Requires After Effects CS4+. Use the Cartoon effect to turn a sequence of still photographs into animated line art. You can composite the result over a wide range of textured backgrounds.
Almost a year to the date I originally wrote this tutorial, I can finally make it public because the film has been released! You can watch it here: Jury Selection: Edmonson v. Leesville Concrete Company.
This is the trailer, which is almost entirely done with the effect I’m about to explain:
I’m currently working on a new Constitution Project film about Edmonson V. Leesville Concrete Company. In the past, we’ve used methods like digital puppetry to avoid filming reenactments. Edmonson is a much more recent court case than the others we’ve covered (1991), but the US Supreme Court only permits audio recordings of oral arguments, so there’s still no footage of the proceedings.
We were actually able to interview several of the people involved, however, resulting in tons of sharp, clear green screen footage (It’s also our first CP film in HD), as well as hundreds if not thousands of still images. So what to do with them?
Enter a new feature in After Effects CS4: the Cartoon effect. We’re going to take those photos and turn them into something like this:
Preparing The Images
1. Choose the footage clip or set of photos you want to use. If you’re hoping to reposition the person within the frame, make sure you’re not using footage or stills in which parts of their body you want visible are cropped out. Don’t import stills as a sequence.
2. Drop the footage or images into a new comp with a name like “stills precomp”. (We’re working at 1920×1080 HD, 29.97fps.) Select all and adjust the sizing and position so the portion of the image you want visible is within the comp’s borders.
3. If you’re using stills, set their duration to the length you want each to last, select them from first to last (this is important!) and choose Animation -> Keyframe Assistant -> Sequence Layers…
You can choose to overlap them or not — this gives a nice faded result, and allows you to stretch fewer stills over a longer period of time, but if there are lots of stills it’s not really necessary.
Adjust any of the images that seem to be particularly out of line position-wise.
4. Nest the image sequence comp within a new comp and play it through. If the sequence is particularly shaky it might be worth using the motion tracker for stabilization. Mask out any areas that contain background junk.
5. Pre-compose again (Ctrl+Shift+C/Cmd+Shift+C) and enable “collapse transformations” — the little sun icon on the layer switches.
Adding The Effects
6. We need to key out the green chromakey background. Keylight is the best filter for this, but it often leaves a slightly fuzzy matte unless you tweak the clip black and clip white settings. Since we don’t need to be super-precise, you can cheat this by adding a quick Simple Choker effect on top instead. I created a preset for this project because all of our photos are from the same source, but you may need to adjust the numbers for your own materials.
7. Create a new adjustment layer called “Cartoon” (Layer -> New -> Adjustment Layer).
8. Apply the Cartoon effect, and make sure to set render to “Edges.” Adjust the sliders until you get a result you like. I created another animation preset for this step, but it still has to be tweaked for each shot to keep everything consistent — the Edge Threshold and Width sliders in particular need to be changed depending on the source image.
9. Add a Drop Shadow effect. Size to taste.
You now have a cartooned cutout of your source. What you do with it is pretty much up to you. For our project we want to composite these stylized photo sequences over a range of different backgrounds, everything from simple textures to documents.
Adding Some Texture
10A. The Simple Route: Drop the texture file into the same comp. Experiment with different blend modes until you find one that looks good with your materials. Add a vignette* to burn the edges. Animate the texture (perhaps adjust the scale slightly?) to give the scene a little more motion. Here’s an example of a simple texture application:
10B. The Slightly More Complex Route: Drop the texture file into the comp, and set the blend mode to Silhouette Luma. Add a vignette adjustment layer. Precompose everything, and add the texture again to the new comp — below the cutout. Animate as needed. You may want to set keyframes in both the final comp and the precomp, depending. Add another vignette if necessary.
Final result, with a different texture:
*I have a standard preset for vignettes since I use them so much, but the quickest way to make one from scratch is to create a new adjustment layer, double-click on the rounded rectangle mask tool (which gives you a mask the size of the layer), set the mask to “subtract” with a large feather value, then drop a Levels filter on the layer and push the blacks way up.
That’s about it! If you’re going to be doing a lot of these, presets for the key, cartoon effect and vignette are definitely worth making.