Animation is an art form. However the process of 3d animation can include some very technical tools and workflows across a variety of software applications. But those same tools, programs like Maya, also provide some very powerful methods of speeding up your animation workflow. These tools and workflow tweaks can really give a boost to your productivity and let you concentrate more on bringing your projects to life. Let’s look at a few of these simple workflow tips.

Isolating Animation Channels

When creating animations, especially complex character animations, you may have a lot of motion happening across many different channels. The character will be moving up and down, side to side, rotating in different axes, and different parts of the body will be moving in different ways and at different times. With all of this going on, it can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint and deal with issues. By isolating specific channels, you can temporarily mute any motion not directly related to the motion you’re trying to troubleshoot.

For instance, let’s say we want to isolate this character’s side-to-side motion in his run cycle. We can select the control we want to view and open the Graph Editor. The motion we want to isolate in this case is the X translation. So we can select all of the other channels and choose Curves>Mute Channel. With those channels muted, you will only see the character’s side-to-side motion, the X translation, allowing you to tweak the curve and timing as needed. Once you’re done, simply select the muted channels and choose Curves>Unmute Channels and you’re back to viewing your entire animation. This can be a great way to drill into problem areas without affecting any of your other animation curves.

Isolating Parts of the Rig

This technique of isolating different aspects of your animation will also come in handy from a model standpoint. As we discussed, there may be a lot happening visually with your animations, from the motion of the upper body to the movement of the arms and legs. Many times, it can be better to nail down an overall motion before diving into other aspects of the animation.

For instance, if a character is moving around a scene, you can animate the upper body moving correctly before worrying about the details of the legs. Select the area of the body you want to “turn off” and go the Layer Editor. Choose Layers>Create Layer From Selected. This will place that geometry on its own layer, allowing you to toggle the visibility of the geometry on or off as needed. You can also turn off the visibility of the control curves by turning off NURBS Curves in the viewport filter menu. By turning the visibility of the legs off, you can better see the overall motion of the body, without being distracted. Once this motion is correct, you can just turn your display layer back on and continue working with the legs. Again, this is another method of eliminating visual distraction while you concentrate on one particular aspect of your animation.

Creating Animator-Friendly Constraints

There will be many times when your characters will need to hold and manipulate objects. For instance, this character carries a sword. The sword needs to move in specific ways and, most of the time, the character’s hand should remain fixed to the hilt. However, there will be times with the hand needs to move relative to the sword, perhaps by sliding up and down the hilt. In these cases, we can create a simple rig that will allow just that type of flexibility.

To start, add a locator to the scene and place it inside of the sword’s hilt, near the hand. Now rotate the locator to align it with the sword. By isolating the sword and locator in the viewport, this can be a little easier. They are aligned when, by moving the locator along one axis, it slides along the inside of the hilt. Now, simply parent the locator to the sword geometry. This is a simple parenting relationship, NOT a parent constraint. Now, select the locator and the hand control and choose, from the Rigging menu set, Constrain>Parent. This will parent constrain the hand to the locator, which in turn is parented to the sword. Now when the sword is animated, the hand will follow just as before. But you now have the ability to slide the hand up and down the hilt by also animating the locator along that axis. This kind of setup can be used on all kinds of props that need to be handled, but also need the freedom to occasionally move within that grip.

Editable Motion Trails

When animating characters, creating good arcs is key. The concept of arcs, after all, is one of the 12 principles, and is very important in getting appealing animation. Maya makes viewing and tweaking those arcs much simpler with Editable Motion Trails. Just select the animated model or control for which you’d like to view the arc and, under the Animation menu set, select Visualize>Create Editable Motion Trail. By default, an arc will be created for the duration of the time slider, but in the options you can choose specific start and end times. Click Create Motion Trail and a new curve will appear in your viewport.

If you don’t see it, make sure Motion Trails are turned on in your viewport filter. This curve represents the path your selected object takes throughout its animation. The points along the trail indicate key frames and you can see this clearly as your scrub your animation. By viewing the arc graphically in the viewport, you can see where and how it may need to be tweaked to give you the best motion. The arc will update as you edit key frames on your time slider. You can also edit the arc directly by clicking on its points/keyframes and moving them into different positions in the viewport. These motion trails give you a great deal of control in making sure all of your arcs are just the way you want them to be.

If you’re interested in more tips and tricks on improving your Maya animation workflow, check out the Animation Tips in Maya course by Mark Masters at In addition to going into more depth on the topics covered here, you’ll also learn more about animation cycling, baking game animations, graph editor tips, and more.


Justin has been the lead modeling author at Pluralsight for nearly 10 years. Growing up, Justin found a deep interest for the computer graphics industry after watching movies like Jurassic Park, Toy Story, and The Abyss. His ambition would lead him to work at Sony Imageworks in Los Angeles on movies like Monster House and Surf's Up.

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