2D Animation: How to Make Easy Cut-Out Puppet Limbs & Joints In Toon Boom Studio

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I remember when I first started out with my 2D animation hobby. One big question I had was “Where do I start?” In a big way, that meant deciding which software to use, with so many experts out there recommending many different options. I tried various free 2D animation software tools, but found either very limited capabilities (most programs only support hand-drawn frame-by-frame animation) or not-so-easy-to-learn interface (advanced programs intended for non-beginners). I had to be really careful about which paid software to choose due to budget constraints.

Long story short, the best thing I did was to just pick a software (while remaining within my budget) and get moving with the hobby. I picked Toon Boom Studio and started playing with it, doing basic cycles and animating simple things at first, before experimenting with characters and effects. I developed an interest in making cut-out or puppet animation (rather than doing traditional frame-by-frame or stop motion animation). Especially with limited time to spend on the hobby, I quickly realized that I needed a solution for building, rigging, and animating my characters quickly and easily.

I mean, I wanted to do more than just animating stick figures. My earliest characters like the Owl, Kitty, Critter, and the silhouette figures were pretty basic. I wanted to create cut-out characters that are quicker to build and easier to pose and animate with better looking animation.

As of this writing, my Stick Figure Poser development has shown some good progress in terms of allowing me to easily and quickly build and animate new and more complex puppet characters.

Here are a couple of examples of the Stick Figure Poser in action:

I also have cool new improvements to the solution, which I’ll share in a future post. Fortunately, there are several basic elements that have helped me that I can share with you right now. In this post, I’ll share one of the key building blocks in building my puppets. It’s my basic puppet limb and joint design.

First, let’s have a look at the most basic and traditional limb and joint design as shown in this video:

As you can see, the design in very simple and is suitable for mechanical or robotic type of arms/limbs.

Mechanical or Robotic Limb

Image 8 - Hierarchy for Basic Joint

However, customizing the design gets a little tricky when you’re trying to create a more organic looking limb like an arm for a person or a creature. The main challenge is in dealing with the outline in and around the joint. Toon Boom has a YouTube video tutorial showing one way to create the basic cut-out circular joint. Although the tutorial is done in Toon Boom Harmony (the top end industry standard version), the concepts are pretty basic and can be applied to Toon Boom Studio just as well.

Quick and Easy Limb and Joint – the Basic Design

I developed a simple alternative way to make joints that let’s you easily rig, customize (especially the outline), and animate your characters. Check out my Ninja Warrior for an example cut-out character rig that uses this building block extensively:

If you think that’s an animation technique that you’d like to explore for your own creations, let’s proceed with understanding the basic building block. I’ll also share the more interesting design variants in exclusive e-mail posts only for those who really care to learn more. So be sure to sign up to join my 2D Animation Mailing List at the end of this post.

Watch this demo video to see the basic steps in building the minimum limb and joint system:

It’s easy right? Without having to muck around with the drawing outlines, and without having to do any precise edits, you get the same results, just with basic shapes. Of course, this comes at a very small price of additional drawing layers. But note that while you are creating twice the number of layers, you are NOT spending double the effort because you’re pretty much copying and pasting existing art layers. Getting the nice automatic outline that you can easily customize (show or hide, change colors, etc.) is worth it. And once you start adding enhancements to the design, you’ll get even greater benefits (even better than the Ninja Warrior).

Smart Puppet Limb & Joint

Basically, the automatic outline, which is the key feature of this design, is just an illusion. It’s really just another Drawing Element. But after all, we are in the business of creating illusions. This figure below shows the basic construction and hierarchy of the arm shown in the video demo:

Hierarchy for Smart Puppet Limb & Joint

The basic limb component is actually just ONE Limb (1 front rectangle and 1 back rectangle) and ONE Joint (1 front circle and 1 back circle). So if you’re creating an arm, then you will be joining 2 limb components. One limb component becomes your character’s upper arm with the joint acting as the shoulder, while the other component acts as the lower arm with the joint serving as the elbow.

The figure below shows how the same arm looks like without the automatic outline when you hide the back layers:

Smart Puppet Limb & Joint Without Outline

This art style may be preferred in some cases, depending on your overall character design decisions. You can turn off the outline by simply unchecking the Show/Hide checkboxes of the back layers:

Hierarchy for Smart Puppet Limb & Joint - Back Layers Hidden

Special Notes, Tips, Tricks, Next Steps:

Here are a few extra points and recommendations for you to improve on the basic limb design.

1. Pivot points can be tricky.

If you draw the shapes anywhere on the drawing canvas, you’ll have to take additional steps to reposition the shape’s rotation and transformation pivot point. My recommended solution is to avoid that step entirely by planning your drawing and deciding where you want to place your pivot point for the shape. The default pivot point for any drawing layer is the ORIGIN or CENTER of the drawing grid. So just use this default point as your final pivot point and you’re done. For example, when creating the limb shapes, I want the joints to pivot at the center of the circle. Therefore, I draw the circle with its center aligned with the grid’s center (see figure below).

Likewise, the rectangle should rotate at its end, as well as transform around its middle axis. Therefore, I draw the rectangle with its end aligned with the grid’s center/origin. This is also shown in the figure below.

Easy Pivot Setup

2. Use small amounts of z-depth adjustments

If the front and the back layers are too far apart, you’ll see them getting out of alignment as the limb moves away from the middle of the camera’s field of view. To avoid this effect, keep the front and back layers close together in the z-direction. Go to the Side View or Top View and apply maximum zoom. Then move the front and back layers apart just by a tiny amount as shown in the video.

Note that if you select the front layer, both layers will move because the back layer is the front layer’s child. So you need to select the back layer to move it back by a small distance.

3. Add a Control Handle

As you can see in the Stick Figure Poser Videos, I added built-in Control Handles to the limb components to make it easier to position, rotate, and resize the limbs. You can do the same by adding a circle in a new drawing layer, which you should place a good distance in front of the actual art layers. This makes the Control Handle easily accessible.

4. Watch out for component size scaling issues.

You can save your limb components to the library for reuse, but make sure you don’t resize them as soon as you drop them into your workspace (canvas). Place the components in their hierarchy first. Then you can resize them as you wish.

Conclusions

You’ve seen how you can easily create a simple yet flexible character limb for your cut-out puppet character. With this technique, you don’t need to worry about precisely editing anything even in the joint art. You just add and place the shape where you want it, and you’ll get a nice automatic outline along the combined shapes’ periphery. You can turn off that outline if you wish.

The technique can be applied in more advanced ways for better results. I’m sharing more enhancements and technical details in my Cut-Out Animation Reference Library exclusively for those of you who a really interested to learn more about it. Sign up here:

ACCESS the Cut-Out Animation Reference Library (FREE)

I guess just like with magic tricks, once you know the secret, it’s not that intriguing anymore. But now it’s your turn to impress others with the trick.

What are your preferred 2D animation software tool, animation style, and character rigging techniques? What are your biggest difficulties and challenges in 2D animation as a hobbyist or a beginner?

By the way, if you don’t already have Toon Boom Studio, check out its software features on their website and consider downloading and playing with their FREE TRIAL from www.toonboom.com.

Finally, you can help people you know by sharing this post to help them with their 2D animation hobby.

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