After Effects tutorial: Create animation that looks hand-drawn

Learn how to produce cartoons with the look of cel animation – without the hassle of drawing each frame by hand.


Many of us would love to create a hand-drawn animation that’s made from scratch – with love and a lot of pencil or pen strokes – but sometimes there’s just no time for that. But I really don’t have to because I have an creative process that rolls from Adobe Illustrator to After Effects workflow that works great for animation.

The end result will have the rough feel of cel animation – but you’ll be able to concentrate more time on bringing out your characters and storytelling in your animation.

In this tutorial, we’re going to learn a little about how to set up your drawing in Illustrator and then how to set up the layers, keys and expressions for getting that hand-drawn look.

If you want to see more on how to create these types of Illustrations, you’ll see many of the same techniques in this Illustrator course, and lots of the same animation approaches in this After Effects tutorial.

STEP 1

Let’s start in Illustrator, creating a central character – in my case a bee – and a series of circles for the background.. Make sure your characters and other elements have both strokes and fills – even if it’s a black fill with a black stroke. This will give you the maximum ‘hand-drawn’ effect later.


Tip: Save time when drawing something symmetrical by duplicating and flipping the new layer.


STEP 2

Draw everything on one layer at the beginning. When you’re all done, group them, select the group but don’t target it. Still in the Layers panel, click on the the hamburger menu and choose Release to Layers (Build).

This will save your life if you have a complicated drawing that you want to animate.


Tip: Ensure you rename those layers from the defaults to something more descriptive. This will save you brain-ache later when you’re trying to select a particular part of a character or object

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STEP 3

Next, open After Effects and import your Illustrator file. In the Imports As: dropdown, change Footage to Composition - Retain Layer Sizes. This will allow you to have access to all the layers and animate them all!.


STEP 4

I want to start by creating and animating the background, which is primarily made of dots. Create a new composition called ‘dot’ and copy and paste your circles from your main composition.


I made this layer small so I could just duplicate it a few times and use instances rather than many individual layers. I do want to animate each dot within the smaller group though.

Start by selecting all the dots in the small group and then right click on them and select Create Shapes from Vector Layer.


STEP 5

Select one of the shapes. Toggle down the layer and look for the Add fly-out menu. Choose Wiggle Paths from the list.

For a dot of moderate size, I turned the Size parameter down to 2.0 and the Detail parameter to 3.0. This will vary greatly depending on how big or small of a scale your drawing was done at.

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STEP 6

Increase your number of wiggles per second to 10.0. They need to look fast enough to look like individual frames but not so fast that they lose their rough charm.

Now you can simply copy your Wiggle Paths effect to all your other dot shape layers. You may need to make some adjustments depending on how greatly your shapes vary in scale from one to the next.

The goal is to get them to all look like they have the same amount of bumpy, hand-drawn, wiggly goodness.


STEP 7

Let’s take it one step further and add a little overall jittery movement to the shapes. Alt + click the Position stopwatch of a dot layer and type the expression wiggle(10,1).

Repeat this step for all your layers (speed it up by copying and pasting the expression.)


STEP 8

Now you should have a small group of wiggly dots, so precompose them.

Create a new composition at the size you want your video to be. I chose 1920x1080. Then drag in that dot comp and duplicate rotate and move them around until you have a consistently spaced background. For me it took 5 layers. Precompose again.

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STEP 9

I added a pale yellow background colour then duplicated my ‘dots’ precomp so that I had 2 of them.

By then slightly offsetting the bottom layer and changing the top layer’s blending mode to Add, I got an awesome hand-drawn-yet-beveled-looking dot.

Play around with layers and blend modes until you get the background looking just the way you want


STEP 10

Next I pulled in the Bee comp from earlier, deleting the circles from as we’ve already animated them.

Because we imported as a composition you should be able to drag the whole drawing around and only when you want to start animating individual layers do you need to click into that precomp.

I got the main flying movement of the bee blocked out before I ever added the hand-drawn details


STEP 11

Select the Pan Behind Anchor Point tool and move those anchor points where you want the layer to pivot from.

Repeat the step from earlier of converting all your AI layers to Shape Layers. Don’t make everything do the Wiggle Paths thing just yet because adding movement to the bee – such as rotation to flap the wings or bob the head – will be harder to do with everything wiggling.

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STEP 12

I started with the head and body, adding some really subtle rotation with a wiggle of (0.5,10). This means there’s a 10-degree rotation, but only every two seconds.

Animating one side of the wings to flutter and then mirroring them over using Flip Horizontal is faster than doing all four wings separately.


STEP 13

When it came to the wings, I decided what frame range I wanted the bee to be flying versus still, and I simply duplicated the layers that didn’t have the flutter expression on those layers during those frames. Once you have all the movement of the bee finished you can now begin adding the Wiggle Paths effect to give everything that hand-drawn look.


STEP 14

I wanted to finish it all off with a text reveal. I used the font Montana typeface but you can use anything with a script vibe.

Now grab your Pen tool and trace along the text creating a mask along the letterforms. Try to flow your mask in a way that makes sense with how you’d connect the letters if you were writing them by hand.

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STEP 15

Once your mask is finished, go to Effect > Generate > Stroke. This will give you a stroke effect you can use to reveal the type.

In the Effect Controls panel, change the Paint Style from On Original Image to Reveal Original Image. Now increase your Brush Size so that all the text is revealed. Now you can set some keys for the reveal. When the “End” property equals 100% you’ll fully see the text so set a key at both 0% and 100% for a full reveal.


STEP 16

You now have some awesome techniques for quickly making that awesome hand-drawn look in a fraction of the time.


Tip: Use Shy to Hide

STEP 17

When you Create Shapes from Vector Layer in Step 4, try setting all the original Illustrator layers to shy and then toggling on or off the main Shy switch. This will help keep you organised but also not get rid of anything if you need it a little later.

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Tip: The correct amount of Wiggle Room

STEP 18

When you have a Wiggle expression, the first number written is how many moves or wiggles per second. The second number is the amount it will move or wiggle in a direction. If you wrote the expression wiggle(10,1) for a position property of a layer that object would move 10 times every second and each move would be only 1 pixel away from where it started (always returning to its first spot).

If you wrote that same expression for a layer but put it on rotation instead of position, you’d probably see way more movement (in a 1080p comp) because rotation is measured in degrees not pixels.


Laura Hawk

STEP 19

Laura is a passionate visual effects and motion graphics author at Pluralsight. Her favourite projects are her two in-depth After Effects introductory courses on Pluralsight, which were each built around training motion artists and VFX artists, respectively. Laura has taught thousands of artists everything from shot-tracking and rotoscoping to motion design, and she has a passion for mid-century modern design (and her rambunctious dog Otis).

If you ever need to reach out for questions, comments, or to discuss nerdy motion designer things, feel free to reach out on Twitter.