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How to Add Soft Shadow Effects to Cartoon Animation Using After Effects

This post is part of a series called Learn Character Animation With Cartoon Animator.
How to Add Soft Lighting to Cartoon Animation in After Effects
How to Add Special Effects to Cartoon Animation Using After Effects
Final product imageFinal product imageFinal product image
What You'll Be Creating

Soft shadow lighting effects are essential for creating that sense of believability when adding objects or characters into a scene. In our last tutorial, we learned how to create soft lighting. In this tutorial, you will learn how to create shadows that interact with your character and the world around them. We will use Adobe After Effects to achieve this.

What You'll Learn in This Tutorial

Adobe After Effects has many different tools that allow you to create lighting and shadow effects in your animation project. In this tutorial we will show you step-by-step how to create soft shadow lighting effects to enhance your scene. You'll learn:

  • How to create soft shadows for your character in Adobe After Effects
  • How to create soft shadows for your props
  • How to create and transform 3D layers
  • How to tweak and adjust the look of your shadows using the transform options

What You'll Need

To follow along with this tutorial you will need Adobe After Effects and your own animation project. You can download ready-made scene from Envato Elements or use your own custom animation project. In previous tutorials, we showed how to quickly and easily create an animated characters using Cartoon Animator, which includes the character we're using in this tutorial.

Here's the scene we'll use: Layered Background Scene 'Teleport'.

1. How to Import Video Files into Adobe After Effects

Step 1

For this project we'll be using separate animated video files and objects. However feel free to use your own custom project or video to follow along.

Let's start by first listing out the video files we have exported from Cartoon Animator. For this example we have exported all the props within the scene manager, which includes the following:

  • Character (G3 Actor)
  • Background 1,2 + 3
  • Machine
  • Machine Screen
  • Machine Overlay
  • Wires 1,2 + 3
exported props from the scene managerexported props from the scene managerexported props from the scene manager

Step 2

In Adobe After Effects, import each of the videos by going to File > Import > File and selecting the .MOV video files.

When importing the files this will prompt a new window where you must decide how you wish to interpret the alpha channel. Select Straight - Unmatted and click OK.

Interpret footageInterpret footageInterpret footage

Step 3

Once you have imported all the videos into After Effects you will find them located in the Project Panel, usually located on the left side of the screen.

project panelproject panelproject panel

2. How to Prepare the Scene

Step 1

Create a new composition by going to Composition > New Composition (Control - N). 

new compositionnew compositionnew composition

Step 2

In the composition settings, use the following:

  • Composition Name: Render Comp
  • Width: 1920 px
  • Height: 1080 px
  • Frame Rate: 30
  • Duration: 33.20 seconds
composition settingscomposition settingscomposition settings

Step 3

Use the mouse to drag and drop each movie file into the composition. Make sure that you layer all your props correctly. In this example we have layered the props in the following order:

  • Machine Overlay
  • Character
  • Machine Screen
  • Wires
  • Machine
  • Background
layer orderlayer orderlayer order

3. How to Add Moving Shadows to a Character in the Scene

Step 1

In order for the shadow and light effects to work, we need to make our layers into 3D layers. To do this make sure to check the 3D Layer box next to each layer.

make layers 3D layersmake layers 3D layersmake layers 3D layers

Step 2

Duplicate the Character Layer by selecting it and then pressing Control - D on the keyboard.

duplicate the character layerduplicate the character layerduplicate the character layer

Step 3

Rename the duplicate Character Layer and call it Character Shadow.

rename shadow layerrename shadow layerrename shadow layer

Step 4

Open up the layer Transform options and rotate the layer by 180° using the X Rotation.

flip the shadow layer in the x axisflip the shadow layer in the x axisflip the shadow layer in the x axis

Step 5

Use the Position option and change the vertical values so that the shadow appears underneath the Character layer. Try and move to a position in the timeline where your character's foot meets the floor. You can then align both feet so that they are touching.

move the shadow layer below the character layermove the shadow layer below the character layermove the shadow layer below the character layer

Step 6

Change the Opacity value so that it is 60%. You can reduce or increase this value so that the shadow works within your scene.

reduce opacity to 60%reduce opacity to 60%reduce opacity to 60%

Step 7

Go to the Effects & Presets panel and type in "fill" in the search bar at the top. Select the Fill effect and apply it to the Character Shadow layer. You can do this by double clicking on the fill effect (whilst the character shadow layer is selected) or by clicking and dragging it onto the layer itself.

Once the effect has been applied, go to the Effect Controls panel and make sure the color is set to black.

add a fill effectadd a fill effectadd a fill effect

Step 8

Go to the Effects & Presets panel and type in "gaussian blur" in the search bar at the top. Select the Guassian Blur effect and apply it to the Character Shadow layer.

gaussian blurgaussian blurgaussian blur

Step 9

Once the effect has been applied, go to the Effect Controls panel and set the Blurriness to a higher value. In this example we have used 10.

apply blur effectapply blur effectapply blur effect

Step 10

Ensure that the Character Shadow layer is in the correct order so that it doesn't look out of place within the animation. In this example we have moved the Machine Overlay layer above the Character Shadow layer.

change layer orderchange layer orderchange layer order

Step 11

You can continue to adjust and tweak the look of your shadow to your liking by using the Transform options. In the example below we have adjusted the X Rotation to give the shadow a sense of perspective. 

adjust the transform valuesadjust the transform valuesadjust the transform values

4. How to Add Soft Shadows to Objects in the Scene

Step 1

Select which prop you would like to add soft shadows to. In this example we are using the Machine layer. 

Duplicate the layer by selecting it and then pressing Control - D on the keyboard. Rename the duplicate layer appropriately so that you can identify it as a shadow layer. Open up the layer Transform options and rotate the layer by 180° using the X Rotation.

rotate machine layer in the x axisrotate machine layer in the x axisrotate machine layer in the x axis

Step 2

Use the Position option and change the vertical values so that the shadow appears underneath the Machine layer. Try and align the shadow layer so that the bottom edges are touching. This can sometimes be achieved by hiding certain parts of the shadow layer behind the prop layer. This is shown in the example below.

move shadow layer downmove shadow layer downmove shadow layer down

Step 3

You may also want to adjust and tweak the look of your shadow by applying a sense of perspective to it so that it fits the scene better. This can be achieved by adjusting the Rotation, Scale and Position values.

adjust the rotation settingsadjust the rotation settingsadjust the rotation settings

Step 4

Go to the Effects & Presets panel and type in "fill" in the search bar at the top. Select the Fill effect and apply it to the Shadow layer.

Once the effect has been applied, go to the Effect Controls panel and make sure the color is set to black.

apply fillapply fillapply fill

Step 5

Go to the Effects & Presets panel and type in "gaussian blur" in the search bar at the top. Select the Guassian Blur effect and apply it to the Shadow layer.

apply guassian blurapply guassian blurapply guassian blur

Step 6

Once the effect has been applied, go to the Effect Controls panel and set the Blurriness to a higher value. The higher the value the more blurry it will appear in the scene. In this example we have used 12.

blur the shadow to your likingblur the shadow to your likingblur the shadow to your liking

Step 7

Reduce the Opacity value to around 60%

reduce opacityreduce opacityreduce opacity

Step 8

Repeat the above steps to apply soft shadows to other props or characters that are included in your scene. Experiment with different transform values such as Scale, Rotation and Position so that the shadows fit within the over composition of the animation.

repeat the process for other propsrepeat the process for other propsrepeat the process for other props

Awesome! You're Finished!

Congratulations! And that's how you can add soft shadow lighting effects to a cartoon animation project in Adobe After Effects and Cartoon Animator. Feel free to experiment with the different effect options such as the transform options to edit the look of your project. Using light requires some trial and error to figure out the best settings to use, so make sure to experiment.

In the meantime, I hope you've found this tutorial useful and I'll see you next time, on Envato Tuts+!

soft shadow final animationsoft shadow final animationsoft shadow final animation
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