Make diagrams easier to understand – by animating them, with tips from motion-graphics and animation expert Angie Taylor.

Infographics are hugely useful for explaining a complex or technical subject visually. A quick and easy way to create compelling animated infographics is to break down and reconstruct technical drawings or plans – we see them all the time on the TV news, where they’re popular for explaining abstract or tricky subjects to a broad audience.

In this tutorial, Angie Taylor shows that going back to the basics of animating simple shapes and 2D graphics can be just what you need to provide you with a clean and simple design.

The best thing about projects such as this is that they really put your skills to the test – with no bells or whistles to hide behind, it’s all about the quality of the animation. In this exercise we will deconstruct a floor plan and animate it being re-drawn in After Effects. We’ll then add some Shape layers and animation to bring it to life.

01. Open 01_reconstruct from the cover CD – this is a pre-rendered movie. RAM preview it to get an idea of what we are about to do; notice that each floor of the plan is drawn on in sequence. This is done by splitting the artwork into layers, animating effect properties and then staggering the layers in a sequence – let’s see how it’s done.

02. To create the hand-drawn pencil lines, we first need to create masks from our artwork. You can do this by copying and pasting masks from Illustrator, but a much easier and faster solution is to auto-trace the artwork directly in AE. Select the 06 Base layer in the timeline and hit the I key to jump to the in-point.

03. Go to Layer > Auto-trace, enter the following settings: channel = Blue, minimum area = 2000, corner roundness = 0. Click OK to apply the masks to the artwork. With the layer still selected, hit M to open up the masks and change Mask 1 mode to Subtract. This will temporarily make the layer invisible.

04. Go to the Effects and Presets panel and type ‘Stroke’ into the text entry field. Drag the Stroke effect onto the ‘06 Base’ layer. In the Effect Controls panel, tick the All Masks box to apply the stroke to all of the masks. Click on the End stopwatch to start animating that property. Hit the U key to expose the new keyframe in the timeline.

05. Drag the new keyframe along the timeline until it lines up with Marker 2 on the Work Area bar. In the Effect Controls panel change the End value to 0. Hit the B key to trim the Work Area start to here and RAM preview your work. Notice the white strokes animating around the masks.

06. Type ‘Fill’ into the Effects and Presets panel, and then drag the Fill effect onto the ‘06 Base’ layer to reintroduce colour. In the Effect Controls panel, change the Fill Mask menu to Mask 1 and choose a dark brown. Click on the effect’s name to select it and select Edit > Duplicate to create a second Fill effect.

07. Change the menu to Mask 9 and sample the grey from the layer below. Notice that the fill overlaps the stroke. Drag the Stroke effect down to the bottom of the Effect Control panel to apply it after the fill. This will make it appear on top of the fills.

08. Click on the Opacity stopwatches for both of the fill effects and then hit U to expose the keyframes in the Timeline. Drag them to markers 2 and 3 respectively. Change the Fill Opacity to 0 at marker 1 and then stagger the keyframes, as shown in the diagram. Jump to Marker 5 by hitting the number 5 on your keyboard.

09. Now let’s create some symbols for our map. First, we’ll use shape layers to create some flowers for the roof garden. Make sure no layers are selected and then choose the Star Shape tool from the toolbar. Double-click the Star Shape tool to create a star the size of the comp. Open the Polystar settings in the timeline.

10. Change the points value to 7, the inner radius to 300 and the outer roundness value to 200 to create a flower shape. Switch off the eyeball next to Stroke 1 and switch on the eyeball next to Fill 1, change the fill colour to yellow. Click on the Add menu to add an ellipse to the shape, creating the centre of the flower

11. Click on the Add menu again and choose Fill to fill the ellipse with colour – I’ve gone for a red. Drag the ‘Polystar Path 1’ below the ellipse and fill 2 to place it underneath them, then open Ellipse Path 1 and adjust the size till it looks right. You may also want to adjust the colour.

12. Open the Transform: Polystar 1 section, change the scale value to 3% and skew to 20, set the skew angle to -45, and then drag it over so that it sits on top of the flower beds.

13. Add a repeater from the Shape Layer menu, change the number of copies to two and then in the Transform: Repeater 1 section, change the position values to approximately 1998, 1177 (until the flowers line up correctly in perspective). Add a second repeater to repeat this row. Open the Transform: Repeater 2 section, change the Copies value to 2, and adjust the position value until it’s right (-1990, 1621).

14. In the final animation, I animated the inner and outer radius values of the flower shape and the size value of the ellipse to make the flower appear to grow over time. Click on the Shy button to open up the hidden layers and switch on their video eyeballs so you can see them. Drag the new Shape layer under the Details layer.

15. Open Pan and Zoom Comp, select All Layers and hit U to expose the keyframes. Preview the animation to see how I’ve animated the Anchor Point and Scale values to create a whip-pan effect and have animated the Source Text value on the text layer to make the text update as we travel up the building. I’ve also added a little stopmotion animated figure to the mix, made up of 11 frames created in Photoshop.

Who: Angie Taylor is the European Creative Director at Gridiron Software. Her background is in producing animations, VFX and graphics for TV, films and the Internet. She is the author of Creative After Effects 7.
Software: Adobe After Effects
Time to complete: 4 hours
On the CD: Files for this tutorial can be found on the cover CD.