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Tip of the Brush

Animation Tools of the Trade

Derek "db" Bonikowski — April 12, 2019

There are many books, articles, and videos focused on exploring the basic principles of animation. The Illusion of Life and The Animator’s Survival Toolkit should be required reading for all animators. But then what? Let’s take a look at the day-to-day work of animation and examine some useful tools for Autodesk Maya.


An absolute must for any animator. The ability to have all your most-frequently used tools available on one shelf definitely speeds up the animation process. You can create quick select buttons for specific sets of controllers, blend poses to neighboring keys, quickly scale / adjust the timing or value of keys or curves…. with all that Animbot can do, it has quickly replaced all other animation tools for me. There is a monthly license fee, but it is well worth it! Check out this video to see everything the tool can do.

Studio Library

This free tool saves poses and animations for quick reuse. It’s great for when you have approved facial animations or poses that need to propagate to other files, or if you just really like that clenched fist you spent so much time on, and now you want it in your current scene. It's also a great for sharing commonly-used poses and animations across the team.

Keyframe MP

Keyframe MP is a great playback tool for animators. You can set custom bookmarks and timelines, mirror the video playback, and with the licensed full version, sync to Maya so that you can play your animation along with your reference video. Check out related tools by Chris Zurbrigg like Shot Mask, Blue Pencil 2, and Keyframe Pro.


This is an excellent way to compare poses while animating. Similar to how 2D animators use their lightbox or how stop-motion animators use onion skinning, this tool creates an outline of a pose based on the character’s geometry which can be anchored in game, or follow the camera motion.

AnimSchool Picker

This is a free tool that allows the user to set up custom controller pickers. To gain access, all you have to do is sign up for their newsletter. The picker is particularly helpful when you’re using more complex rigs with a lot of animation controllers, because you can set up separate tabs for the body, face, hands, etc.


For those less familiar with rigging, there are several packages I can recommend. I find mGear Framework to be very versatile and robust, allowing me to quickly create complex rigs. It's a free-to-use and open source package, with an active forum and many tutorials on YouTube.

If you're rigging, you're probably also painting weights. I’ve found that a good Wacom tablet and ngSkinTools are the perfect combination to quickly get characters up and running. ngSkinTools uses layers to help achieve the best results, complete with mirroring and smoothing weights.

There are endless animation tools out there, and more being created all the time, and this is the kit I use to help me quickly prototype and iterate here at Velan Studios.

Derek "db" Bonikowski has been a professional animator for almost 20 years. He started his career working in stop-motion animation, then entered the game industry where he worked on titles such as the Metroid Prime trilogy, Donkey Kong Country Returns, and Mario Kart 7. For more from DB, check out his personal work or follow him on Twitter.