CREATIVE DESIGN

How to successfully rig your Photoshop character in After Effects.

The Cartoon Series Part 1

It is best to have a basic understanding of Photoshop and After Effects before jumping into this tutorial. If you are just starting to use these programs, I would recommend checking out TastyTuts’ content to learn more about Photoshop and Kriscoart for After Effects.

Character Design. Keep it simple

Keep your character design simple. Whether you are rigging a character for a quick gif or an animated short, the simplicity of the design will be the key to your success. In the end, it is the animation, context, and story that will bring your character to life.

During this process, it may help to think of your character as the sum of various independently moving parts rather than as a whole. Try not to overthink the design of your character and focus on constructing a manageable set of limbs. Stick to the simple formula of a head, body, appendages, and face (if needed) and remember that your character can be as simple as a circle.

I used various shape tools and brushes to create my character, but use the tools you feel most comfortable with- just keep in mind the overall direction and context of the animation. It is best to have a storyboard or a sketch of your scene. I knew I wanted to create some sort of walk/dance cycle with the character moving generally from left to right, so I oriented the character’s arms, legs, and face toward the right.

Layering your Photoshop file.

Tip: It is best to set up your Photoshop canvas a little larger for your character. I used a 1920×1920 pixel canvas at 100ppi. This will ensure that the loss of resolution will be minimal when the camera zooms in.

Pay attention to how I layer my character in Photoshop. I was able to simplify my character down to nine layers, but I believe it could be simplified even more if needed. The only layers that may have caused a little extra work were the hands but I felt it adds a dimension of complexity that is well worth the extra time.

Right now my character is composed of the two main layers marked in red (head and body,) the secondary layers in orange and yellow (right hand, right arm, left arm, left hand, left leg, right leg,) and the face in blue. Once your layers have been named and ordered, save your file.

Import your Photoshop file into After Effects.

Open After Effects and import the Photoshop file as a new composition. Select “editable layer styles” under layer options. Notice that your new After Effects composition will have the same layer order and canvas size as your original Photoshop file. Depending on your intended animation, you may want to increase the canvas size or change up the default background color of your composition. You can do this by going under composition and selecting “composition settings”.

Rigging:

Just as a puppeteer strings his marionette, the animator must rig his character. Rigging creates a structured base on which to animate.

To begin rigging, select a layer in the Layers panel. This will reveal the layer controls and an anchor point (the point on which the layer is centered and will rotate). The anchor point, visually represented by a circle with two crosshairs, will be the focus for this part of the tutorial. By default, the anchor points for each layer will be located in the same place, but each layer will need its own unique anchor location.

Relocating your anchor points:

Select the anchor placement Hotkey Y. Click and drag the anchor point to your layer’s center of mass. Pay attention to where I place the anchor points for each layer. I chose anchor points with the intention to reflect or imitate the natural movement of the human body (i.e. joints).

The body’s center of mass is located around the hip/crotch area. The head’s center of mass is located where it attaches to the neck. The left and right arm’s anchor point will be located at the shoulders. The hand’s anchor point will be located at the wrist. And the legs will be anchored where they attach to the body.

Keep in mind that with any type of animation you are either imitating or exaggerating the movement perceived in nature. It will help to think of your character as having some sort of mass. Even though your character is two-dimensional, treat it as though it is three-dimensional. Once you set your anchor points, save your file and deselect all layers. 

Parenting

Parenting allows the layers to move and rotate in specific groups while functioning independently.

You need to establish a hierarchy of moving parts and group them accordingly in order to animate your character. Most of the time the body will be your center of mass. If the body moves, generally everything else should move with it. Take a look at the diagram below to see how I established my parenting hierarchy.

There will be three different levels of movement. The body will act as the base. The head, arms, and legs will be parented to the body. The hands should then be parented to the arms. And the face should be parented to the Head. If used correctly, parenting will cause your animation to run smoother and save you a ton of time in the end.

In the layering window, you will see a column for “parenting” and a little spiral icon on each row. I will select the “right hand” layer and click/drag from the spiral icon to the “right arm” layer. The right hand will now be parented to the right arm! I will do the same for the left hand and the face.

Once completed, the hands will be parented with the arms and the face to the head. Now we must parent all other layers to the body. Refer to the parenting diagram above for a visual explanation of this. I will then select the arms, legs, and head. Once selected, I will click/drag the spiral icon on any one of the selected layers to the layer of the body. Now, all layers will transform, move, and rotate with the body.

My character is almost completely rigged at this point. I could definitely produce a high-quality animation, but I would like to push it a bit further using the “Puppet Pin Tool.” Watch our social media pages and keep an eye out for my next tutorial in the series to learn how to properly implement your character rig using the Puppet Pin Tool and establish key frames.

 

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Art Director, Michael Craighead creates cohesive, visual representations of our client’s messaging. Every great brand tells a story through the graphic components that make up the visual scope of messaging and Michael skillfully delivers graphic elements that exceed expectations. Learn more here.