A model is described for creating three-dimensional animated characters. In this new type of layered construction technique, called the elastic surface layer model, a simulated elastically deformable skin surface is wrapped around a traditional kinematic articulated figure. Unlike previous layered models, the skin is free to slide along the underlying surface layers constrained by reaction forces which push the surface out and spring forces which pull the surface in to the underlying layers. By tuning the parameters of the physically-based model, a variety of surface shapes and behaviors can be obtained such as more realistic-looking skin deformation at the joints, skin sliding over muscles, and dynamic effects such as squash-and-stretch and follow-through. Since the elastic model derives all of its input forces from the underlying articulated figure, the animator may specify all of the physical properties of the character once, during the initial character design process, after which a complete animation sequence can be created using a traditional skeleton animation technique. A reasonably complex character at low surface resolution can be simulated at interactive speeds so than an animator can both design the character and animate it in a completely interactive, direct-manipulation environment. Once a motion sequence has been specified, the entire simulation can be recalculated at a higher surface resolution for better visual results. An implementation on a Silicon Graphics Iris workstation is described