Joey Korenman is a motion designer and owner of online learning platform School of Motion.
The term “character animation” can be used to describe a number of different artistic disciplines, but at its core, it’s simply the act of giving lifelike qualities to inanimate objects. Characters can very much be cartoon characters, but they can also be a simple square, a lamp, or even a color.
Understanding this framework is actually very important for improving your motion design projects. If you think of your text, shapes, and backgrounds as characters themselves, your projects will feel more intentional and directed.
In an age of After Effects and 3D modeling software, character animation has come a long way from what it once was, yet many principles established in the 1930s and 40s still very much apply to the work being done today. In this post, we’ll talk about the process of creating animated characters in After Effects and discuss some tips and tricks for perfecting your character animation skills.
The Character Animation Process
The process of animating a character is different for each project, but the steps below outline a very typical workflow using After Effects.
Even though modern character animation uses a computer, most animation projects should still actually start with a pen-and-paper sketch. The goal is to simply get a rough idea of what you want your character to look like in key poses. The more complex your character is, the more time you’ll need to spend animating it in After Effects.
I personally recommend creating very simple characters in the beginning. If you’re designing cartoon characters, keep the arms and legs very basic and avoid creating characters that have extra extremities, like tails or wings.
Once you’ve sketched out your character, it’s time to bring it to “life.” Open Photoshop or Affinity and import a scan or picture of your sketch. You can use your sketch as a reference for designing a colored version of your character.
You’ll need to create separate layers for all of your character’s moving parts. For example, instead of creating a single arm layer, you’ll want to break that arm up into a hand, forearm, and bicep layer. It’s important to properly label each of your layers, as the layer names will be used when you import the character in After Effects.
Once you’re done designing your character, save it into a PSD format.
Rigging is the process of getting your character ready for animation by connecting the body parts together. For example, by moving the foot, you would expect the shin and thigh to move, as well. This is usually done through parenting your Photoshop layers to null objects. The null objects will be used as guides to adjust your character’s movement.
Rigging is an entire career field in and of itself. As such, you’re not going to be great at it at first, but that’s okay! There are a few tools out there for making the process much easier. The most popular is Duik, a free tool that can be used to rig and set up After Effects characters of all types.
Duik can be complicated if you’re new to rigging, so I really recommend watching a few tutorials before you start. This tutorial actually helped me a lot when I started rigging in After Effects:
If you want to rig like a pro, I also highly recommend checking out the Rigging Academy at School of Motion. The course goes into a lot more detail about rigging faces, quadrupeds, and prepping characters.
Once your character is rigged, it’s time to set some keyframes. I’d be lying if I said that keyframing a character is easy. It’s not. Becoming a great animator takes time, and you’ll very quickly find that character animation is not a natural skill.
Timing is usually a big problem for people who are new to character animation in After Effects. If you find that you struggle with timing, I recommend reading and buying The Animator’s Survival Kit by Richard Williams. It’s basically the best character animation resource in the world, full of great examples, charts, and tricks.
It may seem weird to put troubleshooting on this list, but the reality is that every character animation project is going to require quite a bit of problem solving. Your project will inevitably have issues after you set your keyframes, so it’s your job to go in and figure out where your problems are. On bigger animation projects, there are specific people who help the animators troubleshoot character animation movements.
How to Get Better
Becoming a character animation expert takes time. You’re going to spend hundreds of hours working on projects before you create something you’re proud of. That’s just part of it. However, there are a few things you can do to increase your character animation skills.
Image example from The Animator’s Survival Kit
A walk cycle is a simple sequence that shows what a character will look like when it goes through one cycle of movement: left foot, right foot, left foot. While this may seem like an easy task, the reality is that a walk cycle can be one of the most frustrating and difficult aspects of the entire character animation process. If you can master a walk cycle, you’re on track to master anything in character animation.
Read the Holy Books
I mentioned The Animator’s Survival Kit above, but another fantastic resource is The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. Written by Disney animators, it introduced the idea of the 12 Principles of Animation. If you’re new to the industry, you may have not heard of these principles, but any professional motion designer or character animation artist worth their salt lives and breathes these 12 principles. This video from Cento Logadiani gives a great explanation about what each of the 12 principles are:
Learn from the Pros
You don’t have to be employed by Disney to learn animation from the pros. One of the best resources for learning character animation is the Character Animation Bootcamp at School of Motion. The bootcamp outlines everything you need to know to create fantastic characters in After Effects. Along the way, you’ll have projects to work on, connect with other animation enthusiasts, and have your work graded by trained animation professionals. It’s the best way to grow your character animation skills in only a matter of weeks.
I hope you’ve found this information to be useful. Character animation may be tedious, but there are few artistic projects more satisfying than bringing a character to life. If you have any questions about anything in this post, let us know in the comments below!