Fluidity of Movement in Avatars

May 10, 2010 at 2:56 pm (3d animation, animation, computer animation, Machinima, second life)

At times, puppeteering an avatar for a machinima shoot feels a lot like you’re a mad scientist probing at your Frankenstein creation.  Suddenly, your creation comes alive and it looks gorgeous on the exterior, but then it stands up, takes a couple steps, and you realized you’ve created a clumsy disaster.

The standard Second Life animations that come with a newbie avatar are very short of impressive. Their feet kind of slide across the floor, they needlessly spread their legs apart with every position. With machinima, this can turn heads away to tune in elsewhere. How can the audience relate to the characters in the story when those characters use their hands in a dorky typing motion to communicate?

There are many ways you can control an avatar’s movements. The first step to purchase a proper AO. Sometimes it’s worth the money to purchase the more expensive ones from good Mo-Cap stores such as Vista and Abranimations. This is because the animations you purchase were actually done by a real person and their motion was recorded- if that doesn’t add to “realism” then I don’t know what does.

Next, you should put yourself in the character’s shoes. If my character is a leader, I’ll choose AO’s that make them appear more dominant in their stature; perhaps they cross their arms a bit more. With shy or supporting characters, I might choose an AO that has them clasp their hands in their lap more often. You’d be surprised how much this visually builds their character until you scream, “It’s alive!”

With an AO, the walk is also a lot more fluid and easier to control as well. Often, you will ask an actor to walk from point A to B and stop. With an AO, your character actually takes smaller steps so you can approximate the correct positioning more. Here’s a little trick- to make the character walk slower (really pleasant looking in a machinima), drag the actual AO HUD to the ground, now right click it and go to Contents. Remove the walk you like and drag it to your inventory to a folder you’ll remember. Now, open this animation from your inventory by double clicking it. While walking, press Page Down key on your keyboard and it will actually make your avatar take a more delicate, appealing stride.

Machinimas with heavy narrative storylines are actually a little more challenging because it calls for an avatar to perform something more specific. For example, one time I shot an episode for IBM that called for one of the Project Leaders to be mad—by mad I mean fuming! Crossing his arms wasn’t going to do. He had to be running around an office, panicked and at his last resort. At Abranimations and other animation stores, they sell specific animations as individual purchases (about 70L per animation). For example, there’s one where a character might fall over drunk, another where a character jumps in the air with their hands up because of excitement. ]In my case, I found an animation called “Panic” where my avatar paced around, making sharp turns and shaking his head angrily, occasionally shaking his fist in different directions. So, we went on set that day and placed avatars 360 degrees all around him, and when we played that animation it looked like he was shaking his fist at all of them. It looked amazing!

If you click through the options at various pose stores, even though the name of the animation may not match what you’re trying to express, you can still use if you change the context. Try to imagine what you would do in real life to express yourself. Remember though, in animation characters do tend to express their selves a bit more to the extreme than anyone would in real life, so feel free to exaggerate the emotion.

In one of my machinimas called “Muinjij Becomes a Man” I needed to have a Native American boy appear upset because the townfolk in a modern town he went to were making fun of his clothes and smell. I decided to use the animation called Gloat, even though to gloat is to look at somebody with great gratification and joy. The way the arms raised up and down, it could have been used as disappointment as well (don’t you spastically throw down your hands when you’re upset?).  So I made the boy wear a sad face so his lips were curled down and when he played the animation, it looked perfect even though the context was the opposite of the intention!

Last but not least, if your machinima script ever calls for something even MORE specific, sometimes it’s best to hire an animator. In fact, because of the amount of control you’ll have, you will receive the best results, particularly if that animator is willing to record it in Mocap for you.   The most professional machinimatographers have a full time animator on board who gets  a list of all the animations in the script and creates them with the director’s consent.

Here is a preview of one of the IBM Episodes we made. Take notice of the various stands, walks, and animations we triggered to give the characters a more life like feel.

(written for the Metaverse Tribune by Framedin3D)



  1. DaVette See (SL: Suzy Yue) said,

    Good points, Ari. Movement and expression in all forms of performing arts, is a critical component. Unfortunately it is often overlooked in machinima. As you know, performances by the actors was one of my primary responsibilities as the director of the RHeroes series. Attention to detail in that area paid off for the series, as the movement and expressions of the characters were in synch with the feel of the voice work and intent of the scene.

    My Suzy’s Super Cast & Crew actors were always carefully directed to communicate the story with their movements and facial expressions. As you recall, we searched for animations all over second life for use in this series and other projects. By the second or third episode of that series, SSC&C actors had acquired a large personal inventory of animations and emoters to choose from and became expert at not only taking direction, but initialing on their own, the appropriate expressions for the appropriate. This has served them well i other projects for you and our other clients.

    On custom animations: It is always a coup to find and affordable animator who can do custom work at an affordable rate. It is best to know exactly what you want when making such a request. Episode 6, shown here in your blog, contains a custom scripted movement created at my request by SL animator/scripter Medhue Simoni. We needed the now giant heroine to bend down and pick up the now tiny villain and the blow her away. At the time I failed to give specifics with my request and created the animation for a man bending down the way a man would, legs open. This is just a good example of the type of information that an animator might need to create custom work for a project: who is doing the movement? what is their mood? age? sex? So I told him, afterwards, that a woman in a dress would like keep her knees closed and pick up the object on the ground by swinging her legs to the side. He quickly made the change without complaint, bless him, and the second version worked beautifully. That allowed for a much more natural animation and one I used again recently in a piece for another client.

  2. Ollie Stinson said,

    If only I had a nickel for each time I came here… Amazing article!

  3. Ariella said,

    Yes working with a custom animator is a great experience! They can capture the mood and essence of a piece plus give the characters so much personality. And great idea about the gender issue between animations- sometimes that alone can determine so much about the subtle feminine/masculine traits we all kind of expect. I can’t wait to work with an animator more in the future, and perhaps for something a little more complex than typical gestures. Like in the IBM video we got to work on, Suzy, getting to film an animation of a woman blowing off a smaller woman on her hand into the darkness of the city beats any other animation! And soo funny!

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