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3 Ways to Colour Grade Cartoon Animation Using After Effects

This post is part of a series called Learn Character Animation With Cartoon Animator.
How to Create Smooth Head Turns in 2D With Cartoon Animator and After Effects
How to Add Motion Blur Effects to Cartoon Animation Using After Effects
Final product imageFinal product imageFinal product image
What You'll Be Creating

Adding colour grading to an animation can help to convey a specific emotion, style or atmosphere. This can help emphasize a visual tone for a project and help give it a more cinematic feel. In this tutorial, you will learn how to add colour grading to your animation project using Adobe After Effects.

What You'll Learn in This Tutorial

Adobe After Effects has many different tools that allow you to colour grade your animation project. In this tutorial we will show you step-by-step how to successfully colour grade your scene with effects. We cover three ways, each with increasing complexity. You will learn the basics of

  • How to use Tint and Curves, which is a good place for beginners to start
  • How to use Tritone for slightly more advanced looks
  • How to use Colour Balance for precise grading
  • How to adjust your colour grade

What You'll Need

To follow along with this tutorial you will need your own versions of Adobe After Effects and your own custom video or animation project. Envato Elements has lots of great ready-made animation scenes to help you get started.

Or you can create a custom project quickly and easily using Cartoon Animator; download a free trial version from the Reallusion Website. We'll be using in the Layered Background Scene 'Teleport'. Follow the previous tutorials in this series, like How to Add Soft Lighting to Animation or How to Rig a Character, for more.

1. 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 include 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, you will find them located in the Project Panel, which is usually located on the left side of the screen.

project panelproject panelproject panel

2. 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

3a. How to Use Tint in After Effects

Step 1

Select all the layers within the comp and then Right Click > Pre-compose to create a new composition and group up everything so far.

Rename the new composition Animation.

create new compcreate new compcreate new comp

Step 2

Go to Layer > New > Adjustment Layer (Control + Alt + Y) to create a new Adjustment Layer. 

You can then rename the new layer to Colour Grading.

create new adjustment layercreate new adjustment layercreate new adjustment layer

Step 3

Go to the Effects & Presets panel and type in tint in the search bar at the top. Select the Tint effect and apply it to the Adjustment Layer. You can do this by double clicking on the Tint effect (whilst the adjustment 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 located near the top left of the screen to view the tint effect options.

color tint effect controlscolor tint effect controlscolor tint effect controls

Step 4

Click on the colour box next to Map White To and change the colour to  #4eabcd . Change the Amount to Tint value to 30%.

tint colortint colortint color

Step 5

Go to the Effects & Presets panel and type in curves in the search bar at the top. Select the Curves effect and apply it to the Adjustment Layer.

In the Effect Controls panel you can then edit the graph to brighten/darken the footage and give it slightly more contrast. Note that this increases saturation so, depending on our project, you may need to add a small reduction in saturation with a hue-saturation adjustment layer to compensate.

use curvesuse curvesuse curves

3b. How to Use Tritone in After Effects

Step 1

Alternatively, you can apply Tritone instead of Tint. This gives you control over the Shadows, Midtones, and Highlights.

Go to the Effects & Presets panel and type in tritone in the search bar at the top. Select the Tritone effect and apply it to the Adjustment Layer

Once the effect has been applied, go to the Effect Controls panel located near the top left of the screen to view the Tritone effect options.

apply tritoneapply tritoneapply tritone

Step 2

Click on the colour box next to Midtones and change the colour to  #4eabcd . Change the Blend with Original value to 88%.

This colour works well for this particular project, however feel free to choose a colour to what you feel works best.

choose colors that you wantchoose colors that you wantchoose colors that you want

3c. How to Use Colour Balance in After Effects

Step 1

The third way to improve the look of your footage is called Colour Balance. This can be used instead of Tint or Tritone, and is the most detailed of the three options presented here.

Go to the Effects & Presets panel and type in colour balance in the search bar at the top. Select the Colour Balance effect and apply it to the Adjustment Layer

Once the effect has been applied, go to the Effect Controls panel located near the top left of the screen to view the effect options.

color balance optionscolor balance optionscolor balance options

Step 2

This effect gives you even more control than the previous two options, so feel free to experiment with all the different values. You only really need to changed two colour to control the overall look. Once you're familiar with this tool and the basics of colour theory, working with two-colours, usually Blue and Green, is probably the fastest and most precise way to grade.

For this project you can use the following:

  • Shadow Red Balance: -10
  • Shadow Green Balance: 30
  • Shadow Blue Balance: 40
  • Midtone Red Balance: -5
  • Midtone Green Balance: -5
  • Midtone Blue Balance: 20
  • Highlight Red Balance: 20
  • Highlight Green Balance: 10
  • Highlight Blue Balance: 20
use color balance optionsuse color balance optionsuse color balance options

Step 3

Duplicate the Animation layer and place it on top of the other two layers. Change the blend mode of the new layer to Soft Light and reduce the opacity to your liking.

If this option is not available to you, make sure to turn it on by clicking on the small button located near the bottom left of the panel.

duplicate comp and use blending modeduplicate comp and use blending modeduplicate comp and use blending mode

4. How to use Shadow/Highlight to Refine the Grade

Step 1

Now to add some final touches to the animation by adding the Shadow/Highlight Effect.

Go to the Effects & Presets panel and type in Shadow/Highlight in the search bar at the top. Select the Shadow/Highlight effect and apply it to the Adjustment Layer

Once the effect has been applied, go to the Effect Controls panel located near the top left of the screen to view the effect options.

shadow highlight optionsshadow highlight optionsshadow highlight options

Step 2

Uncheck the Auto Amounts box at the top and change the following values:

  • Shadow Amount: 5
  • Highlight Amount: 60
edit shadow highlight optionsedit shadow highlight optionsedit shadow highlight options

Step 3

Remember that using these effects may require a bit of experimentation before you get the look you want so feel free to deviate a little from these settings. Getting the right look can take some time, especially when using the more complex options, but the results can be worth it!

final color gradingfinal color gradingfinal color grading

Awesome! You're Finished!

Congratulations! And that's how you can add different types of colour grading to a cartoon animation project in Adobe After Effects. Feel free to experiment with the different effect options such as increasing or decreasing the different values to edit the look of your project. Using colour 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+!

compare color gradingcompare color gradingcompare color grading
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