What Are Keyframes?

Discover how keyframes work in hand-drawn or computer-based animation

Artists drawing, working at modern office
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Two very common questions when people start off diving into the world of animation are; what is a keyframe? And what is a keyframe artist? Let's find out together, shall we!

Animation, as you may or may not know, is a series of drawings strung together to create the illusion of movement. When an artist sits down to create an action for his animated character he or she will have to draw out the entire action in all it's nuances if they want to create a compelling piece of animation to watch.

Using Keyframes in Animation

One successful way to do this is by using keyframes. In hand-drawn animation, a keyframe is a specific frame within the animated movement that the animator uses as a guide to building the rest of his work around. It is literally a keyframe, key as in important not key as in key like a door key.

Let's say we are animating someone throwing a baseball and we need to figure out how to get started. We can start by selecting a few keyframes and working from there. Maybe the first keyframe is him getting ready to throw the ball with it in his mitt.

The second keyframe we could do halfway through the pitch, and the final keyframe being after he's thrown the ball with his leg up in the air as he's balancing himself.

Building the Rest of the Animation

From those keyframes, we can work and build in the rest of the animation. There is no set determination as to what should or shouldn't be a keyframe but you usually want to pick something that is a dramatic or important pose in the animation. So if we're doing someone leaping in ballet maybe we'd do 3 keyframes of before, in the middle of, and at the end of the jump.

Keyframes also tend to have the most detail of all of the frames within the action. You'll find as you animate you can cut a lot of corners here and there, but the keyframes help by making sure the character you're animating always goes back to a base and is grounded no matter how many smears you may use.

The Benefit of Keyframes

So what's the benefit of using keyframes? Well, when you go to animate something it's nice to know where you're going. If you're doing hand-drawn animation it can be easy to lose track of where an arm is supposed to be going in the action, and keyframes give you nice guides to follow so you can know where you should be moving all the bits and pieces as you animate.

Keyframes in Computer Animation

In computer animation like After Effects or Cinema 4D, a keyframe is similar to it is in hand-drawn animation but it's telling the computer where to fill stuff in. If we're moving a ball across the screen we'll have two keyframes, one on the left and one on the right. We're telling the computer that these two keyframes are where this object lives, and the computer then goes and fills in all the middle frames using a tween.

So computer animation keyframes work very similarly to hand-drawn keyframes, only instead of you going and filling in the frames in between the keyframes the computer does it for you.

What's a Keyframe Artist

So what's a keyframe artist? In traditional hand-drawn animation in studios, you would have specific keyframe artists to do the keyframes of an animated sequence. They'd often be the ones who could be as accurate to the style as well as the animators who were most talented or had been there the longest. They would then hand off the keyframes to an inbetweener, who would animate all the frames in between those keyframes.

Nowadays almost all studios who do traditional animation will have their keyframe artists in-house and hand it off to outsourced in-betweeners somewhere like South Korea or Canada.

So, in summary, a keyframe in traditional animation is individual frames within an action that the animator draws specifically ahead of time to use as a guide as they or another animator goes in and fills in the rest of the frames between the keyframes. In computer animation keyframes are the frames that tell the computer where an object or character should be and when so it knows what to fill in between those keyframes.

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