Photoshop animation tutorial


Hi everybody! I animated my last film ‘It Took A While To Figure Shit Out’ in Photoshop, that’s it up there, you can see it here on Vimeo (fair warning, it’s vulgar: poop, scenes of hunting, and a naked weiner in nonsexual situations). And if you want a sample animated .psd, I’ve posted a short one from that film here (shrunk the image size way down, though). More on that later.

I’m sure there are probably plenty of great tutorials for animating old school in Photoshop, but I get asked pretty regularly how it’s done so I’m making my own. Adobe didn’t make things particularly intuitive (why not borrow some interface cues from Flash?) but it’s such a great tool if you want to play with any sort of natural media looks. I did a job a year ago at a major studio where the lead animator was baffled by my relative speed in the program, “What? You never make mistakes?” “No, I just fix them when I do.” “But you have to do everything straight ahead!” Apparently, the poor bastard was animating on some kind of video layer straight ahead on ones and redoing the entire scene if something didn’t look right. He ignored my attempts to show him how animating on layers worked. So it goes.

Anyways, let’s get started! I’ve tried to be exhaustive, no tl;dr here.

I always work at 2112 x 1188. That’s 10% bigger than 1920 x 1080, and gives me a bit of leeway for reframing and scaling things in After Effects (yeah, you’d be crazy, lazy, or both to render straight out of PS).

As an aside, when I animated ‘It Took A While to Figure Shit Out’ at that resolution, there was pretty significant lag in both drawing and on playback. Not sure if that was hardware or software (old G5 Mac Pro quad core and CS4), but now on an iMac with CS Cloud (6?) I’m experiencing zero lag at even this HD+ resolution. It’s awesome.

The crucial first step in making PS animation only a little frustrating and not Akira-rage-tumor-explosion-inducing is getting your shortcuts set up.

Edit –> Keyboard Shortcuts –> Shorcuts For: Panel Menus –> Timeline (Video)*
These, in my experience are the relevant ones in this mess.
Next frame –  ⌘ + L
Previous frame – ⌘ + K
Trim start at Playhead (weird phrasing, right? This cuts the starting point of the frame) – ⌘ + [
Trim End at Playhead – ⌘ + ]
Enable Onion skins – ⌘ + 0

*Timeline (Frames)/ “frame animation” might be useful for something… rotoscoping? But I have never bothered to find out what. It seems to be the thing that turns so many people off of PS animation.

No reason you should copy my shortcuts, I just find the brackets to be useful since they’re so similar to alt + brackets in AE. In previous versions of Photoshop, there was a little onion button on the panel to toggle onion skins, but if it hasn’t been deleted in the latest versions, then I just can’t find it. So, that’s a handy one to have. Otherwise, most of the rest aren’t worth messing with.

So, with your timeline window open, you want to go ahead and click ‘Create Video Timeline,’ ‘Frames’ are confusion and impractical in my experience. Then click the little menu in the upper right corner of the panel and choose ‘Set Timeline Frame Rate…’ If memory serves, this was in the same menu path but called ‘Document Settings’ in previous versions of Photoshop. I always animate at 24, but if you’re weird or European or whatever, do your thing. It’s important to set your frame rate before you start as there’s a minor but frustrating little error that happens to layers when you change the document’s frame rate after starting. Layers that have been converted often won’t reach the precise end points (snapping to 1/24 of a second) and you’ll get weird little flickers. If that does happen, just ⌘ + J that wonky layer to bring it up to speed, and delete the original. Incidentally, with the Timeline open, you can do that by just clicking on a layer in the and hitting backspace.

The other thing you’ll probably want to do is “Disable Timeline Shortcut Keys” in the Timeline panel’s drop down menu. It makes the arrow keys into frame forward and backward shortcuts. Which is nice unless, like me, you like to be able to nudge your drawings around with them. Tapping space will still play a preview of your work area, even with the ‘Timeline Shortcut Keys’ disabled (won’t interfere with holding space and dragging the frame around with the hand). Previous versions automatically gave you your nice layer timeline as soon as you created multiple layers, but now you click ‘Create Video Timeline.’ Again, fuck that ‘frames’ shit.

Now you simply create a new layer, trim its length on the timeline with your mouse or those shortcuts. It’s just like the After Effects timeline. Once you’ve got your keys and are going to start tweening, though, you’ll run into some frustration with the onion skin. It’s not as readily adjustable as onion skins in Flash for example. You have to open onion skin settings from the panel’s dropdown.


I generally just keep visibility at 2 before, 2 behind and the opacity for both pretty low (10-20%), with multiply as the blending option. Playing with the blending option can be handy, particularly if you’re animating over a darker background. The frustration kicks in when you’re tweening something longer than twos. For that, my method is to just overlap the previous layer with the current one thus:

tut_03Trim the previous frame afterward. It’s infinitely less frustrating than constantly adjusting the onion skin settings. If this all seems obvious, great! I never name my layers, I shift them around too much when I’m getting timing right.

I have no issue previewing an HD animation file with my current setup. Photoshop seems to automatically reduce the quality/resolution of the playback, but you don’t need pixel perfection to check motion. If you have an older machine or software, though, it’s gonna lag. So just render out little test movies from the timeline’s drop down panel (Render Video…).

So there you go, you’ve animated your first scene and are ready to color. This is obviously one of the points where Photoshop is really slow work compared to Flash. No paint bucketing your beautiful brushed lines (I assume you googled some awesome pencil brushes or whatever). My finished .psd’s usually look something like this:

tut_04So, we’ve got individual folders for the line, color and shade passes. For really long scenes, I have a .psd that just has a couple hundred blank layers that I’ve just cut to two frames each. Make one of those and drag that folder right into your animation .psd and you’ll save a ton of time. It’s gonna be right most of the time and when you’ve got a stray one or a hold, it’s easy to just select and drag the following frames into their place.

But holy shit, Metcalf, unless I use the fucking pencil and bucket tool this is going to be mega tedious! It will still be fairly tedious, but as clever monkeys, we can make an ass-backwards paint bucket that doesn’t fuck up those nice anti-aliased brush strokes. Draw in the outlines of one of your color blocks like so:


Do that for your entire scene for one color. When you’re ready to fill those spaces, get your magic wand. Click outside the color block (and shift-click in any other voids you don’t want colored if your character is touching the edge of the frame like the above). Now install this action, or make it yourself:

With the void selected with the wand, hit record. Shift + ⌘ + i  –> Edit – Fill (100% and BEHIND, that’s crucial when you have more than one color), ⌘ + D. Optionally, like my action does, advance two frames, so nine times out of ten you’re on the next frame you need to color. Hit stop in the action window, double check that you did it right. Awesome! Set a shortcut for that action. Now with your brush’s mode set to Behind, proceed to the next color. Shut up, you’re an animator, repetition is your great love.

If you like dimensionality, shade that sucker. Make a new folder, put it on top, blah blah blah. If you’re doing a darkish, dramatic sort of scene, though, it can save you a lot of time to just duplicate your color folder, stick that on top and then go through filling and erasing the scant highlights you’re going for. Has the added benefit of keeping you from shading outside the lines.  I set my opacity at the folder level, and just work at full black or brown or whatever. That’ll give you a little more freedom when it comes time to export.

For export, you just want to hide any layers that you don’t want to show. No need to guide them. In some cases I render a character as one pass, in others I’ll render out the line, shade, and color as separate passes to afford more freedom in the final comp in AE. I’d recommend rendering .png sequences like this:


It seems like Adobe has ironed out a lot of the old issues with files transferring from one of their programs to another (.swf’s don’t seem as corruption prone in AE as they once were), but I am still in the habit of avoiding large .psd’s in After Effects whenever possible. Not that I could explain why, just that smarter compositors than me taught me that practice (thanks, Luigi). It does make a difference. Premultiplied with black is another one of those things I just do cause I was told to.

I think that’s it. I’m going to try to leave comments open so I can answer questions, but for whatever reason I tend to get mega-spammed, so that might not last. If this was helpful and you really think I’m just the greatest guy, follow me on twitter (@metcalflovesyou) or something so I can try to get you to buy my forthcoming game in a month or so:

stressbanner2(come on be a pal, it’s just .99)