In this tutorial, director and animator Jonathan Topf details the steps involved in designing a believable shadow puppet character that appears to be made of paper. You’ll trace the character’s parts in Photoshop, then animate the elements in After Effects. He’ll guide you through the techniques you’ll need to create a simple but engaging character: rigging, parenting and use of blending modes.
Jonathan says that while the techniques and principles shown here aren’t too complex, they can be applied to any style you like and are applicable to more complicated character setups in After Effects or even 3D suites such as Maya.
To help you follow along, he has provided his character design as a Photoshop PSD, the background and light box files, plus the final After Effects project for reference.
Time to complete
After Effects, Photoshop
Files for this tutorial are downloadable from
The first step is to design your character on paper or using a tablet (I used paper). Bear in mind that for your shadow puppet to look convincing, you can’t include lots of small detail. In general, your design should be able to be cut out of paper in real life. It should also have joints that are easy to split apart for animation later on.
Consider whether you want a symmetrical character or one that’s lopsided. I chose to make mine slightly lopsided, which makes it feel a bit more organic.
Create a new Photoshop document of around 1,200 x 1,200 pixels – this should be large enough for the detail and softness to be apparent, but not so big that later on your After Effects comp becomes heavy to work with. Scan or copy your character design into this document and scale it to fit the document using the Transform tool (
Cmd/Ctrl + T).
Find a hi-res paper texture from the Internet – or scan one – and add it to the Photoshop document. We will be cutting out our body parts from this texture and layering them up to make our character, so you need to ensure it’s not too dark or too light. If your texture’s not very visible, apply a Brightness/Contrast adjustment (
Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast). Set the layer’s blending mode to ‘Multiply’ to make it appear translucent.
Select the paper layer, then create a layer mask by clicking the layer mask button at the bottom of the layer panel. Click the layer mask thumbnail on your layer and use a black brush to erase the paper texture – and a white paint brush to bring it back if needed. Use this method to trace the first part of your body.
You need to do the same for the rest of your character’s body parts. To speed things up, duplicate the layer you’ve just made and use it as a base for the next body part by selecting it and clicking
Layer > Duplicate Layer. On the duplicate layer, you can simply erase the old body part and remask the new body part.
When you’re finished, hide the layer with the original drawing, check the final character and make any final tweaks to the design you want.
At this point, it’s a good idea to rename all your layers, so they are easy to find when we are in After Effects. Small things like this make all the difference later on – as it makes navigating your animation easier. It also make your work much simpler to collaborate on.
Now save your document as a layered PSD called ‘
’ and you’re ready to open it up in After Effects. Animation layers.psd
Open up After Effects and import the Photoshop document you just created by pressing
Cmd/Ctrl + I (or double-clicking in the Project panel). Open the Photoshop document and, when prompted, select ‘Composition’ from the ‘Import as’ drop-down. It may ask you if you want to merge your layer styles into the document, if it does, click OK as we aren’t using any layer styles anyway.
Next, open up the composition that’s just been created by double-clicking it in the Project panel. The first thing you’ll want to do is resize your composition, as we created the Photoshop document slightly oversized to give us enough resolution to scale the character a little bit and still have high-quality assets. Press
Cmd/Ctrl + K to open up the composition settings and make the composition full HD resolution (1,920 x 1,080).
We’re now ready to rig up our character for animation, the first step is to move the pivot points for each layer, so it rotates about the correct place. Double-click on the layer to bring it up in the editing view and simply drag the pivot point into position.
When you return to the main comp, you’ll notice that the layer will have moved since you have moved the pivot point. Move it back to the correct position. Repeat these steps for each body part.
Now we need to connect the elements together using After Effects’ parenting system, so they stay in place relative to each other as we move the character. Working on each body part from the outside in, use the Parent drop-down in the timeline to connect each to the next body part; for example, parenting the hand to the forearm, then parenting that to the upper arm, and that to the body.
Parent facial elements to the head, which should then be parented to the body. As it’s at the centre, the body doesn’t need to be parented to anything.
If your character is looking too big or small, now is your chance to fix this by scaling the torso element. As the elements are parented together, the other body parts will just scale to follow the torso. You can do this by clicking on the torso layer and pressing S to bring up the scale attribute.
You are now ready to animate your character. The easiest way to get started is to select all the body part layers by pressing
Cmd/Ctrl + A. Hit R to open up the rotation property of all the layers, then click on the stopwatch icon, to turn on auto-keying for each layer.
For this project, I found the ‘layered’ approach to animation worked best, where I animated the torso first, then the legs, arms and head, and finally the hands and feet. This allowed me to finesse the animation of each element before moving onto the next one. Make sure to keep previewing your animation as you go to get a good idea of how it’s looking.
Once you’re happy with the animation, it’s time to create a background. I made a background design following the same rules as the character design, keeping each element simple and looking as though it had been cut out from paper. For a simple sense of depth, I used Photoshop’s Blur tool to defocus some of the stars.
Import your background into After Effects and put it at the bottom of your comp. Make sure that the blending mode for all the layers above are set to Multiply.
To finish things off, I took a photo of a light box to comp my animation onto for the final bit of realism. First, I pre-comped my animation comp by dragging it in the Project panel onto the New Comp button. This makes a new comp with your animation comp inside it. I then set the animation comp layer’s blending mode to Multiply, imported my photo and placed it underneath.