Top tips for creating animations in After Effects

These tips from Richard Borge's ICON9 workshop reveal how to animate illustrations in After Effects.

Adobe After Effects might be a complex program, but once you grasp some basic concepts, you’ll be able to create a range of animation styles. Richard Borge, who ran the illustration conference ICON9 workshop and After Effects tutorial, trained as an illustrator before teaching himself the program. He took attendees through the following basic concepts and, after just three hours, we had each created an animation. 

Borge has some key advice for anyone using After Effects: “Keep everything organised and split into pieces,” he says. “This means that when you have to change something, it won’t require you to deconstruct the entire animation.”

Using keyframes

After Effects allows you to incorporate Photoshop files into your Composition (Comp). When you import these files into a project, the layers will retain their individual qualities – simply drag one onto the Comp and it appears on the animation timeline.

Clicking the triangle next to Transform will show Position, Scale, Rotation and more. Each of these aspects are keyframes – a location on the timeline that marks the beginning or end of a transition. To add a keyframe, select which characteristic you want to alter and click forward on the timeline. The position, for instance, can change from one keyframe to another by dragging it along the Comp. When you play the animation, it will travel along the path you created.  

Easing can make transitions between keyframes look less choppy by organically speeding up or slowing down the animation. Find the Keyframe Assistant menu under Animation to incorporate easing. Easy Ease does what the name suggests by easing the element on both sides of the keyframe.

Connecting elements

Parenting synchronises the changes of one layer with another layer’s transformation. The wheel of a car, for instance, would be the child layer of a vehicle’s body, which is the parent. In this case, every time the car is moved, rotated or scaled, the wheel goes with it.

To assign the parent/child relationship, first make sure that your anchor points are correctly aligned. Think about it like the skeleton of a figure – what are the joints? When something rotates, where will it rotate from? Drag the anchor point to change its position. Once these points are determined, select the intended child element and click the spiral icon under Parent. 

Then, drag it to the parent element and release – the two are now paired and any changes you make will affect both parts of your new element.

Adding motion

The Puppet tool adds natural motion to a rasterised image. A snake can bob its head while its tail shakes, for example, all with the placement of a few pins. First, click on the triangle next to effects and select puppet. Under it, you’ll see Mesh 1. Click on the triangle next to it to bring up the Deform menu. You’ll now be able to click on the areas where you’d like to to add Puppet Pins – you can experiment with this until you get the effect you are looking for. Once you’ve finished placing your pins, click forward on the timeline and use the Transform property to stretch or distort each individual pin. Your puppeted subject will be moving in no time.

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Click on the child element (symbolised by a spiral) and drag the icon to its parent.

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Use the position attribute to move the element during keyframes.

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Adjust the anchor points to ensure that individual parts rotate in relation to one another.

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Use the Puppet Pins to assign movement to different parts of the same image.

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Once the pins are in place, drag to stretch, push, or distort the puppet.

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To export an animation into a movie, go to File > export > add to render queue.

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Once separate elements are paired together, they move as one unit.

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Puppeting and parenting an animation will help it to move more convincingly across the composition.

This article was originally published in Computer Arts magazine issue 258. Buy it here.