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Pose to Pose Character Animation in After Effects

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Discover the power of the Pose-to-Pose method of character animation in After Effects.

Whoo boy, is character animation hard. And to make matters worse, most After Effects animators try to move their characters the same way they move logos and type: Straight ahead. The secret to getting the hang of character animation is actually to use the same method Disney animators used in the heyday of cel animation: Pose-to-Pose.

Moses he knowses his poses aren't roses.

In this tutorial, character animation encyclopedia Morgan Williams (who also teaches Character Animation Bootcamp) will teach you the magic of the pose-to-pose method and how to use it in After Effects.

This is some inside baseball stuff, so pay attention.

Intro to Pose-to-Pose Animation in After Effects


​​What are you going to learn in this tutorial?

Character animation is, to put it very mildly, a ridiculously deep topic. In this lesson Morgan will show you the basics of the Pose-to-Pose method which will literally crack your skull open if you've never tried it. Character animation becomes much easier when you learn to work this way.


Most Motion Design projects are animated in a straight-ahead manner, which doesn't work very well for complex character rigs.


The Pose-to-pose process begins by stacking groups of hold keyframes in your timeline, creating a series of discrete poses.



Every animator knows (or should know) the importance of exaggeration... but in character animation this principle is paramount. Exaggerate thy poses!


Luckily, we don't have to hold sheets of tracing paper between our fingers anymore to flipbook animations. However, learning the After Effects equivalent of this technique is super helpful.



Character animation is hard enough without having to fight with a rig. Having built in controls for squash and stretch, heel-roll and other parameters is a huge advantage.


Once you've established your poses, you're ready to work on timing. Pose-to-pose is made for this fun step.


You create your poses and timing, yada yada yada, you're done! Actually, there's more to it... but we'll get there.


Bend Characters to Your Will

If you had a blast learning the first stage of Pose-to-Pose animation, you are going to love Character Animation Bootcamp. This 12-week interactive course is filled with amazing rigs, tricks of the trade, and challenging scenarios for you to tackle with the help of your teaching-assistant and classmates.

If you struggle to animate characters, or want to add this amazing skill to your arsenal, check out the information page and please let us know if you have any questions. Thanks for watching!


Tutorial Full Transcript Below 👇:

:00): Morgan Williams here, character animator and animation fanatic. In this short video, I'm going to teach you about the power of the pose to pose character workflow. And after This workflow is something we practice extensively and character animation bootcamp. So if you're interested in learning more, go check out that course. Also you can download the squash character rig and project files I'm using in this video to follow along or practice with after you're done, watching details are in the description.

Morgan Williams (00:38): If you're used to doing more motion graphics type of work than trying to execute a scene like this might be pretty daunting. And there's a pretty good reason for that. So to show you, let's take a look behind the scenes of what's driving this animation. So here we are in the pre-com for this character. And as you can see, there's a few key frames in here. There's a lot going on, not just a lot of key frames, but there's also overlapping animation, anticipations, overshoots, and all of these key frames have been adjusted in the graph editor. So just looking at the graph editor for the rotation property on the head, you can see that there's a lot going on here. And if you try to make an animation, like this happens straight ahead, or just going from frame one until the end, you would probably get lost pretty quickly.

Morgan Williams (01:21): So here's an animation. That's quite a bit simpler than the previous one. This is squash, and you can see that in his current form, he doesn't even have arms. He's just jumping off the ground, hanging in the air for a moment and then landing. And even with the simplified character shape with no arms and a lot less pieces, you can still see that a lot went into making this animation feel as good as it does. And what I see a lot of animators do when faced with an empty timeline like this is they think, well, maybe the character needs to start by crouching down to jump. And that is correct. So we're going to lower the center of gravity, and then we're going to go forward a few key frames, and then we're going to have the character jump up in the air, which is going to require key framing, both the center of gravity and the feed. And so you sort of have to do this little dance like this, and then you end up with something that doesn't work at all on any level. And then you realize, oh, I need to go back. I need to set more key frames here. And you've got to try to figure out how to slowly but surely get this character to jump well, I'm here to tell you there's a better way.

Morgan Williams (02:24): What we're going to do is use something called pose to pose animation, and it works exactly how it sounds. We're going to think of each step in this animation as a distinct pose. The first thing I'm going to want to do is select all of the key frames on the initial pose and convert them to hold key frames. You can do this by control, clicking on the selected key frames and saying toggle hold key frame, or use the keyboard shortcut command an option on a Mac. What this does is tell after effects that these key frames are not going to smoothly interpolate to the next set of key frames. I'll show you what I mean most actions that you want a character to do are going to have a series of key poses that they need to hit with a jump. The next key pose is an anticipation pose, squatting down, gathering energy.

Morgan Williams (03:09): So to do this, let's grab this controller, the center of gravity controller, the cog, and let's just bring squash down. Like so now one of the principles of character animation is exaggeration. You really want to exaggerate these poses and posing is something we talk about extensively in character animation bootcamp. So it make sure you check that class out. If you're interested, I'm going to hit w and grab my rotate tool. So I can also tip squash forward a little bit. Then I'm going to use the arrow keys to just nudge them down as low as I can get him trying to get a nice squashed pose. We also have a control for squashes eyes, so he can sort of blink as though he's getting ready and bracing for the jump. I'm also going to play with the center of gravity a little bit more. You'll notice that with an I K rig like this, where you place the controller makes a big difference, and I want squash to get as low as possible.

Morgan Williams (04:00): So I want you to notice how the timeline looks right now. All of these key frames are hold key frames, and you'll see that while I have key frames on these properties here, I only have a few key frames on the next pose. So I want to make sure I have key frames on everything. So I'm going to go ahead and create more key frames. So now what we have are two vertical lines of key frames that are hold key frames. And each of these vertical lines are poses. If I use the J and K key to go back and forth between them, I'm almost starting to flip book my animation. Hopefully you're starting to see how pose to pose animation works. So let's go forward a few more frames and do the next pose together. The next pose is squash pushing off the ground and about to go up in the air.

Morgan Williams (04:44): So the center of gravity controller will come up like this, but I also want the viewer to feel that squash is releasing a lot of energy and pressing really hard against the ground. This rig has a heel roll control on both feet and by adjusting it, I can actually have the heel come off the ground as if squash is pushing off the ground with his toes, I'm going to adjust the same control on the other foot. And then this is going to allow me to push the center of gravity up even higher. Now this rig has stretching turned on, which means I can even stretch the legs out past their normal point if I want it to. And I think I'll do that a little bit. I want a little bit of bend in the leg here. So I'm going to just nudge the center of gravity until I get exactly the pose I want.

Morgan Williams (05:27): I'm going to open his eyes to, and then I'm going to use a controller. We haven't used yet. The squash and stretch control on the center of gravity controller. Squash and stretch is a principle that you may have learned about in animation bootcamp, but in character animation bootcamp, we use it extensively. As squash travels up, his body will actually stretch in that direction. Vice versa. If we go back to the previous pose, we can even squash down toward the ground a little bit. And now we've got three poses. I'm going to this pose by adding key frames to every other property. And now I can use J and K to flip book through these poses. Now, right now, each pose is just sort of arbitrarily spaced out timing wise. We're going to fix the timing in the next step, but in pose to pose, the first thing you need to do is just set all of your poses. So I'm going to do the rest of them now.

Morgan Williams (06:20): So now we have several poses set up. We have the initial pose crouching about to leap off the ground, off the ground, about to land back on the ground, absorbing the impact and returning to normal. And what's great about having these poses set up really easily in vertical stacks. Like this is that I can use the J and K keys to flip book this, and I can even play with timing in real time. For example, I could try having something that's pretty even just tapping my finger like this. I could also try having squash hang in the air for a little bit longer, like VAT.

Morgan Williams (06:55): And you can play around with these things. And because these are hold key frames, there's not much rendering happening. So if we ran preview this, you can get a really good sense of the timing of this animation. But let's say that you want to change something right now. When squash crouches down, I don't really feel like he's gathering that much energy. I want him to hang out down there a little bit longer. So that's really easy if I go to this pose and select all of these other key frames and just scoot them down a little bit more. Now that pose will hold for longer. And now, since he's holding down there a little longer, when he hits this pose, boom, I want them to pop up in the air a little bit quicker. So now I can move all these poses down and then maybe have them hang in the air a little bit longer.

Morgan Williams (07:41): And there you go. Now you can see the power of using poses. It's really easy to experiment with timing, and it's really easy to adjust poses. If you see something you don't like on this post, when squash is about to hit the ground might be kind of funny. If his eyes were looking up almost like the inertia's pulling his eyeballs up. So why don't we just go ahead and grab his eyes and scooch them up a little bit like this. They're looking down on the previous pose. They're looking up here and then they're back to normal. Let's see what that looks like.

Morgan Williams (08:12): It's a pretty quick movement. So you don't really feel it all that much. We can see what happens if we add one more frame to this pose, maybe you'll feel it a little bit more. And there you go. The whole point is that this makes it very, very easy to experiment with timing, with different poses, add frames, take away frames. And it's really a lot of fun. Once you get the hang of it. Now, once you're happy with all of your key poses and you're happy with the timing you can move on to the next stage, which is to tween the key frames and create overlapping movements, anticipations, and overshoots, and things like that. But that's a lesson for another time. Well, I hope you've learned something working this way will save you a lot of headaches. If you're doing character animation, hit subscribe. If you want more tips like this one and make sure to check out the description so you can download the character rig from this video. If you want to learn and practice the art of character animation and after effects with the help of industry pros, check out character animation bootcamp from school of motion, have fun.

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