How to Rig a Character in Adobe After Effects | dgtl Workshop

Hello and welcome to dgtl Workshop! In this tutorial, I’ll be explaining how to rig a basic character in After Effects using a tool called Duik (which you can download from their website for free). Through this tutorial you’ll learn how to rig your own characters and discover how useful a rig can be.

What is Rigging and why would you Rig a Character in Adobe After Effects?

Rigging is where you take a character and give them a digital skeleton that consists of joints and bones. It’s through the use of the rig, that animators can easily bring characters to life with less hassle. In general, rigs can vary from being simple to extremely complex and intricate. How complex your rig will be shall usually depend on how much control you need and the time you wish to spend making it.

The videos below should give you some great insight on how it all works:

Getting Started

The first task you will need to do is open Adobe Illustrator and create a character. If you’d like to find out how to make a character in Illustrator, check out our dgtl Workshop tutorial on how to do so here. It’s easy to follow and should be useful for new Illustrator users! (Apologies if you don’t have the software, as this tutorial won’t be showing how to rig pixel-based characters.)

Finished Character Design

Once you’ve finished making your character, the next task you’ll need to do is launch After Effects and import them in to a new project.

Importing a Character

Upon importing the file, a new screen will pop up showing some settings. Make sure the Import Kind is “Composition” and the Footage Dimensions is “Layer Size”. By having these settings, the character will be imported as it’s original size.

Opening a character composition

Now that the file has been imported, a new composition will have been created. Open it up and you’ll see the character with all of their layers at the bottom.

Creating shapes from vector layer

Select all of those layers and right click on them. A big list will pop up and a button will appear that says “Create Shapes from Vector Layer”. Click on it and the software will convert all of the layers in to shapes. Once that’s done, your layers will be compatible with After Effect’s vectors (in other-words they won’t blur when resized inside the project).

Removing the illustrator layers

The software will still have your Illustrator layers, so feel free to make your workspace tidy by deleting them until you are left only with the blue layers.

Adding Bones to the Left Arm

With your character’s layers prepared for rigging, we can begin to give one of the character’s arms some bones.

Selecting the Puppet Tool

You can do this by selecting the puppet tool in the upper left corner and changing Expansion to “1” and Triangles to “200”.

Altering the Triangles

Adding Pins to an Arm

When the settings been configured, you can begin to click on 3 points of the character’s arm: These would be the shoulder, the elbow and the hand/wrist. Each point is very important, as they’ll be the joints for the arm. For example, if I didn’t add a point in the middle of the arm, I would be unable to bend it.

Launching Duik

Just incase you do not have Duik launched, you’ll need to head over to the “Window” button at the top and click on it. Somewhere in the dropdown menu at the bottom, you should see “Duik.jsx”. If you do, launch the plugin by left clicking on it.

If you can’t see Duik in the list however, then you might have incorrectly installed the plugin. I would suggest reading the guide (page 10) to check that you followed the installation process correctly. If you are still having issues, then the forums would be a good place to ask for help. When you have Duik working, you can move on to the following step.

Creating Bones for the Arm

Select the shoulder, the elbow and then the hand/wrist. Go to the Duik panel and click on the option that says “Bones”. From then on it should have converted your pins into 3 connected joints.

Renaming the Joints

Rename the joints to the part of the arm their connected to, as this should make the layers clearer to identify.

Implementing a Controller

First, select the wrist/hand and head on over to the Duik panel. Look for the “Controllers” button and click on it.

Opening the Controllers page

Inside the page you should see quite a few options – For example, you can change the size of how big you want the controller to be and it’s colour. Additionally, the page will include some tick boxes that dictate whether the controller can rotate, move side to side, move up and down or have it’s size altered.

Altering the controller settings

Since this controller is for the arm, you will only need to move it around – So only tick the directional boxes and untick the rest. Click on “Create” and a new controller should appear where the wrist/hand is located. However, before you can connect the controller to the bones, you’ll need to parent them in this order: hand/wrist parented to elbow and elbow parented to shoulder. It’s through parenting the joints in this order, that the plugin will understand that you’d like to control the limb from the hand/wrist upwards.

Selecting the Controller and the Joints

Next, you’ll need to select the wrist/hand, the elbow, the shoulder and then the controller. Click on the IK button and select the 2-layer IK & Goal option.

Creating a 2-Layer IK and Goal

Hit the create button and drag the controller around – The joints and controller should be connected, as they can bend and stretch as you move the controller.

Testing the Controller

If the arm is not bending in the right direction and or you don’t want the arm to stretch, simply open up the effects on the arm’s controller. Toggle the elbow’s “Clockwise” setting as this will determine which direction the arm bends. As for removing the stretch, you can turn it off via the “Auto-Stretch” setting.

Turning off Auto-Stretch

With that taken care off, make the red joints invisible and select the controller. In the Duik panel go to the controller page and click on the lock.

Locking a Controller

Once the lock is active, it should prevent you from accidentally rotating and or resizing the arm.

Testing the Lock

As for the other arm, you can repeat the same process you just carried out.

Repeating the rigging for the other Arm

Now with both arms rigged, you should have something like the image above:

  • No red joints visible
  • Both arms controllable
  • All of the controllers locked – E.g. only able to move, no resizing and rotating is possible.

(If this is not the case, go back and check that you didn’t miss/misread any of my instructions. If you still can’t get your arms to work, feel free to leave a comment asking for help below.)

Creating a Digital Spine

Not all characters need a spine, but a spine can be useful if you would like to make your character bend over or to have more emotion in their actions. For the sake of not over complicating this tutorial, I will only be showing how to make the spine tilt their upper or lower torso only.

Creating the Joints for a Digital Spine

Just like the arm, create 3 joints – Starting from the shoulders to the stomach and then to the waist. You would do this by creating 3 pins and then transforming those pins in to bones.

Adding a the IK Bezier to the Spine

Once the joints are created, parent them from the shoulders to the waist (tilts upper torso) or the waist to the shoulders (tilts lower torso) and then select them in the order you carried out. After that, open up the IK Bezier page in Duik and select the “Simple” option. Hit the create button and you should see a controller appear on the torso.

Configuring the Spine

For my character, I only want the torso to tilt, so I’ll select the controller and go to the controllers page. Inside I can untick the column of boxes and tick the side to side direction box. With some colour changes, size alteration and clicking the lock button, I’ll press the update button and the controller should receive the changes I’ve made. The next task to do is to change all of the joints in to being invisible.

Testing the Spine

If you are already playing around with the torso’s controller, you have might have noticed that when you tilt the torso, some of the limbs don’t move. This is because we have not parented them to the torso. This will be covered later, once all of your character’s limbs have rigged.

Making a Rig for the Tie and Legs

To add some more detail to my character, I will rig the tie using the same process I just carried out with the torso.

Adding joints to a tie

After that, I will rig the character’s legs using the same process I used for the arms.

Rigged Legs

With all of the red joints made invisible, your character should look something like this.

Attaching a Controller to the Head

The final part of my character to rig is the head. This is the easiest part to rig out all of the limbs in this tutorial, as the head does not require any bones/joints.

Using the Pan Behind tool

To start off, hover over the Pan Behind tool in the upper left bar and select it. Go straight to the character’s head and reposition the anchor point to where the head will tilt. For example, the neck is a great place for the head to rotate around.

Rigging the head

Once you’ve done that, create a controller with the ability to only rotate and move up and down. Parent the head to the controller and then lock the controller using the Duik panel.

Parenting all of the character rigging

With all of the rigs now complete, the last thing I need to do is to parent all of the limbs to the torso. So for example, I’ll parent the shoulder joint on the arms to the torso’s shoulder joint. Next I’ll parent the thigh joint on the legs to the torso’s waist joint. After that, I can parent the upper tie joint and the head’s controller to the torso’s shoulder joint.

Finished character rig

Once you’ve parented all of the limbs, your character is now ready to animate and pose like my character above! It’s not easy to rig a character for the first time, so ask me for help in the comments if you are struggling!

Example Animations using the Rig

For those who have completed the rig for their character, the gifs below should prove useful for some animation inspiration:

Animated Cave Troll

Animated Scarecrow

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed this tutorial on rigging a character in Adobe After Effects, then go and check out our dgtl Workshop tutorial on drawing a character in Adobe Illustrator!

What would you like us to cover next? Feel free to let us know via social media!

Stay In Touch.