How to Animate Flat 2D Images in After Effects (2.5D Parallax)

After Effects 09/02/2021 5 min read

2.5D Parallax effects are a popular way to add movement to still images. Not to be confused with the Ken Burns Effect, which can add a faux tracking or zooming motion to the whole picture, 2.5D parallax effects add movement to individual parts of that image. As you might expect, there is a little more to it than adding a couple of keyframes, but this powerful effect can add emotion and focus to your story. So, jump straight into animating flat 2D images in After Effects.

Part 1: Creating a 2.5D Parallax Effect

How successful this effect is will depend on several factors, most importantly, the image you are using. Before we start animating in After Effects, the image will need a little treatment in Photoshop.

Step 1: Separate Layers of Photo in Photoshop

The first step is to slice out the individual parts you want to animate and turn them into separate Photoshop layers. This can take a little time, but the more time you spend, the better the overall effect.

  1. Open your image in Photoshop; if locked, click the padlock icon in the Layers panel.
  2. Use the Pen tool to draw around the object you wish to animate. Take the time to create as much detail as possible.
  3. When you have completed your outline, right-click on the center of the shape and choose Make Selection. Set the Feather to 0.5 or 1.
  4. On your keyboard, press Command/Control + X to delete your subject. In the Layers panel, add a new Layer. Press Command/Control + V to paste the subject to the new layer.
  5. Hold Command/Control and click on the New Layer in the layers panel to bring up the Mask edge. Turn the layer off using the Eye Icon, and select your background layer; you will now be able to see the background layer with the mask outline.
  6. Go to Select > Modify > Expansion. Set the Mask Expansion to 10-15, depending on how much of your background you want to sample, then hit OK.
  7. Finally, go to Edit > Fill. Make sure you have selected Content Aware and hit OK.
  8. Repeat these steps with each element you want to separate for your parallax effect.
  9. When you have created all of your layers, you will need to turn them into Smart Objects. Do this by right-clicking each layer in the Layer panel and choosing to Create Smart Object. Save your Photoshop file.

Step 2: Make Parallax Effect in After Effects

Now your images are separated into layers; you can get to animating them in After Effects. You can go back to Photoshop to make changes, and it will update your AE project automatically, but it is always easier to get it right in the first instance.

Adding the Parallax Movement

  1. In After Effects, import your Photoshop file, ensuring you have selected Retain Layer. Double click to open the comp. You will see each layer of your image in the timeline.
  2. Click the 3D box for each layer so you can move it in 3 dimensions.
  3. Go to Layer > New > Camera… and select 28mm.
  4. Select the View drop-down and choose 2 – Horizontal or Vertical, depending on your preference. Make sure one view is always in Active Camera mode. Choose the second viewer and select left.
  5. In the Left viewer, grab the background layer and move it a reasonable distance from the camera. Use the Scale setting on the layer to enlarge it, so it matches the other layers.
  6. Position each of your layers in the 3D space, so there is some distance between each: the more room, the more significant the parallax effect. Remember, elements in the foreground of your image should be closer to the camera.
  7. Go to the start of your effect, and in the Camera layer, create a keyframe for the Position setting. Go to the end of the timeline and add a second Position keyframe. Adjust the setting to create a slow zoom in/out effect.

Adding Simple Movement to an Element

You can add other movements to individual layers to give the effect a more animated feel.

  1. Select a layer you wish to animate in the timeline.
  2. Place your playhead at the start and create a Rotation keyframe.
  3. Go to the end of the timeline and adjust the rotation slightly, creating a second keyframe.
  4. You can also try adding Position keyframes but remember to keep the movement subtle.

Adding Advanced Movement

Simple movement keyframing won’t always work for more complex shapes such as people and animals. For these layers, you will need to use the Puppet tool.

  1. Place your Playhead at the timeline’s start, select the layer, and then the Puppet tool.
  2. On your Layer, create several pins around the moving elements of your subject. If you grab one of the pins and move it, you will see how the Mesh is working on your layer. You may choose to add or remove pins until you are happy with the motion.
  3. Press U on your keyboard. You should already have a set of keyframes for each layer, which are created when you add a pin. 
  4. Go to the end of the timeline and adjust the pins for the parts you wish to move.

Top Tips to Remember:

Render your Comp

If you are experiencing lag with your playback, it might require rendering. By rendering your sequence, you will watch it back in full quality at full speed. If you don’t have time to render your video, try changing the playback quality to see how it looks.

Small and Subtle

Small and subtle movements work best in this type of animation. Consider the perspective and how the camera would react in a real-world scenario; elements in the foreground would have more movement than those further from the camera.

Add Effects

Effects can also be used to help pull the composition together. Try experimenting by adding film grain and noise, fog, or light leaks across the image.

Part 2: Tips for Best Images to Animate

Depth of Focus

2.5D Parallax Effects will always work best on images with a lot of depth of focus. A blurry background gives plenty of opportunities to fill the gaps behind your moving layers and will blur much easier. Similarly, the elements that you want moving will likely have a cleaner edge to cut around.

Don’t Skip Ahead

It can be tempting to rush the Photoshop stage of the effect, but this will only cause you problems blending in After Effects. Take your time in Photoshop to make sure your layers are the best they can be.

Keep It Simple

As with a lot of video effects, the simpler your composition, the more impressive you can make the effect. Don’t go overboard trying to make lots of elements move in the image, pick 2-3 sections and make them perfect.

Learning how to animate flat 2D images in After Effects is an excellent technique to add to your workflow and skill set. 2.5D Parallax Effects can be used across various content types, from corporate promotional videos to feature documentaries. Now you have the skills to create your animated 2D images, why not check out some of these awesome Photo Animator templates.

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