After Effects & Photoshop tutorial: Animate your drawings into a beautiful cartoon

Vida Vega shows you how to animate a traditional matte painting techniques using blending modes in Photoshop and After Effects.

It’s easy to be distracted by flashy digital effects, but sometimes keeping it simple can be just as effective.

Keeping in mind how people used to do compositing before computers arrived on the scene, it is possible to use After Effects and Photoshop to create contemporary animation in a traditional way.

Here, animator Vida Vega shows you how she uses blending modes and digital painting to composite and tint a piece of hand-drawn animation in a subtle way that lets the original artwork take centre stage.

She also reveals some great ways to speed up your workflow and alleviate much of the monotony of creating mattes of individual frames.

Time to complete

3 hours


After Effects, Adobe Photoshop


The animation I want to put together shows a dog swimming and ripples on the water’s inky surface. I hand-drew around 32 black-and-white frames for each of the three layers – the dog above water, the ripples and the underwater portion of the dog – and then scanned them in.

To see how they’ll look when comped, I’ve quickly assembled them together in Photoshop using a Multiply blending mode, as shown above.


Before animating them in After Effects, I needed to create mattes of the top layers to layer over the lower drawings. To speed up the process, I opened the first image in the sequence in Photoshop and started recording a new Action.

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I double-clicked the image to unlock the Background layer and set its blending mode to Multiply. Then I created a new blank layer below it, to paint the matte into.


Underneath these I made a third layer filled with a violently bright colour, to make it easy to see what I’m painting. At this point I stopped recording the Action. It will prove handy when preparing the other frames in the sequence.


With a fairly hard brush, I filled in the dog with white on the matte layer. I wasn’t worried about rotating the image or making any adjustments; I just wanted to make a matte.

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Then I created another Action. I deleted the brightly coloured layer and the line layer, and saved the result as a PNG in a new folder for the mattes. I closed the image, selecting Don’t Save when asked whether the original artwork should be retained. Then I stopped recording the Action.

I then worked through the rest of the frames by loading them in chunks as separate files, applying the first Action, painting the matte and then applying the second Action – leaving me ready to work on the next frame.


Once I was done matting, I took the images and imported them as sequences into a new After Effects composition. Be sure to interpret the footage at the correct frame rate – in this case 12fps. To do this, select the footage in the Project window and press Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + G.


I layered together all the footage in the right order, from top to bottom: ‘upper dog’, ‘upper dog matte’, ‘ripple’ and ‘lower dog’. I parented everything to the ‘lower dog’ layer, so when I rotated and scaled it to fit the composition nicely, the rest of the layers followed suit.

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Next I added two new layers of scanned watercolour ink on paper to add water texture to the lower part of the dog’s body. I sandwiched the watercolour layers between the matte and the lower dog and set the blending mode of these layers to Multiply.


For better contrast, I wanted the ripples to appear white on the dark water and the lower dog layer to show up underneath the new watercolour texture, so I inverted both layers (Effect > Channel > Invert). I set the ripple layer’s blending mode to Screen so the black areas of the drawing would appear transparent.


At this stage, it’s always good to use the Levels filter to tweak the contrast on all the layers to make sure they are working together as a whole. In particular, the two watercolour textures needed lightening as multiplying the two together makes the whole thing get a bit ‘lost in the dark’.

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To stop the watercolour layers appearing too static, I added a couple of position keyframes (press P when the layer is selected) to give a nice, slowish, roughly diagonal motion over the ‘lower dog’ layer.


I did the same for the second watercolour layer, but made it move in roughly the opposite direction. It and the first layer should overlap and move in a more organic way like this.


Next, I added a solid – I’ve made it deep indigo but the colour doesn’t matter – between the two watercolour layers and the ‘ripple’ layer. I set the blending mode to Multiply and played with the opacity until I got a nice balance between saturation and transparency.

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Finally, I cast a last look over the image as a whole and tweaked the contrast in any layers that needed changing with the added colour. That’s it. Play it back, be amazed by the illusion of movement, and export.