Lose Yourself to Dance: Tips on making animated characters boogie realistically

Tips on how to animate your characters' movements like they're in a real life club.

It's time to get up from your desk and get a boogie on – or, if that sounds too taxing, you could just animate characters to do the very same thing.

But while it's comparatively easy to replicate walking or running with something like After Effects or Photoshop, it's another story when it comes to the art of making figures get their groove on to a musical beat.

In spite of this, over 110 animators tried their hand at submitting short little clips to The Big Jig, a virtual 'animated festival' from studio Seed Animation celebrating all things cartoon and choreography. Find a compilation of the best jigs below, as set to a killer house loop by Sam Worskett from Mcasso. 'Tis a bop, peeps.

Reaching out via Seed we contacted some of the artists involved for their tips in creating the perfect animated dancer, as you can read below with sketches, GIFs and rigging reels to show the process. Thanks to everyone involved for their advice, and good luck in getting your 'toons to lose themselves to dance, Daft Punk style.

Hleb Kuftseryn

"As I'm really not into dance and don't know much about modern trends, my work started with research. I soon found a dance called Shuffle which in my opinion suited the techno mood of the Big Jig perfectly.

"After that I started developing the character. As the Shuffle dance mainly involves legs, I gave my character long and massive ones.

"Special attention was paid to his feet since they are the main expressive elements of the dance. Despite my animation piece being in 2D, the feet were modelled in 3D, which I hope helped to create a believable sense of movement."

TILT Amsterdam

Animators from TILT explain how they made their unique submissions.

James Carbutt

"For my Big Jig I wanted to create a parade. I wish I could say this was an original idea but essentially I stole the concept from Parallel Teeth’s CVISION Christmas Bumper, with other heavy inspiration coming from Eran Hilleli’s Pictoplasma titles and Andrew Bell’s Instagram animations. There’s something special about a lot of characters all moving at once; it makes you want to watch the animation more than once.

"My plan was to create a globby mess of characters all flopping and bouncing onwards together, each doing their own thing to the music. If you’ve ever seen the dance scene from the movie Hot Rod where all the characters are dancing completely uncoordinated outside a 7-Eleven or something, that’s the kinda mood I was going for. I did a lot of dancing in the mirror to get the movement down.

"So the process side of things was pretty straightforward. I sketched the characters in pencil, and dragged this into Illustrator. Here I did most of my designing, and prepared my characters for After Effects. They were animated using shape layers and a small amount of Rubberhose (for the legs). The animation makes heavy use of path animation and masks, and is incredibly messy.

"It was important all the guys bounced and bopped along to the song, even though they were all doing their own thing, so I used a bouncing ball animation as a guide for easing and timing.

"All the characters in the shot move in time with the ball, with minor offsets and secondary animations to keep things spicy. I then added a bounce to the whole gang."

Cool beans, James. Cool beans.

Pip Williamson

"My entry to the Big Jig was based on a true story. One of the great things about festivals is that you’ll often see stewards and crowd safety personnel just enjoying the music and busting out a few moves on the job.

"I wanted to ensure that my character’s dance would tell you something about him. In this case it meant juxtaposing his appearance as much as possible, showing that the work uniform and dad-bod didn’t mean he wasn’t there to have fun.

"When asked to make a dancing character, the first thing that tends to spring to mind is a specific well-known or viral dance move. I think that Seed were also wise to this, since the brief specifically requested that we avoid the Floss!

"But I’m an animator, not a choreographer, so I did some research and pulled references from Donald Glover and Method Studios’s Major Lazer piece. My advice is to always use references, especially when it comes to dance.

"Speaking more technically, a dancing character is likely to switch their weight from foot to foot, so the best thing to animate first is the hips. They can help you set the pace before worrying about legs and weight distribution.

"Rigging plugins can also really help as they give you the freedom to move the end of your limbs (hands and feet) while the base of them are attached to your already-moving hips. (I used Rubberhose for the legs and Limber for the arms).

"I also decided only to use frame-by-frame animation for secondary motion once I’d got the main body moving. It was important that all my primary motion was on beat, and After Effects is just a better tool for that since the graph editor works a charm."

Richard Beerens

"Dance, festival vibes, hot summer days. For the Big Jig I started to create some concepts with these key words in mind. But I quickly found that all my ideas ended up being a bit cliché. I had some dance moves in mind, some guys with booze and a rockstar who stage-dived and was dancing while he was being held up by a crowd. I think that last one is still pretty cool as a small concept.

"At the same time I wanted to practice some smear frames and cel animation on a character. But I also did not want this project to become too time-consuming. I wanted to stay on-brief, but I also wanted to stand out and have something cool. All this ended up in creating this particular stereotype. I chose to make him extra wasted, so wasted that he was not able to dance anymore and he would just pass out.

"I ‘borrowed’ some ideas from fellow animators. The sunburn idea was shamelessly stolen from a shot of Ross Plaskow’s Instagram page and the sitting pose was inspired by a film from Emanuele Colombo. I felt like these elements fitted well in the shot and idea I had in mind, so I just went forward. 

"I drew my character (according to Pip and James he is named ‘Chad’) in outlines and the different key poses.

"I decided to cut out the limbs and parts of the body in After Effects and make a simple rig to get the rough movements right in the animatic. I used my animatic as a reference for the rough animation which I made in Rough Animator on the iPad Pro.

"Once I was happy I cleaned up the animation in Adobe Animate. From Animate I exported different layers with transparent backgrounds, so that I could open them in After Effects and still be able to change the colours.

"I drew the background in Procreate and did the colouring, camera movements, the crowd in the background and some other small tweaks in After Effects.

"The Big Jig definitely was a blast and I am up for more."

Marina Nakagawa

"Since I have no knowledge about dancing, I checked a lot of dancing clips and stills for reference. This video was particularly helpful."

Check out how Marina rigged and animated her main character below. Marina used the Bendy Limbs Rig created by E.J. Hassenfratz aka Eyedesyn.

Campbell Hartley

"I find Flash/Adobe Animate quite a good programme to rough out the movement in, so all of my roughs were done in that. I then used Photoshop to clean it up, just because I prefer the brushes in it.

"I would say animating a whole character on 4’s (holding a drawing for four frames) and then in-betweening works much better. Helps keep things proportional."

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