Illustrating a character is one thing—but making that character move in a realistic way is another form of art. If you are interested in learning how to do character animation (or are thinking about how to get into CalArts character animation program or other similar course), this character animation crash course will give you the tools you need to get started. 

walking characters gif
With the right software and tutorial, learning how to animate a character is easy.

What Is Character Animation? 

Character animation is, quite simply, making an illustrated character move on a screen. Historically, character animation was done mostly frame by frame—in other words, by creating a series of drawings that included incremental changes. Like a flipbook, this produced the illusion of movement. Now, you have the option of doing rig animation, which enables you to draw the character once and then manipulate that character to create movement.  

What Is the Best Software for Beginner Animators? 

There are many intuitive and beginner-friendly tools and software for amateur animators. Here are a few to consider for learning how to make character animation:

Procreate Animation Assist

Procreate Animation Assist allows you to create frame-by-frame character animation using one of your existing illustrations. For this type of character animation, you will create multiple illustrations, each with incremental changes to the character. Flipping through the frames will make the character look like it’s moving. 

Unity 

Geared toward game development, Unity can be used to create 2D, 3D, augmented reality, and virtual reality games and simulations. You can also learn how to add animation to character in Unity. The platform enables artists and animators to collaborate and produce in real time. 

Adobe After Effects 

Adobe After Effects is considered the industry standard for motion graphics, as it offers some of the most complex animation features and capabilities. Unlike Procreate Animation Assist, After Effects is not ideal for frame-by-frame animation; it’s better suited for rig animation. In rig animation, you create a framework (or bone structure) for your character. Then, you can manipulate that bone structure like a puppet to create an animation. 

Bring a Simple Character to Life

Simple Character Animation With Fraser Davidson 

How to Animate a Character in 6 Steps

While there are nearly endless options for character animation software and tools, this tutorial will focus on animating a character in Adobe After Effects. 

Step 1: Download and Install Duik 

Duik is an animation plugin for Adobe After Effects that simplifies the animation process. With Duik, you can rig and animate characters’ entire limbs using just the placement of their hands and feet. 

While this isn’t an absolutely necessary step (you can certainly animate in After Effects without the plugin), it can be helpful for beginners, as you’ll see in this tutorial. The best part? Duik is available for free from Rainbox Laboratory

Step 2: Design Your Character 

Of course, before you’re able to start animating, you need a character to move. It’s easiest to create this character in Adobe Illustrator and then import it into After Effects, where you’ll bring it to life.

If you’re just getting started with animation, try creating a very simple character with a focus on the character’s limbs. In the example below, you can see that the body is a very rudimentary shape—a circle—with long legs that make it easy to see the animation process. 

a circular body with long legs
The simple shape of this character—a circular body with long legs—allows you to really focus on the animated movement. 

Pay particular attention to the character’s joints. Creating a perfectly round joint between the upper and lower parts of the legs, for example, will help the character move more smoothly. 

make a character in illustrator
Here, you can see the perfectly circular joint between the upper and lower parts of the character’s leg. 

Step 3: Prepare and Import Your Character Artwork

Before you move your character artwork into Adobe After Effects, you’ll need to make a few final adjustments. First, break your character out into layers. Every part of the character that will move independently needs to be a separate layer. So, for the character below, layers include his face, circular body, and the individual segments of each of his legs (i.e., upper leg, lower leg, and foot). 

character is segmented
Each segment of the character—his face, body, legs, and feet—should be a separate layer in Illustrator. 

Next, go into After Effects and import your character artwork. Go to File, then Import, and select your character file. Make sure to import it as a composition to ensure it includes the layers you just created. 

Step 4: Establish Initial Character Rigging

Now, you’ll begin preparing your character for animation by establishing the initial rigging. First, lower the opacity of all your layers to about 50%. This will help you see the key joints within the character. 

Next, you need to make sure the joints hinge in the right places and in the right directions. You can do this with the anchor point tool. For each layer of the character, place the anchor point at the center of gravity. For the face layer (i.e., the eyes, nose, and mouth), the anchor point would probably go between the eyes. For each section of the legs, place the anchor point at the place where the leg will hinge (e.g., for the upper leg, the anchor point would be at the very top of the leg, where it meets the body). 

rig the character's body parts in after effects
When rigging the character’s legs, place the anchor point where the section of the leg will hinge. 

Next, use the parent tool to connect the individual sections of the limbs. For example, the parent of the foot would be the lower leg, and the parent of the lower leg is the upper leg. This ensures that the leg moves together as one unit with multiple hinge points. Because the body is the ultimate anchor of the entire character, all layers should ultimately parent to it. 

Finally, use the Duik toolbar to create controllers for your character. Controllers control position and rotation of key elements within your character. For the character’s ankles, for example, you would choose the controller that incorporates both position and rotation. 

Step 5: Create Your Rig 

Now, use the Duik toolbar to create your rig. For each limb, select each layer from the extremities inward, ending with your controllers. So for a leg, for example, you would select the ankle, followed by the lower leg, the upper leg, and finally, the controller at the ankle. Then, in the Rigging area of the Duik toolbar, open the auto-rig options, and select auto-rig. Now, when you move that ankle controller, the entire leg will move. Repeat the process for the other leg, as well as other limbs if your character has them. 

Before moving on, test the limbs to make sure they move and hinge properly. Once you are satisfied with the movements, adjust the character’s opacity back to 100%. 

Once you create your rig, you will be able to move each of the character’s legs with the controller at each ankle.
Once you create your rig, you will be able to move each of the character’s legs with the controller at each ankle. 

Step 6: Start Animating Your Character 

Now that you have a completed rig, you can begin animating. First, create keyframes—the beginning and ending points of the character’s movement. For a walk cycle, the endpoints will be when the character’s legs are at their most extended. To get a perfect loop, make sure the start and end keyframes are identical. From there, begin adding in-between frames, like when one leg crosses over the other in the middle of a walking stride. 

You can also add some “easing” to the animation by using After Effects’ Easy Ease option, located under the Animation tab, and then Keyframe Assistant. That smooths out the transition between the keyframes. At this point, you will have a basic walking sequence. 

character animated

From here, you can make further refinements to add detail and secondary movement, like a bobbing motion of the head. You can also change elements like the keyframe velocity, which can further smooth out the animation. As you get more advanced, you may even move on to character sheet animation, which involves viewing and animating the character from different angles. 

As you practice, you’ll get a better feel for your animation preferences and develop more advanced capabilities, so you can create memorable characters that are uniquely you.

Get the Step-by-Step Video Tutorial  

Simple Character Animation: Create a Walk Cycle with Duik with Fraser Davidson