After Effects tutorial: Papercut animation techniques revealed

How to produce a 2.5D scene that appears to be made out of paper, creating elements in Illustrator and then animating them in After Effects.

In this masterclass, Italian illustrator and animator Emanuele Colombo will show you how to set up a 2.5D scene with Illustrator and After Effects that has the look of stop-motion animation using papercut forms. It’s a simple technique that will let you get a cool effect using textures and shadows.

Step by step, you will see how to set up a static scene. You’ll create your component elements in Illustrator, then import them into After Effects to make your initial composition. You’ll also learn how to animate each layer to simulate the effect we’re after.

This tutorial shows the creation of a scene from Emanuele’s touching short film The Proof That We Are Soulmates (above), an animated proposal based on – with permission – Drake Martinet’s widely-seen infographic that Drake used to propose to his girlfriend. They married in August 2012. 

In the project files, you’ll find Emanuele’s vector elements, so you can skip to Step 5 if you just want to follow along with the After Effects part of this tutorial. You’ll also need a paper texture before you start, too.

Time to complete 

2 hours


Illustrator CS4, After Effects CS4


Files for this tutorial are downloadable from here


First, you need to draw all of the component elements that will compose your scene and save them in different .ai files. Let’s start with the clouds. Draw circles using the Circle tool (L) until you produce a cloud. Save the file as


We’re creating a scene that looks composed of plain white paper, so you don’t have to worry about colours – except where it helps you differentiate elements when designing or composing. Draw a mountain with some snow on its top, using different colours just to differentiate one path from the other. Keep the two paths on two different layers and name them ‘Mountain’ and ‘Snow’. You’ll see why later. Save the file as

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The third element we are going to draw is a tree. This step will probably be the most time-consuming part of this tutorial, as drawing the branches can be fiddly. Take your time until you obtain a result that satisfies you. When you’ve finished, save the file as


Now let’s create our final elements. Draw a hill – again using a Circle tool – and the main subject of the scene. Feel free to choose any subject you like – I drew a deer using the Pen tool (P). Save the file as (or


Once all the assets are ready, we have to set up our scene in After Effects, adding textures and shadows. Open the program and create a new 25fps five-minute composition at 1,920 x 1,080. Import your paper texture image and drag it into your comp. 

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It’s now time to create the circles that compose the background of our scene. Create a new comp. It has to be bigger of the main one or you will have problems with shadows, so set it to 2,240 x 1,680. Call it ‘Circle 1’. Draw a circle using the Shape tool (Q). Give it a transparent fill and very large stroke (946px).

Add your paper texture to the comp. Drag the file and place it above the shape layer. Select Alpha Matte in the Track Matte options of the shape layer.


Repeat Step 6 twice, creating smaller circles. Name these comps ‘Circle 3’ and ‘Circle 3’.


Now let’s drag the three comps we have just created into our main comp and add drop shadow effects to ‘Circle 1’ (Effect > Perspective > Drop Shadow). On each set Opacity to 50%, Direction to 135°, Distance to 85 and Softness to 130. Copy and paste this effect to the other circle layers.

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To simulate the presence of more than one light, we can add some more shadows. Add a Radial Shadow effect (Effect > Perspective > Radial Shadow) to ‘Circle 1’ – set Opacity to 30%, Projection Distance to 10 and softness to 0. Move the light source until you obtain a nice-looking effect. Again copy and paste this effect to the other circle layers.


Now import the project the file After Effects will ask you if you want to import it as footage or as composition. Select Composition. It will automatically create a new comp called Mountain containing the two layers we have previously realized in Illustrator.


Now we have to add texture to these layers. Drag the paper texture file into your comp, placing it above the ‘Snow’ layer, and – as in Step 6 – use the Alpha matte option. Select both the texture and the layer you created in Illustrator, and precompose them by pressing Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + C. After Effects will create a new composition and will place it in the composition you’re working in. Call this new comp ‘Snow’ and place a Drop Shadow effect on it, using the values from Step 8.

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Add the texture to the ‘Mountain’ layer using the same method. Jump back to the main comp and drag the ‘Mountain’ comp into it. Add Radial and Drop Shadow effects to this comp and change rotation and position value according to the look you want to give to your scene. 

Duplicate the comp a couple of times and reduce the scale of the copies to give more depth to the scene.


Now that your first mountain is ready,  select each of the three sizes of mountain you currently have and duplicated each. Change rotation, position and scale in a similar way to that shown so that you can create an actual mountain chain.


Repeat these steps for and As they are composed of only a single layer in illustrator, After Effects will import them as footage. Add its texture, play around with your scene’s shadows, rotation, scale and position. To give more variety to your scene, you can flip layers going to Layer > Transform > Flip Horizontal.

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Now add the last layer we created, import the file and place it on the top of your composition. Again, add texture and shadows to it.


Select all the layers, make them 3D, and then add a light to give the scene a vignette effect.