Life & Style tutorial: Rigging a character for After Effects

Creating an After Effects character animation is a whole lot easier if you prepare your main figure beforehand in Illustrator, finds motion designer Pete McEvoy.

Flat, vector characters in motion projects aren’t just the preserve of Adobe Flash. After Effects can get in on the act thanks to close ties with Illustrator, and it gives you far more control over your motion project.

Yet, instead of working up a static character and plonking it into an After Effects project you can, with a little planning and foresight, use Illustrator to create a vector puppet ready for rigged animation.

For this masterclass, motion designer Pete McEvoy has drawn on his work for submissions to the likes of Channel 4’s Esting competition to reveal how to craft a digital, vector puppet.

The key is in the preparation. As you construct your character, you’ll need to define each body part and joint – and label them with logical names – so they can separate onto layers with After Effects ready for being jointed and animated.

01. The key to creating a good character is simplicity. Decide on a shape and use that as the confines for the character. Create a new Illustrator file called character. Name your first layer Torso. Create a rectangle, and two oval shapes and arrange as I have, both skin tone.

With the selection key, select the top oval and place exactly half of it over the top end of the rectangle. Adjust with the Free Transform tool until the points are exactly over one another. Open the Path Finder selection box, and with both the oval and rectangle selected, press Add To Shape Area > Expand. Repeat the same task with the other oval until you have one object. Adjust this to your liking. We now have our master shape.

02. We will be duplicating this shape many times, and using Path Finder options so we can gradually build up all the characters details in this shape.

We will now start adding the details, such as the hair. Select the shape with the Section tool press Apple-C, Apple-F (Ctrl-C, Ctrl- F on a PC) and make the shape a brown colour. Create a rectangle above the master shape, and of the same colour. Select both and within the Pathfinder panel, press Subtract From Shape Area > Expand.

Select this brown shape and, in the Tools Panel select knife (in the drop-down menu under scissors). Run the knife along the bottom end of the brown shape in a jagged manner, and delete the shapes that you have cut off. If necessary, smooth out the cuts with the Direct Selection tool. We have now created his hair, which should sit directly above the main shape.

03. We will now use a similar method to create the mouth. Create a new Layer, and call it ‘mouth’. Create a brown circle, and select the top point with the Direct Selection Tool and delete it so you now have a semi-circle.

Adjust to the shape of smile you like best. Copy-&-paste the final shape in place three times. To make the top row of teeth, create seven white circles in a row making sure the edges of each slightly overlap with one another, then draw a rectangle across the top half of this row of objects.

Select All and choose Add To Shape Area > Expand in the Pathfinder. Select this object, as well as the top mouth shape, and press Intersect Shape Areas in the pathfinder. You will now see the mouth shape with a top row of teeth, repeat this step with a curved row of circles for the bottom row of teeth, and a tongue shape for the tongue. Add gradients to the mouth shape, teeth and tongue to create the illusion of depth.

04. To create the face elements, create a layer called Left_Eyebrow, and another one called Left_Eye. On the Left_ Eyebow layer, create a rounded triangle. On the Left_Eye layer, create two ovals – one black, one white.

Make sure the white one is on top and about a fifth of the size of the black oval, place it near the top right side of the black oval. Create a small, white circle and place beneath the small white oval. To finish off the eye, draw an arc like a rainbow across the bottom half of the eye with the Pen tool. Stroke will depend on the size of the rest of the drawing.

Select the stroke, then choose Object > Path > Outline Stroke. Now you can ease in the edges to a nice point. Repeat this process for the right eye and eyebrow. Note that as the eyes, eyebrows and mouth will all be animated, it is important that each one is kept on its own layer.

The remaining details around the face such as dimples, eye- lashes, facial hair, and hair tufts should all be created on the torso layer, as these are static.

05. Let’s dress our character. Each side of the jacket was created by selecting the master shape, and copy- &-pasting it in place, creating a rectangle that covers one side of the master shape. Select both objects and choose Pathfinder > Intersect Shape Areas > Expand.

The remaining details top and bottom of the jacket were created using the ‘rounded rectangle tool’. To create the scarf, create a chevron shape. Select it, and press Apple- C, Apple-F (Ctrl-C, Ctrl-F on Windows) several times (depending on how many you want on your scarf) and line them up in rows. Select all your chevrons and choose Object > Group.

Then, draw a shape similar to a pair of underpants and paste it in place once, making sure there is one copy above the grouped chevrons and one below. Select the top one and the grouped chevrons and choose Object > Clipping Mask > Make. The remaining details such as the belt were created using simple shapes and the Pathfinder.

06. Create two new layers below the Torso layer, calling one Left_Arm and the other Left_Leg. On the arm layer, create an arc with the pen tool, make sure that in the Stroke panel, ‘Round Cap’ is checked. Select the arc and choose Object > Path > Outline Stroke.

Adjust the points at the far end inwards, so the arm appears to taper. Paste the shape in place. Scale the bottom one slightly and move outward. This will be the cuff of the jacket. The hands are comprised of two circles, one slightly wider then the cuff, the other very small – the thumb.

Repeat the same process for the right arm. On the Left_Leg layer, create an arc with the pen tool similar to that created for the arm. Select the arc and choose Object > Path > Outline Stroke. Adjust the shape so it tapers, getting thicker as it goes towards the torso.

Over the skinnier half of the leg, create a semi-circle. This will be the foot. Create a check pattern using the Rectangle tool, and place it below the semi-circle. Select both objects and choose Object > Clipping Mask > Make. Use the various shape tools to create the finer details around the character’s face and clothes.

07. This step is a little complicated but finishes the character off nicely. Create five new layers: Outline_left arm, Outline_right arm, Outline_left leg, Outline_ right leg, and Outline_torso.

All these layers should be below the actual character. On the Torso layer, select all the objects, copy&-paste them in place. In the Layer Panel, select Outline_torso and choose Object > Arrange > Send To Current Layer.

Make sure that all the objects on the Outline_torso layer are selected, and make them all black. In the pathfinder box, select Add To Shape Area > Expand. Select the object and choose Object > Path > Offset Path and set the off point to three.

You should now have an outline of the character’s torso. Repeat the step for the rest of the layers. It is important that all the outlines are below the actual character, so they don’t cut over him as you animate in After Effects.

08. Open a new After Effects Project, and call it Character Animation. Choose File > Import > and set the import as ‘Composition’. Choose Composition > Composition Settings and set size to 1,024-x-576 px to give yourself a little breathing space.

In the tools panel, select the Pan Behind Tool. Select the Left_Arm layer, move the anchor point to the side of the torso you can animate the arm like a hinge. Repeat this step on the other rest of the Arm and Leg layers. On the Eye/Eyebow layers, centre the point over the object in question. Parent all the layers (except outline layers) to the torso layer.

Parent all outlines to their corresponding character layers. They will now slide around below the character layers seamlessly. Now you can animate a character freely and start your animation project with an easier-to-control main character.


01. Pressing the X key toggles the stroke and fill tool, making one or the other active. Holding down the Shift key with the X key swaps the actual colour of the fill with the colour of the stroke. This of course only works with solid colours, since gradients can’t be applied to strokes.

You can set the fill or stroke to ‘None’ simply by hitting the slash (‘/’) key. And finally, you can open the Adobe Colour Picker easily by double-clicking either the fill or stroke icon in the Tools panel.

02. You can make any colour a spot colour simply by holding down the Command key when you click the New Swatch icon. To make a Global spot colour, press Command + Shift while clicking the New Swatch icon.

Spot colours in the colour pane are indicated by the dot inside the white triangle in the lower right corner of the swatch.

WHO: Pete McEvoy is a 24-year-old motion designer and illustrator living in his home town of Dublin, Ireland. His work is influenced by Saturday morning cartoons, computer games and the various product packaging that can be found in his kitchen.
SOFTWARE: Adobe Illustrator, Adobe After Effects
TIME TO COMPLETE: Two and a half hours

Note: We may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site, at no extra cost to you. This doesn't affect our editorial independence. Learn more.

Read Next...