Building a Character For Animation in After Effects

You will need to draw out your character as though you are drawing all the body pieces separately, like you would if you were making a hand made paper puppet, then you will need to scan in all the pieces and open them up in Photoshop.

In Photoshop you should have all the separate pieces for your cut out character opened up – they can be on the same page or several pages. Go through all of the separate pieces of your character and crop them into different save files: select the 'Crop' tool and crop one of the parts of the characters body. This will now cut out everything else and you will be left with just that small part for now. Go to the 'Layers' side panel to the right of the screen and double click that layer. A box will come up asking to unlock the background layer – click yes. You will want to use the 'Magic Wand' tool to select the area around the characters body piece and click delete to remove it – if it removes parts you want, then undo and use a manual select tool, such as the 'Lasso' tool. Save the image under the name of that body piece, e.g. Left Foot. Now click 'Undo' or 'Step Backwards' until you get back to the page filled with the body parts. Go through and do this with every body part...it may take some time to do.

Once you have all the separate body parts saved, you will want to build the character up in Photoshop. Drag and drop, or copy and paste all the parts one by one into a new project, and carefully name all the sections and layer them up in order – or like you would with a handmade puppet. Remember you may want hands to be visible over the top of the body, so think carefully about layer ordering in photoshop. One thing I found was I needed to start the layer names off with 001, and then order them that way, so 001 being the layer that will appear on top of all the layers – this will save you the long task of rearranging all the layers when you put them into After Effects. Resize body parts if you need to etc and get the character fully built. Now you can either keep the white background, or change that to say a green if you are planning on doing some green screening, or you can remove the background entirely so you are left with a chequered background, which means there isn't a background there, so when it is opened in After Effects, you wont have a background to remove – this is useful if you are placing a character on top of a scene, although saying that, you will want to limit the amount of files you have listing in the Composition area next to the timeline – more files there can make things confusing, even if you have them layered up correctly.

Save the file as a PSD (photoshop file) to keep all the layers intact – you wont want to merge all the layers together!

Now open After Effects and set up a new composition as shown last week – you choose the length etc...

Now go to import your PSD file. A box will pop up asking 'Import Kind'. The box will read 'Footage' – you wont want this unless you want all your layers to merge again. Change the 'Footage' box to 'Composition' and the 'Layer Options' will change. 'Editable Layer Styles' will be selected, so keep this option and click OK.

In the 'Project' list down the left hand side will appear two new files. One will say the name of your saved character as a composition – if you drag this down into the timeline you can't edit the individual layers, so leave this file alone! The other file that appears will have you saved characters name along with 'Layers', with a little folder sign next to it with an arrow. Click the arrow and all your saved layers will be here. Click and drag the whole folder down into the timeline space, and all the layers will automatically pop up there.

All the layers will be selected, so if your character is too big for the workspace (e.g. the head is cut off) you can resize all the layers at once, and they shouldn't move apart etc – it should be a whole body scale. Sometimes After Effects can be glitchy and parts of the character may not move into position with the rest of the body – the only thing to do here is to move all the bits individually afterwards and rebuild the character...

Once you have your character set up in the work space ready to go, you will want to 'Parent' the separate body pieces to other body pieces. You can only parent a body piece to one other body piece, but it all build up – just think of that song ''Your foot bones connected to your leg bone...'' or however it goes...you get the gist. So select say 'Left Foot', and click in the 'None' box. All the other layers will appear in a drop down menu – find 'Left Leg' (or however you've named it) and click on that in the drop down menu. This Left Foot is now connected to the Left Leg. Now connect the Left Leg to the Left Knee, then Left Knee to the Left Thigh, then connect Left Thigh to the Torso. Keep building it up like this – the torso should generally be the end point for all links, so for the Head, connect it to the Neck, the connect the Neck to the Torso. Never connect the Torso to anything, as you will want to leave that free. A more exciting way of connecting the layers together is to use the swirl next to the parenting box – click and drag this to the layer you want to connect it to and then drop it on that layer – its now connected. Does take a bit longer though, especially if you have lots of layers...

Play around with rotating the Torso and moving it about. You should find that everything moves with the Torso.

To start animating, say making your character wave or walk, set all the body parts into a position you would like them to start in, and make sure you click the stopwatch icon on all the positions, rotation and size options. If you don't, you may loose all the movement you create later on.

Move a few frames down the timeline, and select perhaps the Right Arm to make your character wave. Rotate the arm up and a keyframe will set itself for the Right Arm. Remember to go to Right Hand and the other body parts you have for the Right Arm – you may have labelled them Right Shoulder, Right Arm, Right Forearm etc, but make sure all these parts have their own keyframes along with the first part you move. It is pretty much the same as traditional cut outs – you need all the body parts to he in a particular position at a certain time, so make sure you set the keyframes. Now unlike traditional cut outs, you don't need to go through frame by frame, you can set one keyframe, then do a huge jump to say the arm being pulled right up into a wave – After Effects will fill in the frames for you and do most of the actual animating. It's just down to you to decide how many frames you need inbetween each keyframe and so on – you have to judge the speed! If you have set loads of keyframes, then you can always select the little diamond boxes that appear for each keyframe, and drag them closer or further away from the last keyframe etc – it can take a while to change the pacing etc, but its better than deleting all the keyframes and starting the movement again!

Go through the whole sequence and get your character moving! Render it afterwards too.

Puppet Tool

Another way of making your character move – if say you have a ribbon, a scarf, hair or a tail – is by using the puppet tool. You can even have one full character (without layers) and place the puppet pins all over the body. This will give fluid movement and less sharp edges that the cut out method can give. However, you do need to be VERY careful with placement of the pins, and make sure that limbs etc don't get twisted.

To animate a tail for example, select that layer/file in the timeline list. Now go up to the button with the image of a pin, just below 'Window'. Once you have this button selected, place pins along the tail – leaving enough distance between them so they aren't on top of one another – you don't generally want too many, and to be honest you don't NEED that many. Just drop a maximum of five along the tail, depending how long the tail is. Little yellow circles will appear in the place of where you have put the pins. Now when you come to the end of the tail, open the arrow next to the file you are working on (where the 'Transform' tools usually are), and you will notice an 'Effects' tab has appeared. Open up this menu and there will be 'Puppet' written. Open up this menu. You will notice in the timeline next to 'Mesh 1' a small black dot. This is the first keyframe that you have placed. Open up the 'Mesh 1' option, and then 'Deform' – now there will be grey dots next to the list of 'Puppet Pins'. The pins will be numbered, and to edit them, open up their menus with the little arrows. The 'Position' of the pin will appear under each of the menus, and you'll notice the grey dot will turn into one of the diamonds that represent a keyframe.

Move a few frames along the timeline, and either you can move the 'Position' of the pin in the drop down menu, or you can move it manually by selecting that pin on the body of the character directly. When the pin is selected it will be a solid yellow circle – the other pins will be a circle with a yellow outline. You can select multiple pins by holding the 'Shift' or 'Control' key – it just depends on what pins you need to move etc.

Move the pins at various intervals and see what you can do with it. I personally find it particularly useful for tails, as you can get the train twitching etc quite realisticly – obviously you can't do this with ease with usual cut out puppets. Have a play with the puppet tool, maybe try moving a character by just using the puppet tool, and leave the cut out method – whatever suits you best!