Tool Chain

In this post I describe the tool chain I currently use behind the scenes to create an animated video clip. It’s basically the Adobe Creative Cloud (CC) stack with a few other tools for particular needs. There is some overlap between capabilities of different tools, so in this blog I describe how I made these choices on my project.

Disclaimer: Please note, I am more of a hobbiest than a professional artist.

My Tool Stack

The tools I am using are as follows:

  • Adobe Draw on my iPad Pro with Apple Pencil
  • Adobe Illustrator for artwork creation
  • Adobe Audition for audio editing
  • Adobe Character Animator for puppet creation and animation
  • Adobe After Effects for composing scenes
  • Adobe Premier Pro for editing and final production
  • Unity 3D for backgrounds
  • Microsoft Word for the screenplay

At first this felt like overkill, but it seems to be the Adobe approach – to have specialized tools for individual steps in the process. The following sections summarize how I use each tool.

Adobe Draw

I love this app! I use it on my iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil to sketch up drawings and then send them over to illustrator on the desktop for further work. You just click a button in the app and it opens in Illustrator (or Photoshop) on your desktop. Magic!

So how to draw the characters? Here I found lots of online articles and YouTube videos. I spent quite a bit of time there learning how to draw a character. I found Adobe Draw to be great to experiment and try things out, you can zoom in for detailed work, but I did find doing more advanced eyes too hard and left that for Illustrator.

I have spent a LOT of time trying to get my first character looking acceptable. Hopefully future characters will be faster. I pushed the first character all the way through the full pipeline to make sure I understood all of the areas of effort before moving on to the next character.

I found myself doing lots of variations as I learnt the tricks of the trade. For example, it may seem obvious, but a small nose on the front view of your character should match a small nose on your side view. And its important for the different angles to have the facial parts at the same height. Having separate layers in Adobe Draw was invaluable here.

I also often trace over photos to help me get body proportions or articles of clothing correct – I am a computer geek, not an artist! A common patterns is I bring in a photo, make the layer semi transparent, then create a layer on top for drawing.

Adobe Draw is not as featured as Illustrator, but I really enjoy using it. Using layers when editing is a huge benefit. I frequently try out a few variations then keep the layer that looks best. I have been surprised how good a job I can do with it.

Once the first artistic cut is done, I then move over to Illustrator.

The main negative of Adobe Draw is the resultant artwork files are quite noisy. On a computer with a mouse drawing a path I get more accuracy. On the iPad there are lots of little overshoots that I either put up with or have to clean up afterwards. I use the “Path / Simplify” feature of Illustrator to try and clean it up a bit. One thing I plan to try in the future is do the first cut on the iPad, then redraw the artwork on the computer by doing a similar “tracing layer over the top”, but using more precise paths. That way I can get the proportions right on the iPad with a pen (which feels more natural to me), but get clean vector artwork on the computer later.

Adobe Illustrator

Adobe Illustrator is a vector artwork tool, unlike Photoshop that deals with bitmaps. I personally prefer being able to go back to the artwork and adjust the “instructions” (the paths, fills, etc) used to build the final image. Photoshop can do some of this, but many operations only record the final bitmap. So I personally chose to use Illustrator for all my artwork.

Illustrator is very stable and powerful. It takes a while to get used to (I am still learning), but I have no regrets using it to build up the characters.

Note that the use of layers in Illustrator is essential for integration with Character Animator. So as you build up your first puppets, expect to spend a fair bit of time in Illustrator grouping layers into the hierarchy that Character Animator needs.

Adobe Audition

Adobe Audition is sound editing software, much like Audacity (a great free open source tool). What I do is record the full play script in a single session, then use Audition to cut the long recording into sound bites per scene. This is important as Character Animator can use the voice track to synchronize mouth movements to, but only if it is cut up per scene.

Remember to record a few seconds of nobody talking at the start of each sound clip. You can then use tools in Audition to adjust the noise level of the recording by using the first few seconds as a sample. I also left some gaps between people talking just to make it easier to spot the cut points.

If you are an expert, you can also use the tool to make your sound better quality… within reason. It can remove hum and background noise, but you will end up with better results if the original recording is of good quality. That is, use a room without hard surfaces to avoid echos and sounding like your characters are in a cave. Recording in front of a computer screen for example is not a good idea!

Adobe Character Animator

Character Animator is where you take your artwork and associate movements and behaviors to it. It is the engine of turning artwork into a moving cartoon character. It warps body parts to simulate moving, cycles through alternative parts of a diagram to simulate eyebrow movements, and has a webcam mode that tracks your face position, eyes, and mouth making your character follow along live – very nice for trying out your puppet as you build it.

Character Animator works with Photoshop files and Illustrator files. Character Animator has a “render as vectors” mode that works well with Illustrator files, but only if you don’t use gradients or other advanced Illustrator features. So I am still using the default of rendering as bitmaps in Character Animator even though my artwork is in vector format.

A cool feature is if you save changes to the Illustrator files, Character Animator will notice the file changes and automatically re-import them. This can be risky if you make major structure changes to your file (you could lose the keyboard triggers you set up for example), but it does save time.

Character Animator also has the concept of scenes, with folders, so one project can hold all the puppets and scenes for your animation. You can export the puppets to allow them to be reused on other projects as well (e.g. for different episodes in a series).

Character Animator is referred to as a “performance based” tool. You can use it to capture a scene where the character is moving and talking. Initially I did not quite get the point being made by saying its “performance based”. You can put multiple puppets in a scene, have them move, have a background. So why all the talk of using Character Animator with After Effects? What I understand now is Character Animator can record what you are doing, but you cannot edit the results after that. You can layer some changes on top, but not change anything done before. E.g. if you don’t like a Web Cam based recording, redo it or layer another take over the top.

The result is I find its best to create lots of little scenes that you stitch together outside Character Animator, using After Effects and Premier Pro.

An important point to remember is that puppet movements in Character Animator trigger dangle effects on the puppets. If you move your character in an Character Animator scene, you can get the hair or clothes to bob up and down naturally. As far as I can tell, this does not happen in After Effects. So if you want the the character to move, do it in Character Animator; if you want to move the camera (e.g. do a pan shot, or a parallax shot), do it in After Effects so it does not affect the physics of your puppet.

Basically simple scenes you can do completely in Character Animator, but anything slightly complicated you should generate different scenes per puppet (without background images) and bring them over into After Effects for scene composition. My rule of thumb is if the camera moves (including parallax effects), a character needs to walk behind furniture (masking), or I need some other slightly advanced effect, then create a scene per character without backgrounds and use After Effects to compose them into the final scene. I do find I avoid After Effects for the trivial scenes however, to try and reduce the number of scenes and tools I need to deal with.

My biggest gripe is Character Animator hangs for me frequently. I restart it every 5 minutes on average. I have never lost work, but it’s annoying nonetheless waiting for it to restart.

Adobe After Effects

After Effects allows you to add special effects (like explosions) to a video. But it is also useful with Character Animator to compose more complicated scenes.

For example, if your character is walking down a corridor in sync with a camera, it feels more natural if the background changes as well. The rate of scaling to use is hard to get right. This is where After Effects can help. You can record “key frames” during a scene and how you want the background scale to be. If you don’t get it right, you change the values until it looks good.

There are also lots of video effects, like blurring, colors adjustment, masking (having your puppet walk behind furniture or around a corridor corner in the background image), etc.

For example, to have a character go around a corner, you need to create a clipping mask. You take the background image, cut out the part the character should walk behind, then use the full background as one layer behind your character and the mask as a layer in front of your character. This is pretty easy to do in After Effects.

After Effects also supports the Dynamic Linking feature so if you generate a new character file, After Effects will notice and pick up the changes automatically.

I set up After Effects to have project per episode, then folders using the part/scene/shot number hierarchy so I can put a full episode in a single project without crazy numbers of files in a single directory (my first episode has around 100 shots all up, each with background images, puppet takes, sound clips, effectsetc), then I use Premier Pro to stitch all the shots together into the final video.

Premier Pro

After Effects is good at what it does, but is not designed to put together a complete video. There are no transition effects between clips for example. This is where Premier Pro steps in. It can can take all the individual clips as generated by Character Animator (for simple scenes) or After Effects (for more advanced scenes) and join them into the final video. I use it also to balance out shot lengths. I will generate a bit extra length at the start and end of shots in After Effects and trim them in Premier Pro. It gives me a bit more flexibility if a scene feels to long or short.

Premier Pro also supports “Dynamic Linking”, meaning file changes up the pipeline automatically propagate down the tool chain. You can select individual scenes from Character Animator and After Effects projects, which is nice. I found numbering each scene consistently using shot numbers helped me keep the overall project under control.

(If you are getting tool fatigue by this stage, you are not alone! Using the full set of tools has me either thinking Adobe likes overcomplicating things, or a new appreciation for cartoon artists! A lot of time is needed to product a quality cartoon.)

Unity 3D

I am not much of an artist. One thing I learnt looking at different cartoon styles is Japanese Anime has pretty detailed background images. This did not strike me until I tried to draw my first classroom for my video. Drawing the characters was hard! Drawing the backgrounds had me in tears!!

One approach I played with was to use real life photos for backgrounds. It worked, but was still very time consuming and gave me a single camera angle. As soon as I wanted a second angle at the same location, I had to get the pictures to be really consistent. It was just too hard for me.

Then I came across the Unity 3D asset store online. Unity is a gaming engine – you can use it to build video games. However there is an existing store you can purchase prebuilt assets from to save you time. There I found a complete school building and houses (with interiors). Using Unity 3D I can walk around the scenes and take screen shots, and so get the exact camera angles I want, with room setups I want, with pretty high levels of detail, with almost no effort (other than paying for the assets). And all the backgrounds will look similar. After attempting to draw some backgrounds it was like heaven! The end result may look a bit too much like a video game, but I plan to try some After Effects filters to see if I can make it feel a touch more like a cartoon – add a bit of blur, adjust the colors, etc. The result however looks great so far and saved me a huge amount of time. Frankly I almost gave up the project due to the backgrounds.

Microsoft Word

To round out the list of tools I use, I do use Word for managing the script. I have it on my iPad and desktop (with the screenplay in the cloud so both can access it). This is useful as I do jump between the two as I am working on iPad sketches vs on my desktop.

The Complete Workflow

The following summarizes the complete chain of tools I am using. Sometimes I use Character Animator to generate the video of a scene directly, but other times I use After Effects. Other than that, it’s a pretty standard pipeline where you use each tool for a specific purpose.

Note: There are alternative tools around for creating cartoons. I went with Adobe because most of the tools fell back to Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator for quality drawing tools. When I subscribed to Adobe, they had a bundle where I got access to all products for ~$50 instead of ~$20 for an individual product. So selecting Adobe for myself was as much as “well I have paid for them all now” rather than “Adobe is better than product X for cartoon animations”. Before you embark on your own project it may pay to look deeper into some of the other animation tools out there.

Having said that, I have no regrets with the Adobe CC tool chain other than Character Animator being a bit buggy still and the final renders being pretty slow (but maybe I don’t have something set up right yet.)

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