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2D Character Animation in Maya

2D animation can be a wonderful asset to eLearning modules, adding interest and ability to explain concepts through a visual medium. Today I would like to explain how you can animate a simple 2D character to run, jump, or perform other actions or physical expressions using Autodesk Maya.

Let’s start with a simple “businessman” character, as shown in the picture below:

This character came from a vector graphic, but we converted it to a .PNG with a transparent background. The next step is to separate it into parts:

Each part must be saved as a separate .PNG image with a transparent background. We use .PNG because it supports transparency, but you can use any other format that also supports transparency.

The next step is to open Autodesk Maya, and create planes mapped with the above images. The planes should be subdivided to give enough geometry for some deformation, as we will be bending the limbs at the elbows and knees. The torso, as well, should be able to bend somewhat. We are not concerned about perfection here; we just want to give this character some simple options for movement. Because we are starting with an image in a predefined pose, our options are quite limited.

The next task is to create a joint system for the character. The “bone structure” you see in the image below will deform the geometry to bend knees and elbows, and allow us to manipulate to movement of the character. Attaching the planes to the joint system is the next step, also known as “skinning”. Then you have to do a meticulous process of vertex weighing to make sure the geometry deforms naturally, so that the elbows, knees and ankles don’t kink in weird ways. Vertex weighing is the process of assigning weights to the vertices of the geometry – in other words, telling each point on the geometry which bone affects it and to what degree. This is complicated in areas where the geometry bends dramatically – such as knees or elbows – because a vertex may take influence from multiple joints but to varying degrees. Vertex weighing can be a tedious and frustrating process at first, but it is much easier with 2D characters. When unnatural kinks occur, try using the smooth tool on the offending vertices. It can do wonders!

After the character is rigged, select all the joints and create a “character set” using their rotation attributes. This will help in animation, as you don’t need to use translation, scaling, or other attributes in animation. Isolating the rotation attributes of the joints helps keep the character set clean and manageable.

Create controllers for each joint, as well as for the root. This facilitates easy selection for efficient animation. If you want to go the extra mile, create some predefined key poses that the character can go into. You can also create additional materials for swapping clothes or facial expressions, for example. Now you’re ready to start dropping some key frames and animate your masterpiece!

The total time it takes to create a rigged 2D character is about 2-3 hours, depending on complexity. This is much faster than a 3D character, due to the simple nature of the geometry. Although you are quite limited in the poses and expressions your 2D character can assume, you can still create some interesting animations quickly and efficiently.

These are the basics of creating 2D character animations in Maya. You can explore much deeper in this area, and there are plenty of tutorials available online. I hope you will take advantage of this method of adding some pizzazz and flare to your presentations or eLearning modules.

If you would like to see how our company, Pathways Training and eLearning, uses animation to add interest to eLearning media, please visit us at our website:

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