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I have designed a model composed of multiple meshes (a palmtree with a trunk and some large leaves) and would now like to animate it using shape keys.

I parented those under an Empty so that I can handle them easily, but I would not like to join them as a unique mesh at this time since I may need to perform some editing later (materials, etc.; I understand that I should not modify topology for shape keys to work properly).

Still, my understanding is that shape keys are specific to each mesh, and that anyway I can only animate one mesh at a time, since only one of them can be on edit mode at a given time. I tried to lift that limitation with the MultiEdit plugin, but shape keys are still tied to one mesh.

It seems tedious to deform each sub-mesh one by one, and I would like to have a unique, shared set of shape keys for easier animation.

What would be an efficient workflow for such an use case? Is definitely joining the meshes the only way?

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  • $\begingroup$ Yes, that's an alternative route: rigging my mesh and using pose mode on bones instead of shape keys. But this does not answer my original question... $\endgroup$ – oparisy Dec 12 '15 at 15:10
  • $\begingroup$ @MrZak Indeed this is exactly what I ended up doing. Armature deformation could be applied to multiple meshes and gave me much more liberty. Please post an answer so that I can accept it. $\endgroup$ – oparisy Jan 26 '16 at 19:02
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To make object change its shape while animating complex movings like trees it's better to use rigging with Armature modifier than the shape keys.

Shape keys are generally used as an additional geometry changer working together with armature, i.e. they aren't armature substitution. They aren't as flexible as rigging because they can be added to one object and thus edit only that object; also one has to define the final form of the object initially in order key to work.

To animate a tree moving it's a good idea to rig that tree. Create a skeleton for it, use any method to skin a tree and create some poses for the tree leaves and / or trunk.

tree rig

GIF rigged tree


Note: When creating tree with Sapling: Add Tree addon it's possible to add an armature for the tree:

Sapling options

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your detailed answer and the time you took in designing an example. I definitely reached the same conclusions, which led me to use a rigged tree for the "experiment" which motivated my question. $\endgroup$ – oparisy Jan 30 '16 at 0:06
  • $\begingroup$ @oparisy glad it was useful for you and that your project works well now (and I agree, it's very good startng point, hope its developing will be continued). And because you asked that in question - I forgot to include in answer that those leaves are different objects (and trunk too) - if that makes any sense. $\endgroup$ – Mr Zak Jan 30 '16 at 0:23
  • $\begingroup$ It most definitely does (they are in mine too). That's one of the selling points of armature based animation. Thanks for your kind words! $\endgroup$ – oparisy Jan 30 '16 at 4:33

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