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After Effects Tutorial: Making Still Images Come to Life


Whether or not you're a Photoshop master, there are things you can do to bring your still images to life you may not be aware of — because these techniques are performed in After Effects. With this tutorial, you'll learn how to animate certain types of still photos, plus a few different ways to pull it off.


Step 1 In order to nail this technique, it's helpful to have the right type of image. Try a landscape with contrast between the sky and the ground. Fog and clouds help too, as this doesn't work best with leaves or other small details. (We'll see a few ways around this later on.) For the first image, I chose wheat field on a foggy spring morning by contributor photonewman.


Step 2 Go to Effect > Distort > Displacement Map and apply the effect to your image.


Step 3 Set both your vertical and horizontal Max Displacement to 0. For this image, change the Displacement to Luminance. Set your timeline to the beginning and add a key frame for the Max Horizontal Displacement at 0. Now scrub to later in your timeline and create another key frame, increasing your Max Horizontal Displacement to a point where it looks good without appearing too distorted.


Step 4 If you have the sun on your horizon and want to add a little "flare" go to Effect > Generate > Lens Flare.


Step 5 Animate your Flare Center to follow the horizontal movement of your frame.


Step 6 Clouds are the easiest to animate with this effect. I chose Cloud formations seen from the plane by contributor Rechitan Sorin as an example. Follow Steps 2 and 3 from the previous image to get the desired effect.


Step 7 Time for another technique. This one is a bit more complex, but also gives you more control. We'll work with Green tropical mountain cover with clouds by contributor watin.


Step 8 Take your image into Photoshop and cut out all of the trees and mountains, leaving only the clouds, and save it as a separate PNG file. Import this into After Effects on top of your original image. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 for your new cloud layer.


Step 9 We can also animate an image without using the Displacement Map effect. I originally learned how to do this from Andrew Kramer at Video Copilot, in his Animating a Still tutorial. I chose Volcano eruption, Anak Krakatau, Indonesia by contributor Byelikova Oksana to demonstrate.


Step 10 First, take your image into Photoshop and split it into three different pieces. Separate the smoke and boat from the background and clone out each piece, leaving a clean slate to animate them.


Step 11 Save your image as a Photoshop file (PSD) and import it into After Effects as a Composition, with Editable Layer Styles. This gives you the ability to work with your Photoshop layers separately.


Step 12 Select your background layer and go to Effect > Distort > Corner Pin.


Step 13 Create a key frame for all of the corner pins at the beginning of your timeline. Grab the bottom left corner pin and move it out slightly to the left of its original position. Next, grab the top right corner pin and move it about half the distance of the bottom right. An example is pictured above.


Step 14 Move down the timeline and reset the bottom left and top right corner pins to their original positions. Staying at the same place in the timeline, take the bottom right corner pin and move it slightly to the right of its original position, as you did with the bottom left. Take the top left corner pin and move it about half the distance that you did with the bottom right. An example is pictured above.

Step 15 You'll notice that your smoke and boat layers no longer match up with the background. Animate their positions so that they do. You'll also notice that you have now created a slight parallax so that your boat, smoke, and background all move in a more realistic manner.


Step 16 Here comes the fun part: Select your smoke layer and go to Effect > Distort > Liquify. This effect will allow you to make your smoke look like it's growing, bulging, spinning, and so on.


Step 17 Create a key frame at the beginning of your timeline before you adjust anything under Distortion Mesh. Move to a later part in your timeline and begin distorting the smoke with these various tools, making sure you are distorting every portion of it, so that it looks more realistic in your final render.

There you have it! You are now on your way to mastering the animation of still-frame photography.  

Images Used in this Post:

Like this tutorial? Check out these other great lessons from Shutterstock or visit Skillfeed for even more After Effects tutorials.