Chapter 2: Skeletons

We begin our study of character animation by examining the skeleton, the underlying foundation of the digital character, upon which body, motion, and personality are built.


A character’s skeleton is a pose-able framework of bones connected by articulated joints, arranged in a tree data structure. The skeleton itself is generally not rendered, but instead can be used as an invisible armature to position and orient render-able geometry such as a character’s skin, as we will see in later chapters.


The joints allow relative movement within the skeleton, and they are represented mathematically by 4x4 linear transformation matrices. By combining the rotations, translations, scales, and shears possible with these matrices, a variety of joint types can be constructed, including hinges, ball-and-socket joints, sliding joints, and various other custom types. In practice, however, many character skeletons can be set up using only simple rotational joints, as they can adequately model the joints of most real animals.


Every joint has one or more degrees of freedom (DOFs), which define its possible range of motion. For example, an elbow joint has one rotational DOF as it can only rotate along a single axis, while a shoulder joint has three DOFs, as it can rotate along three perpendicular axes. Individual joints usually have between one and six DOFs, but all together, a detailed character may have more than a hundred DOFs in the entire skeleton. Specifying values for these DOFs poses the skeleton, and changing these values over time results in movement, and is the essence of the animation process.


Given a set of specified DOF values, a joint local matrix can be constructed for each joint. These matrices define the position and orientation of each joint relative to the joint above it in the tree hierarchy. The local matrices can then be used to compute the world space matrices for all of the joints using the process of forward kinematics. These world space matrices are what ultimately place the virtual character into the world, and can be used for skinning, rendering, collision detection, or other purposes.


In many ways, a digital character’s skeleton is analogous to the skeleton of a real animal. Real world animals with true bones are called vertebrates, and this group includes humans, mammals, reptiles, fish, and birds. The use of a virtual skeleton to animate these creatures makes perfect sense, but digital bones don’t necessarily have to correspond to actual bones. In addition to animating rigid movement, they can be used to animate facial expressions, soft tissues such as muscles and fat, mechanical parts such as wheels, or even clothing. Skeletons can be used to animate humans, aliens, robots, plants, cartoon characters, insects, vehicles, furniture, and more.


[Image: critters with skeletons]


In this chapter, we will examine the internal workings of the virtual skeleton. [Section 2.1] discusses the details of forward kinematics and how it is applied to skeletons, starting with a brief review of some 3D geometry and linear algebra topics. [Section 2.2] presents a variety of specific joint types that can be used in a character, as well as the matrix construction needed for these joints. [Section 2.3] introduces the concept of a pose and [section 2.4] presents some implementation details on skeletons and their implications on real time performance.

2.1 Forward Kinematics

The term kinematics refers to the mathematical description of motion without considering the underlying physical forces. Kinematics deals primarily with positions, velocities, accelerations, and their rotational counterparts: orientation, angular velocity, and angular acceleration. In this chapter, we are simply considered with computing static poses for skeletons and so we will limit our analysis mainly to positions and orientations.


The skeleton itself is usually treated as a purely kinematic structure. Higher-level systems may animate the skeleton with physical forces if desired, but those dynamic systems are typically layered on top of an underlying kinematic framework. We will examine dynamics, or the study of physically based motion later in [chapter 12], but for now, we will concentrate on the kinematics of the skeleton.


Two useful kinematic analysis tools are forward kinematics and inverse kinematics. Within the scope of character animation, forward kinematics refers to the process of computing world space joint matrices based on specified DOF values, whereas inverse kinematics refers to the opposite problem of computing a set of DOF values that position a joint at a desired world space goal. Both forward and inverse kinematics are used in other fields such as robotics and mechanical engineering, and there is extensive literature available on the subject. We study forward kinematics here and will examine inverse kinematics later in [chapter 10].

2.1.1 Basic Kinematics

This section presents a review of some basic linear algebra and is intended mainly as an introduction to the notation and standards used throughout this book. It is not intended as a complete introduction to the subject, however, as there are numerous good books on linear algebra and introductory computer graphics [MOLL99], [BUSS], [LINEAR], [ROGERS].


Coordinate Systems

Before delving deeper into the subject of character animation, we must first make a few basic definitions about coordinate systems. Throughout the book, we will use a three dimensional, right handed coordinate system by convention, meaning that the z-axis is the positive cross product of the x- and y-axes, with x pointing to the right, y pointing up, and z pointing to the viewer.


Figure [x]: Right-handed coordinate system


Because the positive z-axis points outward, the viewer therefore looks in the –z direction. To be consistent with this coordinate system methodology, a character in a ‘default’ orientation would be aligned with the viewer, and would therefore look in the –z direction as well. Lights, cameras, vehicles, and other objects that get positioned with matrices will all be assumed to be facing down the –z axis in their default orientation.


[Image: camera, character, light, & vehicle facing in –z direction]


Historically, different software and hardware rendering systems have disagreed upon the choice of coordinate systems and many different standards exist. The use of a right-handed system with the positive z-axis facing the viewer is probably the most widely accepted of these standards within the computer graphics industry and so it will be used here. In any case, it is always possible to change from one representation to another with one additional transformation (see [appendix A] for more details).



A vector v in 3D space has three individual scalar components representing its coordinates along the x-, y-, and z-axes.




Vectors typically represent either a position or a direction, but they can also be used for more abstract constructs. The magnitude of a vector is a scalar representing the Euclidean length and can be computed as:




If we are only interested in the direction that a vector is pointing and not its magnitude, it is often more computationally convenient if the length of the vector is exactly 1. We define a normalize operation which returns a unit length vector as follows:




Most of the vectors we will use in this book represent some 3-dimensional geometric property, but they are not strictly limited to being 3D.


Homogeneous Space

It is common practice in computer graphics to perform vector computations using 4D homogeneous space. Doing so allows various different operations (such as rotations and translations) to be combined into a single methodology. For details on homogeneous space, consult an introductory graphics text such as [MOLL99], [BUSS] or review [appendix A].


[more: homogeneous space]




Matrix Format

The 4x4 homogeneous matrix is a useful tool in computer graphics due to its ability to represent both the position and orientation of an object in space. Matrices can transform geometric data from one space to another and they are used extensively throughout character animation for a variety of purposes. To be consistent with most graphics texts, we choose to define the matrices with the translation along the bottom row, instead of along the right column as in many engineering texts. The right hand column is mainly used for viewing projections and is rarely needed for character animation. In almost every 4x4 matrix used in this book, the right hand column will contain three 0’s starting from the top and a 1 at the bottom. Matrices will generally take the following format:




where a, b, and c are the three basis vectors defining the orientation of the matrix and d is the position. Usually, the three basis vectors will be of unit length and will be perpendicular to each other, making the matrix orthonormal or rigid, but this is not a strict requirement and some matrices may break that convention.


Figure [x]: Basis vectors a, b, c, and position d of matrix M


[more: image: equal sized axes, illustrate ‘d’ better]



A vector is transformed by a matrix in the following manner:




where v’ is the resulting transformed vector and (.) is the vector dot product. If v is a vertex in an object’s local coordinate system and M is a matrix placing the object in world space, then v’ will be the vertex’s location in world space. The inverse of this transformation is written as:




where M-1 is the matrix inverse of M. If M is a matrix that transforms from local to world space, then M-1 will transform from world space to local space.


[more: matrix concatenation]


For more information on matrix operations and linear algebra, see [appendix A] or [MOLL99][BUSS].


World and Local Space

In 3D graphics and animation, we define a fixed coordinate system called the world coordinate system or simply world space, in which all objects, characters, effects, cameras, lights and other entities are ultimately placed. The terms global coordinate system and global space are also commonly used and mean exactly the same thing, but for consistency, we will stick with the use of the word world rather than global.


Individual objects are typically defined in their own local space and make use of 4x4 matrices to transform to world space.


In a typical interactive graphics application, many different objects will need to co-exist in world space. Some of these objects are simple rigid objects, like a chair, for example. To manipulate the position and orientation of a simple object like this, we could use a single 4x4 matrix to transform the chair’s vertices from its local space to world space. This matrix is called the chair’s world matrix, as it positions the chair into the world.


A more complex object, such as a character, will have many moving parts, and so will require many matrices. In order to render the character in the world and perform other operations such as collision detection, we need to know the world space matrices of all of the joints in the character’s skeleton. It is difficult and unintuitive to specify character joint matrices directly in world space, and so skeletons are built up of a hierarchy of local transformations, each defined relative to the one above it. The joint matrices are defined in this local space and are converted to world space by the process of forward kinematics, described below.


Cameras and View Space

To render a view of the 3D world, we place a virtual camera with a matrix called a camera matrix. The space representing what the camera sees is called view space and objects are transformed into this space by the view matrix, which is the inverse of the camera matrix.

2.1.2 Joint Hierarchy

The topology of a skeleton is an open directed graph, or tree (also called a hierarchy). One joint is selected as the root and the other joints are connected up in hierarchical fashion.


To keep the definition of a skeleton simple, we will restrict them to being open trees without any closed loops. This restriction doesn’t really prevent kinematic loops in the final animated character, as we will learn about in [chapter 10].


The nodes in the tree represent the joints of the skeleton. They could just as easily represent the bones, and in fact, there is little difference between the concept of a bone and a joint, as the motion of a particular bone is the same as the motion of the joint controlling it. In this book, the two will be treated as the same thing, i.e., we may occasionally refer to a joint such as the shoulder in the exact same way we would refer to the bone directly manipulated by that joint (in this case, the upper arm or humerus bone). For consistency, we will usually describe things in terms of joints unless the situation specifically warrants the use of bones.


Figure [x] shows an example skeleton for a simple robot character. The hierarchical structure of the same skeleton is shown in figure [x], with the root located at the top of the figure.


Figure [x]: Simple character skeleton


Figure [x]: Hierarchical graph of skeleton joints


Root Node

The choice of which node to make the root is somewhat arbitrary, but it is usually convenient to select something near the center of the character. A common choice on animals is somewhere in the spine, so that both the pelvis and torso can be attached underneath in the tree.


The root can be treated as a special joint that capable of unrestricted rotational and translational movement. In most characters, all other joints would have restrictions on their motion.


Node Relationships

A node directly above another in the tree is that node’s parent. All nodes will have exactly one parent except for the root node, which has none. A node directly below another in the tree is that node’s child, and a node may have zero or more children. Child nodes inherit transformations from their parent nodes, so that if an elbow is rotated, for example, all of the joints in the hand will follow correctly. Nodes at the same level under a common parent are called siblings.


Figure [x]: Node hierarchical relationships


A child of a child, (etc.) is called a descendant and a parent of a parent (etc.) is called an ancestor. Nodes with no children are called leaf nodes and nodes with children are called interior nodes.


It is said that a joint down in the tree inherits its transformation from its ancestors, that is, its own transformation builds on the ones that came above it. This concept can also be applied to other properties, such as rendering materials, or other visual properties, but we will not consider any of these other types of inheritance here.


The inheritance of the linear transformation information is handled through the process of forward kinematics and relies specifically on matrix concatenation, which is discussed in [section 2.1.3].


Linearization of the Hierarchy

An alternative view of the skeleton hierarchy is presented in [figure x]. It contains essentially the same information as the view in [figure x], but it is rearranged to list the joints in a linear fashion. Accessing joints as a linear array can be convenient in many situations, and if a design calls for it, it is easy for both tree and array representations to coexist.


  1. Root
  2.   Torso
  3.       Neck
  4.         Head
  5.       ShoulderL
  6.         ElbowL
  7.           WristL
  8.       ShoulderR
  9.         ElbowR
  10.           WristR
  11.   Pelvis
  12.     HipL
  13.       KneeL
  14.         AnkleL
  15.     HipR
  16.       KneeR
  17.         AnkleR


Figure [x]: linear representation of character hierarchy


Depth-First Tree Traversal

To compute world space joint matrices, we will need to perform a depth-first tree traversal of the skeleton. A depth-first traversal starts at the root node and traverses down through each of the children. When a child node is visited, each of its children are then traversed. Only when all of a node’s children have been visited does control return to the parent node. In this way, all nodes are visited once. When a node is visited, an arbitrary operation can be performed, in the case of a skeleton, it will be forward kinematics computations.


Figure [x]: Depth first tree traversal order


The linearized hierarchy presented in [figure x] lists the nodes of the skeleton in the same order that they would be accessed in a depth-first traversal. One can see in this representation that before any particular node in the tree is reached, all of its ancestors will have been traversed already. This ensures that the necessary information about the node’s parent will be computed already. It is also possible to traverse the hierarchy in a breadth-first traversal, but this is generally a bit worse on caching performance, and won’t be discussed in this book.

2.1.3 Skeleton Kinematics

Joint DOFs

A movable joint has one or more degrees of freedom, but typically they won’t have more than three. A free rigid body has 6 DOFs (3 to describe its position and 3 more to describe its rotation), but there isn’t really any reason why a joint couldn’t have 6 or even more DOFs. The root joint of a skeleton can be treated as a 6-DOF joint in most cases, unless the skeleton is somehow constrained to a fixed coordinate system.


The term ‘degree of freedom’ is a general term that includes not only joint angles, but also joint translations, scales, or any other types of motion a joint may allow. In the next few chapters, we will see how the concept of a DOF can be extended further to include any other property we may wish to animate.


As DOFs can represent different types of quantities, it is important to keep track of the units used. For example, a rotational DOF could use degrees, radians, or any other arbitrary unit, as long as it is used consistently. Throughout the book, we will assume that rotational DOFs use radians and translational DOFs use meters.


Joint Local Matrix

A joint must take the input DOF values and use them to generate a joint local matrix. This matrix is a 4x4 homogeneous transformation matrix that defines the joint’s current position and orientation relative to its parent joint. Different types of joints will use different methods for generating this matrix. We will examine several common joint types and their corresponding local matrices in [section 2.2] later in this chapter.


Joint Offset

Joints will typically have a fixed offset position in the parent node’s space, which acts as a pivot point for the joint movement. The pivot point of an elbow, for example, stays at a fixed location relative to the shoulder joint, as the shoulder joint itself moves about. For flexibility, we treat this offset as a general 3D vector, r and will use it for all joint types. To handle this offset mathematically, we add the offset vector r to the bottom row when we construct the joint local matrix. A joint local matrix L that does nothing other than apply this constant offset would be written as:



For a 1-DOF rotational joint that pivots about the x-axis by an angle [theta], the matrix would be:




[Figure x] illustrates a rotational joint with a fixed offset. Joint local matrices for other joint types are discussed in [section 2.2].


[Image: rotational joint with fixed offset]


Joint Orientation

Some 3D animation systems allow a full fixed transformation to apply to the joint instead of just a positional offset. The use of a full transformation means that we must apply a matrix multiplication to compute the complete joint local matrix instead of simply adding a translation to the bottom line. The purpose of this full transformation is to allow joints to rotate or translate around arbitrary axes, but as we will see throughout [section 2.2], there are other straightforward ways to achieve this. Still, a full fixed orientation change can be supported for individual joints if desired. We will avoid this extra matrix, however, as we prefer other means for achieving the same results.


Joint Limits

Joint DOFs can have limits on their range of movement. For example, the human elbow can bend to about +150 degrees (about 2.1 radians) and hyperextend back as much as –10 degrees (about -.17 radians). Limits should be able to be set on a DOF-by-DOF basis. In practice, it is common to have minimum and maximum limits for each DOF that can be enabled or disabled independently.


[Image: joint limits]


For most joints, the DOF values are completely independent and can easily be clamped to within legal limits on an individual basis. It may, sometimes, be desirable to describe joint limits with a more geometric or general-purpose method. This is especially true for quaternion rotational joints where joint limits can’t be implemented by simple clamping. We will examine geometric joint limits in more detail in [section 2.2.2].


Matrix Concatenation

[more: clean up]


Concatenating the local matrices to make the world space matrices is straightforward and makes use of matrix algebra and the very useful properties of 4x4 homogeneous matrices. To compute all of the world space matrices for a skeleton, we begin at the root and perform a depth-first tree traversal. For each joint visited in the traversal, we compute its world space matrix Wjoint by multiplying its local matrix Ljoint by its parent’s world space matrix Wparent:




The root node has no parent, and so Wparent is just the identity matrix, which causes its world space matrix to be equal to its joint local matrix.


Many modern CPU and graphics processors are equipped with vector floating point units that are designed specifically to handle 4x4 matrix concatenation and similar computations. Taking advantage of features like these should result in significant performance gains.


Skeleton Forward Kinematics Algorithm

The end result of the forward kinematics process for a skeleton is a set of world space matrices- one for each joint. If we assume, for now, that the character is posed by some higher level system and its joint DOF values are all specified, then the two main computational steps needed per joint to compute the world space matrices are:


  1. Generate joint local matrix
  2. Concatenate joint local matrix to compute world space matrix


There are a variety of different local matrix constructions depending on the types of joints used, but the matrix concatenation phase where the world space matrices are computed is simple and consistent.


[more: elaborate on algorithm]

2.2 Joint Types

In this section, we examine several different joint types and present formulas for constructing their joint local matrices.

2.2.1 Rotational Joints

In realistic characters, most or all joints will be rotational. Both 1-DOF and 3-DOF rotational joints are common, and 2-DOF joints are used occasionally as well.


1-DOF Rotation

Perhaps the most useful joint type in computer character animation is the 1-DOF rotational joint, sometimes called a hinge joint. Elbows and knees are good examples of hinge joints. Multiple 1-DOF hinge joints can be combined together to construct 2- or 3-DOF joints if desired, but those joints can also be treated as unique types.


The hinge joint can be specified to rotate about any axis. Most often, animation systems allow users to create joints that rotate about the local x, y, or z axes, but it is also possible to define joints that rotate about any arbitrary axis. By definition, a positive rotation about an axis will cause an object to rotate counterclockwise when viewed from the direction that the axis is pointing.


A general 1-DOF rotational joint is illustrated in [figure x].


[Figure x]: 1-DOF hinge joint


To formulate the complete joint local matrix for an x-axis rotational joint, we add in the positional offset vector r to the bottom line of the matrix to get:



Similarly, the joint local matrix for a hinge joint that rotates about the positive y-axis is:



and for rotation about the positive z-axis:



It is often desirable to allow hinge joints to rotate about an arbitrary axis. Given an arbitrary unit vector a defining the desired axis of rotation, the formula for the joint local matrix becomes:



where = and =.


2-DOF Rotation

2-DOF rotational joints can be found in some places such as the wrist, the clavicle-sternum joint, and the first joint in the thumb. A universal joint in an automobile drive shaft is another example, and indeed, 2-DOF rotational joints are sometimes referred to as universal joints.


2-DOF rotational joints can be constructed as a combination of two sequential rotations about different axes. Usually, two principle axes are chosen such as xy, xz, or yz, but one could create a 2-DOF joint out of any two arbitrary axes if desired.


Joint local matrix formulas for xy, xz, and yz joints are presented below:





where =, =, etc.


It should be noted that a 2-DOF joint could simply be constructed by connecting together two 1-DOF joints, or even by using a 3-DOF joint and just setting one of the DOFs to zero. Either of these options is of course possible, however, it is likely that if 2-DOF joints are required, supporting them explicitly would be slightly faster at the expense of some minor additional code complexity.


3-DOF Rotation

3-DOF rotational joints are found in important joints in the body such as the ball-and-socket joints of the hips and shoulders. As mentioned earlier, it is possible to construct a 3-DOF rotational joint out of 3 independent 1-DOF joints, but it is still worth considering a 3-DOF joint as a unique type.


[Image: 3-DOF joint]


Rotation Order

With matrix algebra, multiplication is not commutative, that is AB is not equal to BA. This means that attention must be paid to the order that rotations are performed in multiple DOF rotational joints. Often, commercial animation packages allow the user to specify an arbitrary rotation order for each joint (such as xyz, xzy, yxz…). Sometimes, this extra flexibility is useful in interactive applications as well.








where =, =, etc.


[more: rotation order, Euler angles, problems, multiple representations, gimbal lock…]

2.2.2 Quaternion Joints

Rotational joints can also be implemented with quaternions. A quaternion is a mathematical construct that can represent an arbitrary 3D orientation without some of the complications that Euler angles are prone to.


Quaternions were first introduced by William Hamilton in 1843 and further developed by Arthur Cayley, Josiah Gibbs and others. They have more recently become a popular method in computer graphics for handling orientations since their introduction to the graphics literature in [SHOE85], and have been an active research topic in modern graphics, physics, engineering and mathematics.


Quaternion Definition and Mathematics

A quaternion is a vector in 4D space that can be used to define a 3D rigid body orientation:




Usually, they are constrained to be of unit length, and we will apply this constraint to all quaternions used in this book.




A quaternion can be thought of as a rotation about an arbitrary axis. Any orientation can be represented by a single rotation around some unit length axis a by some angle theta, and quaternions are related to this axis and angle by the following formula:




The formula for the joint local matrix of a quaternion joint is:



A brief introduction to quaternions is provided in [appendix A] and quaternion interpolation is discussed in [chapter 6]. For more information about quaternion mathematics and its uses, see [KUIP99], [BUSS], and [SHOE85].


Joint Limits with Quaternions

Because the 4 variables in the quaternion don’t correspond to intuitive geometric values, it is not practical to implement quaternion joint limits by just clamping the 4 variables to some pre-defined range, as with joint limits for other DOF types. This makes it necessary to take a more geometric approach to defining the joint limits for quaternion joints, which can actually be more powerful and general purpose than the simple DOF clamping approach.


[more: cone joint limits]


Quaternions vs. Euler Angles

Although quaternions are certainly a powerful way to store and manipulate arbitrary orientations, they are not necessarily a total replacement for the more traditional Euler angle approach. Clearly, for 1-DOF rotational joints, a single axis rotation matrix would be faster and simpler than using a quaternion, and so a general purpose skeleton system should be prepared to support a variety of joint types and configurations. If multiple joint types were allowed, then it wouldn’t be very difficult for an animation system to support both Euler angle joints and quaternion joints, selectable on a joint-by-joint basis. It may even be desirable to allow rotational joints to be handled as quaternions in certain situations and as Euler angles in others. For the purposes of this book, however, we will just consider a quaternion joint as a unique joint type.


Quaternions tend to be particularly useful when there is a need to support interpolation between arbitrary orientations without suffering from gimbal lock and the order dependent problems we find with Euler angles. The human shoulder is a good example of a joint that often needs to interpolate between widely varying orientations. However, there are occasions when the less sophisticated Euler interpolation scheme actually works better and may even look more natural. The human hip might make a good example of this. Even though the hip is a ball-and-socket joint like the shoulder, it has a more limited range of motion, making it less prone to Euler interpolation problems. The important point is that there isn’t one method that works best in all situations. The following chart is provided to compare some of the relevant issues between the two:



Euler Angles

Handle arbitrary interpolations well

Don’t handle arbitrary interpolation well

One consistent representation

12 (or even more) possible representations

Joint limits require custom handling

Joint limits very simple

4 interrelated variables, which may require special handling by higher level animation code

3 totally independent variables

Interpolation computations are slower

Interpolation computation is fast

Conversion to matrix format is very fast

Conversion to matrix format requires 3 sin() and 3 cos() functions (or table lookups)

May require occasional renormalization

No normalization required


Both quaternions and Euler angles have their place in computer animation, and so it helps to study and understand the properties of both schemes.

2.2.3 Translational Joints

Translational joints are not as common in computer character animation as rotational joints, but they still are important to consider. Generally, real-life creatures don’t have translational joints but mechanical creatures such as robots or other animated mechanisms may contain them.


[Image: translational joint]


Like rotational joints, translational joints can be specified to translate along any axis. Translational joints with a single degree of freedom are called prismatic joints. A shock absorber for a car’s suspension system is a good example of a prismatic joint. A general definition of a prismatic joint would consist of a fixed offset vector r and a unit vector a representing the axis of translation, and the joint local matrix for a translation DOF value t would be constructed like this:




Translational joints require very little computation and obviously, in cases where a is a principle axis this math reduces even further.


It is also possible to make 2-DOF and 3-DOF translational joints. For example, the joint local matrix for a 3-DOF translational joint that takes a translation vector t and has a fixed offset r would be:



2.2.4 Compound Joints

Sometimes it may be desirable to create joints that combine several different types of motion under the control of relatively few DOFs. We will define these as compound joints, which can include any linear transformations we may choose to use for joints. We will briefly look at three examples: 6-DOF joints, screw joints, and curve joints, but one could create their own compound joints by creating a function that takes a set of DOFs and generates a linear transformation using any rules desired.


6-DOF Joint

A free rigid body has 6 DOFs and can be constructed from the rotational and translational joint types already discussed. However, because 6-DOF joints are common, both for rigid objects, and for the root node of articulated objects, it may be convenient to define a single joint type that incorporates all the necessary DOFs. To do this, one can use any of the 3-DOF rotational joint types defined (including the quaternion joint) and combine it with the 3-DOF translational joint type. Treating a 6-DOF joint as a single joint will reduce the matrix computations in the kinematics process. An example of a 6-DOF joint local matrix that uses the xyz Euler rotation order would be:



Screw Joints

Another example of a compound joint is a screw joint, which combines a rotation and a translation. These two operations are not independent however, and are controlled by a single degree of freedom, in a way similar to the motion of a screw. The translation along the x-axis is related to the rotation angle [theta] by a simple scalar rate:




The joint local matrix for a screw joint rotating and translating about the positive x-axis would be:



It is left to the reader to construct other screw matrices.


[Image: screw joint]


Curve Constraint Joint

Another example of compound joint type could be a translation along a curve. It combines translation in two or three dimensions, but they are grouped under a single degree of freedom.


[Image: curve constraint]


A formula for generating the joint local matrix for a curve constraint joint could work like this:



where c(u) is some function that returns the 3D position of the curve at parameter u.


All of these examples of compound joints ultimately generate linear transformations, and so they are compatible with our definition of a joint. Like the other joint types, they take a small number of input DOF values and use them to generate a local joint matrix.


A train car going along a winding train track can be thought of as another elaboration on the curve joint concept. Even though the train car may actually translate and rotate in all three dimensions as it moves along the track, it is still constrained to a single degree of freedom and can be represented as a 1-DOF compound joint.

2.2.5 Non-Rigid Joints

Rotations and translations are examples of orthonormal or rigid transformations. A rigid transformation can move an object but it does not distort the shape in any way. Although less commonly used, it is possible to create joints out of non-rigid linear transformations such as scales and shears. Non-rigid transformations can come in handy when one is trying to construct and animate cartoon characters that may deform in ways that a real character would not.


Non-rigid matrices can be treated in the exact same way as rigid matrices in many situations, but there are a few cases where additional considerations must be made.


Dealing with Normals

[more: clean up]


When geometry is transformed by a non-rigid matrix, the normals can no longer be transformed by the upper 3x3 portion of the matrix, as with a rigid transformation. An illustration of this problem is shown in [figure x].


Figure [x]: Object is subjected to a non-uniform scale showing that the transformed normals are no longer perpendicular to the surface


To properly transform a normal through with a non-rigid 3x3 matrix W, we must use the inverse transpose of W:




Explicitly computing W-1T per joint can be expensive due to the full matrix inversion required.W-1T can be usually computed much cheaper if it is computed as part of the forward kinematics process. If one is willing to store a copy of W-1T per joint, then it can be computed as




This involves construction of an inverse joint local matrix L-1 and a matrix multiplication. If these are only going to be used for transforming normals, they only need to be 3x3 matrices.


In most cases the construction of L-1 is straightforward. Rotational and translational joints simply negate the joint angles or translations used in the construction of L, and scale matrices can replace a scale value s with 1/s.


[more: details of L-1 construction]

[more: 3x3 vs. 4x4, fast inversion]


Adding these extra steps to the forward kinematics algorithm and storing an additional matrix per joint are two of the costs that must be paid when one wants to support non-rigid matrices properly. Supporting non-rigid joint transformations puts additional costs and complexities on the system that will also be further apparent when we examine skinning in [chapter 3] and inverse kinematics in [chapter 10].


Scale Joints

There are a variety of ways to create scale matrices. Scales may be along 1, 2, or 3 axes. The joint local matrix for a uniform scale that affects all axes equally by a factor s is:



For scaling along only the x-axis:



And for scaling independently along all three axes:



It is sometimes desirable to have scales that preserve the overall volume of an object. This can be a simple way to achieve a stretching effect and can be a useful joint type to have on cartoon style characters. A volume preserving joint that scales along the x-axis by a factor sx is:



Different variations of these scale matrices can be formulated for different axes.


[more: scale joints]

[Image: scale]


Shear Joints

Shears are another type of non-rigid linear transformation that can be used for interesting cartoon-like character effects and simple shape distortions. A shear is a transformation with the following format:



[more: shear]

[Image: shear]


Nonlinear Joints

Typically in computer character animation, joints are limited only to doing linear transformations (such as rotations, translations, scales, and shears). This is usually to keep things simple and fast and to be able to take advantage of built in matrix support on modern CPUs. It is possible, however, to allow joints to do nonlinear transformations, such as bends, twists, or any other local or global deformations. In this book, we choose to treat these nonlinear functions as skinning operations that do not affect the underlying skeleton, and deal with them in [chapter 3].

2.3 Implementation Issues

There are two main computational parts to the skeletal forward kinematics system: local joint matrix construction, and world matrix concatenation. There are several subtle details that must be worked out in the implementation of a skeleton framework that will have impact on the system’s flexibility, performance, and memory usage. We will look at some of those details here.


A very simple humanoid skeleton model might contain around 20 joints. A more complex model with articulated fingers and other details might have up to 50, 100 or even more joints. Applications with a wide variety of different characters or a large number of similar characters will definitely have to consider memory and performance issues relating to the number of active joints in the world.


Hardware Vector Units

Many modern CPUs and graphics processors have considerable hardware support for floating point vector and matrix routines. Skeleton kinematics algorithms can typically be implemented very efficiently on modern systems in very few clock cycles, and so making the most of available vector processing should definitely pay off when performance is critical.


3x4 Matrices

For software matrix math implementations, it may be perfectly acceptable to use 3x4 matrices instead of 4x4. We can just assume that the right hand column is always [0,0,0,1]T, and implement the matrix algebra routines accordingly. Generally, character animation systems can get away with using 3x4 matrices throughout for everything except for final view projection. Using 3x4 matrices can save a significant amount of computations in matrix operations. For example, multiplying two 4x4 matrices requires 64 multiplies and 48 adds, while multiplying two 3x4 matrices only requires 36 multiplies and 27 adds.


Local Matrix Storage

One issue to consider is how matrices are stored per joint. A simple implementation might just store one local matrix and one world matrix for every joint in a character. But is it really necessary to allocate permanent storage space for this data or can these be created only when needed? Often, the local matrix is only needed for a short time and can be very temporary. On modern vector CPUs, the local joint matrix might only need to exist in vector registers. Local matrix construction may involve different types of operations depending on the joint type (rotational, translational…), but for the more common rotational joints, the matrix construction involves a few sin() and cos() functions and possibly several multiplications and additions.


World Matrix Storage

Unlike the temporary local matrices, world space matrices are usually needed for a bit longer. Usually, an application would at least need all of the world matrices for a single character to exist at one time, to be used for skinning and rendering, however, for very simple applications that don’t use skinning, the need to retain world matrices can be eliminated by the use of a matrix stack. More commonly, however, the application might require all world space matrices for all active characters to exist at the same time to be used for collision detection or other environment interactions. The software engineer will have to make the appropriate tradeoffs between memory usage, performance, flexibility, and code complexity.


Transforming to View Space

It should be noted that for some applications, additional performance may be gained by directly transforming the skeleton into view space, the space defined relative to the camera viewing the world. This may be effective for some situations, but not always in others which may require objects to be placed in a consistent world space for collision detection, AI, or other purposes. Also, in applications that involve multiple camera views of the same character, it is better to transform everything to a common world space before transforming to individual camera spaces.


Recursion and Function Calls

The simplicity of the forward kinematics algorithm means that it can be coded in very few cycles per joint on modern graphics hardware. In this situation, the overhead for calling an actual recursive function per joint can start to add up. This can be worse if a virtual function call is issued per joint to support multiple joint types. If function call overhead becomes a measurable bottleneck in the forward kinematics implementation, it can be eliminated entirely in most cases. The forward kinematics algorithm exhibits a property called tail recursion, which means that it does all of a joint’s processing before moving onto its children and therefore doesn’t actually require a local variable stack. The entire forward kinematics for a skeleton can therefore be computed within a single small function. Support for a wide variety of joints and other options can complicate this and in these situations, one may have to exchange some performance for flexibility.


[more: array processing]


Separation of Constant and Variable Data

An important area where memory can be saved is in the separation of constant and variable data. Constant data is data that does not change, while variable data may actively change over time. In skeletal terms, constant data might include data relating to joint offsets, joint types, joint limits, while variable data would include the DOF values and global matrices. While it is tempting to store all of this joint data in a single class, it may be advisable to separate them to allow for character types to be instanced or shared among many active characters. Again, the software engineer must be aware of these issues in order to make informed decisions about the implementation.


Visualizing the Skeleton

The skeleton itself is usually not drawn in an animation; it is an invisible structure that exists for the convenience of the animators. Still, no interactive character animation system would be complete without some method of visualizing the actual skeleton, for debugging purposes if nothing else. Supporting the ability to turn off the characters skin and display the underlying skeleton can be very helpful to people using the system. The bones of the skeleton can be drawn as simple lines, boxes, cylinders, or any other geometric representation desired. It is also useful to draw the three vectors forming the basis of each joint matrix as well. Additional useful features include drawing data specific to each different joint type, such as joint axes or joint limits.


Skeleton Data Files

[more: Skeleton files]



[more: single joint type vs. derived joitns]


A C++ pseudocode algorithm for computing the forward kinematics for a skeleton is presented below. It is a recursive function that first generates the local matrix for a joint, and then concatenates it with its parent’s matrix to compute the joint’s world matrix. It then proceeds to recursively call the same function on all of its children, thus transforming the entire skeleton. The ComputeLocalMatrix() function could use any of the techniques presented in [section 2.2] to generate a local matrix.


     Joint::ComputeWorldMatrix(Matrix44 parentMtx) {

         Matrix44 localMtx=ComputeLocalMatrix();

         WorldMtx= localMtx * parentMtx;

         for i = 1 to NumChildJoints {





The process is started by calling ComputeWorldMatrix() on the root joint and passing in the identity matrix as the parent.




[more: pseudocode]

2.4 Summary

In this chapter, we examined the mathematics of the underlying kinematic framework for the virtual character, the skeleton. Skeletons in character animation are typically built from a hierarchy of rigid bones connected by articulated joints. Each joint has one or more degrees of freedom (DOFs), which describe its articulation. These DOF values are set by higher-level systems that pose the skeleton, and animation is the process of changing the DOF values over time.


The skeleton system uses the process of forward kinematics to take these specified DOF values and compute the final world space matrices of the joints, which can then be used for skinning, collision detection, or other purposes.


The forward kinematics computational process involves a depth-first traversal through the skeleton hierarchy. For each bone traversed, the two main computations that need to take place are construction of the joint local matrix and then computation of the joint world matrix by concatenating the local matrix with the parent’s world matrix. Many options exist for generating local matrices for different joint types.


Some real time animation applications may do just fine limiting their characters to simple 1-DOF rotational joints and can implement the entire skeleton kinematics system in a few lines of code. Other systems may require more generality and may need to support a wider variety of joint types and other options. If the system needs to support non-rigid transformations such as scales and shears, additional complexities must be dealt with, both in the skeleton layer and in higher-level systems that use it such as inverse kinematics and skinning.


As the skeleton is an essential foundation for the animated character, the remaining chapters in this book will build upon the basic framework that the skeleton provides. In the next chapter, we will see how to attach a deformable skin to the skeleton.