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Chapter 8: Shape Keys: Tools

By Andy Dolphin

You already know that in Blender you can animate the way that objects move around the 3D world. Blender
also gives you the ability to have your mesh objects change their shape over time. These changes, called
deformations, are saved in "shape keys". Examples of where you might use shape keys include morphing
from one character or shape to another, or adding subtle variations to a shape to add interest to an
animation, like having a creature's chest rise and fall to show breathing. One very popular use of shape keys
(sometimes called "morph targets") is for character facial expressions and lip-syncing. Shape keys are not
restricted to animation however. If you have a model you wish to use in a series of still images, shape keys
can be a convenient way of saving shape variations that will be used more than once.

Various facial expressions created only with shape keys.

Shape keys store vertex positions relative to their original positions in the mesh. After the shape key is
stored, the deformation can be controlled by influence sliders. Moving the sliders causes the vertices to
change from their positions in the original mesh shape and move toward the positions saved in the selected
shape key.

Multiple shape keys can also be combined to vary the final shape of the mesh. The original shape of the
mesh is saved as a basis shape key. It is always available and can be returned to at any stage, no matter
how many shape keys have been made from it. As shape keys are non-destructive, you can try out various
ideas on changing or improving a model, and if you find you don't like them, you can delete or ignore them,
returning to the basis shape. Keep in mind that shape keys do not allow you to change the structure of the
mesh, only the positions of the vertices which make up the mesh. You cannot add or delete vertices when
using shape keys.

Making Shape Keys

SIDEBAR: Before you begin.

Before working on your shape keys, be sure that you are happy that your basic model is finished.

One important point to remember when working with shape keys is that since they store relative vertex
positions, the mesh should be in a finished state before applying them. While some editing is possible after
shape keys have been saved, it can lead to unpredictable results and may make some of the shape keys
useless, in which case you'll need to recreate those shape keys from scratch.

It is common practice to build organic models, like humans and animals, using a mirror modifier so only one
half has to be modeled while Blender automatically creates the other half. If you've used a mirror modifier
while modeling, make sure to "Apply" it (join the two halves) before proceeding with shape keys, as applying
mirror modifiers later will result in the loss of all shape keys.

End Sidebar
Shape key controls are found in the Shapes tab of the Editing Buttons (F9). Shape keys are added to a
mesh in Object mode. Then, the shapes are made and edited in Edit mode.

The Shapes tab before any shape keys are saved.

If no shape keys have previously been stored for a selected mesh object, the Shapes panel will show a
single button with the label "Add Shape Key." When this button is pressed, the panel changes to show a
button labeled "Relative," which is active by default, and a drop-down menu with the word "Basis" showing in
the text field. This shows you that Blender has stored the current state of the mesh as the Basis shape key.
The Basis shape key is essentially the original un-deformed mesh, and all future shape keys for this mesh
will be stored relative to this shape key.

The Shapes tab with basis shape key saved.

Pressing the "Add Shape Key" Button again results in a new shape key labeled "Key 1" being added to the
drop-down menu. The key name can, and usually should, be changed to something that will indicate what
this shape key represents. For example, when making mouth shapes for lip-sync, the shape keys should be
given names that indicate the sound or letter each key represents. If you fail to do this, a lot of time will be
wasted when you go to actually use the shapes in an animation. You can edit the name of each shape key
by selecting it from the shapes panel menu, then typing a new name into the text field.
The Shapes tab after the first shape key is saved.

When the first new shape key is added, you will see a key value slider, a "Min" and "Max" adjuster and a text
box labeled "VGroup:" in the Shapes panel. These give you additional control over the shape key, which will
be explained in a bit.

A list of shape keys with sliders also appears in the Action Editor window (Action window), if one is open.
When animating with shape keys, it is usually better to do so in the Action Editor as multiple shape keys can
be easily accessed without scrolling through a menu, and markers are placed to indicate key frames for
each shape key.

The Action Editor window showing a list of shape keys.

Once a shape key has been created, a unique target shape can be made by tabbing into Edit mode.
Selected vertices, edges or faces can be moved, scaled or rotated to create a new shape. Remember that
vertices, edges and faces should not be added or deleted when making shape keys. After the mesh has
been modified into the desired shape, it can be stored by exiting Edit mode. Each time the "Add Shape Key"
button is pressed, a new shape key is created, ready to store a new shape.
Shape keys can be selected from the drop down menu next to the shape key names or by scrolling through
all keys using the "Previous Shape Key" and "Next Shape Key" buttons.

Using One Shape Key as the Basis For a New One

New shape keys are based on the currently selected shape key at the time the "Add Shape Key" button is
pressed. So, if the Basis key is selected, the new shape key will be a copy of the Basis key, ready for
editing. Sometimes it is useful to have two or more keys that are similar to each other. In this case, an
existing shape key should be selected before pressing "Add Shape Key". Then, when entering Edit mode,
the mesh will already be deformed to the same state as the previous shape key. From here, minor or major
adjustments can be made to the mesh to create the new shape key. This can save quite a lot of time when
creating similar shape keys in complex models, as the majority of the adjustments would only need to be
done once. Subsequent shapes could be based on the first adjustment.

Editing Shape Keys

As shape keys store positions of vertices relative to the base mesh, it is quite simple to change them, even
after they have been used in an animation. In fact, it can sometimes be useful to begin animating and using
the shape keys to determine if they need to be tweaked for best results. To edit a shape key, select it from
the shape key drop down menu, then tab into Edit mode. Adjust the mesh as desired and save it by tabbing
back into Object mode.

One problem that may arise after saving shape keys is coming to the realization that your original shape isn't
quite the way you'd like it to be. You may, for example, decide that your character's ears are too small.
Simply making them bigger won't deliver the desired result as the smaller ears have already been saved in
all existing shape keys and the changes you make will only affect the currently selected shape key.

A very useful feature of Blender shape keys is the ability to change the mesh in one shape key and have
that change affect all existing shape keys. Such changes would usually best be done with the base mesh
(the Basis key), as this is the un-deformed mesh and any changes will probably be more predictable. So, if
you decide the basic shape needs some adjustment, select Basis from the shape key menu and fix the
mesh in Edit mode. Then, with all edited vertices still selected, press W-key and choose "Propagate To All
Shapes". Return to object mode and examine the remaining shapes to make sure that everything happened
as you expected. Remember that you cannot add or delete vertices, edges or faces when you do this. You
can only move, rotate or scale existing ones.
A mesh in Edit mode, showing "Propagate to all shapes."

It is also possible to adjust selected vertices of one shape key by applying vertex offsets from another shape
key. Select a shape key from the menu and enter Edit mode. Select some or all vertices and press W-key.
Choose "Blend From Shape". A menu pops up with a list of other shape keys to copy from. Select one, then
move the mouse slowly in order to see and control the adjustment. Pressing MMB will apply the adjustment
at 100%. This feature would prove useful if you wanted your character to have larger ears in some of your
existing shape keys, but not all of them. It is certainly quicker and easier than editing the ears in each shape
key individually.
A mesh in Edit mode, showing "Blend to Shape" selected.

If you've already commenced animating, it is important to note that the effect of editing the shape keys or the
base mesh will apply immediately to any animation you have already keyed. Be sure to tweak carefully and
check the animated results regularly. You may find you'll need to adjust some sliders or edit some key
frames to achieve a better result after you've made changes to your shape keys.

Deleting Shape Keys

You can select a shape key from the drop down menu and press the "X" button to delete it. When a shape
key is deleted, its influence in an animation is completely removed.

Using Shape Keys

When a shape key is created, the key value slider associated with it will show a default value of 0.0. This
means that new shape keys have no influence on a mesh, leaving the mesh un-deformed. If the key value
slider is moved forward and released, the mesh will deform. The amount of deformation is relative to the
slider value (0.0=0%; 1.0=100%). Note that the slider is not interactive, and the mesh is not updated in the
3D view until the slider is released. Also note that the vertices move in a linear fashion. That is, they move in
a straight line from the basis position toward the position stored in the shape key. This linear displacement is
important to recognize and understand, as it is one of the main differences between shape key animation
and animation using armatures. If you need your mesh to move in a curved motion, such as an eyelid sliding
over the surface of a rounded eyeball, shape keys may not be the best option.

The "Min" and "Max" settings next to the key value slider allow you to push vertices past the values saved in
the shape key or to move them in the opposite direction, relative to the basis mesh. Pushing a shape to
extremes by setting the Max value greater than 1.0 and pushing the influence slider up can sometimes be
useful, but it can also deliver unexpected results.

The "Min" setting can be made negative, giving the reverse of the shape key. If a group of vertices was
moved to the left in the stored shape key, setting "Min" to a negative value and pushing the influence slider
below 0.0 would cause those vertices to move to the right. While this can be an apparently easy way of
turning a smile into a frown, for example, it must be approached with caution and is usually best for subtle
effects. Values can be negative or positive but the Max value must always be greater than the Min value.

A single Shape key applied to a sphere with its slider set to 1.0 and -1.0

The Pin icon in the Shapes panel can be used to view the effects of a single shape key on a mesh, or an
entire set of shape keys at the same time on multiple instances of a mesh. Linked duplicates of the mesh,
created by pressing Alt-D on selected objects in Object mode, can be placed side-by-side with each one
displaying a different shape key at full key value. A gallery of shape keys can be created using this method.
This can be a useful way of comparing different experimental shapes and to choose a preferred shape.

To use shape Pinning, simply find the shape you want to display from the shapes drop down and click the
pin icon. Until the pin icon is turned off, the object will display with that shape, regardless of other keys that
might have been set.
Linked duplicates of the same mesh, each showing a different pinned Shape key.

A More Advanced Trick

The influence of a shape key can also be limited to a selected vertex group using the VGroup option, and
the result can be further controlled through vertex weight painting. Using this feature, it is possible to create
one shape key which contains complex deformations all over a mesh, and then use the shape key in
conjunction with different vertex groups to create a whole series of new shape keys, each affecting only a
small portion of the mesh. For example, it may be simpler to create an angry face shape key all at once, but
you may want access to different components of that shape individually: knotted brow, squinting eyes and
snarling lips. It often gives better results to model adjustments all at once, and then to create separate shape
keys using vertex groups than it is create several separate shape keys from scratch.

Note: For more information about vertex groups, refer to Chapter 4.

To do this, create an overall shape key, then create and assign several vertex groups to the mesh, one for
each section that would benefit from having a separate shape key. In the VGroup text box of the shape key,
enter the name of one of the vertex groups. The shape key is now restricted to only affecting those vertices
contained in the group. Press the Add Shape Key button. Normally, this would create a whole new copy of
the entire current shape key. In this case, though, it just creates a copy of the shape keys from the vertex
group. You can now go back to the original shape key, change the name to that of another vertex groups,
and create additional keys.

Animating Shape Keys

Animation occurs when different shape key values are stored at various points along the animation timeline.
These values are stored in key frames. Blender displays the current frame number in the header bar of the
Buttons window and with a green vertical line in the Action Editor. Frames can be changed using the arrow
keys. More information about the animation timeline and changing frames can be found in Chapter 3.

When the key value slider is moved, a key frame is automatically inserted in the animation timeline on the
current frame, so the mesh shape at that frame is recorded. Changing frames and moving the slider to
various values will result in an animated shape when the frames are played back. If a shape key slider's
value is set to 1.0, then the stored values for each vertex affected by that shape key will be applied at 100%
on the current frame. This influence will remain unless the slider is moved to a different value on a later
frame. Blender creates smooth transitions from one key frame to the next by interpolating values for all
shapes between key frames. These values can be seen by setting the frame counter to the desired frame
number and reading the value shown in the key value slider in the Shapes panel with the desired shape key

It is often useful to have a mesh change shape over a period of time and remain unchanged for a while,
sometimes for just a few frames, before changing shape again. To force a shape to stay at one value for a
number of frames before changing shape, it is necessary to set the value slider at the start and end of the
fixed-shape period.

Shape Keys in the Action Editor

If your mesh has more than one shape key saved, it is more efficient to animate with the sliders in the Action
Editor than to keep switching from shape to shape in the Shapes panel of the Edit buttons. The Action Editor
window displays a list of all shape keys associated with the selected mesh. Each shape key has a key value
slider that follows the same rules as the influence slider in the Shapes panel. Again, simply moving a slider
forward or backward inserts a key frame for that shape on the current frame. You can also see in the Action
Window that Blender places a key frame marker in the selected shape's channel. These markers not only
serve as a reference for existing key frames but also give the animator access to even greater control over
the animation as they can be moved, duplicated or deleted with the standard Blender controls (G-key, Shift-
D, X-key).

The Action Editor window showing key frame markers.

You can also use the Action Window to edit the name of shape keys or change the Min and Max values.
Simply LMB on the shape key name in the list, and a dialog panel will open up, giving access to the shape
key values.

Action Editor window showing the Shape key pop-up panel.
When animating, you may notice some unexpected results when several shape keys are applied at once. If
two shape keys affect the same vertex, the final position of that vertex will be determined by the influence of
both shape keys added together. For example, if you apply two shape keys to one frame and both keys
push the same vertex one unit to the right, the end result will be to push the vertex two units to the right.
Conversely, if the second shape key moves the vertex one unit in the opposite direction, the combined result
will be for the vertex not to move at all. A practical example of the combined effect of shape keys is given in
the tutorial for this chapter.

When Blender saves key frames for shape keys, it can display the values as a set of curves along the
animation timeline. These are called Ipo curves and can be viewed by opening an Ipo Curve Editor window
and choosing "Shape" from the Ipo type menu in the window's header. Each shape key has its own curve,
identified by the color key in the upper right of the window. Ipo curves can be edited in a variety of ways for
advanced animation control. This is often the final step in tweaking an animation. You can refer to the Ipo
window section in Chapter 3 for more information on handling Ipo curves.

An Ipo window, showing curves for Shape Keys.

Crazy Space

When a model is deformed by an armature, it can be difficult to edit the mesh, as the vertices, edges and
faces are no longer in their original locations and don't respond to editing as you might expect. Under some
circumstances, they might even move away from their intended direction. For this reason, working on a
mesh while it is being deformed by an armature is called working in "crazy space". To avoid this problem,
select the armature and put it in its un-deformed position using the "Rest Position" button in the Armature
tab of the (F9) Editing buttons. This returns the mesh to its default position, and things will behave as
expected when editing.

Advanced Uses for Shape Keys

Once you've mastered shape key basics and are comfortable with animating and editing them, you may
wish to use automated shape keys in combination with an armature for subtle effects during animation. This
automated process is referred to as "driven shape keys".

Shape keys can be "driven" such that when a bone is moved or rotated, the shape key will respond
automatically. This feature can be put to great use to prevent meshes from pinching at joints like elbows and
knees, or to simulate muscle contraction and expansion as limbs move. Some animators use a combination
of bones and driven shape keys for facial animation. Although driven keys are outside the scope of this
book, it is good to know that such things can be accomplished.


Shape keys give Blender artists a powerful way to animate and deform their mesh models. They are the
primary tool for facial expressions and lip syncing as well as for creating morphing effects. Combined with
armatures, they give artists nearly complete control over the shape of their meshes.