School of Motion

Character Rigging Tools for After Effects

  • By Joe Camarata
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Let's take a look at some of the best character rigging tools for After Effects.

If you're a motion designer there's a good chance that you've been curious about the world of character animation. Maybe you were inspired by Disney films as a kid? Maybe you're looking to up your explainer video game?
Regardless of the reason, one thing is certainly true... Character Animation is hard. While you may watch videos that teach you how to 'animate' a character in 20-minutes, the truth is mastering Character Animation takes a lot of time and practice. However, before you can start practicing to learn Character Animation, you need to make sure you're using the right tools. So I've put together this article as a fun and quick overview of character rigging tools in After Effects.
Character Rigging 2.gif
Unfortunately, After Effects' built-in rigging options are somewhat slim, so we will need to look to third-party tools to help us get the most out of character rigging in After Effects. It should also be noted that Character Animation in After Effects tends to be limited to MoGraph work via explainer videos and quick animated projects. There are of course exceptions to this rule, but in general if you're looking to create animated characters a similar style to TV shows or film, you need to look at character-specific tools like Moho.
Now before we get on to the After Effects tools, let's cover some important features to look for when deciding on a Character Rigging tool.

Important Character Rigging Features

Here's a quick overview of some important features to look for in Character Rigging tools.

1. Inverse Kinematics

Inverse Kinematics sounds very scary, but this term is actually fairly simple to understand. To illustrate this point we are going to do an experiment. Look at your right elbow. Now try to touch your right hand to your right shoulder. What did your elbow do? Assuming you are a normal human biped, your elbow probably dipped down towards the ground. The position of your elbow was determined by the position of your shoulder and hand. You don't think about where you elbow should go, it just goes there.
Inverse Kinematics is the technical word for this concept. Essentially the position of point A & C will determine the position of point B.
Here's an example from Greg Gunn, the creator of PuppetTools 3.
Inverse_Kinematics.gif

2. Forward Kinematics

Forward Kinematics is a little different. Where Inverse Kinematics is about two points (A,C) moving closer to each other to affect B. Forward Kinematics is all about how movements 'up-the-chain' affect joints further down the rigged appendage. If that sounds confusing, it's because it is! Here's another animated example of the process from Greg.
Forward_Kinematics.gif

3. Automatic Rigging Features

The process of rigging takes time. And the more time you spend rigging, the less time you'll have for animating. As a result many character animation tools feature automatic rigging options that streamline rigging. Some of the tools require you to set up your character and hit a single button to automatically activate a complex rigging process. Congrats, you just saved an hour of your life!

4. Scaleable Tools for More Complex Workflows

Sometimes you may be working with a simple character with only a few animated points, other times it may be much more complex. If you plan on working on more complex projects you want to make sure your character rigging tool can be scaled up to work in a larger workflow if necessary.
Here's a complex rig created with Duik Bassel.
white-hair-setup.gif

5. A Clean User Interface

While a clean user interface doesn't necessarily impact your final rig, it will make the experience of rigging your character be much more enjoyable. I've found buttons with clear icons and down-to-earth language to be very helpful when I'm navigating the complex world of rigging.

6. Updates and Support

Applications change and so do client expectations. To avoid having to learn a brand new rigging tool every year, I recommend sticking with a tool that features consistent support and a history of updates. A tool with a robust online support network can make it easier to find solutions when you're knee-deep in a project.
Here are some other things to look for in Rigging Tools for After Effects.
  • Clean Deformations (Do compressions and extensions look natural?)
  • Versatility
  • Global Scaling
If you want to learn more about great rigging features I definitely recommend checking out this article from Pluralsight.

Character Rigging Tools for After Effects

Now that we have a guide for understanding what features we should be looking for, let's take a look at some character rigging tools for After Effects.

1. Puppet Pin Tool

Price: Free, included in After Effects.
The Puppet Pin tool can be used for rigging in After Effects, but it can be pretty clunky for character work. If you need a very quick character with limited movement this could be a good tool for you to use. For example, if you have a simple flower that needs to blow in the wind or a wacky waving inflatable arm-flailing tube man this tool could do the trick. Anything more complex than that and you'll probably want to upgrade to something more advanced.
I've found the Puppet Pin Tool to produce some less-than-clean deformations around joints so you'll likely want to look to something else for a 'professional' project. The Puppet Pin Tool is free and natively inside of After Effects. Adobe has also recently updated the puppet pin tool with newer features. If you're interested in the new features check out this overview video from Jason Boone.

2. Duik Bassel

Price: Free, but you should donate to help them out.
DUIK Bassel is the newest version of DUIK, an animation powerhouse that allows animators to rig their characters with a few simple clicks. It was created in 2008 as a basic animation tool and has grown to be the leading industry standard of character rigging and animation.
It would be completely overwhelming for me to list out all of the features inside of Duik here, but a few features to note are the auto-rig features, icon-based controllers, and parent links that allow you to automate parenting. If only that feature was available in real life...
As stated above, Duik is completely free, but donations are highly encouraged. The team behind Duik is incredibly receptive to feedback and there is a library of tutorials and support docs out there to help get you started in the right direction.
If you learn only one Character Rigging tool for After Effects, it should be Duik.
We have a tutorial on the basics of Rigging a Character with DUIK Bassel in After Effects from Morgan Williams, the instructor of Character Animation Bootcamp. It even includes a free character project file so you can follow along a bit easier.

3. Rubberhose 2

Price: $45
RubberHose 2 is hands-down the fastest way to rig a character in After Effects. The plugin got its name from the old technique from the 1920’s where characters appeared to have rubber hoses for arms and legs. This style can make your characters seem more friendly and quirky, but more importantly it makes rigging super easy.
Adam Plouff has developed the tool to be a quick alternative to some of the other rigging options on this list. Rubberhose is the best tool for quickly rigging a character After Effects. Below is a quick demo from RubberHose 2 showing some of the new features.
We also have a review of RubberHose 2 on our site if you want to learn a bit more in-depth of what it is and how it works.

RubberHose 2 Vs. DUIK

Both Rubberhose 2 and DUIK are great character rigging tools for After Effects. DUIK is completely free and seems to be the most comprehensive character animation tool for After Effects, but RubberHose has certain features that are easier to use for a quick character.
So what are the specific differences between these tools? Well, we enlisted Character Animation expert, Morgan Williams to create a helpful comparison of Rubberhose and Duik.
As you can see, we're not exactly comparing apples to apples here. Duik and Rubberhose both come into play at different times and in different ways.

4. Joysticks 'n Sliders

Price: $39
Joystick 'n Sliders is a very interesting tool in After Effects that prides itself in being a 'posed-based' rigging tool. While you can certainly quickly rig a character using Joysticks 'n Sliders in After Effects, we've found Joysticks n' Sliders to be most helpful in non-character use-cases.
For example, you can use the tool for everything from Rigging Graphs to UI/UX demos. Here's a quick overview of the tool.

5. PuppetTools 3.0

Price: $39
PuppetTools 3 is another character rigging tool available on aescripts + aeplugins. To be fully transparent we have not used PuppetTools 3.0 yet, but it does include important character rigging tools like Inverse Kinematics and controllers.
Here's a quick overview of the tool in-action.

6. Adobe Character Animator

Price: Included with Creative Cloud Subscription
Adobe Character Animator is an interesting application that allows users to use video to automatically animate movements and mouth positions. The specific use-cases for Character Animator are very specific right now, but there is an entire team of folks dedicated to developing Character Animator further.
For most MoGraph-related rigging projects Character Animator is not going to be the best option, but we'll keep an eye on this one as more updates come down the pipeline.
I hope this article helped shed some light into the various rigging tools available in After Effects. Rigging doesn't have to be a tedious process, and with the right tools rigging can be just almost as enjoyable as animation and design.

What is the best rigging tool for After Effects?

With all of this information it's time to plant our Character Animation flag. In our opinion, the best character rigging tool for After Effects is Duik. Duik's support materials, consistant updates, price, features, and scaleability make it the best character animation tool for After Effects.
However, all of the tools found on this list have their own pros and cons. As you grow your Character Animation skills you will likely find certain tools to be better option in different scenarios.

Take Your Character Animation Skills to the Next Level

If you’d like to continue to learn the process of character rigging, check out Rigging Academy here at School of Motion. This course is designed to teach you how to rig almost anything in After Effects.
If you're up for an epic Character Animation challenge check out Character Animation Bootcamp taught by Morgan Williams. In the course you'll learn everything you need to know to get started with the process of Character Animation in After Effects. By the end of the course you'll be able to animate a character in After Effects and network with fellow character animation artists in our alumni-only online network.
Best of luck on all your Character Animation projects!