After Effects tutorial: Animate a picture book

The key to producing simple but effective animation is to grasp the basic principles, as Lesley Barnes and Bruce Cameron explain

Lesley Barnes and Bruce Cameron, along with Matt Saunders, recently created the incredible papercut animated video for the Richard X mix of Belle and Sebastian’s I Didn’t See it Coming (see our August 2011 issue for more on this). So we asked them to showcase how they work in this style.

Here Lesley and Bruce walk you through their creation, purely in software, of a dynamic picture-book world – this time inspired by the jazz of Kit Downes – with a king riding through a forest on his magical ram. The results pay homage to stop-motion paper animation – such as the amazing silhouette-based work of Lotte Reiniger – as well as folk art.

First they give an insight into how they design characters in Photoshop to move with vigour and expression. Then you can join in as they show, step by step, how to bring the king, his ram and his pet bird to life. Is the king fleeing from something? The story is up to you…we’d love to see what you come up with.

Time to complete

6 hours


After Effects CS3 or later, Photoshop

Project Files

The files for this tutorial are dowloadable from here.


The characters are available in the project files, so here we’ll describe the principles behind them – rules that you should follow to make animation easier, whatever style you’re working in.

First, we created a new 1,754x1,736-pixel Photoshop document. This is bigger than the composition size of the animation, but gives us more flexibility with the characters in After Effects. The ram and the king ‘puppets’ were both created out of simple shapes: the ram’s body, for example, is simply two large circles connected by a curved shape (above) and his legs are a combination of circles and triangles.


It is important to consider how the characters are constructed, as this will affect how they move. Adding joints at particular points can help give a character personality when animated. The ram’s neck, for example, had two elements. This makes it easier to give the impression that his head is weighed down by his heavy horns.

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Once the elements were in place, it was time to add details like ears, eyes and tails. The details can be important as they also help imbue your characters with personality. The ram’s straight tail, for example, gives him an alert quality.


When adding decoration, using a limited palette and repeating patterns can help unite all the elements of the animation. That’s why we used the same sort of motif for both the characters and the trees.


Arranging layers correctly is essential to efficient work later on. We had to make sure that all the layers were correctly ordered and labelled (such as ‘ram_hoof_right_front’) in the PSD file, to make it much easier to keep track of everything once we imported the file into AE.

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Now it’s time for you to muck in. Launch After Effects and import king.psd from the project files. In the dialogue box that appears, make sure ‘composition’ is selected in the drop-down menu (so the layered file comes in as a comp), as well as ‘Merge layer styles into footage’ (to speed up rendering). Open the new comp and select Composition >  Composition Settings. Change the composition’s size to 1280 x 720px, set its frame rate to 25fps, and make the comp 10 seconds long.


Hide the background layer, as well as all the layers for the king and bird, by selecting them all in the timeline and deselecting the video switch (the eye symbol). For the first layer of the ram (‘ram_hoof_right_front’) use the Pan Behind tool (Y) to drag the pivot point – the little blue circle – to where the joint should rotate. Repeat the process for all ram layers, then rescale them to 45% of their original size.


Working inwards from the outer parts, go through each layer of the ram in turn, and parent each to the part closer in using the layer’s pick whip in the timeline. For example you parent ‘ram_hoof_left_back’ to ‘ram_leg2_left_back’, which in turn you parent to ‘ram_leg_left_back’, and then to ‘ram_back’. Finally, parent ‘ram_front’ to ‘ram_middle’ and ‘ram_middle’ to ‘ram_back’, putting ‘ram_back’ at the top of the hierarchy.

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Repeat steps 7 and 8 for the bird and king layers. Make sure that the top of the hierarchy for the king is his pelvis and for the bird, its legs.


Time to animate the ram. Hide the layers for the king, bird and the ram’s head. At the first frame mark, select all layers, hit R to open up the rotation attribute, and click on the stopwatch to set the first key. Animate the legs between 1 and 2 seconds by dragging the rotation attribute and clicking the Add Keyframe button on the layer. Use the timeline above and the four poses below as references.


Refine by adding rotation on the back, front and middle sections, adjusting the leg rotations as required. Move on to keying the head and neck to add weight to the animation (unhiding them first, of course). The image above shows what to aim for; the fourth pose needs to be the same as the first for the loop to work, so use copy and paste.

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Now to work on the king. At the first frame, create a null object (Layer > New > Null Object) and rename this to ‘King_Master’. Parent ‘king_pelvis’ to the new layer and ‘King_Master’ to the ‘ram_middle’. This will ensure the king’s position stays fixed relative to the middle of the ram.

Likewise make a control layer for the bird and parent this layer to ‘king_lefthand’. Start to animate the king and bird to the same timings as the ram.


Precompose with all layers selected (Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + C) so AE won’t have to re-render the piece later. Name the new comp ‘Animation’. Import a music track if desired and drag it into the working comp. Right click on the ‘Animation’ layer and select Time> Enable time remapping. Scrub to and add keys at both 1 and 2 seconds for the Time Remap attribute. Move these two keys to the start of the timeline so they sit at 0 and 1 seconds.


Now loop the animation. Ctrl-click the stopwatch for the animation layer and type loopOut(“cycle”,1). This will loop between the last key frame and the one frame before it. Copy the background layer from the animation comp and place it into the working_comp. Right-click on the layer and select Transform > Fit to comp.

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Drag the working comp to the render queue (Window > Render Queue). Click on Output Module Settings and choose a file format (we’ve used QuickTime Movie). Click the Format Options and select, say, Photo-JPEG from the drop-down menu and set the quality to High. Click on, set the file name and path and click Render.


Bruce Cameron

Freelance artist Bruce Cameron’s work ranges from 3D animation and modelling to 2D motion graphics. He has worked on two feature films, Sir Billi the Vet and Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist. Based in Glasgow, he has an MPhil from the Glasgow School of Art and is a resident artist at


Lesley Barnes

Lesley Barnes is an animator and illustrator from Glasgow, whose work has spanned TV, film and advertising. Her animations have been shown at festivals around the world and have won a number of awards. Recently she has been focusing on illustration, too, producing work for publications such as the Style magazine of The Sunday Times, as well as for institutions like the V&A.