Breaking the model in 3D animation

While discussing Disney’s Tangled recently, I was heralding the breaking of models that was so prevalent throughout the film. A non-animator that I was speaking with reminded me that he and others had no idea what I was talking about when I referred to “breaking the model” in 3D animation, so today let’s take a look at that very thing!

Stephen B wrote:
“What do you mean “break” the models? It’s not a term I’m aware of.”

To start we need to take a quick look at one of the major differences between 2D and 3D animation. In traditional 2D, hand drawn on paper, the only thing that ends up in any given frame is what you (the animator) puts there. When you move to the next frame, it is completely blank and you have to start over again to decide what will go there. In 3D, though, the second frame of two frames will begin as an exact copy of Frame 1, and then you go from that starting point instead of “nothing.”

2D animation vs. 3D animation

In 3D animation the animator is acting more as a puppeteer than a traditional animator. Someone has already modeled the character and that model has joints, motion controls, and functionality set by the modeler. As an example, in the original Toy Story Woody’s mouth alone had 58 motion controls. This allows for a great number of options for the animation, HOWEVER the 2D animator, not constrained by motion controls (or a 3D puppet), has at his or her disposal what is essentially infinite “motion controls.” Every frame is a new start, so there are no limitations at all.

Puppet time at Animator Island!

Just like a real-life puppet, 3D models have limitations. If you take a cloth puppet in your hands, you can stretch him and squash him to a certain extent.

Squash and Stretch Puppet Style

However if you pull too hard, you will rip the seams of the puppet and it will break.

No bueno!


The same goes for most 3D models (though they have improved as technology advances). However in animation, very often you NEED to “break” or “cheat” something to get it to look right and beautiful. Even 3D animation is essentially 2D animation, because it is viewed on a flat screen. As such, you’re still playing with shapes.

That’s why the best 3D animation contains a lot of instances of “breaking the model.” It is taking the model well past what it was designed to do and treating it just as a flat shape on the screen. A great example of this comes from Tangled when Maximus (who has throughout the film the greatest 3D character animation ever crafted, in this animator’s opinion) is racing against Flynn to retrieve the satchel dangling from a cliff-dwelling tree.


As you can see, Flynn’s character model is stretched WELL past what the character’s normal, realistic range would be. And yet when you watch the scene in real-time, it doesn’t look out of place at all. In fact, it looks terrific.

One of the reasons Tangled is such an appealing film to watch is because animator Glen Keane acted as Animation Director and worked closely with the 3D animators through the production. He drew 2D images over top of many of the 3D scenes and had the animators then match the work in 3D. Much of the time that required the models be broken, but it didn’t matter because the goal was not to have perfectly functioning 3D models on screen, it was to have living, breathing characters.

So, to summarize, “breaking the model” in 3D animation relates to taking the physical model past where the modeler built it to go. It is about treating the model less as a three dimensional set of shapes in 3D space and more as a two dimensional shape on a flat surface (the screen).

Now WHEN you should break a model is a whole other article for another time. Learning that art is what takes a lifetime of study and practice, and what separates the master animators from the novices. At least now, though, you’re equipped to take the first step down that road!

*No puppets were harmed in the making of this article. All puppet violence was added digitally.