Let’s start animating our game objects in Unity.

Physics | Scripts | Animation

There are many ways to get our game objects to move about. We can add physics to a game object. Or we can move an object via scripts using either C# code or via visual scripting. And finally, we can get our object to move using keyframe-based animations. Most Unity projects use some combination of these three means of moving things around. The first two subjects (physics & scripting) will be covered in future tutorials; meaning that this tutorial is dedicated to keyframe-based animations.


The concept of keyframes emergerd during the industrialisation phase of animated film production in the early 20th century. As groups of animation teams became larger and larger, allowing for more complex narratives to be produced, different roles were assigned to different types of animators. Higher-level animation jobs were created (story, character design) with lower-level jobs taking care of the more tedious aspects, hence derogatory terminology such as the “dope sheet”. From this taylorist mindset emerged the concept of “keyframes”.

As the following documentary of Max Fleicher’s studio from the 1930s explains, there are two important early stages in animated film production: (a) the creation of what they here call « key pictures », and (b) the creation of « in-between drawings » which the documentary also calls « in-betweeners » or « in-betweens »:

In this type of animation, the « key » frames are the important frames at the beginning and the end of the animation sequence, as well as the key visual points that mark the peaks of various movement changes of each character and the objects in the scene. These « key » images do not represent every frame of movement, just the key points of the movement. If you have these key points, you can more easily fill in the gaps of images in-between by completing the intermediary positions of the character as they move their body from key frame A to key frame B and then on to key frame C, and so on and on. The keys do not contains all animated images, the actual image-by-image changes in-between these key frames are drawn by the “in-betweeners” who make sure that each step of the movement is correctly drawn so that it arrives precisely at the desired “key” frame at the end of the movement.

If you want a more detailed breakdown of how this system works, here is a YouTube video that opens with a handy chart:

Many software tools use this concept of keyframes for animating an object, a character, or a graphical object. AfterEffects, Blender, Cinema4D, DaVinci Resolve — to name just a few programs you might already have heard of — make heavy use of keyframes in their workflow.

Today we still call them keyframes, but instead of “in-betweeners” we use the term “interpolation” to describe the intermediary positions created in between each keyframe.

While it might not seem obvious at first, even motion capture systems integrate this concept of keyframes, only they expand it to include key individual points that the system needs to track in 3D space. In other words, the system is breaking down both the key physical joints and attributes (arms, legs, feet, hands, fingers, but also jaw, eyes, mouth, cheeks, etc) into their separate parts, as well as tracking their key 3D positions over time. Software such as Unity then interpolates automatically all the intermediary or in-between positions of each joint taken from the motion capture recording. This approach is more modular and means that different parts can be modified in real-time via interactivity. I.e. by breaking down the various parts, the characters can evolve and transition from one motion-captured set of keyframes to another, based on interactive input from the player. Keyframes are essential to this modularity. It might seem like an overly complicated process, but it is all built up atop this very simple concept of “keyframes” and “in-between frames”.

Animating A Cube

Ok, enough animation history. Let’s animate a cube.

Unity Red Cube

Place a cube in your scene and give it a color to make it easily identifiable. Now let’s create an animation clip and attach it to this cube. But before we do so, let’s create a new Animations folder (capital A, plural s at the end) inside our Assets folder in the Project window. We will save all our files related to animation in here.

Unity Animations Folder

Let’s now open two new windows and attach them to our Unity editor. Open up both the Window > Animation > Animation and the Window > Animation > Animator windows and attach them to our editor.

Unity Animation Windows

This is how I have configured my setup but you can set it up however you like.

Unity Docked Animation Windows

As you can see, I have docked my Animator window next to the Scene window tab, and Animation next to my Game window tab. This configuration allows me to look at the Scene while ajusting Animation values, and then observe which Animator sequence is playing when my Game is active in that window. Again, these are just preferences, and you can configure it however you like.

As you can see in the above illustration, by selecting the Cube game object in our Hierarchy, the Unity editor will explain that it can create an Animation Clip and an Animator of that clip for you by clicking on one single Create button. This is very handy, so go ahead and do that, making sure to save your files in the Animations folder in your Project. I have decided to call the name of my animation “Spin.anim”.

Unity Animation Files

When you click that button, the Unity editor does a lot of complex things for you to make your life easier. Take a look at all the things it just connected up. Inside your Assets folder you should now see two files: one with the name you gave your new Animation Clip and the other the name of the game object you had selected when you pushed the ‘Create’ button. This second file is the Animation Controller which will list all the possible animation clips your Game Object can play. The clip has also automatically been added to a new game object component that you should now see on your Cube game object, entitled Animator. Look inside the Inspector window and you should see this new relationship. If you keep your Cube selected and open the Animator window, you will also see that Unity has automatically added your new Spin.anim clip to the Cube.controller file and has been setup as your default animation that will automatically start playing upon Entry into the game. And finally, with your Cube still selected you should see that the Animation is waiting for you to begin animating the various Properties of your Spin animation.

That’s a whole lot of connections and relations all simplified into one single button. Since you are probably beginning with Unity, this means that there are a lot of things that you probably don’t understand with all of these windows, files, components and objects. Further in this tutorial, we will attempt to break down the meaning of each of these animations components.

Animate Property

Before we explain all these relationships, let’s just animate one of the properties of our cube. Make sure your Cube is selected in the hierarchy, and that the “Spin” animation clip is selected in the Animation window’s top left corner, just underneath the Preview button. Now select which Property, or properties, you wish to animate. Here I have decided to animate the cube’s Transform > Rotation.

Unity Animation Property selector

Note that all of the various components inside of your game object can be animated using this Animation window.

Modify Keyframes

As soon as we have added a property to animate, the Animation window automatically adds a begin and an end keyframe for each of the possible values we can animate. By clicking the arrows in this window we can the white Timeline cursor to the exact moment in time of each of these keyframes. We can then enter the exact values we wish into this window, modify the game object directly in the Scene or through its values in the Inspector.

Unity Animation Clip Keyframes

In the above example you can see that I have moved the time cursor to the final keyframe of my Animation Clip, and modified the Y axis rotation to the value of 360°. If you rewind the time cursor to the beginning of my clip, the Y rotation value began at 0°, meaning that all of the intermediary frames will be interpolations between these two values, depending on where the time cursor is inside of the animation clip. Also note that the lozenge-shaped Keyframe values (and parent values) that I have changed at that specific point in time have been colored blue.

Unity Animation Spin


You can temporarily preview the animation by pressing the triangle Play button inside the Animation window. This will play your animation in a loop. As you may notice, the animation speeds up and slows down, at each of the keyframe extremities. This is because the Curves of your animation are configured to smooth out the transitions around each keyframe. Let’s look for an moment at these curves of our animation.

Pro-tip: if you don’t see the entire curve of your animation, try expanding the vertical scrollbar to fill the entire window. Each extremity of this bar can be stretched and shrunk and allows you to focus in on various parts of your curves.

Unity Animation Curves

In traditional animation, this speed-up effect at the beginning and slow-down effect at the end is called ease-in ease-out. It is a famous principle that is now activated by default in most keyframe-based software. It was popularized as rule #6 of the 12 Basic Principles of Animation in the 1981 book “The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation” which chronicles animator practices at Disney Studios dating all the way back to the 1930s.

If you want a more robotic, linear rotation movement, select the specific Property you want to fix (here I am adjusting the Rotation.y value), select the Curves button at the bottom of the Animation window, and set each of your Keyframe sides (left side, right side or both, depending on the keyframe position) to Linear. To see this option, you need to right-click on the keyframe.

Unity Animation Curves

One you are happy with the rotation of your cube you can stop the temporary playback within the Animation window and press the Play button at the top of the Unity editor itself. This will start your game, and play and and all of the configured animations.

Animation System

In the early days, Unity started with a very simple animation system that was easy to understand, but severely limited. You could easily create animations using keyframes in the Animation window, and then place an animation selector on your game object to switch between animations, for example Run, Jump, Idle, Swim, etc. This Animation keyframe editor is still the same, but the it has now been integrated into a far more sophisticated system that allows for more elegant transitions between various animation states.

Here are a few key points to define when trying to explain how the Unity animation system works as a whole:

  • To animate in Unity, you need to have some Game Object properties to animate. Make sure you have selected the right Game Object in the Heirarchy before starting to animate it.
  • An Animation Clip is a sequence of keyframes. It is a bit like a song waiting to be played. This Clip describes the various keyframe values of the game objet’s properties, and how they are modified over time. It is linear, but can be played in a loop and is often designed to loop seemlessly.
  • An Animator keeps clips organised, and can start and stop them whenever necessary. In this way it acts a bit like a jukebox that can play any one of the clips whenever requested. This Animator is a component of a Game Object. To access it, select a game object and look in the Inspector.
  • An Animation Controller is the actual list of songs waiting to be played by the Animator. It is loaded into the Animator along with all the Clips. If the Animator is like a jukebox, the Animation Controller is like its playlist. This Controller tells the Animator which clip to play, and when. If you wish to modify this playlist, select the Animation Controller file in the Project window and open the Animator window. You will see the contents of this playlist and can start modifying it.

Animations and the Animator

To further simplify this relationship, the most important thing to understand is that there are Animations containing keyframes, and then there is an Animator with its Controller that contains the list of which of these Animations to play and when. This is why there are a two separate windows.

Unity Animator Animation

So Animation is like a song, the Controller is like a playlist, and the Animator behaves like its jukebox. Even if you only have one song in your playlist, you still need a jukebox to play it. Later on in a future tutorial we will explore controllers with multiple Animation Clips that can easily switch in real-time between animations, sometimes based on a fairly complex visual diagram of conditions.