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How to Animate Any Photo With Cartoon Animator and After Effects

This post is part of a series called Learn Character Animation With Cartoon Animator.
From Photoshop to After Effects: How to Customize Rigged Characters for Animation (Part 1)
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In this tutorial, learn how to animate static photos with Cartoon Animator, Adobe Photoshop and After Effects. We'll use the strengths of each program to make editing and animating photographs much easier.

What You Will Learn in This Animation Tutorial

In this lesson we build on the skills you learned in our last tutorials: We'll take the techniques from our lessons on how to rig and animate a character, how to make a talking avatar, and how to create smooth head turns, and apply the same skills to animate a photograph.

Here's what you'll learn in this tutorial:

  • How to create a PSD template using your photograph in Adobe Photoshop
  • How to create layers out of your photograph
  • How to import your PSD template into Cartoon Animator
  • How to rig a character in your photograph in with bones in Cartoon Animator
  • How to bring your rigged animation into After Effects for refinement

What You'll Need

To follow along with this tutorial you will need your own versions of Adobe Photoshop, After Effects and Cartoon Animator. You can download a free trial version for Cartoon Animator on the Reallusion website.

To follow along you'll also need a photograph with someone in it, preferably of them doing something. Landscapes and other images without people in them will work, but because it demonstrates things well in this example we'll use a photograph of someone playing the saxophone. You can download the photo from Envato Elements.

Saxophone player on a stageSaxophone player on a stageSaxophone player on a stage

We picked a photograph with strong implied motion. The imagination already creates a sense of action and wants to complete that action—we'll just help this feeling along. The performer's posture, the facial expression, the setting, and composition all lend to the feeling that the photo is in motion.

Here are a couple more pictures to give you an idea of the kinds of photos that might work well.

Musician plays an accordion, Italy.Musician plays an accordion, Italy.Musician plays an accordion, Italy.

The photo above uses similar implied action and content. The photo below also has a sweet implied motion:

1. Find the Action

Cartoon Animator has a 2D character creation pipeline with a helpful script to bring your animation between Photoshop and After Effects.That's what we'll do in this tutorial. First, though, you'll need to collect your materials and make a plan.

Take a look at your photo. Where is the action? Before you think too much about it, quickly jot down some words to describe that action.

In our example, the performer is holding the sax as if in mid-note, with a characteristic puffing of the cheeks and placement of fingers on the valves of the instrument. We can imagine the spine rounding and arching slightly as they play, or the chest full and then relaxed: we could pick words like concentrating, relaxed, expressive, funky, smooth, mellow. Keep these impressions in your mind as you go.

2. Prepare the Photograph in Photoshop

Begin by opening up the photograph that you want to animate in Adobe Photoshop. Let's take a closer look at the photograph and make a more substantial plan for how we want to use it.

This includes thinking about what elements of the photograph we want to move, so in this case we want to move the saxophone player. This means we'll need to separate the figure from the rest of the photograph; we will move the figure independently from the background.

open photoopen photoopen photo

Now that we have planned out what elements of the photograph we would like to separate (and therefore animate), let's go ahead and use a combination of the following tools to outline our saxophone player.

  1. Lasso Tool
  2. Polygonal Lasso Tool
  3. Magnetic Lasso Tool
Use the lasso toolUse the lasso toolUse the lasso tool

Once you are happy with the outline of your subject, copy the selection by pressing Control + C on the keyboard and then open a new document in Adobe Photoshop.

Paste the saxophone player into this new document and remove the background layer. Save both Photoshop documents so that they are ready to be used in Cartoon Animator. You can name the documents the following:

  • Saxophone_Player.psd 
  • Background.psd
Separate the characterSeparate the characterSeparate the character

3. Prepare the Background 

Open the Background Photoshop file, which should contain the original photograph. Now that we have isolated our saxophone player we want to blur out or remove the edges as much as possible. This is because we don't want a duplicate image of our character to appear behind him when he starts to move and animate.

original photo backgroundoriginal photo backgroundoriginal photo background

Blur the Edges

Use a combination of the Clone Stamp Tool and the Smudge Tool to try and move the outer edges of the saxophone player towards the centre. This should allow enough movement without any duplicate imagery appearing behind.

use the clone stamp tool use the clone stamp tool use the clone stamp tool

Once you have successfully pushed the edges of the saxophone player towards the middle, your background should be ready. If we decide it needs further editing we can revisit the photograph again at a later stage.

Now you are ready to move on to Cartoon Animator!

push the character edgespush the character edgespush the character edges

4. Set Up the PSD Editor for Cartoon Animator

When first launching Cartoon Animator you'll notice that there is a paintbrush icon on the top right hand corner of the toolbar. Clicking on this button will allow you to import your PSD files into the program. 

launch psd editorlaunch psd editorlaunch psd editor

Click on the Open Editor button as shown in the image below. 

image editorimage editorimage editor

Now browse your computer to find the location of Adobe Photoshop and then click on the Open button.

locate Adobe Photoshoplocate Adobe Photoshoplocate Adobe Photoshop

This will change the paintbrush icon, into the Adobe Photoshop icon to indicate that the editor works with Adobe Photoshop. 

Photoshop iconPhotoshop iconPhotoshop icon

5. Import your PSD Character into Cartoon Animator  

Now that the PSD editor is set up, go ahead and click on the button again. This will start the editor and synchronize the object in Adobe Photoshop and Cartoon Animator.

click on the photoshop buttonclick on the photoshop buttonclick on the photoshop button

Clicking on New Object will open a new file in Photoshop, but clicking on Open File will allow us to open an existing PSD file. Choose Open File to open up the Saxophone_Player.psd in Adobe Photoshop.

open psd fileopen psd fileopen psd file

Add a Bone Actor

Check that you are happy with the Photoshop file and then Save the file. This will immediately sync the two programs together and Cartoon Animator will prompt you to select one of the three options below. Choose Free Bone Actor so that we can animate our saxophone player.

select bone actorselect bone actorselect bone actor

The saxophone player should now appear inside Cartoon Animator. Here you can use the mouse to move the image or hover over the edges/corners to resize.

resize saxophone playerresize saxophone playerresize saxophone player

6. Synchronize With Photoshop

Go to Windows > Scene Manager or press F5 on your keyboard to view what is in your scene. 

Next to the object you should see the Synched Icon underneath the PSD Sync column. This indicates that the project is still synced to your open file in Adobe Photoshop.

PSD syncPSD syncPSD sync

This means that you can update the image in Adobe Photoshop at any time. Once you save any changes, they will be reflected when you return to Cartoon Animator. Any changes you make in Photoshop must be merged into a single layer for this to work properly.

sync between two programssync between two programssync between two programs

7. Rig and Animate Character Using Bones

To animate the saxophone player, first click on the Composer Button to go into Composer Mode. This will break the link between Cartoon Animator and Adobe Photoshop so make sure that you are happy with the way your character looks before you decide to move on.

composer mode buttoncomposer mode buttoncomposer mode button

Add Bones

Once inside Composer Mode, click on the Bone Editor button to start adding bones to the character.

select bone editor buttonselect bone editor buttonselect bone editor button

This will open up the Bone Editor Panel. Click on the Add Bone button and then simply click on the figure to create bones.

bone editorbone editorbone editor

Bones will be created between mouse clicks and each bone will help create movement for our character animation. When creating the bones, try and think about where to place the pivot points for your character such as the neck, shoulder, hips and elbow.



Once you have placed all your bones on the saxophone player, you can click on the Preview button. This will then allow you to move the bones and see how it effects your character's movement.

bone movementbone movementbone movement

Go Back Stage

Once you are happy with the placement of your bones and the movement of the saxophone player, click on the Back Stage button to return to the original screen.

back stageback stageback stage

8. Import the Background

Now that our character has been animated and set up successfully, let's go ahead and click on the PSD Editor button again. 

PSD editor buttonPSD editor buttonPSD editor button

Choose Open File to open up the Background.psd in Adobe Photoshop.

open backgroundopen backgroundopen background

Check that you are happy with the background Photoshop file and make any adjustments that you want to make before you Save the file. This will immediately sync the two programs together and Cartoon Animator will prompt you to select one of the three options below.

Choose Scene so that we can add the background to our scene with the saxophone player.

choose scenechoose scenechoose scene

The background image should now appear inside Cartoon Animator. Here you can use the mouse to move the image or hover over the edges/corners to resize.

background imagebackground imagebackground image


You may find that the background image is covering the saxophone player. You can adjust this by clicking and dragging the Zoom button at the bottom of the background object to move the object backwards and forwards along the z axis.

move background imagemove background imagemove background image

9. Animate your Photo With Keyframes

To reveal the Timeline for the project by going to Window > Timeline, or press the F3 button on your keyboard.


Selecting the objects in the Scene Manager will reveal the corresponding objects in the Timeline.

timeline and scene managertimeline and scene managertimeline and scene manager

Let's open up the different categories that we can animate for our subject. Select the following:

  • Transform
  • Flip
  • Visible
  • Opacity
  • Motion

With these open you'll be able to see the keyframes that you create for your animation.

open the timelineopen the timelineopen the timeline

2D Motion Key Editor

Now to start animating you need to select the 2D Motion Key Editor (K) which can be found on the taskbar near the bottom left side of the screen.

2D motion key editor2D motion key editor2D motion key editor

With the 2D Motion Key Editor open, simply move to around 20 frames forward in the timeline and make some simple changes to the saxophone player by moving the bones.

Keep the movements subtle to give it a more realistic feel. Once you've finished moving the character, you'll see the keyframes appear in the timeline corresponding to the type of movement you created.

animation with bonesanimation with bonesanimation with bones


Move forward another 20 frames and then continue to repeat the steps every 20 frames for animating the saxophone player. You can do this as many times as you want for as long as you want the animation to last for.

In this example we'll repeat the steps every 20 frames until we reach the 80th frame. Once you've decided to end your animation click on the Reset button in the 2D Motion Key Editor to return the saxophone player to his original position. This will enable you to loop the animation.

timeline 20 framestimeline 20 framestimeline 20 frames

Loop the Animatin

To activate loop mode, click on the Loop Button on the play bar menu.

loop modeloop modeloop mode


And then finally click on the Play button to view you animation.

play buttonplay buttonplay button

 10. Bring the Animation Into After Effects

Now you're ready to bring your character into After Effects for more post-production, with the Cartoon Animator script for After Effects to bring your work over. This script keeps the layer relationships and animation keys of the objects organized for seamless post-production. 

Install Script

Simply click on the After Effects button located on the top toolbar or go to Render > Export to After Effects.

After Effects buttonAfter Effects buttonAfter Effects button

From here you will need to click on the Download Script button to download the script which you will then install in Adobe After Effects.

download scriptdownload scriptdownload script

To install the file into Adobe After Effects, unzip the Zip file and then paste the file Cartoon Animator - AE Script (Beta).jsx to the ScriptUI Panels folder. By default, it is located in the following path:

  • Windows: C:\Program Files\Adobe\Adobe After Effects <version>\Support Files\Scripts\ScriptUI Panels
  • Mac: Applications/Adobe After Effects CC <version>/Scripts/ScriptUI Panels

If this folder does not exist, then create a folder with the name ScriptUI Panels.

unzip scriptunzip scriptunzip script

Export From Cartoon Animator

Back in Cartoon Animator make sure that you look at the following:

  1. Your character is selected under Select Object(s). This is the character that you have created and animated in Cartoon Animator.
  2. Below that you can go through the Export Settings where you can choose the resolution and frame size.
  3. And finally you can choose the export range to determine how much of your timeline you want to export into Adobe After Effects. 

Once you've checked through all the options click on the Export button and choose a desired destination for your new Adobe After Effects file.

export settingsexport settingsexport settings

Import to After Effects

To import your animation into Adobe After Effects you need to go to Windows > Cartoon Animator - AE Script (Beta).jsx which will open up a new panel.

import to After Effectsimport to After Effectsimport to After Effects

Click on the Import Project (JSON) button and locate the project location. Select the JSON file which you exported from Cartoon Animator.

This will open up the animation in Adobe After Effects! Now we can treat this animation as if it were any other After Effects project.

imported projectimported projectimported project

Awesome! You're Finished!

Congratulations! And that's how to animate a photograph with Cartoon Animator and Adobe Photoshop.

Now that you are familiar with the techniques, why not use your own photos or images? You can animate multiple characters and add more keyframes to create a longer animation.

I hope you found this tutorial helpful and that you've learned some new tips and tricks that you can use for your own projects. See you next time!

saxophone player with bonessaxophone player with bonessaxophone player with bones

Looking to Learn More? Check out even more Animation Tutorials Below!

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