An Overview of the 3D Animation Process

By Michael Jones

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Studios such as Pixar and Dreamworks are famous for their hit 3D animated movies. Films such as Finding Nemo, How To Train Your Dragon, and Coco combine impressive digital visual effects with a heart that helps viewers form an emotional connection to images that don’t exist in real life. Behind every 3D animated movie is a team of storyboard artists, digital painters, animators, and many more collaborating to bring projects to life. If you’re interested in the inner workings behind 3D animation, read on for an overview of the 3D animation process.

What Is 3D Animation

In a digital context, 3D animation is the creation of three-dimensional moving pictures. You may manipulate and rotate various 3D objects and models in 360-degree space to obtain the composition at any angle you wish. Ultimately, any 3D animation aims to give the illusion that the images on the screen are moving, when in reality, what you see is just a sequence of images presented in rapid succession.

Brief History of 3D Animation

3D animation can trace its modern-day lineage back to the early 1900s with a filmmaking process called Claymation. Claymation is a type of animation that uses stop-motion photography to film clay figurines. The earliest surviving Claymation film is called The Sculptor’s Nightmare from back in 1908.

The proliferation of computer technology helped create digital 3D animated figured possible without the need for clay figures. Toy Story, released in 1995, is widely understood to be the very first film in history to be entirely computer-animated. These days, 3D animation has become the most popular animation process in movies, television shows, video games, and more.

How 3D Animation Is Made

While you can find Claymation in movies such as ParaNorman, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and James and the Giant Peach, most 3D animation gets done using computers and tablets. Most animation studios will follow a remarkably similar process when working on their 3D animation content. Here are some examples of the distinct stages in creating 3D animation.

Developing a Project Concept

Behind nearly every 3D animation is the germ of an idea brought to life. Before you can start working on a project, you need to know what the project is. At the earliest stage of 3D animation, individuals or groups will brainstorm ideas, bouncing them around until they come into focus.

There might also be an existing property that a studio is looking to adapt into an animation. In either case, you will then flesh these ideas out further.


Once you have crystallized the concept, you will then map out each scene using 2D drawings. This is the storyboarding stage, where you create a rudimentary outline of the entire film.

Storyboards are essentially just comics pages you transform into a three-dimensional space. You then arrange the frames in a logical order to create the fundamental story framework. The 3D animators will then use these storyboards as a reference point as they work through the project frame by frame.


Once storyboarding is complete, 3D artists create 3D objects that will later be manipulated and detailed down the line. At the heart of the modeling phase, artists create 3D meshes that are the structural framework of a polygon-based 3D model. 3D meshes employ points on the X, Y, and Z axes, also known as vertices, to create shapes with height, width, and depth.


After you create the models, you add further detail to them during the texturing phase. Texturing is the process of adding color and surface characteristics to a 3D model to allow it to match concept art or real-life equivalents. Artists will combine 2D images to mimic materials such as hair, skin, light effects, and other intricate details like scars and sweat that you then map onto models.


Now that you have clothed objects in surface materials, we can start to give them motion. Rigging involves creating a bone structure that acts as a motion framework for each 3D object. This bone structure allows any 3D object to be manipulated and distorted when necessary.


When the skeletal framework is in place, animators can now begin the animation process. At this stage, the goal is to manipulate 3D objects to appear as if they are moving. One method that artists typically use is keyframe animation, where each object is slowly moved frame-by-frame like drawing an old 2D cartoon. Other methods you can use include motion capture, where you record the movement of objects and people, map the rig to the data, or use a built-in physics engine.


Lighting in 3D animation typically follows the same rules as lighting a real-world scene or picture. The lighting artist uses various light sources to either add direct emphasis to a particular aspect of the environment, define the general atmosphere of the scene, or depict the scene’s natural qualities, such as a sunny or cloudy day.

Camera Work

The same general rules for cinematography apply for animation as well, with the bonus of being able to realize camera angles that would be nearly impossible in real life. Camera movements are simulated in a 3D animation, including dolly shots, panning, tilting, zooming, following, and more.


When all this arduous work finally comes together, 3D rendering can begin. 3D rendering is the process of creating a 2D picture from 3D information electronically stored on computers. Any special effects or other details such as lighting and camera placement can be added at this stage and then exported using specialized software.


Once you’ve exported your video, you can add polish and ensure all of the visual components have a consistent and coherent look. The composting process uses specialized software that can add special effects, stage extension, environment building, and more. An excellent composting program will also have a non-linear editor that allows you to merge, retimed, color-match, and reorder photos according to the project’s demands.

Music and Sound Effects

Once the animations are complete, you can add music, sound effects, and dialogue. Foley artists will mimic real-life sounds such as taking steps, opening doors, and more to match their counterparts in a scene. Composers will create soundtracks that play throughout a film to enhance the mood in scenes. You will have typically recorded the dialogue early in the process. You will now add it to the animation as well.

Final Product

Once all these stages are complete, a 3D animation is virtually finished. Artists will go through and do any touchups where needed, and then the final piece will be whole. From here, you will export the animation into various formats so it can be enjoyed in many ways, like at the movie theater, on YouTube, and through other outlets.

While this is a typical overview of the 3D animation process, the stages can differ studio by studio or animator by animator. The principles behind each step will largely remain the same, whether you’re creating a commercial, studio film, or even a cartoon you work on by yourself.

When you’re interested in learning more about the animation process, MoGraph Mentor offers comprehensive 3D animation courses online that will teach you everything you need to know. Our courses provide you the skills you’ll need with advanced 3D animation training to help you create a unique portfolio that will help you stand out to potential employers. Feel free to contact us with any questions you may have about our classes.

An Overview of the 3D Animation Process


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