How to build a scene in After Effects with animated assets?

Daniel Gies shares secrets on adding subtle movements to bring a scene to life with animated image sequences.

My name is Daniel Gies, I’m the creative and technical director at e→d films and today we are going to take a look at some of my favourite stuff on the edfilms store and that is the animated assets. We’ve been creating these things for years and using them on every single one of our projects to add a little extra life to each scene. They usually involve natural elements like grass, smoke, fog, flowers, plants. Typically things that can be really difficult and time consuming to animate by hand. They are all made to be very flexible, and I am going to show you in just a few steps how you can modify them and use them in different ways to customize the look so it fits your project better.

Creating paper looking grass with e→d animated assets

I have previously recorded some workflows here and we are going to review them. I’m dragging in this grassy patch from one of the animated asset packs. I use this one a lot, these ones are really good because they actually loop well because they start off static and then the wind gusts up, so you can kind of use different sections as you want it. So what I am going to do is actually use the alpha channel of this grass to cut out this paper so I can make a papery looking grass. We will run sorta the track matte through it, there we go. You can see then now i can only see the paper. Next thing I want to do is, I want to change the contrast of the paper so we can see a little more detail in it and I am just using curves on this, you can do this however way you want.

Using matte passes for a more handmade looking grass pieces

Next thing I need to do is go to the matte and do a simple choker, if I actually put in a negative number it will expand the matte around the alpha. So you can see I got a lot thicker grass pieces there, that gives us more to work with. It wouldn’t look good if we had just the grass image itself but it looks pretty good with the silhouette. Next you can see in the effects panel that I have added a roughen edges and I am doing this to break up the edge a little bit and give something a little more characteristically paper, I’ve also ALT + CLICKED on the evolution and I  put a time x200 on it and that will make the edges evolve over time. Additionally I am putting a posterize time on an adjustment layer that’s to get it at 8 frames per second so it’s a little more handmade looking a little less CG. Then on the paper itself on the rotation value I am adding a wiggle, this wiggle is going to make the paper spin around back and forth and because it’s under the adjustment layer where the posterize time is on, it’s not going to look like it’s just spinning it might look like boiling paper. If I duplicate it and make the other one a little less opaque I can now blend them together and have something a lot more random looking and I get a pretty nice texture boil.

Changing blend modes and adding color to alter assets for your project

Additionally I am going to change the blend mode to a multiply and I am actually going to add a solid with some color to it so I can make this grass stand out against the gray. I will just put this to a color burn, started with a multiply but then I go to a color burn here. Then I need to turn it more gray because the color burn is really intense. If I click CTRL + SHIFT + Y I can adjust the solid’s properties, so I am going to bring it over here. It isn’t beautiful but I am just testing, I just want to show you what you can do.

Adding gradient layer styles for fade off and more depth

Now once you’ve done that you can actually bring in duplicates of the composition or repeat this process with other pieces of grass like I’ve done here and start to get some really cool variety. Just duplicate the composition and drag new pieces in and additionally you can add layer styles. Here I’ve added a gradient layer style so that I can make the grass fade off from dark to light which gives it a little more depth, makes it a little more interesting to look at and gives it just a little more variety. Then I can copy that layer style and paste it on the other one. Now here what I am doing is I have just gone into one of the grass clips and I am adding more layers of grass, this is just to thicken it up and give it a little more density, now that we kind of know what we are doing. After I have done that you can see that I kind of have something kind of interesting happening, it doesn’t look beautiful yet but it’s definitely interesting. It might be a really good effect for what you are looking for.

Watercolor feel on paper grass patch assets

This one here I have taken some grass in and I am putting it over a brown paper type thing and doing a color burn pass on it. With this one I am using a simple choker and expanding things out a little bit, I’ll adjust the color balance. I kind of want it to look like an old fashion illustration or a sepia ink painting or something. I am just flattening it out and on the adjustment layer here I am trying to add some toon effects, I’m trying to see if I can make it to look a little bit more handpainted. What I ended up doing was using one of the Universe legacy plugins for the paint effect so it has a watercolor feel to it. I think that is a pretty good start, you can achieve that other ways maybe using the median filter can do that.

Now I am adding in another layer to it, so I am taking in all kinds of grass patches, flipping them around, mixing them together, offsetting them. I’m really brightening them up in the background there, so I can get a good contrast between the layers, you can see that it creates that sort of watery feeling. We are starting to get some variety, you can just pop it over like that and it looks pretty good actually. Let’s just render it out really quick, here you go. It’s another look all together and this can go really far into adding a lot of  nice rich detail to you film or some kind of animated card. Really any kind of thing you are doing.

Another approach here is to actually use the mosaic filter, combined with some layer effects to create gradients and this is what I did for Brown Bear and I used it on the grass elements themselves. By using the mosaic filter I am able to make the grass look pixelated, it kind of looks like pixel art and it blends really nicely with this project here.

Taking an illustration into photoshop and adding subtle animation with these assets

Next up is an illustration where I am trying to take something that was painted in photoshop using some of our grass brushes and bring in some animated elements to bring it to life and I will probably rig up this character and animate him as well. What I have done is taken the painted layers here as you can see that were painted on a paper texture and I have brought in a solid color paper to go underneath it so I can use the grass as an alpha matte to cut out the paper. I am pulling in these elements, positioning them, trying to match them as much as close as I can but I don’t want to be too particular about it because it’s never going to be exact. I just want to flesh this out a little bit. Now you can probably just combine it with the two elements if you really wanted to, but this is kind of working backwards from something that was never intended to be animated. So I’ve got a pretty big variety of grasses to achieve the look we’re going for. Once I am happy with how everything is positioned and I have brought in all the elements I want, I can combine them with the green paper layer that I saved earlier from photoshop and use the paper as a track matte and that will make it look a lot more like the original illustration. Additionally I will do the simple choker at (-4) negative four to expand the edges and add a roughen edges onto it to kind of give it a looser feel.

Another thing you can do is actually use the puppet tool on some of the animated asset layers and just bend them around so they fit to the hills or shapes that you want. This can be really effective, if it’s not working you can actually create a layer mask or a mask on top of it and use the puppet tool to deform that instead of the layer itself. Here I am just adding some of the ferns, I can throw in some flowers, I am just building a couple more layers using the same technique. I’m referencing the original photoshop layer. You can see I can just reposition things, I’ve put a layer mask underneath here with a solid so I can blend the grass in with a full piece of paper.

Adding a camera move for more depth in the scene

Once I am happy with all the layers I’ll add a camera and I will start spacing everything apart on the z-axis. You can see I have pushed everything apart, and now I am bringing in another asset which this one is not animated but this is a collection of hand painted clouds and fogs that you can use to add some atmosphere to your scenes. The asset pack comes with an After Effects template that shows you how you can use deformers and distortions to make the fog move and feel a little more dynamic. I’ve also included some templates that show you how to create depth lighting and some pretty convincing snow and rain clouds, but we aren’t going to be using it for this shot. Mostly we are going to be tinting them and then animating them a little bit to give some extra movement and depth to the scene. I actually use these fog layers quite a bit and with just these (11) eleven layers at a generally low opacity and just offset a bit and flipped over you can get a lot of variety and quite a bit of density to create some really believable fog.

Just a quick diversion away from the fog, if you’re using a lot of animated assets, one way to speed up the workflow so things aren’t so slow when doing your ram previews, is to put a time remap on each of the animated assets layers, CTRL + ALT + T will enable time remapping and then just go to the end keyframe and delete it so you are only showing one frame of the animated element, and what that will do is speed up the render so it’s not so slow to get a sense of how your camera is moving through those assets. Once you are happy with your camera you can turn off the time remapping and watch your clip with all the clips actually animated and moving.

In this painting I had a little bit of an orange area that I used to paint some light, so what I decided to do was duplicate it out a few times and put it in between a few layers to add a bit more depth to the scene. That I could then mix in and rescale to make the light seem a little bit thicker. Lastly I am adding some of our falling leaves animated assets and this is just to give a little bit of movement in the background to make it feel like some leaves are obviously falling and what I am adding here is a fill effect and using that to push the leaf color to the same color as the background trees. Then I made one for the foreground and pushed it to the same color as the foreground. So you can see all of the elements at play here together. It is a bit of a weird format here because it is vertical, so it is kind of the worst demo for a video like this. But you can kind of see everything moving, I added some animation on the character and some post effects and stuff.

Here is a close up, you can see everything is moving fairly subtly. I didn’t want it looking like a blizzard so I picked certain parts of the animation that didn’t move too much. But you can see there is a really nice amount of movement, I think it brings a lot of life to the shot. Here’s the middle area here, I would pay attention to the background bush areas, just a subtle amount of movement making the whole scene feel alive. Up here you can see all the tree leaves that we stacked together moving quite nicely.

I’d like to also mention that as I went further back I reduced the frame rate on each of the layers so the grasses in the foreground were at (12) twelve frames per second, things in the mid ground were (10) ten frames per second, and things in the very far background were are (8) eight frames per second. So maybe you can pick through the shot frame by frame and sort of see the different mixes of frame rates that we have going on there.

That about wraps this one up, I hope there was some useful information in there, even if you’re not interested in picking up some of the animated assets maybe there’s something in there that you can use in your own projects. If you are interested in picking up some of the animated assets or anything else on the store you can check it out in the link down below. We’ve already seen some awesome stuff that others have done with the animated assets and I can’t wait to see what you guys do with it.