Cartoon astronaut in space

Create cartoon-style animations with After Effects and Illustrator

You don’t need to be a super skilled artist to create killer animations for your videos. With just Adobe Illustrator, After Effects, and some nice vector graphics you can easily create eye-catching animations. Honestly! Take a look at the video, or if you can’t wait, read through the transcript below.


If you’re anything like me and you can’t draw to save your life you might think that creating animated videos is something that’s just never going to happen for you. But you’d be wrong. Even if you struggle to draw a simple, smiley face, you can still create some really nice animations in next to no time without ever lifting a crayon. In this video, we’re going to look at how you can take a few stock vector images, do some simple prep in Illustrator, and turn them into living, breathing animations in After Effects.

The first thing we need to do is find some nice vector images for our project. You can go to websites like Stock Unlimited, Freepik or The Noun Project to find lots of really good, high quality and well-designed vector images.

The first thing we need to do is to delete all of the stuff from this image that we don’t need. Then we need to create a layer for each section of the image and move all of the elements that make up these sections onto those layers. This means that each section is assigned to its own unique layer and we can animated separately later on in After Effects.

Let’s start by getting rid of all of the stuff we don’t need for our animation. All we want here is the cyclist and the bicycle so we can delete everything else by clicking on it and hitting delete.

Next, we want to take all of the elements that make up this wheel and put them onto a new layer which we’ll label “Back”. Now, when I’m doing this, I like to turn off the layer’s visibility because it makes it easier to see which elements I haven’t moved yet.

So now we just start selecting each element and dragging it to the new layer. As each element is moved to the wheel, it disappears and we can see what else we have to move. The same goes for the other wheel, which we’re going to label front wheel.

Sometimes splitting an image into layers like this can be a little bit tricky. You might need to move objects between layers or move different layers forwards and backwards to make sure it all looks right.

Now, depending on how good a job the original artist did when they created the image in the first place, this might be a nice, simple job that takes a few minutes, or it might be a bit more complicated and take a bit longer. But use your common sense – if it looks like it’s going to take hours or even days to tidy up this image. Just cut your losses and find another image instead. There’s no sense wasting time tidying up an image when you can find something that’s just as good and keep the work going.

Here we have the problem that when we move the backpack to a new layer, it obscures our characters. So, what we do here is move the arm to a new layer and then move it above the backpack.

Now we make sure that our layers have meaningful names because this makes it easier later on in After Effects and save the whole thing as an Illustrator file, not as an SVG file.

Over in After Effects, we’re going to import our layered Illustrator file to keep the layers we spent so much time creating an illustrator. We need to make sure that we import the image as a composition and not as footage.

This image is imported into its own pre comp. Now you don’t have to keep the image in this pre comp but can help keep things nice, nice and tidy and easy to re-use.

But before we do anything else, we’re going to hit Control + A on the keyboard.

Then we’re going to enable continuously raster eyes to keep our image nice and crisp and clear and then motion blur so that animations look more natural.

In After Effects, the anchor points are essential for making your animations work the way you want them to work.

Take a look at this, where the anchor point isn’t at the center of the wheel. So, if we rotate us, the rotation is all wrong and not very we like. So, we’re going to hit Y on our keyboard and use the anchor tool to drag the anchor points to where movement should start from. In this case, into the center of the wheel.

Next, we want to set the anchor point for the ponytail so that it’s near the base of the skull. You’ll see why in a minute.

Now that everything is laid out properly in After Effects, and our anchor points are set correctly we can start using keyframes and expressions to change the rotation, to size, position the opacity of our elements, and create some really nice animations.

If you want to be a bit fancy and create some organic looking movement, you can use expressions here. We’re going to alt click on the stopwatch and add a wiggle expression to create a random amount of rotation to simulate our cyclist hair blowing in the breeze. We’re going to have our ponytail rotate randomly by up to 15 degrees three times a second. Now, it goes without saying that you should tweak this until you’re happy, and it looks the way you think it should do.

To make our wheels turn, we’re going to create a couple of keyframes to get the wheels moving at the right speed. Our first keyframe goes at the start of the timeline. Then we go forward 2 seconds and set the rotation to one complete rotation. The problem here is that it only turns once and then it stops. So the easiest way to keep the wheels turning forever is to use a loop expression. So we’re going to alt click on the stopwatch, type the loop out expression in the expression area.

That’s one wheel done. To get the other wheel moving, we just copy our keyframes and paste them onto the other wheel. The cool thing about this is that it also copies the expression, so you don’t have to do that a second time.

Now what we’ve just done is quite easy and it works quite well. But if we ever want to change the speed of those wheels, we have to remember to change keyframes on both layers. Thankfully, there’s an easier way to do this, but it takes a few more steps to get it done.

Instead of framing each wheel, an easier way to do this is to create a no object. Go to expression controls and add an angle control. All we need to do now is just add keyframes to create one full rotation like we did before.

Now we’re going to use the pick whip to paired each wheel to the angle control. But don’t forget to use a loop expression to keep the wheels turning indefinitely. What this means is that you can now control both wheels at the same time using one simple controller.

Let me know if you found this useful or if you have any comments, questions or suggestions.

If there’s anything you’d like to see me do a video about in the future, just get in touch and let me know.

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