How to animate a photo with After Effects

In this blog post I am going to explain how I created the above video using After Effects and Photoshop. This effect can be done solely inside After Effects using masking and the clone brush tool. However, it does increase render times so if you haven’t the strongest computer in the world then maybe its best to do it how I did….. either method will get the same results.

A little background on the project:

The Client, a start-up tea and coffee company based in Vietnam. They wanted a brand video to demonstrate the journey of their ethically produced tea and coffee from plant to cup. The Catch? The budget would barely cover a flight to Vietnam, let alone a shoot.

So I needed to come up with a solution. Fortunately the client had an extensive collection of photos documenting the goings on of the plantation. I decided to create a story using these photos and after being inspired by this WWF film I knew exactly what I was going to do.

Now the technical bit:

After selecting 6 photos to tell the story. I loaded them into photoshop, each image needs to be separated out into different layers. The number of which depends on the image you are working on. For arguments sake I cut the images into 3 layers, foreground, mid-ground and background.

Inevitably cutting out bits of an image will leave holes in the layer. The next step is to use the clone tool to paint over the holes. When you are happy that the holes aren’t too visible (we can hide some defects created by the clone tool process in After Effects) It is now time to save the image as a .PSD file.

Now its time to move over to After Effects. Once inside After Effects, import the .PSD file you created in Photoshop. Select the option to import as a composition, this will import the layers as separate images.

Now create a composition using the resolution you are working in, in this case its 1920×1080. Create a camera in this new composition and drag the .PSD layers into the comp. Now check the “make layer 3D” checkbox.

The image layers can now be separated into Z space, so push the background into the distance and scale it up to fill the comp. Now move the foreground forward and scale it down so all 3 layers appear as though nothing has changed. Tweak this until it looks good to you.

Now using the camera tool, keyframe a camera start point. Move forward in time and move the camera, usually a subtle zoom will suffice but this entirely depends on the image you are working with. Once you are happy with the second camera position, set another keyframe.

Now you have your camera movement, playing back a ram preview should show you a parallax effect as the camera moves i.e. the fore, mid and background moves at different rates.

Now to take this further, open up the camera options and check the “enable depth of field” option. You will now need to tweak the focus distance and aperture until the subject of the image looks in focus. Set a key frame to coincide with the start of your camera move, move forward in time and set a different focus distance/aperture. Maybe you want to keep your subject in focus or maybe you want to animate a focus shift onto or away from your subject. Either way this is how it is achieved.

Now you should be happy with the parallax effect created from the camera move and focus shift. To take this effect even further you can use the puppet transform tool to animate the subject. In this video I animate a person raking coffee beans.

Select the layer you want to animate, in this instance the midground. Right click and select precompose, click leave all attributes. Now go into this comp, you’ll now have the mid ground image. Move the play head to where the camera move starts and select the puppet transform tool.

Using the puppet transform tool, draw a structure on the subject i.e. in this instance I drew an approximate skeleton on the man I was animating, this automatically create a keyframe. Now move forward in time to where your camera move finishes and manipulate the points you want to move.

Jump back into the main comp and hit ram preview. You should now have what looks like a slow motion parallax video made entirely from a photo.

Tweak colour correction to taste and add any other elements such as text in 3D space and its done!