After Effects tutorial: Animate a 16-bit game character

Following up his tutorial in last month’s issue on creating a character in the style of a 16-bit arcade game such as Street Fighter II, here James May takes you through the steps involved in animating this character to create a ‘load screen’.

Following up his tutorial in last month’s issue on creating a character in the style of a 16-bit arcade game such as Street Fighter II, here James May takes you through the steps involved in animating this character to create a ‘load screen’.

James used these same techniques in making the video promo for Nero’s breakthrough hit You & Me. You’ll learn the best way to bring the character into After Effects, then how to composite it over an arcade-style logo/loading screen. The effects and adjustment layers can be used to recreate an effective retro arcade-game look in other projects, too.

If you didn’t follow last month’s tutorial, don’t worry – we’ve included the finished character from it in the project files.


Scaling up Photoshop layers in AfterEffects will give distortion, so we’ll need to scale in Photoshop. Launch it, open the character created in last month’s tutorial and zoom in to 450%. Add a new layer behind all six stances of the character and fill with a bright green. Take screen grabs of all six and bring them into one new Photoshop file in individual layers. Use Select > Color Range to delete the green from all layers and save the result as 16-bit 450%.psd (you’ll find this in the project files).


Create a new HD-resolution Photoshop file (1920 x 1080, 72dpi). Using the font Pixelzim (downloadable from, type in your desired arcade game title – I’m using ‘Smudgethis’ – and reduce the kerning to -180. Scale it up so that it fills about 80% of the composition width.

Double click to the right of the layer name in the layer browser to add a stepped gradient. The screenshot (above) shows how you can set this up. Save the file as Logo.psd.

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Launch After Effects and import (Cmd/Ctrl + I) both the new Photoshop files as compositions with cropped layers. Open the ‘16-bit 450%’ composition, delete the ‘Background’ layer and go to 2f in the timeline. Select all layers and trim (Alt + ]), then deselect all (Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + A).

Select the first layer of animation and Shift-click on the last. Right click any layer and select Keyframe Assistant > Sequence Layers. In the dialog that appears, ensure Overlap is unselected, then hit OK. This places your animation steps in order along the timeline. Now go to the last frame of the animation and hit N to set the end of the work area. Select Composition > Trim Comp to Work Area so the composition is only as long as we have frames for.


Open the ‘Logo’ composition, then select the ‘16-bit 450%’ comp in the Project panel and hit Cmd/Ctrl + / to add it to the timeline.

Select this comp in the timeline and hit Cmd/Ctrl + Alt + T to add Time Remapping. Go to the penultimate frame, select the Time Remapping effect and add a keyframe. Delete the final keyframe so the effect stays steady beyond the last-but-one keyframe.

Alt-click the stopwatch by Time Remapping to open the script editor and type loopOut(“cycle”,0). You can now extend this layer and you will see that it loops the animation.


Go to the first frame and hit P to access the Position parameter. Slide the character off the left of the screen, hit the Stopwatch to start keyframing, go to around six seconds in and drag him to the right, holding Shift to keep the movement on a straight line.

Hit Space to preview your animation and check the animation matches the speed at which your character crosses the screen.

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Add a new black Solid as a background, as well as a new purple Solid at the top of the layer stack at 50% opacity.

With the purple layer selected, double-click the Ellipse tool in the toolbar to create an elliptical comp-sized mask. Double-tap M to bring up the mask settings. Increase the feather to 200px and reduce expansion to -100. Set the blending mode to Color and select the Inverted check box next to it.


Add another adjustment layer (Cmd/Ctrl + Alt + Y) and select Effect > Distort > Spherize with a radius of 1940. Scale the ‘Logo’ and ‘16-bit 450%’ layers to 70 per cent of their original size.


Add a new null layer (Cmd/Ctrl + Alt + Shift + Y), and parent both the logo and character comp to this. Select the null layer and hit R to bring up rotation keyframes. Alt + click the stop-watch and type wiggle(.5,.5). This will add a slight jittery motion to the video, giving a hand-held camera aesthetic.

Hit Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + / to bring the final comp into the render queue, using the Animation codec with no stretch and no audio. Ensure the frame rate is 25fps. Hit Render. Now it’s only the rest of the game that you need to create.

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James May is a freelance motion graphics designer based in London and Tunisia. He has worked on a number of music video projects for Nero and Punks Jump Up as well as corporate projects for Sony, Universal, Orange and BT.