10 advanced rigging tips (Adobe character animator tutorial)

By Wacom |
December 20, 2017

In the theme of “3 t of daring”, Wacom is offering an Adobe Creative Cloud membership until 31 March 2018 for customers in Europe. To celebrate this great collaboration, we´ll also offer free tutorials of Adobe CC´s most popular apps, for the next three months.
If you want to add some extra life & emotion to your creations in Adobe Character Animator CC, check out these 10 advanced rigging tips from Dave Werner who is a Senior Experience Designer Lead for the Character Animator team at Adobe.
From using invisible eyeballs for more constrained eye movement to hooking up multiple parts to a MIDI-controlled dial. Hopefully there are at least a couple of ideas here to help take your puppets to the next level.

Adobe Character Animator Tutorial

When you first import your Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator creations into Character Animator, you’ll get some default behaviors and auto-tagged groups and layers. But it’s often the little extra details that really help a character come to life with additional depth and expressiveness.
In this video we’re going to look at 10 advanced rigging tips that will hopefully help raise the bar with your own characters. If you’re new to Character Animator and have never heard of stuff like cycle layers, fixed handles or independent groups, you might want to watch some beginner tutorials before digging in here because I’m going to get pretty deep and complex.
Watch the video or read the tips individually below.

Good luck, have fun, and thanks for watching!
Almost everything I talk about here is visible in a free downloadable puppet called Almasol, so you can see the source files and walk through exactly how I did everything. You’re free to take him apart and use him or his parts however you want in your own creations.

1. Alternative Mouths

If I’m saying something sad but my character’s mouth set makes it look like he’s still smiling, I’m losing some emotional impact. So if I have a way to trigger a different mouth set tied to a different emotion, it can really help broaden the character’s range.
Here I created an alternative mouths group outside of the normal mouth group with several different triggerable mouths, so I have options if I want him to yell – or grit his teeth – or get confused. But I also included a secondary set of sad mouths – essentially modified upside down versions of the original – and tagged it as its own mouth so it’s recognized as something the lip sync behavior can work with for talking.
For the swap set, I just made the primary mouth group the default option, and then all the others as separate triggers.
And speaking of mouths, I added several small 2 or 3 frame cycle layers animations to several of the visemes to give them a more dynamic and fluid quality while popping into place.

2. Eyelids

Just like mouths, eyelids can be used to great effect in conveying emotion. So I have a Lids group for each eye with short cycle layers animations with the lids going halfway or squinting.
A blinking cycle is hidden inside a group called default, which is also the default trigger in the swap set. The reason it’s set up like this is that by default, blinking will hide whatever is at the same level as it. By moving blinks one level down, hidden inside a default folder, the blinks will only happen when another eyelid state isn’t triggered, meaning you won’t run into a situation where blinking overrides or fights with other lid positions.

3. Shadows

For a live shadow, duplicate your entire character and move it below your current one, and rename it to +Shadow. Select the group and move everything slightly off center – I went down and to the right.
Then inside keep the Head and Body group structure but flatten everything you can – you don’t need working eyes or mouths here. But you may want to keep moving parts separated, like this guy’s dangling fur.
When everything is flat, go through each layer using command L on Mac or control L on Windows to bring down the levels to pitch black.
Then in Character Animator select the Shadow group, add the Transform behavior, make sure Group Opacity is checked and drag over the opacity value to lower the entire shadow’s opacity to whatever value you want.
Then select the head group, and add a Frontal tag so it will move along in sync with your head movements.
Finally, add any additional rigging as close to the same spots in the main character as you can, like moving origin handles into position, placing down fixed sticks or handles, and adding dangle to physics elements. Now you’ve got a live realtime shadow following your movements.

4. Master vs. optimized artwork

When I’m drawing in Photoshop, I’m usually pretty messy and unorganized, often building hundreds of layers with various textures and effects. But when I’m ready to go into Character Animator, I’ll save a separate PSD and start optimizing, mainly by flattening layers that don’t need to be separated.
Like the background of this face has layers for the outline, coloring, shadows, highlights, textures and more. By realizing I don’t need those parts to move independently, I can flatten them into one layer, meaning less parts for Character Animator to worry about and a smaller file size for better performance.

5. Add Background & Foreground Elements

Normally for background and foreground elements we recommend importing PSDs as separate puppets and then dragging them into your scene. But you can also keep them inside a single PSD or AI file.
For this guy, his background was just another group under everything, and was given an independent crown so it wouldn’t move with the rest of the character. The desk was worked into the Body group, but a stick was drawn across the top and given a fixed tag to restrict movement to everything above it.

6. Nutcracker Jaw

A subtle nutcracker jaw behavior can add some extra chin movement to your puppet while talking. In Photoshop, I took my flattened background face layer, selected the bottom half, copied it, pasted it over top of itself, and added a + in front of the name to turn it into an independent group.
In Character Animator I selected the top level puppet, added the nutcracker jaw behavior, and reduced the flappiness parameters significantly. Then I drew two sticks on my bottom half group, below the mouth, tagging the top one as fixed and the bottom one as jaw. That means the nutcracker behavior is going to try to move the jaw stick and everything below while keeping the fixed stick and everything above in place, resulting in a nice, subtle chin effect.
Note I added a second nutcracker jaw behavior with tagged sticks in the shadow group to mimic the primary character’s movements.

7. Invisible Eyeballs

The way Character Animator calculates pupil movements, it’s usually a best practice to put the pupils directly in the middle of your eyeballs. But not every character looks this way – Almasol has slightly off-centered eyes that favor the middle more, and huge white eyeballs that I don’t necessarily want pupils always darting around to each extreme edge.
So it’s a simple but hidden fix – in each eye group I made a smaller green circle layer centered behind the pupil, called that left or right eyeball to auto-tag it, and hid it behind the real eyeball layer, which I called white instead. This way Character Animator only recognizes the hidden green circle as the eyeball and will keep all pupil movement inside of it.
Note I did create a swap set for an additional 2-frame cycle layers movement, where the pupils go up and to the right, so you can still work in more extreme on demand eye darts if you want.

8. Puppet Warp cycle layers arms

The cycle layers behavior is a great way to get traditional frame-by-frame animations into Character Animator, but it can be difficult for beginners to draw every transitional frame perfectly. But the puppet warp tool makes this a lot easier.
To find it in Photoshop, go to Edit > Puppet Warp, or in Illustrator use the puppet warp tool. So for Almasol’s right arm, he’s got a default resting position, but then two groups with several frames leading to an extended arm or a point. I made these by just drawing the final frame, duplicating it, adding several pin points with the puppet warp tool, and then dragging the dots to bend and warp the arm into a slightly lowered position.
You may have to do a little manual fixing to get things to connect just right, but it’s way easier than redrawing the entire arm each time. I repeated this pattern several times until I had enough in between frames for a nice transition.

9. Cycle layers timers

Cycle layers can also serve as a timer system. So if I wanted to put my eyelid positions on autopilot, I could simply add a cycle layers behavior on each Lids group, set it to start immediately and cycle continuously, and advance at a longer rate, like 144 frames. That means in a 24 fps piece, the eyelids will change every 6 seconds.
Setting timers can help add variety to a character without needing to remember to manually trigger everything. In fact, you could use this to create a simple camera system, where a timer would switch between two instances of your puppet & background elements. Or you could have little promotional messages slide in and out. All this stuff is incredibly helpful in a live setting, where it can be difficult to remember to trigger everything manually.
If you’ve rigged a bunch of stuff to happen automatically, that really helps keep the visuals fresh and engaging, so you can focus more on other aspects of your performance.

10. MIDI

Finally, adding MIDI hardware to your setup opens up some interesting performance options. In the controls panel layout mode, many behavior parameters can be dragged in as individual slider or dial controls.
If you have a MIDI device plugged in and turn a dial while one of these controls is selected, it will bind to that control, and you can do this with the same dial for as many controls as you want. For example, by dragging in the Transform behavior’s opacity and scale parameters, adjusting the min and max values, and binding it to a MIDI dial, you’ve got a simple camera fade and zoom.
Getting more complex, you could add additional transform behaviors to different character parts, and have them simultaneously rotate, move, scale, or whatever you want – all with one dial control.
So there you have it, 10 advanced rigging tips that should hopefully give your puppets a little extra life and expressiveness.
One last tip from Dave
If I can leave you with one tip, it’s to start simple and slowly build things up. Instead of jumping right away into a full body walk cycle or head turn positions, just start with the face. The eyes, eyelids, eyebrows, mouths – the basics, figure these out first, and make sure you can hit all the emotions you want to.
Happy, sad, impressed, surprised, angry, confused, and so on. The blank face template in the Start panel of Character Animator – which is available as both a Photoshop or Illustrator file – is a great starting point!
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