Skip to main content

How to Rig Your Dragon - A Look at My Process of Rigging Quadruped Characters and Making them Talk in Cartoon Animator

The Red Dragon Speaks.

My second entry into this years Reallusion, Animation@Work competition came about because I wanted to animate a dragon. 

Dragon's are my go to, notepaper 'doodle', since I was a child, that I'll draw whenever I'm stuck in a boring classroom lecture or long meeting and want to keep my mind busy.

I find them interesting because, while most dragons have features in common, you can come up with so many different variations, and combinations of features, and still know that what you're looking at is a dragon.

So that's where my Red Dragon for my animated short (and competition entry), George the Knight in Run Away!, started out, as a completely new designed character for Cartoon Animator.

Standardized Templates

Top: CA4 Dummy Cat Template. Bottom: My initial Dragon design. Notice how it closely follows the physique of the cat template.
Top: CA4 Dummy Cat Template.
Bottom: My initial Dragon design.
Notice how it closely follows the
physique of the cat template. 

Cartoon Animator has three standardized character bone templates for quadrupeds; Dogs, Cats, and Horses. All have the same basic bone structure, it's just the proportions that differentiate them. All are side (profile) views of each animal. This last feature may seem a bit limiting but you can definitely work around it if you need different angles.

The reason to use one of these templates is that all of the premade quadruped motions work with all of the templates - saving you considerable time in animation. Thus you can make a cat walk like a horse. It may look a little odd, but you can do it. Which is even better when you're creating a completely mythical beast like a dragon.

Before I designed my red dragon I decided a dragon would most probably move like a cat most of the time. More deliberate and calculating than a dog, with more compact limbs than a horse.

That's how I ended up with my shorter neck, more agile, dragon design (since I had the idea already that the dragon would be running after a knight through the forest).

While you don't have to follow the proportions of any of the templates this closely, the closer you are, the less you'll have to adjust the predefined motions when you apply them.

Rigging the Dragon Body

Rigging a quadruped is no different to rigging a human template character (other than the different folder names of course). I'll confess, until this moment, I had never rigged a quadruped character using any of the templates. However, I used my one sprite method, that I sell a complete rigging tutorial about, and I rigged my sketch in less than an hour.

This is also why my rigging tutorial only teaches you how to rig front facing G3 human characters. You don't actually need a tutorial for each different template. The process is the same for all the G3 templates, it's just the bone orientation and folder/part names that change.

My Initial Dragon Rig. Notice in the Layer Manager that it isn't literally made from one sprite, and that I've added additional bones for the wings.
My Initial Dragon Rig. Notice in the Layer Manager that it isn't literally
made from one sprite, and that I've added additional bones for the wings.

You'll notice from the image of my dragon rig in the Composer, above, my dragon isn't literally made from one single sprite image. You can see the different sprites in the Layer Manager. My 'one sprite' method is so named because you use a single image of your character to create all the individual sprites needed for a complete character rig.

For example the dragon's right front and rear leg are actually just the left front and rear legs duplicated. For each body part I import the entire character image into the rig, and then, using the sprite mask editor, erase/mask out anything that isn't that body part.

Another point to notice is that I've added additional bones to the template for the wing sprites. It's perfectly okay to add bones to any of the standard templates. So long as you don't change the basic structure of the template it'll still work with predefined motions. 

Those motions won't have any affect on the bones you've added since the new bones are not referenced in predefined motion files. You'll have to key frame the new bones yourself after adding your predefined motions.

Finally, you'll notice this rig has no actual talking head sprites (or talking head at all). The dragon head image is simply a part of the main hip sprite image.

The Finished Dragon (Mark I)

Additional wing sprite images so the wings could fold in and out, along with some wing extensions to make the dragon feel bigger.
Additional wing sprite images so the wings
could fold in and out, along with some wing
extensions to make the dragon feel bigger.

Obviously I went on to painting the dragon, which I did by exporting my template from Cartoon Animator, so I could simply color the sketched sprites and not have to remake them all. As I would have to do if I had gone back to my original source image to do the painting.

I did make some additional wing sprites so the dragon could fold its wings in and out. I also made some wing extensions to make the dragon feel bigger - and because the wings play a prominent role in the animation.

It was this version of the dragon that I used in my final animation since there was no real need for facial expressions, or any scenes where you actually see the dragon roar.

In terms of motion files I ended up using premade dog motion files for the dragon running through the forest. Then cat motion files when it sits, and for when it leaps in the air.

Making a Talking Dragon (Mark II)

While I didn't actually need my dragon to talk I always planned to, eventually, sell the dragon in my Reallusion Marketplace Store. I imagined people would love to buy it but be disappointed if it couldn't make any kind of facial expression or be made to talk using Cartoon Animator's auto lip syncing function. (Since there are so many dragon stories where dragons can talk).

You can see from my original sketches shown at the top of this article I did a few studies of what my dragon's face might look like from the front. I did this with a view to eventually creating a G3-360 head. I haven't ruled it out but, since I've never rigged a dragon's head before, I thought I'd make it a little easier by sticking to a profile view.

Unlike my human character rigging method I did not start out by first creating a morph-based head from which to derive all my face sprites for the different expressions. Instead I went straight into creating the various sprites using my existing face image as a starting point.

The head shape, upper jaw, eyes, nose and brows I was able to derive from the existing image. The lower jaw was there but, for the first time, I had to draw something completely new, the mouth interior.

The six eye expressions you need were very easy to make by simply deforming the 'normal' version of the eye. The nose and brows are just a single sprite each.

For the mouth I created my jaw with its lower interior set of teeth and tongue and then used the deform tool in Krita (my graphics editor) to create the 15 other mouth sprite shapes needed for lip syncing to work.

Something I barely use for human characters - to the point that I don't even reference it in my rigging tutorials - is the Facial Animation Setup Window. For human, front facing characters, the default settings work just fine. 

For a side facing dragon with the jaw of a... well... dragon you have to go through and tweak all the settings for the eyes, brows, and mouth. If you don't, the default settings, optimised for a front facing human face, will completely ruin your face rig when you try to puppet the face or even apply face templates.

Most of the Dragon's face sprites were derived from the original head. I only had to create a mouth interior for the lower jaw. Here You can see how the Facial Animation Setup window uses deforms to get more expression into character faces.
Most of the Dragon's face sprites were derived from the original head. I only had
to create a mouth interior for the lower jaw. Here you can see how the Facial
Animation Setup window uses deforms to get more expression into character faces.

While it all looks fairly complex, I was surprised at how well it all came together. Overall it took the best part of a day to fully rig the head as I've described, not because it was difficult, it's just a little time consuming.

---o ---o--- o---

Hopefully you've gained some insight and confidence in how to go about rigging your own quadruped characters in Cartoon Animator. As I said, if you've learned how to rig a front facing human character, then you have the skills to work this out without any additional tutorials.

I found the whole process very rewarding, and satisfying to see a non human character suddenly not only being able to talk but to also emote.

I still want to see if I can convert the dragon's head into a G3-360 head but that's for another time (and article).

Popular posts from this blog

Can You Learn Reallusion's Cartoon Animator 5 for Free Using Their 137 Official YouTube Video Tutorials Sorted Into a Logical Learning Order?

Or you could just buy The Lazy Animator Beginner's Guide to Cartoon Animator . While Reallusion's Cartoon Animator is one of the easiest 2D animation studios to get up and running with quickly, learning it from all of the official, free, video tutorials can be more overwhelming than helpful. With more than 137 videos totaling more than 28 and a half hours of tutorials, spread across three generations of the software (Cartoon Animator 3 through 5) it's hard to know if what you're learning is a current or legacy feature that you either need to know or can be skipped. Many of the official tutorials only teach specific features of the software and don't relate at all to previous or later tutorials. As a result there are many features either not mentioned or are hard to find. To make your learning easier, on this page, I've collected together all of the essential, official, free video tutorials and sorted them into a learning order that makes sense. Simply start at

AE Juice - Animation Presets, Motion Graphics, Templates, Transitions for After Effects, Premiere Pro, and Other Video Applications

Level up you video edits and animations with AE Juice's motion graphics and templates. Some days you just don't have the time to create flashy motion graphics for your latest video or animation. For some of us it's more a question of our own artistic abilities being a little less than the awesome we'd like them to be. Whatever reason a resource like AE Juice's animation presets, motion graphics, templates, and transitions packs for After Effects , Premiere Pro , and other video applications can really make your work stand out very quickly. AE Juice gives you access to an instant library of free, premade content elements and sound effects, which you can add to with additional purchases of various themed packs from their store. There are three ways to manage their content, all of which can be used in commercial projects . The AE Juice Standalone Package Manager makes it easy to browse previews of all your pack contents and to download and find just the elements yo

Artbreeder - Using AI created Character and Background Content in your Animations

A selection of User/AI generated images from Artbreeder. If you're looking for an endless supply of 2D character and background images for your animations then Artbreeder , an online Artificial Intelligence (AI) that generates image mash-ups you can tweak as much as you like, could be the ultimate content library. What is Artbreeder? Artbreeder is free to use though there are various paid plans, that give you additional features, such as higher resolution download images or more settings to play with. All images created on the site are Public Domain (CC0 License) and can be used in commercial projects. Using Artbreeder's online app you can generate head shot portraits, full body characters, landscapes, and other scenes simply by choosing two or more existing images to mash together then, using a series of sliders, to select which traits from each image you wish to lean toward in the final image. Photo Comparison - Top is my original uploaded photo. Bottom is Artbreeder's ap

Jarrad Wright, The Big Lez Show - Who Would've thought Animating with MS Paint Could Take You So Far?

A friend of mine recommended I should check out The Big Lez Show after I mentioned to him I make animations for living. He said the show's creator, Australian animator, Jarrad Wright , just makes episodes from his home using MS Paint. Somewhat shamefully I hadn't heard of The Big Lez Show, but the fact that it was being made with MS Paint absolutely hooked me into checking out. If you've never heard or seen the show then you, like I was, are probably thinking how good could it be? MS Paint has kind of a cult following of hardcore animators but no one would use it as their primary animation tool on a series, right? WARNING - before going any further, you need to know The Big Lez Show and its humor contains some pretty strong language. By strong I mean it's peppered very liberally with the 'F' and 'C' words and is very every day Aussie, blue collar speak. Unapologetically, all of that, is part of why it's so good. There's a good chance you've

Moho 14 Released - Still the Best 2D Animation Software for Indy Animators on a Budget

Moho 14 Released. Regular readers know I am a Reallusion, Cartoon Animator advocate through and through. Hands down I would recommend Cartoon Animator 5 first over Lost Marble's Moho 14 to anyone who is just starting in 2D animation, is a team of one, or just needs to animate as quickly as possible. However, feature for feature, Moho is, arguably, the best 2D animation software for the rest of us who can't justify a Toon Boom Harmony , or Adobe Creative Cloud subscription (and even with their applications Moho is very competitive on features). You can get started with Moho Debut for just USD$59.99 which is a cut down version of Moho Pro but it still has the most essential features needed for 2D animation. While Moho Pro is a whopping USD$399.99 (Cartoon Animator, which only has one version, is just USD$149.00) upgrades to new version numbers come down to a quarter of the price at USD$99.00. Even though Reallusion just released features like Motion Pilot Puppet Animation and

Reallusion Releases Cartoon Animator 5 - One Version, More Features, Lower Price!

If you're serious about producing 2D animation as quickly as possible, while still achieving professional results, Reallusion's Cartoon Animator 5 makes the most compelling case yet as your animation studio/tool of choice. Cartoon Animator's point of difference has always been its ease of use and accelerated workflow. Creating fast, 2D animation using puppet, bone rigged based characters and props, on a stage with 3D depth for easy scene parallax effects. As it has developed Reallusion has incorporated more advanced features like motion capture for both face and body as well as being able to export scenes to post production tools like After Effects with the addition of plugins. After moving away from Flash based vector image support for a few years, Reallusion is back with full .SVG (scalable vector graphics) support for resolution independent graphics. They've also added Spring Dynamic physics and Full Form Deformation tools, both of which make it ridiculously easy t

Cartoon Animator 5 and G2 Characters - Why You'll Probably Never Use Them Even Though They're Great

Since I've previously covered how to get the most out of your purchased G3 and G1 characters for Reallusion's Cartoon Animator 5, it would be remiss of me not to look at the greatest character rig of all time, G2 characters. G2 Characters have been mostly relegated to legacy status since Cartoon Animator 3 but, as a rig that let you create fully 360 degree turn-able characters that moved in 3D space, animated with 3D motion files, and were mostly vector based, there was nothing else like them in any other 2D  software. The problem was, even with the templates provided by Reallusion for both Adobe Flash and Serif DrawPlus , they were complex and time consuming to make from scratch. They were also difficult to customize because there was no way to export and edit individual parts. G2 characters just weren't easy enough for the casual Cartoon Animator user to customize so they fell by the wayside. However they're still fully supported in CA5 with all the same functional