HOW, it’s done.

The HOW Design Conference wrapped up yesterday in Las Vegas, and thus I survived my 2nd trip to that town so far this year. It was a close one, though, as the conference was inexplicably held at the same place and time as the eBay Live! conference, and though the hallways were extremely packed with people it was no problem telling who was going to what conference (believe me).

It was actually one of my favorite speaking gigs of the year — I delivered some presentations on taking existing design assets from Photoshop and Illustrator and animating them in After Effects. The HOW attendees are largely graphic designers working in the print medium (although many work in web & video as well), and most had never seen this sort of thing before.

After the sessions, I got a lot of questions regarding the animated posters that I showed in my talks (Adobe had a poster design competition for the conference and here are some of the winning entires).

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These posters were created with Photoshop and Illustrator, and we brought them into After Effects with their layers intact and animated the individual layers to great effect. I’m currently not able to post the finished video files, but I did want to post instructions on how we did the animated masks for the animated poster below (designed by Rozina Vavetsi):

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Animating masks is one of the fundamental techniques in After Effects, and this is a very basic example of how to do it.

First, you need to import your Photoshop or Illustrator file as a Composition, which will keep all of its layers intact. With Illustrator files, it can be a good idea to import the file as “Composition-Cropped Layers” if you have many layers since it makes it easier to select your layers in the AE Composition Viewer when you’re animating.

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This menu appears in the bottom-left of the File Import dialog when you are importing an Illustrator file. Make sure to select “Composition” or “Composition-Cropped Layers” when importing layered Photoshop or Illustrator files if you want to work with the individual layers.

You will then see a new Composition in the After Effects Project Panel, as well as a folder containing the layers of your PS or AI file. Double-click the Composition, and the timeline will show all the layers of your original file.

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The four layers of the Illustrator file in the After Effects Timeline.”

So, with the “Tree Lady” poster above, we animated masks to reveal the branches, to make it look like they were growing out of the woman’s body. Each of the branches was on its own layer, and we did several masks on each to reveal each segment of the branch individually. So, using this example, here’s how you animate a mask. First, select the Pen tool from the Toolbar.

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The AE Pen Tool (keyboard shortcut is the letter G).

Then, select the layer in the timeline you want to mask, and draw a simple mask around the area of the image you want to reveal over time. Start by drawing the mask where you want it to be at the end of the animation, and then we’ll back up in time and change it to where it’s going to be at the beginning.

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Click on the first mask point you created to close the mask (Left), and only the portion within the mask will be visible (Right).

To animate the mask, hit the M key on your keyboard, which will reveal the Mask Shape property for your layer in the Timeline. Decide how long you want the animation to last (this example is 10 frames), and move the Current Time Indicator in the Timeline ahead in time by that many frames. Click on the stopwatch icon for Mask Shape to set a keyframe (this represents where the mask will be at the end of its animation).

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The inital keyframe in the timeline.

Then, drag the Current Time Indicator to its original position. Select the Selection Tool in the Toolbar (shortcut: letter V key on the keyboard), and one-by-one, select and drag the mask points to where you want them to be at the beginning of the animation. In my example, I dragged the 2 upper points down and to the left. As soon as you make a change, you’ll see a new keyframe on the timeline, where the Current Time Indicator is positioned.

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The beginning mask shape of the animation (Left), and its keyframe in the Timeline (Right).

Hit the spacebar on your keyboard, and you’ll see your mask animate. You can add as many masks as you want to each layer, so the next step would be to draw a mask for the next branch on the layer, and have it begin animating as soon as the first animation ends.

Once you’re finished, you can control the timing of the whole shebang by nesting this Composition into another Composition and using Time Remapping, but that’s a whole other can of worms and I’m putting the “Gone Fishin” sign on the office door for the weekend.