How To Create Animated Characters: Tips and Tricks

How To Create Animated Characters: Tips and Tricks
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Getting started in character animation can be challenging, especially when creating high-quality motion graphics for film, television, or video games.

With the proliferation of animation tools and plug-ins, it can seem like there are an infinite number of animating options at your fingertips.

Character animation is the process of creating moving images of characters, often for the purpose of telling a story. This could be anything from cartoon characters for animated videos to 2D or 3D animation characters for explainer videos, GIFs, or even game development.

Character animation can use traditional animation techniques like stop-motion or cell animation, or more modern methods like computer-generated imagery (CGI).

No matter the method, the goal is to create an engaging and believable portrayal of the character. But it’s one thing to sketch a cute character on paper and another to make it move realistically. Bringing animated characters to life takes creativity and special technical skills.

From character design and creating a storyboard to choosing the right animation maker or software, this guide will walk you through our top tips and tricks for beginners to create amazing animated characters.

Consider this your intro into the wonderful world of character animation!

Identify your message

Identify message

The first step in creating an animated character is to identify the message you want to convey. Before you even start thinking about what the character will look like, begin developing your concept by thinking about what your animated character is meant to do. Are they meant to entertain, amuse, inform, or engage your audience?

Focusing on their function and message will help you determine the appropriate tone and style for your character. For example, if you are trying to communicate a serious message, you may want to create a more realistic character. On the other hand, if you are trying to convey a fun and light-hearted message, you may want to create a more cartoon-like character.

If you're developing a project for a client, you should identify their needs and objectives so you can craft your character accordingly.

Next, begin developing a concept for your character. Determining the answer to these questions will help you create a character that is relatable and engaging.

For professional work, you may already have a script in mind. You can use the script as inspiration for your character design, focusing on elements that will deliver the message in an engaging and effective way.

For creative endeavors, you have more creative freedom. You could write a basic script before starting the character design—or even create an engaging animated character and let them inspire your story. Your script should include dialogue and action beats to bring your character to life.

You should also create a storyboard for your character. This is a visual breakdown of the story using simple drawings, diagrams, or sketches. The purpose of the storyboard is to help you visualize the story and plan your animation, including any key moments that you want to highlight.

If you’re designing a cartoon video for social media, you must keep the format, size, and aspect ratio in mind.

Design a character

Design a character

Once you determine the tone, message, and style for your animated character, the next step is to design a thematic character.

One of the most important aspects of character design is to create a character that feels believable and relatable. This means developing a unique and interesting personality for your character that is consistent throughout the story.

You should also pay attention to the details of their design. Think about the visual features that will help bring your character to life. This may include facial features and expressions, body language, style of dress, and other physical attributes. Small details make all the difference in creating a character your audience will connect with.

Another important consideration is to ensure that your character is visually appealing. Pay attention to the color palette and the use of light and shadow. You can also use visual cues, such as clothing and accessories, to help people understand your character's personality and function within the story.

You can draw, paint, or digitally sketch your character. Many free and simple tools are available online. For example, Animaker is a simple video maker platform for beginners and non-designers. With a library of existing animated characters, you can select premade characters and templates so you can focus on the movement and animation steps instead.

Break the character into independent moving parts

Break the character

To create an animated character, you’ll want to break the character into its independent moving parts. This will make it easier to animate the character later.

As you create the character, design each part on its own layer. This will allow you to easily manipulate and transform each element as you get farther along in the process.

Some of the most important parts to consider breaking down include the facial features (e.g., eyes, brows, mouth, and cheeks). You also want to separate the arms and legs from the torso and head. The more individual parts and joints you create, the better articulation and movement you can achieve.

You should organize your layers in labeled folders for each body part so it's easier to identify each point's location for the initial rigging. For example, the "Face" folder would have layers for each eye, nose, eyebrow, etc.

The idea is to break your animated character into individual parts and organize your project file with named layers, so it's easier to work with when you add movement to your character.

Import the character into animation software

Import the character

Depending on what character animation software you use to create your puppet, you may or may not need to complete this step. For example, if you use an all-in-one software like Doratoon, you can create your character, complete their path animation, and even add AI voice-over, props, and sound in the platform without importing files.

However, industry-standard, professional software from Adobe Creative Suite is different. You can use Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Character Animator, and even Adobe Photoshop to create your character and organize your layers. Then, import your file into Adobe After Effects to rig, animate, and add effects to your character and create a video.

When importing your character into your animation software, you’ll have to make sure the file format is compatible with the software you’re using. If you’re working completely within the Adobe ecosystem, you can also use Dynamic Linking to have a real-time, seamless workflow between your software programs.

Rig your animated character

Rig a character

Once you’ve created and imported your character, you can start creating their movement and animation. It all begins with rigging your character.

Rigging is the process of creating a virtual skeleton for your character, which is then mapped to the individual parts of their body. You can use many different rigging techniques and software tools, but the basic goal is to create a system for manipulating your character's body parts in different ways.

You need to make the joints hinge in the right place and move in the right direction. To achieve this, most software will have an anchor point tool. You can use this tool to place and manipulate the joints in the right position so they move naturally when the character is animated. Place anchor points at the center of gravity or where the joints would naturally hinge.

The actual process of rigging your character will depend on the software. For example, some cartoon maker platforms may have auto-rigging options or pre-rigged cartoon animations to use. Adobe Character Animator has its own rigging tools, or you could rig your character directly in Adobe After Effects using a plug-in like Duik.

As you set up your anchor points, you'll want to test them out to ensure they are moving the skeletal structure of your character correctly. You can create a basic test animation to check the movement and ensure everything looks right before animating your character's movements, expressions, and dialogue.

Create character movement

Movement

Once your rig works properly, you can start animating. This involves creating keyframes to control the movement and expression of your animated character.

Keyframes are the points in time where you want your character to move or change. For example, you may have a keyframe that controls the character's facial expressions so they appear to be smiling or laughing at a particular moment in the animation.

Most software tools will have a timeline or keyframe editor where you can add and edit your keyframes. You'll need to experiment with the timing and position of the keyframes to get the movements and expressions of your character just right.

To make your character walk, for instance, you would set a keyframe for leg positions at the beginning of the movement and a keyframe at the end of the movement, when the step is taken and the legs are their furthest apart. Most animation software programs have tools to ease and control the movement from one keyframe to the next. But it will likely take some additional finessing to get the movement just right.

Once you have your keyframes in place, you can begin adding other animation effects to your character. This could include blurring, bouncing, shaking, swinging, or wiggling. In a walking character example, taking a step could cause the character's hair to swing or body to bounce.

This can be one of the most time-consuming steps; even creating a few seconds of animation for a speaking character can take hours or even days to perfect. But with the right software tools and some patience, you can create amazing animations that bring your characters to life.

Add narration, lip-syncing, or music

Add narration

Depending on what type of animated character you're creating, you may want to add narration, voice-over, or other sound effects. You could also include background music to set the mood.

For example, animated tutorials must be perfectly timed to the voice-over. Popular explainer videos with whiteboard animations are another great example. For projects like these, recording the script voice-over before creating your animations may be helpful. Then, create the animation while listening to the audio and matching up the lip-sync and movements to the voice.

Export the animation

Export animation

When you finish creating the animation, your final step is to export and save your completed work. This could include exporting a video file or GIF. Some platforms give you the option of publishing directly to a video platform, like YouTube or Vimeo.

If you're creating an animated character for your website or app, you may need to optimize the video file for web use so you can embed it smoothly and minimize the file size.

You should test your video file and ensure it plays properly on different devices and platforms. And remember to save a copy of your original animation files so you can make changes or updates in the future if necessary.

Creating animated characters takes time and patience, but with the right tools and knowledge, you can create stunning, engaging animations.

And if you're looking for even more tips and tricks, online resources, tutorials, step-by-step guides, and community forums can help you get started. So don't be afraid to dive in and start experimenting! You never know what amazing creations you might create.

The best software for creating animated characters

There are many platform and software options for creating animated characters.

Here are some of the top character animation options to consider.

Adobe Animate

Adobe Animate is a great beginner-friendly animation software program. It’s 2D animation software with a myriad of features. Best of all, it integrates with other Adobe platforms like Photoshop, Illustrator, and After Effects so you can use whatever works for you. You can even drop your animation into Premiere for video editing and finishing.

  • Features. Create a puppet with a few simple steps using the Puppet Maker; create puppets from artwork, set scenes, add tags and behaviors, easily identify rigging issues, and even use your webcam to control your character’s movements and lip-syncing
  • Pricing. $52.99 per month

Autodesk Maya

Autodesk Maya is a 3D animation and visual effects software used by many major studios and enterprises. One thing to note: it’s not exactly beginner friendly. It is a more complex piece of software for which most animators have special training.

  • Features. Create next-level, state-of-the-art 3D animations with fast playback and caching, accurate programming simulations, a non-destructive time editor, polygon modeling, sophisticated skeletons, geometry, edges, and faces, and more
  • Pricing. $225 per month

Blender

Blender is a free and open-source 3D modeling program. Modeling, rigging, animation, simulation, rendering, compositing, and motion tracking are all supported throughout the full 3D pipeline—even video editing and game creation. Like Maya, this is a complex software that requires a lot of time to fully master.

  • Features. Rendering, modeling, digital sculpting tools, animation and rigging tools, 3D drawing environment, VFX, industry-standard simulation, multiple pipeline tools, video editing, scripting, and customizable interface
  • Pricing. Free

Animaker

Animaker is a simple platform for non-designers and beginners looking to get their feet wet and create simple animated videos.

  • Features. Simple animation tools, a full library of premade animated characters you can use in your videos, live-action video tools, drag-and-drop video builder, simple character-builder tools, 100M+ stock videos and photos, thousands of templates, and instant resizing for social media and beyond
  • Pricing. Basic plan for $10 per month, Starter plan for $19 per month, and a Pro plan for $49 per month. Pay annually for additional savings.

Duik

Unlike the other options on this list, Duik is actually a plug-in. It integrates with Adobe After Effects for comprehensive animation and rigging tools.

  • Features. 2D animation tools for Adobe After Effects, allows for rigging, keyframe management, automation, complete movement effects, and camera controls
  • Pricing. Free

Need help? Hire a professional animator

Learning to animate on your own can be a long and difficult process. There is a serious learning curve when it comes to some of the more complex software tools and techniques.

Sometimes, it's best to play to your strengths and engage independent professionals with  the expertise you need for niche aspects of your project. Working with a professional animator through Upwork can help you create amazing animated characters.

Whether you need a stylish 2D animation or a hyper-realistic 3D animation, our pool of talented independent professionals makes it easy to find the perfect fit for your needs.

Hire top character animators on Upwork.

Still interested in pursuing character animation on your own? Book a consultation with a top independent professional in the field to get help along the way!

Upwork is not affiliated with and does not sponsor or endorse any of the tools or services discussed in this article. These tools and services are provided only as potential options, and each reader and company should take the time needed to adequately analyze and determine the tools or services that would best fit their specific needs and situation. Prices are current at the time of writing and may change over time based on each service’s offerings.

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How To Create Animated Characters: Tips and Tricks
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