How to Use Adobe After Effects for Character Animation

How To 14 min
In character design, your motion-based graphics and animations must be high-quality to ensure an engaging visual experience for your audience. Use this Adobe After Effects tutorial to enhance your character design capabilities and learn how to use animation to add some personality and depth to your character designs.

There are endless ways to design a character, right? But the core principles are pretty much the same. This video from School of Motion briefly gets into:

  • The importance of character design. 
  • Setting you and your character up for success.
  • Organizing layers.
  • Giving it a little bit of animation to bring it to life.

There are a lot of purposes for characters in motion design. Most of the time, they are figures meant to lead us on a journey through something. This can be through a story, lesson or product walk-through; the list can go on. Those characters should help us feel a certain way about whatever we are watching, and that is where thoughtful design comes in.

A character's shape, proportions, even color palette, can help determine the tone of the animation, for example, if things are meant to be more serious in tone, carefree, relaxed, adventurous, etc. More importantly, those things matter a lot when it comes to a real-life animation project budget for a client. The number of characters you have, the amount of detail, the amount of movement, if they are speaking or not – all of those things and more can suddenly make a budget for an animation explode.

Having a defined system of what your characters will look like in the world you are building takes out a lot of guesswork and ultimately helps with scope creep and not accidentally going over budget. No matter what budget or deadline you are trying to make, or the level of complex animation you are trying to accomplish, design comes first!

A good rule of thumb is that your design should look great in static form but even better in motion. If it does not look good in a static form sitting on its own, revisit it before it goes into the animation phase.

Find References

To set yourself and your character up for success, start with a little preparation, like any other project. Pull any references you might need and consider making a mini brief for your character if you need help setting up some parameters.

Create a Character Brief

Here is a free template brief to help you start making some of those details and parameters about your character.

Draw Sketches

It's now time to start sketching. If you are doing a humanoid figure, the anatomy is pretty simple. You will need a head, neck, torso, arms, hands, legs and feet. You can either start by sketching them in a pose that you want to see them in, an animation, or you can start by doing a t-pose or more of an idle stance to help with rigging if you plan on rigging it later.

Character Proportions

Consider the proportions of your character in the world in which they are living. If it is a more realistic world, then more realistic proportions are appropriate. If it is more carefree and a little more silly, then super long legs, a short torso, a small head with big hands and a very exaggerated anatomy would be more effective.

Shape Language

Consider the shape of your character in the limbs they have. For example, having more angular shapes could make your character seem intense or serious, while rounded shapes give your character the impression of being relaxed and carefree. It could even be a mix of both!

Also, consider how your character's limbs, hands and facial features are treated within your defined shape language. All these things are what to consider as you make your character's parameters or if you are doodling and having fun with it. Go wild and do whatever feels right!

One of the most fun things about designing a character is designing it from top to bottom. To start you will need:

  • Your sketch.
  • Your color palette.
  • Whatever brushes you choose to use with your program of choice.
  • The pen tool, if you use Adobe Illustrator (a more vector approach).

The most important part when it comes to animation is to separate each part of the body based on where the joints are, and round them so that when the two limbs meet together, it will make a circle or a joint. This will help hide seams or any disjointed looks with moving your character around.

An easy way to think about this is to imagine there is a racquetball – a circle – wherever the joints would be. In the shoulders, wrists, elbows and even the base of the head, a joint should be anywhere that the character would pivot or rotate a part of its body. Depending on how detailed you want to get with hands and fingers, you can add a joint at each little mini phalange to get more detailed with fingers, or you can have a second knuckle and then the base of where the palm is.

Name your layers as you are creating and rounding out those joints for each individual limb or half limb. Always name them to make it easier when you get this into After Effects to start parenting and animating a lot faster.

It's good practice for each finger, each eyeball, each pupil and every part to have its own named layer.

Once you have created your character and design, you should see all these layers in your file. It might look intimidating, but it is about to get to the very fun part!

Next, the file goes into After Effects. The following is one of multiple ways to do this.

  1. Manually, go into After Effects, double-click the project panel and select the Photoshop file. 
  2. Where After Effects shows Import As, select Composition-retain layer sizes, ensuring the Create Composition checkbox is selected.
  3. Select Import and Editable Layer Styles. The layers will be visible after successfully importing the file into After Effects.

Sometimes it is permissible to group layers, for example, the layers that are considered one piece, like grouping the neck of an animation with its shadow detail and the torso. Other than those animations that are all one piece, it is recommended to have everything on its own layer.

PRO TIP: Color coding makes it easier to quickly find layers.

  1. Set all the anchor points to all the joints, and anywhere where there would be any pivoting or rotation. 
  2. Parent all the layers and then do some color coding. For the sake of organization, it will be a lot easier when you animate.
  3. Some of these layers do not need a resetting of their anchor point, but it is good to check all of them to ensure they will rotate on the right point. Sometimes, it will look unnatural when you start animating, by rotating in the wrong direction.
  4. Edit the anchor point by keying Y.
  5. With the head, put the anchor point toward the joint of the neck base and test out the rotation by keying W. Nothing is parented yet, so the face is not moving with the character, but in terms of the head moving around, test the rotation until it looks natural.
  6. It helps to solo out specific layers so you can see the center of that joint more easily. An example is an animation of a forearm and an upper arm. With a forearm, you would have the anchor point in the semi-circle area, and with the upper arm, the anchor point would be in the shoulder. And if you lower the opacity, you should see the joint exists and works properly.
  7. Start parenting everything for the character. With the face, there is the ear, hair, mouth, nose, eyes, brows, glasses, everything. Hold shift and select multiple layers.
  8. Grab all the right ones to attach to the face: the whites of the eyes, the brows and the glasses. Pick the parenting whip and attach it to the head. The left pupil will go to the left white, right pupil to the right white. Then, the head will attach the neck to the torso, fingers and thumb to the palm, palm to the forearm to the upper arm, upper arm to the torso and so on.
  9. As you are doing this, test out the rotation and pivots of your joints to make sure they are doing the right thing. Everything is attached to the head. The character can nod easily. To move the right arm, everything is attached to that. When moving an accessory, the accessory will stay where the hand is because the character is holding it.
  10. Color-code everything, such as layers to keep them organized.
  11. Add some keyframes. With bringing the character to life, start with doing more general, larger body movements and then work toward the details like animating the eyes and smile. If you have a character with longer hair, make that wave a little bit too, to give some tertiary or secondary animation. This adds to the life of that character.

    Short animations like this allow you to make them loop by using expressions. If you do some mental math and get the keyframes just right, you can have them on a seamless loop.

    PRO TIP: Use the loopOut()expression to loop keys endlessly.

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