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I've been in the habit of using armatures to deform my eyes, due to other engines that I use. Generally just solidly weighted to a single bone. But I notice that this isn't popular, that many Blender artists prefer to keep their eyes free of any armature modifiers (bone parented to an eye master, or directly to the head, with object based constraints instead of bone based constraints.)

It seems like a lot of people take the attitude that armature-free eyes are the right way to do it, but I've never heard why. I'm having trouble seeing any meaningful differences (tiny issues like mirror mod friendliness vs requiring blanket assignment to a vertex group.) Can't find anything with a bit of Googling either.

Are there differences? Is there a right way? Are there times to prefer one method over another?

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  • $\begingroup$ "many Blender artists prefer to keep their eyes free of any armature modifiers" (1) Could we get a reference on that. (2) Would many mean "most"? $\endgroup$ – Leander Jul 31 '18 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Leander If there were some global survey of Blender users, maybe I could give you a source, but it's just my feeling. I could link you to many individuals saying as much, but those are just individuals. And yes, as far as my impression goes, "many" means "most" here. Why do you ask? Do you believe that to be untrue? $\endgroup$ – Nathan Jul 31 '18 at 16:34
  • $\begingroup$ Suggestion. Stick with the armature add another level of control if you need it. You are stating they at parties A and B use the armature directly or indirectly, where party B adds another level of control for some unstated reason. Party B may have encountered the need for another level of control. $\endgroup$ – atomicbezierslinger Jul 31 '18 at 16:55
  • $\begingroup$ I think the title of your question is a little misleading. Is this question consistent with yours? [What are the advantages of using an armature and additional controller object for the eyes as opposed to just the armature?]. Often in 3D you discover you need another level of control in a situation. When you add the next level of control you now have to manage it. Its good to know the keystrokes [ and ] to travel up and down a hierarchy $\endgroup$ – atomicbezierslinger Jul 31 '18 at 17:04
  • $\begingroup$ (1) After reading atomics comment, I may have misinterpreted the question in that case. My answer is more directed to with vs without an armature. (2) I believe that there are fewer well informed people in any szenario which is why common knowledge can sometimes be a misconception. But seriously, if you find a well designed rig, in which the animator has to control the eyes directly by selecting them, I would like to have a look at it (and the creators notes). $\endgroup$ – Leander Jul 31 '18 at 17:08
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I will try to list some advantages which aren't opinion-based. There are basically four different methods of rigging the eyes.

Having a separate control object/armature for the eyes

Just for the record, this would be by far the worst idea. It includes
(1) having an extra armature for the eyes which is connected to the main armature
(2) having an extra object to control the eyes in conjuncture with another armature
(3) creating a rig without any armature.

To animate (in Blender), armatures have many benefits.

  • copy and paste poses
  • mirror poses
  • inbetweening tools (breakdown, push, relax)
  • propagate poses and using libraries
  • Even after connecting the armature to geometries, the bones rest position can be modified without a problem. If you are using standard objects which are connected by parenting, moving any of the will be a lengthy process which involves unparenting and reparenting.

Another disadvantage of multiple objects in combination with armature can be dependancy problems, where the order of influence is not supported by the way Blender is designed.

This method should only be used, when the desired deformation is not achievable with bones and shapekeys, in which case helper objects (like Lattices) are unavoidable. For non-deforming eyes, there's no reason to use anything other than bones.

Parenting both eyes to the head bone

This is includes most of the aforementioned problems. To reiterate

  • You won't be able to see all animation-relevant keyframes easily; the action editor works best with a single armature. Otherwise you would constantly have to select both objects to see the selections in the dopesheet, or find another way to organize the dopesheet. In extreme cases Animation Curves can be rearranged by renaming the, while the order in the dopesheet will depend on the actual objects' names.
  • You can't use the pose tools mentioned above. (Mirror, Copy, Pose ...)
  • You will have a hard time synchronizing events. The eyes and lids are always going to move in conjunction and it is important to have good access to both at the same time.
  • Pose bones have selection priority over geometry. If your meshes are not well positioned next to bones, you will have problems selecting both equally.
  • If you select a mesh-type object after selecting an armature, the armature gets highlighted as one, and you cannot see which bones are selected.

Parenting each eye to its individual control bone

  • The advantages mentioned above: the pose tools, the action editor behaviour, no dependancy problems
  • Access to bone constraints for the eye controls.
  • Scripts which interact with user selections get easier the bones matrix functions all act the same and the examined selection is a subset of the one armatures pose bones.

Controling the eyes with a single armature modifier

(*As expected, I'd prefer this approach wherever possible.)

  • All of the advantages of the previous method.
  • The influence of rig can be toggled on and off by toggling the visibility of the armature.
  • The eyes transformation are no longer relevant. Their origin can be set to (0, 0, 0). If they are accidentally moved, they can be reset. In Blender, on can not know where an objects origin is from only it's transform values. Next to Direct and Inverse Parenting the original location of the object will play into these values. With bones, their rest pose position is automatically "zerod out".
  • Exporting a rig (to fbx for example) is "safer", when all objects are zerod out. Combinations of parents can produce transformation which have to take many values on many objects into account (see previous bullet point). This is not always handled correctly by all exporter or other systems.
  • Finding the geometry in the outliner is easy, because it won't be hidden in the hierarchy.
    enter image description here
  • Armatures work with Blenders linking and proxying system.

As always, there are exceptions: For some quick straight-to-the-point rigs, manipulating the objects may be an option.


I will try to include some more information, based an a comment:

[eyes (which are not controled by an armature)] are controlled with an eye target, which the objects damped track. This is [...] basically the same as sticking a damped track on bones.

This holds true, unless - later on in production - more features get requested.

  • If the eyes are no radially symmetrical (due to a texture update), they will need an Up Vector, otherwise they would rotate in their sockets. This can be easily done with the Pole Vector of an IK constraints with bones. With objects, you will need more steps.
  • If the model of the eyeballs changes and needs different handling of various rotations, all previous animations are lost. With an armature, on could easily keep the animated Control Bones and transfer the data over to the deformation bone with a driver.
  • If the animation if supposed to be fixed1, there are no available controls. The eye_targets are going to be to far away to properly control the eyelid and eye interaction. In the case of armatures, and additional control bones can be added into the hierarchy, between the deforming bone and the bone, which is oriented by the target.

Also... - the empties are still not going to be in the armatures action, making the pose tools (copy, breakdowns, mirror) and linking system (appending actions) useless.


1 An animation fixer is the animation assistant who will do the fine tuning on finished animations. Doing slight tweaks to prevent wrong interpolations or intersections of character and props.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. I believe that I was mistaken, that using armature modifiers is more common (but the people who don't can be rather loud :P) Just to nitpick one thing: dependency issues (bone->mesh->bone, drivers) are my only reason to ever create multiple armatures for a single character, rather than a reason to avoid them. $\endgroup$ – Nathan Jul 31 '18 at 17:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Nathan Interesting, I have never worked with that setup to purposely eradicate dependency problems. In my experience they were easier to control with a single armature; I don't really have experience with rigs with multiple armatures / bone>mesh>bone. Could you edit the answer to include a detailed explanation or example of that specific case. Sounds, like it should be included. $\endgroup$ – Leander Jul 31 '18 at 18:21

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