Doing Hand-Drawn Animation Using Photoshop & After Effects CS6 (PART 1)

This Tutorial is part of a series.  Please read my Introduction to Hand-Drawn and Organic Looks Tutorials before proceeding.


Hand-Drawn Animation is usually traced frame-by-frame with paper and  pencil on a light box or animation table.  It’s a very common technique and was used for most animated feature films and cartoons before computer-based workflows became commonplace.  Now digital hand-drawn animation can be done in the computer using a tablet and stylus.  By eliminating the shooting process, the speed of animation production is greatly increased by providing instant digital frames that can be exported and composited at will.

Although digital hand-drawn animation will never look the same as real analog animation, it’s possible to achieve something very close using the new tools in Photoshop and After Effects CS6.  Below I’ve attached the following video to illustrate how digital hand-drawn animation done in Photoshop and After Effects CS6 might look.


Digital hand-drawn bouncing ball loop done in Photoshop and After Effects with a frame randomizing expression on the background loop, courtesy of Dan Ebberts.


Here’s a tutorial for doing a hand-drawn looping animation of a bouncing ball in Photoshop and exporting it for use in After Effects.

1.  Open Photoshop and go to – File – New or Command N on the Mac.

2.  Change the name to Hand_Drawn_Bouncing_Ball.  And, since we’re going to be working in HD, change the preset to Film & Video and set the size to HDTV 1080p/29.97.  This will give us a 1920×1080 pixel canvas that will match the HDTV 1080 composition preset we’ll be working with in After Effects.

NOTE: The 29.97 refers to a video frame rate, but since we’re going to be using the Export Layers to Files Script in Photoshop, we can bring the layers into After Effects as image sequences and interpret the frame rate there.  The main reason I use this preset is because it yields a 1920 x 1080 pixel canvas that will match any of the HDTV 1080 composition presets in After Effects.  Plus, it has action safe and title safe guidelines, which can be useful for creating titles and credits.

3.  Go to Layer – New – Layer or Command Shift N on the Mac.

4.  Make sure you have the new layer selected and click the brush tool.  If you have a Wacom tablet installed, use the stylus and draw a rough motion path for the bouncing ball to travel along.  You can use a mouse or track pad for all of these tutorials, but if you’re really going for a hand-drawn look then using a tablet and stylus is going to be much easier and give you the most organic results.  Draw the motion path using a simple red brush so the line shows up underneath the balls you’re going to draw.  You can adjust the brush size by using the [ ] keys on the Mac keyboard.  Since the motion path is just for reference, it doesn’t have to look perfect.

Here’s an example screenshot of how your motion path might look.  The colored arrows are meant to indicate the path your ball will travel along as it bounces.

5.  Before we can start animating we need to determine where our key-frames will be.  Key-frames break up the animation into short intervals, which help us calculate the position and number drawings we’ll need to complete each movement within the animation.  In most cases key-frames should be used on the first frame of a movement and the last frame of a movement and/or key intervals where a major change takes place.  In the screenshot below letters a.) through d.) indicate the places I’ve chosen to place keyframes.

6. Once you have your key-frames, all you have to do is fill in the gaps.  These frames are called in-betweens, because they go in between your key-frames.  In order to determine the placement of your in-betweens, it’s usually a good idea to plan your motion by drawing tick marks along the motion path to indicate the timing or speed of the bounce.  Therefore if you want your ball to move slower, the gap between the tick marks will be smaller and you’ll have more in-betweens, whereas the further the tick marks are from one another the faster the movement will be.  Here’s where I put my in-between tick marks for my bouncing ball.

7.  Next, you’re going to create a new layer (Go to Layer – New – Layer) and use the brush tool to draw your first ball over the top of the very first tick mark in the upper left hand corner of your motion path.

Again if you were going for a hand-drawn look, I’d experiment with the brushes in Photoshop CS6 and find one that has an organic look similar to a medium you like using on paper.  One of my particular favorites is the one I used for this tutorial, the square charcoal brush, which looks like this in the Brush Presets panel in Photoshop CS6:

When drawing your balls I would suggest adding squash and stretch to the drawings.  Squash and stretch is an animation term used to describe how much an object deforms when it moves.  The purpose of which is to give a sense of weight and flexibility to a drawn object in motion.  For example, in classic cartoons you’ll notice that both characters and objects tend to squash when they slow down and stretch when they speed up.  The most important thing to remember about squash and stretch is that the volume of the object doesn’t change, the shape is merely deformed.  In my tutorial Making Motion Graphics Animations Look More Analog in After Effects CS6, I illustrate how this concept can easily be applied to motion graphics.

When you’ve finished drawing your first ball you can draw the other balls over the tick marks labeled key-frames in the screenshot above.  Be sure to create a new layer each time you draw a ball otherwise you’ll have two balls on the same layer and your animation won’t play back correctly.  Here’s how the final key-frames look for my bouncing ball.

8.  Now you can finish drawing your in-betweens.  Again make sure to create a new layer for each ball as you draw it.  Also, remember to make your balls look “stretched” as the tick marks get further apart.  There’s no need to number all of your layers like I did.  This is just a habit I’ve carried over from animating on paper where it’s necessary to number all of your drawings in case they physically get out of order, something that’s bound to happen when you’re shooting or scanning them.  Below is a screenshot of all the in-betweens together.

8.  If you want to check the animation of your ball in Photoshop you can go to Window – Timeline and organize your layers so you can watch them play back.  However, in order to to do this you have to manually organize your layers and pull each layer to dictate the timing.  Also, to export these layers from Photoshop properly you’ll have to move them all back to the first frame of the timeline so they’re all visible at once.  You can import a PSD file into After Effects as a Photoshop sequence, but PSDs tend to be very large files and my experience is that they tend to significantly slow down After Effects performance.  If you plan on compositing your footage with other image sequences later it’s better to use the smallest possible files that still deliver the best quality images.  That being said, it might be quicker to skip the timeline step in Photoshop and preview your loop directly in After Effects.  The timeline is useful if you’re doing a lot of animation in Photoshop and you really want to be watching it as you go to see how it’s moving.

But, if you want to learn how to check your animation in Photoshop, you can continue with step 8.  As you can see below, I organized this animation to play back on “Twos,” which is an animation term that means each layer or drawing lasts for two frames. Animation on “Ones” mimics the look of 24fps footage, animation on “Twos” mimics the look of 12fps footage and animation on “Threes” mimics the look of 8fps footage.  Technically you can make your frame last as long as you want, but it all depends on how smooth you want the motion to be.

Follow the steps in the screenshot below to set up your animation in the Photoshop Timeline.  Turn off your motion path layer in the layers panel and press space bar to watch your ball bouncing around.  Of course your animation will stop before completing the loop because we haven’t drawn all of the layers to finish it.  But, thats okay because we can duplicate the next section of the loop very easily in After Effects CS6.

9.  If you wanted to finish your animation loop in Photoshop by duplicating each individual layer you could, or you could save time by bringing the layers into After Effects as an image sequence and duplicating part of the sequence itself.  To export all of your layers to files be sure to turn off all of the layers you won’t need and leave on only the layers you’re going to use in your sequence.  In this case just leave on the ball layers and turn the background off.  Then use the Photoshop script located in File – Scripts – Export Layers to Files, and change the settings to match the ones in the screenshot.

a.) First click Browse… to determine a location for exporting your files, click New Folder, label it and click Open.

b.) Then give your file name a prefix.  In this case I called it Hand_Drawn_Bouncing_Ball.

c.) Make sure Visible Layers is selected.  This makes it so only the layers that are turned on in your Photoshop Panels window are exported.

d.) I prefer setting the file type to PNG-24 because the quality is excellent, the file size is relatively small and they support Alphas, meaning the transparency of the layers will be preserved just like they were in the Photoshop document.  PSDs and TIFF files also support Alpha’s and the quality is technically better than PNG-24, but TIFFs and PSDs are so much larger they tend to slow down performance in After Effects.

e.) Select transparency to preserve the transparency of the layers.

f.) Finally, make sure Trim Layers is turned off otherwise Photoshop will crop the unused spaced around each individual ball and they won’t play back properly in After Effects.  Trim Layers is useful if you just want to import a bunch of static graphics into After Effects, but not necessarily when you’re importing an entire sequence.

When your settings are correct, click the “Run” button to run the “Export Layers To Files” script.

10.  To learn how to import these files into After Effects CS6, click here:  Doing Hand-Drawn Animation Using Photoshop & After Effects CS6 (PART 2)

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15 thoughts on “Doing Hand-Drawn Animation Using Photoshop & After Effects CS6 (PART 1)

  1. Pingback: Hand-Drawn and Organic Looks for Motion Graphics Animators « A Blog by Benjamin Ariel Markus

  2. Pingback: Part 2: Working With Image Sequences in Photoshop & After Effects CS6 « A Blog by Benjamin Ariel Markus

  3. Pingback: Part 3: Making Motion Graphics Animations Look More Analog in After Effects CS6 « A Blog by Benjamin Ariel Markus

  4. Wow, fantastic tutorial! That’s exactly how I’ve been doing it for years. Excellently explained and great detail in showing how to navigate through the software. Drawing out the motion path is new to me – see, you CAN still teach an old dog new tricks.

    Here’s an added step that I use sometimes – I do my major blocking in ToonBoom (or Flash) where it’s easy to make subtle tweeks and edits. Then export that as an mov (or series of images) and then import that ‘guide’ into PSD CS6 as ‘video layer from file’. From there it’s basically just rotoscoping with the proper brush.

    Again, excellent tutorial!

    • I don’t have ToonBoom, but CalArts recently bought a bunch of TV Paint licenses and I’ve been meaning to explore that program. I definitely know about the Flash workflow and have some good friends that work that way, but unfortunately I haven’t been presented with the right project to make learning it a priority.

      Another thing that’s easy to do if your animation doesn’t have too much complex morphing is to export a ‘guide’ motion graphics animation from After Effects and import that into PSD CS6 using Import – Video Frames to Layers. As you said, “from there it’s basically just rotoscoping with the proper brush.”

      I also wonder if a simple tutorial on rotoscoping in Photoshop using Import – Video Frames to Layers would be helpful?

      • I have one of those scheduled google search things that kicks back articles that have the words ‘hand drawn animation’ in them. This article came up in my list earlier this week. :)

  5. Pingback: Doing Hand-Drawn Animation Using Photoshop & After Effects CS6 (PART 2) « A Blog by Benjamin Ariel Markus

  6. Pingback: Working With Image Sequences in Photoshop & After Effects CS6 « A Blog by Benjamin Ariel Markus

  7. Hi,

    Really nice tutorial!!

    I just would to add that I’d created an free Extension for Photoshop dedicated to frame-by-frame animation (not Animated GIF… but 2D film animation). (CS6 version) — available via the new (in beta) “Adobe Exchange” panel: (CS5 Extended) (CS4 Extended)

    And another panel dedicate to Colorize this kind of animation: (CS6 version) — also available via the “Adobe Exchange” panel (CS5 Extended)

    Hope that could help :)
    Thanks again for this great tutorial

    • Hello Staphane,

      First of all I want to say that these look like fantastic extensions and they seem to bring a lot of great features that are available in Flash into the Photoshop workflow. This allows the animator to use just one program for animation, color and clean up without having to switch back and forth between programs as much.

      However, I did have some trouble understanding how to correctly activate the action you set up to create new video group layers. I’m not sure the automating process worked for me. When I clicked the file path below Open in the Actions panel and told it to bring in a video from my desktop, it simply brings in that video from my desktop, but in your tutorial it appears to make another empty video group with a single frame layer that you’re able to edit. Now this might be a misunderstanding stemming from the tutorial video since we don’t actually see you choosing the video from your desktop, or maybe I’m missing something here?

      If it is supposed to simply bring in a video from the desktop than it seems this function would only be useful for rotoscoping, altering or coloring over other videos/animation. If this is the case I would make that clear. Not only that, it seems this same function could also be achieved by going to File – Import Video Frames to Layers and creating a video group by using the little film strip on the Timeline and clicking New Video Group or New Video Group From Clips.

      Either way, the extension looks fantastic, but I think it could be more clear what the purpose of the hack is and why you actually need it if there are other simpler ways of doing the same thing. If we can clarify this, maybe you’d allow me to feature this extension as part of the next post or tutorial on my blog? I might be able to help make it extremely clear how you would use these functions in an actual animation workflow with a detailed text based tutorial and screenshots.

      Thank you for creating such a great extension,


      • Hi Ben,

        Thank you for your comments and feedbacks!

        I’d just send an patch (2.0.1) to the Adobe Exchange Team for approval, following your comment on simplifying and clarifying the step 2 of my panel AnimDessin.
        So, when it will validate you’ll be notified inside the “Adobe Exchange” panel right inside Photoshop CS6 :)

        Here a quick video to explain this update (sorry for my English):

        And, for sure you could do a tutorial or a post on it :)

        Thanks again

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