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How to Choose the Right Type of Character Animation for Your Project

Character Animation is the most powerful tool you can use in an animation marketing campaign. Inside the world of animation, there are a handful of ways to add movement to characters, and each of those styles impacts the results and the budget in different ways. How you envision your character animation is extremely important as different visual styles will better fit one type of animation than the other. 

Understanding the right needs and the resources available gives you a clearer idea of how to use characters to increase the impact of your videos. In this article, you will learn how to differentiate the most common types of character animation and the different impacts they can have on your campaigns.

The role of characters in commercial animations

It’s common to hear how powerful characters are, but what makes them so relevant? In the animation world, characters are the visual elements that create the strongest human connection of all. Their actions and both body and facial expressions, which are usually more exaggerated and stylized than real ones, create a strong connection with the viewer because it’s in our nature to connect with things that seem similar to us. That’s also why sometimes we see faces on objects and things – a phenomenon called pareidolia.

The representation of characters in advertising helps viewers to better identify themselves in the narrative. Another big advantage of animated characters is that it favors inclusion. Since characters are less detailed than a real person, it’s easier for the viewer to relate to them – allowing people from various ethnicities and cultures to easily feel connected to the same animated piece. The result is a campaign with a broader reach and bigger impact.

3 different types of character animation

Even though characters in animation have a big impact, it doesn’t come without a price. It can easily become one of the most complex elements of an animation piece, requiring skilled professionals, a longer time to produce, and bigger budgets when compared to other animation techniques like Motion Graphics.

Still, there are different types of animation you can apply to characters and each of them can impact the audience and production at different levels.

1. Subtle Character Movements

There are moments where characters are the best way to represent a customer or a particular situation in the video. But it doesn’t necessarily mean they need complex movements and expressions to work well. A simple way to make them feel more alive and relatable to customers, without making the animation itself more complex, is to add just what we call Subtle Character Movements. These are usually small head and arm movements, just to give a sense of life to the characters and dynamism to the scene. Those subtle movements work great in many situations for fast-paced projects or motion graphics pieces that don’t rely heavily on characters to work, but could benefit from a character presence. 

For those types of movements, the character is usually already in a final position, or closer to what we want them to do, and just the simple movements of individual parts of the body are enough for the character to feel more natural and alive. In many cases, they are cropped from the torso up, which ends up optimizing the character design process as well. 

2. Detailed Character Animation in After Effects

Going beyond subtle movements, we have Detailed Character Animation. This specific type of animation uses a mixture of techniques to animate full-body characters or add more complexity to movements beyond our previous example. The default software for this type of animation is currently After Effects and it’s also common to see people just calling it Character Animation in After Effects, or simply 2d Animation in After Effects. However, this type of animation is not limited to this specific software and other programs can offer similar tools for this technique.

What’s important to understand here is how this style of animation is usually built. Here are the two most popular ways – that can also be used together:

  • The cut-out technique: Each part of the character’s body is an individual element and every piece needs to move in harmony to make the animation happen.
  • The rigging technique: Where the animator creates a system almost like our bones and muscle arrangement, to allow characters to move in a more structured way – which can speed the animation process a lot if a character appears multiple times in the video.

This mix of techniques generally takes advantage of the software’s digital interpolation to reduce the number of poses the animator needs to create, to achieve the right movement. Alongside the Subtle Character Movements, Detailed Character Animation is one of the most common techniques you’ll see.

3. Complex Character Animation in Frame-by-Frame (Cel Animation)

The ultimate form of character animation in the 2D environment is the Frame-by-Frame or Cel Animation of characters. Even though these days it’s developed most of the time inside an animation software, it follows the same classic technique of drawing many individual images in a sequence to create movement. This traditional technique allows characters to move across the X, Y, and Z-axis way more freely, which allows for more complex camera movements and some distortions to the body, not possible or easily done with the previous techniques. And since it doesn’t have many structural and technical limitations, the fluidity of movements you usually get from cel-animated characters is beyond what other techniques can provide.

This type of character is vital for animations full of action, or if you want to really “wow” your audience with a hand-crafted and dynamic experience. Cel animation in characters is also commonly used to create morphs – shifts from one element to another in a seamless way. In addition, one big advantage of frame-by-frame in character animation is that you are not limited to the character’s design. It can be applied to a multitude of styles, making this technique the way to go in more complex scenarios.

While cel animation has many benefits, it also comes with some downsides: time to produce, the level/seniority of the professionals required, and the budget needed to make it happen. Cel animation tends to be on the higher end of all those requirements, making it a big investment — but also one that tends to drive bigger impacts.

Cel animation shot example from Anymotion Opening Title

How visual style can determine the type of animation to use

With so many styles and technique options, it can be overwhelming to choose what’s right for your project. However, besides just thinking about the time and budget requirements to invest in one or the other, there’s a particular detail that can help you define or even limit your choice: Different visual styles work better with different techniques.

Characters designed around straight lines, or over basic shapes, tend to be better suited to the subtle movements or After Effects animations. Complex, organic shapes tend to perform better with frame-by-frame animations. 

Different ways to approach characters in the same project

However, this is a guide rather than a rule. Your animator will always help you understand what technique will work best for your situation.

Different techniques in the same style

Even though the style can help define the technique, it doesn’t mean your animated videos need to be restricted to just one technique. A great way to enhance the viewer’s experience, while managing production time and budget, is to mix different techniques in the same visual style. For example, you can have a visual style that works great with cut-out and subtle movements, but it doesn’t mean you can’t add some cel animation moments. 

In our work with iluli by Mike Lamb, we developed a style that could work great in cut-out, so production could be more streamlined, and at the same time, we’ve been applying the cel animation technique in specific moments to both help sustain the message and create “ah-ha” moments.

Scenes from iluli that mix the After Effects character visual style with the Cel Animation technique

The result is a rich, unexpected animation, making viewers more engaged towards what is coming next without going over-budget or impacting the production timeline.

Different animation styles create different levels of impact

The biggest reason to understand the different types of character animation is that it helps you understand what’s possible within your production constraints. To summarize:

  • Projects with a smaller budget or quick turnaround time will benefit more from characters with subtle movements. This way you’ll have an element of human connection, bringing a bit of life to your video without adding too much complexity.
  • In projects where visual impact is a priority and time and budget are more abundant, cel animation will be a powerful tool for delivering your message with impact.
  • If your budget and timeline fall somewhere in the middle, detailed character animation in After Effects is the way to go. The range of complexity at this level varies a lot which makes it more manageable when working with budgets in the middle range. It makes this particular style a good fit for most cases, guaranteeing a level of impact that is effective and that can enhance the animation experience.

In the end, you can always benefit from having characters in your animations. Even though it’s not mandatory, characters bring a special touch and make a good point of connection with viewers. There are many ways of doing it and partnering with the right studio will help to elevate the overall impact of your animation and help your campaigns shine.

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Felippe Silveira
Felippe Silveira
Co-founder & CEO at MOWE Studio

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