After Effects – Puppet Tool Animation (Pt.1)

Chris, our game design teacher has been out of action due to illness since October. The module has sadly been on ice since and the time used for blog catch up. As a paying student I’ve been irked by this for quite some time, losing out on delivered content and tuition. Thankfully the course has brought back Peter to stand in for these sessions on a temporary basis, while it doesn’t bring back the games design module, I am more than happy to have a teacher and content of any variety.

So to kick this new format Friday off, we would be looking at animating characters using After Effects. I had absolutely no idea AE had this ability, as a package it keeps surprising me with how flexible it can be. Peter mentioned DUIK hardware, a free plug in package for AE used for rigging and animating, along with the links to download it and documentation. I’ll have to install it at home and take a look, the show reel was quite impressive.

The goal today would be to understand the Puppet Tool and its three controls (Pin, Overlap & Starch).



Peter had kindly provided a backplate scene for us to use, along with a character he had drawn himself, Jed. The first task was to use the Pin Tool and add anchor points for joint locations. Simple stuff and works relatively well but does leave the movement in certain areas looking a little rubbery.


To solve this issue we would progress onto the next tool, the Starch Tool. This effectively freezes certain areas of the image/puppet so they aren’t affected by the deformation of other areas. Using the mesh shown above you can see what areas will be frozen by the tool. I froze the heads and upper arms.


Now onto animation. If you hover over a pin anchor point and hold down Ctrl, the cursor will change to that of the familiar clock in AE. Once you click and hold it’ll record any movements you make in real time, showing an outline of the motion you’re creating. After playing with this for a while I wanted to end the animation with Jed scratching the back of his head and this is where the last tool ‘ Overlap’ comes into play. It uses a similar method to the Starch Tool, painting areas you want to affect but instead lets you determine a layering order. Allowing you to pass certain areas in front of or behind of others by using the In Front value.

Jed along with the animation key frames was then pre-composed, this allowed us to then animate transform & scale values as puppet tool keys can’t be manipulated/moved. This allowed us to animate Jed along the path in the backplate. Finally a CC Snowfall effect was added to the scene on a black solid.


While this was a quick exercise to demonstrate the tools, with some care and attention these functions could be used to far greater effect. Knowing AE has base tools like these I now appreciate why developers would make a more advanced plug-in to expand it’s capabilities. Next week we’ll be expanding on this knowledge and I’m looking forward to making good use of Fridays again.


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