Tutorial: Cartoon Animator and After Effects – a great combination

INTRODUCTION

Long-time After Effects user and Cartoon Animator power user and content creator, Warwick Hays runs through the process he used to create this Comedy sketch animation, using Cartoon Animator 4 and its huge selection of ready-to-use characters, assets and pre-made character motions to bring them into Adobe After Effects to add a bit of polish to the final animation. 

Warwick Hays

Warwick Hays

My name is Warwick Hays and I’ve been using After Effects for a long time. I have also delved into and creating content with Cartoon Animator for a number of years now, as I am a featured content developer on Reallusion’s Content Store.

I have, in the past, used After Effects to animate characters and have always found it difficult to keep track of keys while keeping my projects simple to manage. Then I found Cartoon Animator’s quick, simple and a short learning curve. All I needed was an easier way to get what I created in Cartoon Animator back into After Effects to be able to add a layer of effects and post-processing.. 

With the recent release of the Cartoon Animator to After Effects plugin EVERYTHING is much easier. I wanted to show how I use some of the key features in both software packages to produce fast character animation and add a few ‘bells and whistles’ to the animation at the end.

Step 1: The Idea

The idea is a part of the process the software can’t help with but we all have great ideas, so make sure you keep a notebook or some sort of digital notepad to keep track of them all. For this example, I wanted to keep it short and simple (which is always my intention, to begin with, but I always seem to end up with something a lot bigger than I intended by the end).

  • I want to have the character walk onto the stage with applause.
  • He says “Thank you, thank you, you are all awesome…we have some classy people here tonight!…..it’s great to be here.  
  • So, a Priest, a clown and a Call Girl walk into a bar and….”
  • A hook comes out behind him and yanks him off stage. Then the curtain drops. 

Step 2: Assets galore – Marketplace

Reallusion has a large marketplace for its various software packages and you won’t be disappointed with Cartoon Animator’s Marketplace either (anyone can make content and upload it to their own store on Reallusion) and the Content Store (assets from selected feature developers, like myself). From backgrounds to props, characters and complete scenes… you won’t be short of choice.

I decided for this animation to use some of my own assets. The main background is my ‘Stage Right-Deluxe’ and the main character is ‘Fancy Fred’ from my ‘Cast and Crew’ series of G3 characters.

Inside you will find a huge range of styles in both stores but I love to play with 3D stylised backgrounds and my characters (so far) tend to be more cartoon-like and sketchy. They seem to work well together.

One thing I’m no good at is voice acting. Great animation can be ruined by bad voice-over and audio. So I didn’t even attempt it on this animation and left it to a professional, William Schenold, a friend I have used in the past for voices. I wasn’t too sure what type of voice I wanted for Fancy Fred but with William’s background in Radio and years of experience, he was able to find Fred’s voice and did a fantastic job. Even adding a bit more character to him with a few extra lines of dialogue. He delivered the sound in layers, so I could work with it however I wanted.

Step 3: Fast Staging and Blocking

Setting the scene up in Cartoon Animator is very straight forward. Once you have your assets in the right folders you just drag (or double-click) them into your Stage View. When the stage and character are in, we are ready to go. My scenes are already set up in layers and with a ‘Z’ depth to the layers to give a parallax view when you track the camera in.

Blocking the character (giving him his basic movement in the scene) was pretty easy too since all he had to really do was walk on and then wave his hands around and talk.

But the first step before that is to lip-sync the mouth to the audio before the movement of the character becomes a distraction. This is done automatically when you drop your audio file on your character and it does an ‘ok’ job. But I prefer to do it manually, I find it fun and relaxing (I’m a little strange that way) and I feel like I’m breathing life into the character. 

So once I delete the automatically generated lip-sync mouth sprites, I open the Sprite Editor and work my way through the scene. Scrubbing the timeline and listening for the main sounds to add mouth shapes to your character. You’ll be surprised just how few you’ll need to make the dialogue work.

Once all the mouth shapes are covered I go back through and use the Deform Tool to adjust some of the mouths to either transition better from one mouth to the next or just to make a shape a bit smaller for the sounds that don’t need a large open mouth.

While I’m working on the face I try to isolate my view to just the head and focus only on the mouth, once that is looking right I’ll build on that by adding in eyebrow movements and blinking where it feels right. This is made so easy with sprite swapping for the eyes (which is just one method to animate the eyes) and deform and transform for the eyebrows.

The best way to figure it out is to say the dialogue yourself and take note of when you blink, try and act along with it too because you’ll find that if you turn your head or hit a word with force you will normally blink.

The character is looking pretty good by this point, he has a bit of personality and life even though it’s just his face that’s animated.

The last part I did for the face was add in a little head movement with the Face Key Editor (the Cast and Crew characters were made before the G3-360 head option was available so they aren’t set up for it but I did a bit of work on this one so his head could move a little). I find if you start with basic movement and build on it you get a much better result rather than diving straight into the detailed animation. 

In the end, the finer details that are added after the basic movement make all the difference, even if you can’t put your finger on exactly what those little things are.

Step 4: Animating with pre-made motions

One of the key advantages of Cartoon Animator is its pre-made motions for characters and props. They can speed up your workflow and save you so much time. Even if you want animation that is not ‘canned’ animation for your characters, the pre-made motions are a great starting point.

So, to start with I wanted Fancy Fred to walk on stage. Easy, I used a walk-cycle from the Cartoon Moves motion pack and looped it to get him onto the stage to the spot I wanted him.

Although we can always keyframe our characters, using motions is a lot quicker. For the majority of Fred’s movement from this point, I used the Reporter Motion Pack from Stanley Animation. Stanley has got some fantastic motion packs and I figured a reporter holding a mic doing an interview would work pretty good for a Comedian holding a mic talking to a crowd.

The issue with my workflow to this point is that when you drop the Reporter motions, which are special because they are Perform Motions (they not only hold the motion of the character but also facial animation and sprite swapping within that motion), so they remove all of the lip-syncing and other facial animation I have already done and replaced them with the ones in the Perform motion. So because all I wanted was the body animation part of the motion all I had to do was drop the motion at the end of the sequence away from the animation I have done and delete the Facial Clip and Face Motion tracks, then I am just left with the body motion track.

It’s just a matter of lining up the motions to give the character the performance you want. That’s the magic of the motions and now we go through and adjust things. Replacing sprites of the hands and moving an arm here or there to give a unique performance.

An extra little detail I did was to add in some of my other characters into the audience. To help with file size and ease of working within Cartoon Animator I exported these characters in their rows as PNG images. 

Then in Photoshop made them into a silhouette (see it didn’t matter that the characters were facing the wrong way to begin with) and imported them into the main scene as free bone characters. Added a couple of bones to each of the characters and animated a slight sway or movement to them so they weren’t completely static in the audience. It’s not that noticeable in the final animation but again, it’s those little things that all add up. Well, I think so, I have to make that extra work mean something :).

The next thing I do is put on my ‘directors hat’ and animate the camera. For this animation I watched a few stand up comedy routines and tried to time the camera moves to best fit what was happening. This part has no real right or wrong, it’s just what looks right and works.

Once the camera is animated to cut from wide shots to close-ups I think I’m pretty much done in Cartoon Animator.

Step 5: Exporting everything to After Effects

This next step is now so much easier with the Cartoon Animator to After Effects plugin. No more having to export each layer as its own PNG image or sequence and rebuilding the whole thing in After Effects (which is how I started out doing it). Now there is a very easy and intuitive dialogue that automates the whole process…almost. You still have to open After Effects and import the JSON file yourself but that’s not so hard to do is it?!

The export will save everything nicely into folders for each element from Cartoon Animator.

Saving a single image for static elements and image sequences for things that are animated, like characters and props. The JSON file helps After Effects recompile all of the elements with the same Z depth, position and scale as Cartoon Animator and creates a camera with all the same attributes and movements so what you see in After Effects is the same as what you created in Cartoon Animator.

Now it’s just a matter of adding effects and filters to the layers to give the look I want.

I first start with the easy additions. Adding motion blur to the character, it’s subtle but helps the character look better when moving in the scene. I also adjust the colour of the seats, making them darker to fit in better with the overall look and lighting of the scene and this helps the audience characters tie in better too. The next couple of effects make the biggest difference in the scene, character shadow and the rim lighting on the character.

The character shadow I add to a duplicate version of the character layer (so I have more flexibility with adjusting it) and is created by adding a ‘Radial Shadow’ effect that is set to ‘Shadow Only’. This first duplicate I mask off the bottom of the shadow so it lines up with the bottom of the wall in the scene. Then I make a duplicate of that shadow and invert the mask so I get the bottom of the shadow only, by adding a ‘Corner Pin’ to the layer I can deform the second shadow layer so it looks like the shadow of the character is casting along the floor and bending up the wall like it would in the real world.

Next is the rim lighting on the character. The character layer needs to be Pre-Composed to make this work. Once that is done we go into the Pre-Comp and right-click on the character layer and add the Layer Style – Inner Glow. Change the Blend Mode to Overlay and adjust the Source to Center and Size and Range parameters to give a lighter inner colour to the character.

Then I added a CC Light Sweep, a lot of these parameters are adjusted to look right, not to a specific number. Bring the Center to the center of the character. Direction to -90, make the width high, Sweep Intensity 0.0, Edge Intensity and Edge Thickness up to around 20. This gives a falloff on the character as if the light is hitting his side.

I duplicate this effect and adjust the Edge Intensity up and the Edge Thickness down to add a highlighted edge on top of what was already done. This has one side of the character looking right but there are lights on both sides of the stage, so I duplicate both of these effects and the only parameter I change is the Direction, from -90 to 90.

To give the scene a bit of depth I opened up the camera settings and turned on Depth of Field and adjusted the Aperture to give the amount of blur I wanted. This blurs the whole project and needs to be adjusted to focus on the character. So I select the character layer, Ctrl-click the CTACamera layer so they are both highlighted. Then, right-click the camera layer and goto Camera – Link Focus Distance to Layer. That way when the camera zooms in on the closeup shots the character is still in focus.

Lastly, I add a quick and easy vignette over the whole project to bring the focus on the main character on the stage and with that the visual adjustments are done. The last elements I add in the After Effects composition are a few extra sound effects to bring the whole piece to life.

CONCLUSION

Each animation I do I like to challenge myself and try something new, whether it’s the way I go about animating the scenes and characters or just trying out a particular feature I haven’t used before. Either way, the fact that Cartoon Animator makes a lot of the steps in the animation process easy, I have time to concentrate on fine-tuning the animation and those new things I’m trying.

And now with the Cartoon Animator to After Effects plugin, I can now add some great finishing touches to the visuals of the animation to give it that final polish and professional look.

LINKS:

Website: https://www.wthanimation.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/wthanimation

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCRw9spS8Wbp5MBF-Yu6M6sg

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/wthanimation/

Content Store: https://marketplace.reallusion.com/store/wthanimation

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