your own custom rig. I know it is tempting, but you will most likely end up with a rig that not only took dozens of hours to create, but that is also painful to animate with. Better to stick with the built-in 'Character Animation Toolkit' (C.A.T).If you are used to animating in Maya, perhaps with rigs from The Setup Machine (for example), you might consider investing some dollars into LH Auto-Rig.

LH autorig

It is an easy to use autorigger that creates high performance character rigs with stretchy bones, and an ik/fk switch. If you are missing Maya’s channel box while animating, it might be worth checking out PEN Active Transform Value Editor from Paul Neale. It works fine with LH Auto-Rig but doesn’t help when animating CAT or Biped Rigs.


Recently, 3ds Max's skin modifier was updated and now comes with heatmap and voxel skinning features. Both methods are a perfect start for you first characters. Find them under “Weight Properties” in your skin modifier. You might also want to do some tweaking with the paint weights brush afterwards.

Viewport Navigation

Should you (or your animator) be coming from Maya, you should really try out the Maya Viewport Interaction Mode. It mimics Maya's viewport controls and should make the transition over to Max that much easier for you. Find it under Customize-Preferences-Interaction Mode. Just set it to “Maya”.


If you have setup some facial morphs, you will most likely come to the point where you ask yourself how to control those conveniently. The morpher modifier sits on the mesh. While animating you will unwillingly select the mesh all the time instead of picking the control object which you actually wanted to select. And accidently moving the skinned mesh object is the last you want. That is why most character rigs have their skinned mesh frozen (Right-Click: Freeze Selection). But when it is frozen though, how do you go about controlling the morphs? There are several ways in which we can do that:

  • build a face UI - a facial user interface is nice of course, but would take a longer to set up. Try to avoid using Max’s manipulator sliders. You can’t select more than one slider at a time and you don’t see keys on the timeline while animating. A custom face UI using splines or standard geometry as sliders won’t suffer from those drawbacks.
  • don't 'freeze' your mesh - but instead go into the Hierarchy tab > Link Info and lock your transformation axes. From this point forward, you won't be able to accidently move your mesh, but you will still be able to get to your morpher modifier. Drawback: while animating your controllers you will select the mesh all the time unwillingly. Which is far from ideal and brings us to my favourite solution:
  • try my facial animation widget. Use it in order to get access to the morpher modifier, even though the mesh is frozen.



Let’s recap what we talked about:

  • benefit from the performance improvements in the latest 3ds Max releases
  • resist creating a custom rig when this is your first character
  • use either built-in CAT or a commercial autorigger like LH-Autorig
  • check out new heatmap and voxel skinning techniques
  • consider using Maya Viewport Interaction Mode if you are used to it
  • freeze your skinned mesh but allow to access morph targets


Further reading:

Now you should technically be prepared to animate your first character in 3ds Max. On the artistic side you can do a lot of further reading. Here are some links which might be a good starting point:

  • The 12 principles nice tumblr explaining the 12 principles of animation developed by the ‘old men’ of Walt Disney Studios.

That's it for now. Good luck with your first character!

Daniel Wichterich - studioNICE - stack

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