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Bringing Hand-Drawn Comics to Life with Animation Technology

Industry veterans Seth Zeichner and Pat Mariarity discuss using Adobe Character Animator and After Effects to create their animated short, ‘The Realm Beyond Reason.’

The dynamic relationship between design and technology continues to push creatives to new heights, with each element feeding off the other to present artists with new opportunities. The trend is obvious in digital animation, where content is perpetually disrupted by fresh minds and novel tools. 

One shining example of this comes from two veterans of the animation and comics fields, Seth Zeichner and Pat Moriarity. The duo created the short film The Realm Beyond Reason that brings hand-drawn comic illustrations to life using Adobe Character Animator and Adobe After Effects, producing a distinctly unique vibe and aesthetic. 

Moriarity, an award-winning designer, cartoonist, and illustrator, has created hundreds of covers for music formats (CD, 45 record and LP) going back to the late 1980s for labels like Twin/Tone, Columbia, Subpop, and more. In the 1990s, he was an art director for Seattle-based comic book publisher Fantagraphics Books, contributing to many well-known comics, and producing comics and illustrations for Nickelodeon, National Geographic Kids Magazine, and HIGHLIGHTS. In 2005, he created animation for the documentary Derailroaded

He always maintained his stature in the underground comics scene as contributor and art director for Mineshaft Magazine, and was eventually recruited to teach storyboarding at both the Seattle Art Institute and Seattle Film Institute. 

Zeichner aspired to be a cartoonist when he started his studies at the New York City’s School of Visual Arts, but soon fell in love with animation. He went on to work for the popular Nickelodeon Kids television show, Blue’s Clues, one of the first shows to use Adobe After Effects, giving him even steadier footing in his profession. 

After years spent working with a range of companies such as Nickelodeon and Microsoft, Zeichner too went on to teach at Seattle Art Institute, which is ultimately where he and Moriarity met. “One day I was talking to Seth about an animation project I was working on with a Dublin-based comedy writer named Garret Shanley,” Moriarity shares. “We needed an animator and after seeing my storyboards and artwork he said, ‘Let’s finish it.’” 

Blending traditional comic book style with modern animation, Zeichner and Moriarity storyboarded with paper and pencil to plan out the short film. The dark comedy is cut from the same cloth as legendary classics like The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits - and is even in black and white - but comes with a few different spins, including the groundbreaking animation that begins with paper-and-pen illustrations.

“Because I’m a comic book artist and illustrator, I insisted on drawing everything on paper with nibs because I wanted the cartoon to look as much like a hand-drawn comic as possible,” Moriarity reveals. “There are all kinds of crazy cross-hatching and stuff that you don’t typically see in animated cartoons.” 

Although Moriarity still draws a few extra frames here and there, almost everything is completed in Adobe Character Animator. After scanning in the drawing, he puts the scenes and characters in motion with trigger workflows, automatic lip sync, motion tracking, and walk cycles. “In the pantheon of animation, we’d never see anything like this without Character Animator, because artists had to create the styles for the animation so that you could make them over and over again,” Zeichner explains. “With this technology, we’re able to try out some really interesting animations.” 

The pair worked closely with the Adobe Character Animator team throughout the film production, which ultimately contributed to the product’s development along the way. “We’d show the Character Animator team a scene and say, ‘Here’s what we want to do,’ and they’d run with it,” Zeichner adds. “Lots of really innovative tools within Character Animator have already come from that collaboration on this project. There really hasn’t been a film at any film festival made with this technology yet.” 

If you’re interested in creating your own animated moments, learn more about Adobe Character Animator here, available as a free trial within Adobe Creative Cloud. You can take your animation into After Effects or Premiere Pro for further refinement and incorporate into existing animation projects. Eager to get started with pre-existing puppets? Check out the Character Animator Gallery, filled with free-to-use characters.