After Effects tutorial: Design and animate a stylish 50s cartoon character

Illustrator and animator Ben Mounsey describes here how to create a character in Illustrator that's specifically designed for animation in After Effects, and then give it a classic cel-animation walk

It all started with a story that animation illustrator Ben Mounsey – aka Green Glasses – wanted to create. He wanted something breezy, light and cheerful and what could be better than a tale of boy meets girl? Drawing on his own naturalistic vector style, he’s given Boy Meets Girl the simple shapes and bold colours of traditional cel animation from a pre-digital age.

Ben created this tutorial to show the basic principles of animating in After Effects, the most important techniques he learned when he first started using the animation and motions graphics application. He shows you how to tailor an illustration for animation, the best way to import it into After Effects, and how to create a simple walk cycle. He’ll cover a some key AE approaches – including animation using the Puppet tool and Expressions – that you can expand upon in your own work.

Here Ben has focussed on a single character, Joe, from Boys Meets Girl, but these techniques were also used to create the rest of this animation, and other work too.

Time to complete

2 hours

Software used

Adobe Illustrator CS4 or later
Adobe After Effects CS4 or later

Project Files

Please visit the desktop site to download the project files.


To begin the process, start by sketching out some character ideas. It’s important to think in mechanical terms whilst sketching – how you will animate your character needs to be considered from the start. It’s a good idea to test a few poses as well – character designs need to be fairly flexible for animation.


Next take your sketches into Illustrator. Many people use a scanner, but I simply take a snap on my iPhone and send it to my computer.

Start by creating a new file. As our end result will be an animation, we need to set up a composition that matches our intended After Effects file. For the purposes of this tutorial, choose 1080 x 720px and Color Mode RGB.

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Next import your sketches. If you’d like to follow along with mine, open joe_sketch.jpg from this tutorial’s project files.

Place them on a new layer on top of your new document (File > Place), then change their blending mode to Multiply and the opacity to 80%. This will enable you to trace the shape of your characters more easily. Make sure you lock the layer, as you don’t want to interfere with it by accident later on.


On the layer below, start to trace the shape of the character. Remember to draw the body parts individually, as you’ll want to manipulate the head, torso, arms and legs separately when you animate.

In more complex animation, more areas of articulation are needed, so for example you might separate the torso and pelvis too. But we’ll keep things simple here.


None of the artwork is outlined; it’s all made of solid fill shapes. You can find the colour swatches I’ve used here in the project file

For details such as the hands, hair strokes and cheeks, use the Blob Brush tool (Shift + C). Draw freehand with it, using your imported sketch on the top layer as a guide.

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When using the Blob Brush, often parts of what we draw will ‘bleed off’ the edges of the character, which looks messy in animation. Take the hand for example: the linework for the finger-spacing hangs off the edge of the hand.

To tidy it up, group the lines (Cmd/Ctrl + G) and then copy and paste them in front of the lines (with the lines selected, hit Cmd/Ctrl + F). Now select both the lines and the copy of the hand shape above and create a mask (Cmd/Ctrl + 7 or Object > Clipping Mask > Make).


Once you have all your artwork finished, make sure your body parts are grouped into sections: head, torso, and the like. Select all (Cmd/Ctrl + A), and go to the flyout menu in the Layers panel and select Release to Layers (Sequence). Now each element is assigned to its own layer, even though you’ve worked on just one – so select them all in the Layer panel and drag them up into a slot above the original.

There’s an important reason for doing this, and its because of the way After Effects imports the artwork that we need each body part separate in order to animate.


Now, fire up After Effects and double click inside the Project panel. Choose the file to import, then where it says Import As choose Composition – Cropped Layers from the drop-down menu.

In the Project panel there should now be a composition called ‘Joe’ – double click that and it should open in the Timeline below and the composition window.

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With all our body parts named earlier, it’s easy to see all of the character’s limbs spread over the layers. Go through each layer in turn and change the position of the anchor point to where that body part should pivot from (for example, the arm should pivot around where the elbow would be). Do this by dragging the point in the composition pane with the Pan Behind tool (Y).


Let’s animate the legs first. Select the Right/Front leg and – using the Puppet Pin tool (Cmd/Ctrl + P) – drop three pins in: one at the hip, one at the knee, and one at the ankle. Repeat this process for the Left/Back leg.


Using the above frames for reference, create the four key walking poses over the period of 1-2 seconds on the timeline. Go through them from left to right, moving the legs by the Pin points to create the pose. After each pose is created, scrub forward in the Timeline before creating the next.

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You’ll notice that in two of the four poses the body is lower – these are when the legs are astride. Adding this detail gives a little more rhythm and bounce to the walk cycle. To create this, go back to the first frame. Select the arms, torso and head in the timeline and press P to select the Position parameter. Click the stopwatch to add a keyframe. Move along in the timeline to the astride position and nudge the same body parts down a bit. Repeat this for the second astride pose.


Once you have one walk cycle it’s easy to repeat it every time we need motion. This saves a lot of time, and comes in very handy. To do this we need to use Expressions.

First off though, we need a fifth pose – one that’s an exact copy of the first – necessary to create the loop. Just go to the start of the timeline and for each of the layers, copy and paste the keyframes to the end of the cycle.


Hide all layers accept the legs, click on the Right/Front leg layer and reveal the Puppet tool keyframes of the walk cycle by hitting ‘U’. Go to the stopwatch for each Puppet pin and Alt + click. In the revealed text input area, replace the existing text with loopOut(type=”cycle”,numkeyframes = 0).

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Repeat this for each Pin layer on both legs. When you’re done, you can scrub through the timeline and see a walk cycle that never ends.


Finally create a new comp and drop your ‘Joe’ comp into it by simply dragging him over from the Project panel onto the timeline.

To get Joe really moving, select the comp in the timeline, press P, click the stopwatch and drag Joe out of the comp left. Scrub forward in the timeline and drag him over to the right. RAM Preview your animation and watch him move!


Green Glasses – aka Ben Mounsey – works freelance in both the animation and illustration industries. His flexibility shows in his varied portfolio, from design in print to animation.


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