Photo 2 Life

The Puppet Tool, which is one of my favorite new features in After Effects CS3, is bound to bring out the Frankenstein (or at least Frankenberry) in most people. It’s the easiest way to create animated characters from still images, and I’m going to be showing you how it works using a production still from our “Aquo” shoot up in Whistler, BC.

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These little birds were just about everywhere, and I thought it would be funny to have this one peck the heck out of that bike tire. The first step here is to separate the “character” (in this case the bird) from the background using Photoshop. I used the Quick Selection tool to select the bird (you can see the selection in the image above), removed it from the background, and then used the Clone Tool to clean up the background plate (Photoshop 101 stuff.)

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The bird, the background, and the cleaned-up plate.

Next, import the Photoshop file into After Effects, making sure to select “Import As Composition” in the import dialog. Once it’s imported, double-click it to load it up, then select the Puppet Pin Tool, which is that new push-pin looking thing on the right side of the After Effects toolbar.

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The next step is to place pins on the character based on how you want it to move — the fewer pins you use the better the results are likely to be. First select the layer in your timeline, then select the Puppet Pin Tool, and click on the image to place the pins. For my bird, I put one on his head, foot, tail, and back.

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To animate the pins, you can twirl down the controls for the Puppet Tool in your timeline and set keyframes, but the easier way is to motion sketch. Just hold down the Cmd (Mac) or Ctrl (Win) key and when you place your curser over a pin it turns into a stopwatch.

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Clicking and dragging records your mouse movements in realtime, and you see an outline of your character as you draw. It’s really easy to record an animation this way. You can do multiple passes, to animate as many pins as you want, and you see the ones you’ve recorded play back as you record new ones so you can easily synchronize motion.

I started out by doing a pass just wiggling the tail, and then I did a pass of his head pecking away at the tire. I then animated the scale of the scene to zoom in over time. Here’s what I got:

Now this is a really simple example, you can go in much deeper with this tool. Holding down the Puppet Pin Tool in the toolbar reveals the Puppet Overlap Tool and the Puppet Starch Tool.

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The Overlap Tool controls which parts of the character cross in front of or behind of the others, and the Starch Tool pretty much does what it says it does – it keeps unwanted warping from occurring. You click on the character to apply either of these tools.

Just a reminder for those of you that haven’t downloaded it yet, After Effects CS3 is in Public Beta over at Adobe Labs, so you can start using it right now until we ship it in a few weeks.