After Effects tutorial: Create a 3D animation of folding paper

Build a paper-folding trick animation from still images in After Effects.

After Effects guru Angie Taylor says that the technique detailed in this tutorial is inspired by an old trick her grandad used to do with a five-pound note.

He would fold the paper in such a way that when tilted it would make the Queen’s face happy or sad. You can see how the trick appears here.

Angie wanted to use this idea in After Effects to create an ad spot for a hair product. The idea was to create a ‘Sad Hair – Happy Hair’ scenario where magical hair product Happy Hair cheers up your drab barnet.

Approaches like this are really useful as they allow you to create footage and animation from very few source files. All I’ve used here are five images of these models – and one audio track.

The images in this tutorial are from, which is now part of Getty and the audio track Pages is by up-and-coming electronic act Lifecycle (which features the bass skills of Digital Arts’ own Letitia Austin).

It’s very easy to replicate the effect with your own photos and music – and in the end you’ll have a complete animated advert for a hair product for very little budget.

Next month Angie will show you how to edit the pieces together for the most engaging results.

The project files do not include the photos, as we’re unable to distribute these for copyright reasons. It’s simple to replace them with your own though.

Time to complete

2 hours

Software needed

After Effects CC

Project Files

Please visit the desktop site to download the project files.


Create a new project in After Effects and import your photos and audio.

Choose View > Show Rulers,  then drag Guides from the rulers onto the image. To create the ‘sad face/happy face’ effect we need to create a guide on the centre of each eyeball and another halfway between these.

Setting up Guides will make it easier to draw masks accurately. It’s also useful to create guides at the top and bottom edge of the comp.


I want to create several folds to make the hair appear crumpled. Create further guides till it looks like the screenshot here. You should divide the image into a total of 20 sections.

In the timeline, duplicate image the 19 times till you have a total of 20 layers. Each duplicate will now be masked to create a section of the folded paper.

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Select the Rectangle tool (Q). Using the guides from left to right, draw a single mask on each layer. Ensure you have View > Snap to Guides turned on, so the masks should snap to the guides as you draw.


When you reach the mask going through the left-most eyeball, select the layer and label it (Edit > Label > Red). This will be the layer that will drive the animation.


For our layers to look like folds of paper, we will need to rotate them in 3D space.

To do this, select all the layers in the timeline and click the 3D switch for one, so all the selected layers will change to 3D.

To ensure that the sections fold along the correct 3D axis, we must now move the anchor points of each layer.

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From the toolbar, select the Pan Behind tool (Y) and make sure snapping is on.

Select each layer and move its anchor point by dragging it. Start with the red-labelled layer, moving its anchor point to its masked, right edge.

Repeat so that all the layers to the left of this layer should have their anchor points on their left edges. All layers to the right should have them on their right edges.


We now want to set up a parenting structure so that red-labelled layer’s rotation animation will control all of the other layers animation too.

Start by dragging the parent pickwhip from the layer above the red-labelled layer onto the red-labelled layer. This makes the red layer control the other layer.


Continue moving up the layer stack, dragging each’s pickwhip to the layer directly below it.

Then do the same with the layers below the red-labelled layer. Move down the list of layers, dragging each layer’s pickwhip to the layer directly above it. This creates a hierarchal animation system.

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With the current structure, if I rotate the red-labelled layer, all the other layers will rotate the same way.

However, we want to create a concertina-type effect like folding paper. To do this we can use expressions to adapt the parented values.


Add an expression to the Y Rotation property of the layer directly above the red layer by Alt-clicking on it’s stopwatch. Type in the following into the expression text field:


This will take the current value – the layer’s transform.rotation value and it’s parented value – and multiply this by -2. For example, a value of 30 in the red layer produces a value of -60 here.

Add the same expression to the layer directly below the red layer.


Add the following expression to the Y Rotation value of the layer directly below the layer you just finished editing:


This will make each subsequent layer have the opposite value from the previous one. So if the previous layer had a value of -60, this one will have a value of 60.

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Select the Layer that you just added the expression to and choose Edit > Copy Expression Only. Select all the other layers that do not currently have expressions and hit Paste to apply the same expression to all the other layers.

This is an easy way to apply expressions in batches. Another way would be to save the expression as an Animation Preset.


To see how this parenting and expression animation works, select the Red layer and solo it’s Rotation property by hitting R. Scrub this value till you get a value of 30.

Notice, as you scrub, that all the other layers rotate in unison and in relation to each other creating a concertina effect.


To see the ‘Sad Face/Happy Face’ effect we need to look at the ‘folded paper’ from an angle tilted towards us to make the face sad and away from us to make it happy.

The easiest way to achieve this is to create a camera and tilt the camera. Go to Layer > New > Camera. In the dialog box, select the default 50mm camera – click OK.

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Select the Camera Orbit tool from the toolbar. Tilt the camera towards you, then away from you to see the happy and sad faces.

On the sad face position, keyframe the camera’s Position and Point of Interest values. Go to a later point in time and use the Camera Orbit tool to tilt the camera in the opposite direction. It should now animate from one expression to another.


Adding Lights will make the paper folds look more realistic. Add an Ambient light at 40% Intensity, and a Parallel light with an Intensity of 100%. Adjust the angle of the Parallel light to accentuate the folds of paper.

You may find that gaps appear between the folds, if this happens, select all of the masks with a marquee selection and change the Mask Expansion value of all to 3px.


Select all of the layers except the camera and lights. Hit A twice to open the Material Options of the layers.
With them all selected, adjust the values here to change the way that the layers react to the lighting. Experiment with different combinations for different effects.

Now experiment with this idea. Remember you can also animate the lighting or the angle value of the paper folds.

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