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Hit A Homer With Character Animator

By Chris Georgenes

Even the simplest-looking animations on TV or in the movies require talented illustrators, skilled technicians, and time—a lot of time. For instance, one 30-minute episode of The Simpsons can take months to create. On May 15, 2016, The Simpsons broke through that barrier when Homer Simpson answered audience questions in real time. Homer’s instant animation was powered by easy-to-use Adobe Character Animator software. If you’re inspired to try Character Animator yourself, read on for tips and tutorials.

Character Animator is installed on your computer as part of After Effects CC. (A Creative Cloud paid membership includes After Effects. If you’re not a paid member, you can download a trial version of After Effects for free.) You need just two more things to make your own animations:

  • Layered Photoshop or Illustrator file
  • Computer with a webcam and microphone, or external webcam and mic

“Character Animator relies on a layered .PSD or .AI file that has body parts on different layers in a specific way,” explains David Simons, the senior principal scientist who heads the product team. “It can take a short amount of time to set up the layered file or even less time if you start with one of our downloadable template example files and replace the existing art with your own.”

For the quickest start, check out those example files and accompanying instructions. In no time, you’ll be animating a character (or “puppet,” in Character Animator parlance) simply by moving your head and speaking. The software has sophisticated face-tracking and lip-synching, which is why you need a webcam. The mic is for recording dialog.

For Homer’s live Q&A, the Simpsons team didn’t use face-tracking because they didn’t want the character to move like Dan Castellaneta, the actor who voices Homer. Instead, they used keyboard commands to trigger Homer’s actions. You’ll probably want to stick with Character Animator’s face-tracking and lip-synching, but as you become more familiar with the process, keyboard commands are a great way to add actions. Explore the actions in the example files; for example, you can toggle between a human head and a monster head in the werewolf puppet.

MAKE YOUR OWN CHARACTERS

Eventually, you’ll want to build a puppet from scratch, but what if you’re not artistically inclined? “Import photos into Photoshop to use as your character,” suggests Simons. The results can look like a stop-motion animation, and the process will be much faster than traditional stop-motion. Simons recommends two related tutorials: “Adobe Character Animator Meets Stop Motion” and “Drama at the Cookies.”

This step-by-step tutorial explains how to build a Character Animator puppet from scratch.

Click on the image to watch a step-by-step tutorial on how to build a Character Animator puppet from scratch.

The Character Animator team has assembled many tutorials, from the introductory “10 Tips for Getting Started” to the more complex “Adding Physics to Your Character.” You can watch all of the Character Animator how-to videos here.

HOW HOMER HELPED US ALL

Technically, Character Animator is still a preview application, not yet mature enough to be called “1.0.” The version you can use today is Preview 3. Preview 4 incorporates improvements driven by the needs of The Simpsons live Q&A. Preview 4 will be available to everyone in the early summer.

“The first challenge was getting the lip-syncing to be good enough,” says Simons. “Cartoon lip-syncing is an art, and Homer Simpson’s mouth frames served as a great test bed for what we were doing wrong before and how we could achieve the best possible live lip-syncing that would work for all other cartoon designs. It was great to have Homer as our test subject to improve the product.”

This image is a frame from

A frame from "Simprovised," the episode of The Simpsons that used Character Animator to enable Homer Simpson to interact with the audience in real time.

“Character Animator analyzes 61 different sounds and then maps the appropriate mouth shape to the sounds it hears,” he adds. “To achieve an accurate real-time lip-sync for Homer, we’ve had to extensively update Character Animator to perform as quickly and as flawlessly as possible. We are reaching very strict performance standards that everyone will gain from.”

For more background on The Simpsons partnership, see “Woo Hoo! The Simpsons TV Show and Adobe Make 'Live Animation' Television History.” To learn more about Character Animator (including the goodies you'll get in Preview 4), head to this overview.

What have you made with Character Animator? Tell us in the Comments section below.