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Team Think Labs | Character Animation in After Effects
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Character Animation in After Effects

Now, we all know that After Effects is cool. So, if you don’t want to keep hearing it, you should probably stop reading. Otherwise, read on my friend…

Despite after effects being a “Compositing” software, it is constantly being pushed to new limits by creative geniuses all over the world. One of those geniuses is a small studio based out of San Francisco, CA known as Tiny Inventions. They are most famous for their short film “Something Left, Something Taken“. For this film, Max and Ru (The creatives behind the company) developed a new type of character animation in After Effects that is unparalleled. Although this may be expected in certain animation softwares… *cough *ToonBoom *cough, it was never expected in AE.

I was so impressed with their animations that I emailed the specialist that built the Rigg (Sean McBride). Not only did he answer a lot of the questions I had on how it was done, but he actually sent me an After Effects project file containing part of a rigg. This post contains some of the ins and outs of how it was done and why it’s so FREAKING COOL!


Puppet Rigg Animation Test

Joints for this rigg were made using puppet pin points. The puppet pin tool in After Effects is a lot like the Puppet Warp tool in Photoshop, except it can be animated. The points should be placed at the joints of the character (Each limb is a separate Photoshop Layer imported into After Effects). Now the points can be linked to Nulls and parented to each other so that everything moves in reference to each other; i.e. you move the hand and the rest of the arm follows while still staying connected to the torso at the shoulder. Targets were made to replace the nulls and converted to guide layers so that they would not be visible when rendered.

AE Puppet Rigg

The mouth of this puppet rigg was animated in a nested comp. Different words would be made into complex animations. Those animations could be called from the main comp in two ways:

  1. Using Layer Markers
  2. Linking the time or a nested comp to the rotation of a solid or null

In this case, we used option two (we will explain option one later). Through a time-remapping expression, we linked a nested comp’s time to an icon’s rotation. By rotating the icon one degree (hot key: + or -) we move forward one frame within the nested comp without ever having to leave the main comp. This is a huge time saver! The same can be done for eyes, hands, and anything that frequently needs to change shape.


In the example at the top of the page, we had a the character dancing to Tarzan Boy! First of the beats of the song were converted to Layer Markers using this After Effects script: BPM Markers. From there I would animated a dance move that laster four beats and could loop. I would name this dance move accordingly. In other words, if it was a hump, I would name it “hump”. This was done by adding a Layer Marker to a null named “action”. Wherever the “hump” Layer Marker was placed, that’s where the move started. From there I could call/trigger this “hump” action from the main comp. The importance of this is that I can animated several dance moves, and as long as I name them accordingly, I can call/trigger them anytime I want from the main comp! If I decide a two-step would look better during the chorus, I can easily change my “hump” Layer Marker to “two step”.

Puppet Rigg Layer Markers


Just like above, we can use Layer Markers to call other actions, such as mouth movements for lip syncing. I could create a series of words, such as “hello”, “fire”, or “Get to the Chopper!” From the main comp, I can listen to the audio and call any word I want at anytime. Here’s an example of what the project looks like:

Lip Syncing for Puppet Rigg

To make things even easier, we can take out audio clip into Premiere Pro and Analyze Speech. It should automatically make a guess as to what you the audio is saying and add a Layer Marker to each word at the right time. When you export this audio file from Premiere it also exports the Metadata (the data that carries the markers (or “Cue Points). When this is brought into After Effects the Layer Markers can be copied to any layer of your choice using this AE script: rd_CopyMarkers. Now the metadata has created several actions. For example, the Layer Marker “Immediately” can now be animated and called/triggered.

I learned a lot from this project and I hope this will encourage everyone to keep experimenting with your software of choice. Push it to the limit!

Here are some of the resources I used for this project. Thanks to each and every one of these creative geniuses. You’re like the first person to try a parachute; Insane but Brave:

  • Dan Ebberts – He is a wiz when it comes to JavaScript in After Effects. Super nice too, I emailed him with questions and he instantly emailed back!
  • Tiny Inventions – Their blog for Something Left, Something Taken is very in-depth
  • Sean McBride – He is the one who built and animated the Riggs for Something Left, Something Taken. Great guy too; emailed me and AE project file!