How to Make An Animatable Puppet in After Effects

For this tutorial you'll need Adobe After Effects and Adobe Photoshop or another image editing program.

After Effects is a great tool for certain types of animation, one of those kinds that it's great at is simulating cut out animation. In the style of South Park, cut out animation is more like stop motion than it is traditional animation. We'll build our puppet and then animate it by manipulating the pieces.

So let's dive right in on how we can do that.

1. Making Your Image

First we'll need a puppet to work with. Because I'm feeling artsy fartsy today I'm gonna use The Vitruvian Man to make a puppet out of. All the principals apply to both using a found image or if you're going to be drawing your own from scratch. Drawing from scratch has an extra benefit though if you need your character's perspective to change it will be smoother since you can kind of doing a version of inbetweening with additional drawings.

We'll want to bring our image into Photoshop, or any image editing software like Gimp, and begin either cutting apart our image into pieces of drawing each piece on it's own layer.

Depending on how complicated you want to get you can cut a puppet into as many pieces as you'd like. For the sake of this tutorial though we'll do 14.

2 feet, 2 shins, 2 thighs, 1 torso, 2 upper arms, 2 lower arms, 2 hands, and 1 head.


Now when we're working like this out of Photoshop we'll need to keep in mind that we can't scale these images up without making them pixel-y, so it's better to work larger than you'd expect. That way we won't lose any quality if we have to zoom in on our puppet.

We'll want to make sure that each part of the puppet is on it's own layer, and we label them correctly in a way that makes sense to use.

I use lefts and rights to distinguish between multiple limbs, and I go by my left and my right when I'm looking at the screen, even if that might not be the puppet's left and right say if their back is to us.

Once we've separated out all the pieces onto their own layers we can save our Photoshop file and jump over into After Effects.

2. Bringing Your Puppet Into After Effects

In After Effects we'll want to bring in our new Photoshop puppet we've made to get ready to animate it. Luckily for us After Effects makes this very easy.

Go to File > Import > Import File (or hit Command I) and find wherever you saved your puppet PSD. When you click import a new little window will pop open.

We'll want to choose Merge Layer Styles into Footage and in the drop down menu at the top of this new window choose Composition - Retain Layer Sizes. Click OK.

You'll see a new composition pop up in your project window as well as a folder titled whatever you named your PSD file plus "layers."

While you can bring it in where it doesn't make a separate precomposition for your puppet, I prefer this way and think it works a lot better. I go in and copy all of these layers out of the precomp and paste them into my main comp's timeline.

That way we'll always have a perfect puppet to go back to incase we end up messing something up and breaking the puppet beyond repair, we have this original template to work off of.

3. Rigging Your Puppet

So now let's get it ready to animate. Copy all those layers of your puppet within it's precomposition and paste them on your main comp's timeline. This next step is like rigging a CG character, only much simpler and less intense.

We're going to rig our puppet by parenting together all of our pieces. Parenting is telling one object to respond to another object, so we need to pick a base for our puppet. This is usually the torso, or if you separated your torso into two pieces it could be the hips. You could choose anything, but picking something that makes sense as the center of the puppet's weight is a good way to go.

In your timeline you'll see a Parent column with a drop down menu next to each of them. Here you can choose which piece is connected to which piece, but I prefer to use the little spiral line next to the drop down menus. That is called the Pick Whip.

We can start connecting from the outside in. So the foot connects to the lower leg, and the lower leg connects to the upper leg, and the upper leg to the torso. Same with the arms, hand to lower arm, lower to upper, upper to torso. It's like that old song.

Now you'll notice if you rotate a piece of the body that has something parented to it, like the thigh, the lower leg and the foot will move with it. You should also notice a problem though, it's not rotating on the joint but rather in the middle of them limb. Let's fix that.

Hit Y or go to your toolbar and select the Pan Behind (Anchor Point) Tool, this will allow us to change where our limbs pivot. We'll start with the feet again and work in from the outside, that way it is easy to keep track of what you have and haven't touched.

With the foot selected you'll see what looks like a little cross hair, that's the anchor point. We'll want to move it to be where the body part should pivot from, so for the foot it'd be the ankle, the lower leg the knee, the upper leg the hip.

Once we've tweaked all the anchor points we can hit W or select the Rotate Tool and go through and wiggle each part of the puppet to make sure everything moves and responds the way it should. If it looks good to you it's all set to start animating!

4. Animating Your Puppet

The main property we're going to be animating on the puppet is rotation. Let's make him wave hello at you.

Pick an arm and select all three pieces. Hit R to bring up their rotation attribute and turn on the stop watch to turn on keyframing.

Now since the lower arm and hand will move in relation to the upper arm, we can animate a lot of the movement in just the upper arm's layer. First have the arm by the puppet's side and slide down your timeline, then rotate the upper arm to rase the lower arm and hand along with it.

Once you've done that, we can animate the lower arm waving back and forth. Through parenting we can move lots of pieces with only making a few keyframes.

If we want to refine it we can go in and shift around keyframes, and add keyframes to other parts of the arm as well. Maybe there's a rocking motion back and forth on the hand as it waves, maybe the upper arm goes up and down a little bit to show that the person is holding it up.

To move our puppet around the screen we'll want to animate it's center, in my case it's the torso. There I'll animate it's position of it moving say from left to right. Then I'll want to go in and animate the legs to time themselves to make it look like he's walking.

With having the keyframes separated out onto each part of the puppet allows me to go in and really fine tune things, and either not effect the rest of the animation or effect the animation in a way that helps it. If I decide his leg doesn't work quite right I can change the feet without affecting the rest of the limb, or I can change the thigh and tweak the lower bits.

In Summary

It takes a little bit of getting used to, but once you get the hang of it you can really make some incredible stuff. Take for instance Run Wrake's Rabbit, using old Dick & Jane assets he was able to animate a fantastic short film. Using After Effects to animate a paper cut out or puppet style allows you to both save time, as well as make a much more complex scene. If Rabbit was done traditionally you would have a real headache on your hands trying to animate all of the different pieces that end up in a single shot.

This style definitely has it's limitations, and it can be tough to break that "After Effects-y" feeling sometimes. But if you stick with it you'll be able to find some clever work arounds, just be sure to focus on making After Effects do what YOU want it to do not what it wants to do. Turning off motion tweens is a good way to do this, it adds work but takes away a lot of the computer-y feel puppeted animation can have.

So as a quick break down: Make your quick puppet pieces in Photoshop or any image editing software, bring them into After Effects, parent them together, and adjust the anchor points. Once you've done all that you're ready to animate!

I'm a big fan of puppet animation in After Effects, but I also know people who hate it. It really comes down to taste, so why not give it a try!