Learn Maya Animation – Bouncing Ball – Part 1

By Geoff Beatty


The bouncing ball exercise has been a staple of animation classes for a long time.  While it’s true that it’s not something you see too often in the professional world (with the exception of this wonderful Pixar/Sesame Street short and this very funny Aardman bit, it’s actually a very helpful exercise.  That’s because it is a great distillation of so many animation principles.  It addresses, in simplified form, the very same challenges of animating something more complex like, say, a character.  That’s why we’re going to go through the process of animating a bouncing ball in Maya.  Follow along if you’d like to learn to animate with Maya.

This tutorial will be in three parts.  The first will address the basics of setting the keyframes on the ball so that it moves through space.   The second part will then take those initial keyframes and make a pretty decent generic-looking bouncing ball out of them.  Finally, the third part will take that generic-looking ball and tweak it so that it looks like something more specific, like a beach ball or a baseball.


First things first, though.  Before we can animate a believable bouncing ball, we need to know how an actual bouncing ball reacts when it bounces.  You can do this yourself by videotaping a ball and playing back the footage frame by frame.  I always encourage my student to feel free to put their scientist caps on for a moment and experiment with balls of different materials, weights, etc.  This will come in very handy for the second part of this tutorial when we will be making our ball move like it’s actually made of something other than pixels.

If you don’t have the time or ability to videotape a bouncing ball, then I would suggest looking for some good photographic or video reference on the web.  One example is this great photograph of a basketball that I got from Wikipedia:

Wikipedia Bouncing Ball Strobe


Okay, now we are ready to get started in Maya (I’m assuming you know the interface somewhat – if not, then you should read through some of the Autodesk Maya documentation and introductory tutorials).  First, we need to make sure we have the viewport and timeline showing.  Let’s give ourselves enough time for a decent animation, say, 60 frames (if we need more, we can add it later).  Also, it will be easier if we have auto-key mode set to “on.”   The only other element we need is a ball.  Create either a polygonal or NURBS sphere.  Size and placement doesn’t matter.

Initial Keyframes

  1. Start on frame 1.  Set the viewport to the front view.  Move sphere somewhere up (+Y) and to the left (-X), somewhere “up in the air” as a starting place.  Press “s” to set a keyframe for all the attributes (screenshot).
  2. Now, move ahead in the timeline to frame 9 (just an arbitrary choice – we’ll adjust timing later).  Move the ball down (-Y) and to the right (+X) so that it looks like it’s hitting the “ground.”  The auto-key setting should automatically set a keyframe on the changed values (screenshot).
  3. Move ahead to frame 17 and once again move the ball upward (+Y) and to the right (+X) so that it looks like it’s in the air again (screenshot).
  4. Move forward to frame 25 and move the ball down (-Y) and to the right (+X) so that it is on the ground again (screenshot).
  5. Repeat the last couple steps, putting the ball in the air at frame 33 and on the ground again at frame 41 (screenshot).

Pause and Evaluate

Okay, now play back the animation.  Hmm, moving through space at the correct points, but doesn’t look like a bouncing ball, more like a floating ball.  Let’s use one of Maya’s tools to sow how the ball is moving through space.  In our “Animation” menu set, under the “Animation” menu, there is something called “Create Motion Trail.”  Click on the options and set it to ”line” and “show frame numbers (screenshot).”  With the ball selected (important!), click on “Create Motion Trail” and you should see a line describing the movement of the ball through space.  You can see it makes a wavy shape (screenshot), but we need something that is more like a bouncing shape, a series of arches.  To do that, we’ll have to open and work with animation curves in the graph editor.  That will be part 2 of this tutorial.

Continue the lesson here:

Part 2:  Learn Maya Animation

Part 3:  Learn Maya Animation

Learning Maya Animation One Step at a Time

Ready to enroll in classes for Maya Animation or other summer camps?  Please visit the Digital Media Academy site for scheduling details.

Here are the classes for adults:  Digital Media Academy Course List

Here are the summer camps for teens:  Digital Media Academy Summer Camps for Teens

Here are the summer camps for kids:  Digital Media Academy Summer Camps for PreTeen Kids

Here are the summer camp for young children:  Digital Media Academy Summer Camps for Kids

DMA’s Maya Certification program centers on its series of 3d modeling and animation courses. These courses are broad and deep and tackle some of the most complex problems and powerful tools in Maya, Autodesk’s industry standard software for 3D modeling, animation, rendering, and visual effects. From a beginning of how to create basic shapes in Maya I, to a finalized piece with finished facial animations, body rigging, and narrative based story  – the Digital Media Academy series of courses provides an intense submersion into the Maya toolkit and workflow.

Paul Randall and Karen Laszkiewicz – who attended DMA at Stanford University as part of a partnership with NOVA this past summer – in collaboration with other students at animation summer camp created the sample project displayed below.  Both Paul and Karen were among the Digital Media Academy attendees who tackled all four courses back to back.  The amount of technical information was huge.  The requirements to process and apply the information were quick.  And the necessity to work as a team came as an extra spice to the mix.  Paul and Karen were integral parts of a diverse team that included participants of varying ages, abilities, gender, and nationality.  They both kept learning, kept producing and working with the team through the deadline to create the final piece seen here.

This project is based on a story from a children’s book and due to time constraints does not have voice over or final render.  That said, in this format you can see the scripted words (for voice over) and the skeleton (rigged, model) and other directional tools.  The important thing to remember is that Paul and Karen started with no experience in 3d or Maya and after 20 days of class were able to produce this.  Digital Media Academy will get you started on your new career path!  The skills they departed with will enable them to pursue the field of 3d art, modeling and animation as a viable career path.  What are you interested in learning with Maya?  Is it time to learn new skills to be competitive in today’s employment marketplace?  Why not learn new skills and have fun too at Digital Media Academy’s Maya summer camp?  Please join the conversation, and leave a comment below! 

Looking for more information on Maya Certification?  Please click here:  Maya Certification   Which Digital Media Academy location will work best for you?  Take a look!  Please click here:  Digital Media Academy Adult Training Locations.