C2C Digital Magazine (Spring/Summer 2023)

Animating and voicing digital puppets with Adobe Character Animator

By Shalin Hai-Jew, Kansas State University

Back in the day, the concept of a software tool that could apply voice to a 2d digital character with the proper mouth shapes (visemes) and some body gestures was wholly in the realm of perhaps Hollywood and high-end boutique digital shops.  That capability was not even in the realm of possibility for hands-on developers or developer-designers.  

And now, suddenly, this capability is available.  A person may subscribe to the Adobe Character Animator software (as part of the Adobe Creative Cloud suite)…select a pre-made digital character in 2d, add a voice file or live record a voice waveform, use a camera to input gestures (or mouse-based inputs for motion direction, or button pushes, or a combination of inputs)…and have a memorable video of a voiced digital character to be used in a variety of contexts:  
For in virtual world avatars, those are often built into the immersive worlds.  [In open-access virtual worlds, 3d puppets may be imported.]  Digital puppets may be designed, created, rigged, and then exported into games…but these topics are well beyond the scope of this short article.  The focus here is on the “low hanging fruit” of having digital puppets speak from some of the more common digital objects in the bullet list above.  

To me, it almost feels like these technologies have come and gone, and the space is moving beyond these amazing capabilities, with a “Meh!”  It seems to me that this technology has not yet been fully exploited in instructional design, by me for sure, and perhaps by  many of my colleagues, too.  

A Light Introduction to Adobe Character Animator



Why Animate Digital Puppets for Learning Contexts?  

In terms of instructional design, why should an instructional designer (ID) create digital puppets?  There can be a variety of reasons:  
  1. To trigger human affective responses to the humanoid, non-humanoid, machine, animal, or object-based character (or mixed digital character)
  2. To evoke humor in the learners and change up the learning mood
  3. To present a scene and scenario, with one or more characters (including interacting ones with the learner…or among the digital puppets themselves)
  4. To introduce an artificial personality that might be a learning agent or tutor
  5. To livestream an event in-character as a digital puppet, and others

What do Some of the Available Digital Puppets Look Like?

The home screen of Adobe Character Animator shows some of the various types of digital puppets (with names, but these do not have to be kept or used).  The puppets have various internal capabilities.  For example, those that are rigged may have pre-scripted motions applied to them, such as walk cycles, gestural capabilities, and others.  Some puppets come with their own scenes and backgrounds.  Some puppets have various body shapes (physiques, or organism morphologies), available motions, and varied facial expressions.  Some are built to have expressive visemes that communicate based on voice inputs (their mouths look like they’re moving as the digital puppets talk).  

Figure 1.  Home Screen Adobe Character Animator 2023  

The pre-made characters can be tweaked in terms of their looks and feels, if their various elements are divided out into separate layers in the Adobe Character Animator timeline.  (Whoever developed the digital puppets ideally would have separated out the parts of the puppet into movable parts…and in labeled layers.  Ideally.)  Rigging may be applied to non-rigged digital puppets.  

For new users to Adobe Character Animator, there are two general modes:  A Starter mode (with pre-made digital puppets for download within the application) and a Pro mode (with the latter enabling Puppet Maker capabilities and livestreaming).  

Some Pro mode example puppets may be seen online. 

As a joke, I call these digital puppets—wherever they come from--“shallow fakes” even as I am deeply impressed by their design and communicative capabilities.  

Bringing a Digital Character to Life

As an instructional designer (ID), I think it is important to consider the context in which the digital puppets / characters will be used…and how…  It helps to define the learning objectives. It is not wise to create a puppet just for its own sake given the amount of work needed to conduct the design, the development, and the deployment.  
Which character is selected (or made) also will depend on the learning objectives.  What will the respective characters say (scripting)?  How will they say it?  What context will the characters exist in?  How will they gesture or stand or move?  What will be communicated in the respective voices of each character?  If there are multiple characters in the scene, how will they interact?  Perhaps storyboarding may be useful here, too, especially if there are some sequences of actions or differences in scenes.  

If visual design is important, perhaps respective color palettes have to be designed and applied.  

If the voice talent is especially relevant, perhaps voice performances should be elicited from professional actors.  

The various elements of the digital puppet animation may be recorded of-a-piece, or they may be addressed in separate parts within the timeline.  

The various file types that may be used in a project include the following:  

The Adobe Character Animator Project file is a .chproj file type.  This is the base file for the puppet and the animation and all related media in that particular animation.  This is the editable file that should be kept for future updates to the respective puppets and scenes.  

To learn more about the supported file types in Adobe Character Animator, please visit the linked site.   

Additional Informational Resources

Adobe Accessibility Conformance Report (2017, 2018)  [for Adobe Character Animator]

Adobe’s Character Animator (main page)


About the Author

Shalin Hai-Jew works as an instructional designer at Kansas State University.  Her email is shalin@ksu.edu.  


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