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Creatively Using Text Animators in After Effects

By Kyle Hamrick
After Effects

Learn to Understand the After Effects Text Animator by Thinking Outside the [Text] Box.

I know you might find this hard to believe, but the After Effects text animator is TOTALLY AWESOME.
I know, I know! Hear me out.
“But,” you protest, ”I applied some text presets and they looked dumb, so I’ve just been using fades or whatever. Also, I really love having a bunch of extra layers in my project.” To each their own, I guess, but I’ve got news for you:
Yes, I'm using these ironically.
But it’s ok - it’s not your fault! (Although, let’s be honest - you were just applying a preset. What’d you think was going to happen?) The text animator may not be very intuitive, but I’m here to help with that. Joey also made a great tutorial on text animators a couple years ago - he approaches it a little differently than I will, but it’s extremely informative and highly recommended!

Let’s start thinking outside the [text] box.

Let’s take a moment and expand our minds a little. What is text [in the context of design software] anyway? Well, text is really just a bunch of vector shapes. Text just happens to be vector shapes we have collectively given linguistic meaning to... am I starting to sound like Plato?
Once you stop viewing the text animator as just a way to bring on words, and understand how it works, you’ll realize it’s actually a procedural (step-by-step) effector-based animator for vector shapes. You can quickly create tapered strokes, cool bendy arrows, and abstract backgrounds. You can make groups of objects easily travel along paths, create awesome self-animating elements without keyframes, use it like a particle generator … You can do a lot of really cool stuff with it!
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Bonus: Once you wrap your head around using the text animator for this crazy stuff, you’ll also be much better at using it to … bring on words.

Text Animator Tutorial for After Effects

To help you understand out what the heck I’m talking about, I’ve put together this video tutorial on the text animator, and the weird, abstract ways I like use it. I’ll start off with explaining how it works, then dive into some creative ways to apply it to your motion design projects.

Download the Free Text Animator Project Files

Want to follow along with me exactly, or see what the finished ones look like? Check out this project file. You'll likely need to sync some fonts, but they're all ones that come free with your Creative Cloud subscription.

Thinking Outside the [Text] Box: After Effects Project File

Download Project File

Just Give Me the Quick Version...

The explanation of the text animator is super-important, but if you just want to jump to a specific example, here are the times.
  • Explanation of the Text Animator (2:17)
  • Creating a Tapered Stroke (15:31)
  • Creating a Path Arrow (21:00)
  • Creating an Abstract Dots Pattern (22:59)
  • Creating a 3d Extruded Rotating Pattern (28:13)
Do you just really love reading words instead? Here's the basic idea:
Create a text layer of only periods. Adjust your typeface to get squares or circles - whichever you prefer.
Add a text animator (or multiple!) and experiment with the properties. I found it was so much easier to grasp what all of these properties were doing once I stopped reading the words I was animating, and just viewed them as abstract shapes to move around. Hopefully the same is true for you!
ProTip: Just because it’s the “text animator,” you don’t always have to be actually animating something with it - they can just be offsets/adjustments. Think of them more like effectors that can also be animated. Oh, you wanted more detail? That’s why I made that video up there. I’ll be nice, though, and give you a quick step-by-step for a commonly-requested element: a tapered stroke. No plugins, no expressions, no nothin’!

Tapered Stroke Using the Text Animator

No need to download a fancy-schmancy Tapered Stroke tool; you can actually create a tapered stroke using Text Animators.
  1. Create a long line of periods/dots - you’ll probably want like 100-150 of them. (Copy/paste will be your friend here.) You’ll want your font size set decently large, around 300-ish, depending on your typeface. You’ll probably want to use one with rounded periods (like Azo Sans, available with your Creative Cloud subscription) instead of squared-off ones.
  2. Twirl open your text layer. Under More Options, there’s a setting for Grouping Alignment. This allows you to adjust the “anchor point” of each unit (it’s per character by default) that the text animator will be using. Adjust the values until you see the little Xs centered up within your dots. I suggest zooming in for this.
  3. In the character panel, adjust the tracking (into the negatives) until the dots form into a solid line.
  4. Create a text animator for Scale; set that new Scale property to 0%.
  5. Under Advanced, change the Shape from the default of Square to either Ramp Up or Ramp Down. Voilà! Tapered stroke. Let's fine-tune some things.
  6. Adjusting Ease High and/or Ease Low will allow you to shape the taper. (This is actually controlling the easing of the change on the property you’re animating - sort of a distant cousin of using the graph editor to ease your keyframes.)
  7. With the layer selected, use the pen tool to draw a path (preferably open-ended) for your taper to follow. Under Path Options, set Path to the mask you just drew.
  8. If you’d like your stroke to be centered on the line, you may need to adjust the Baseline Shift in the character panel. Eyeballing it is fine.
  9. You can now animate your tapered stroke along the path by animating the First Margin and/or Last Margin property. If it’s facing the wrong way, enable Reverse Path.
  10. Now you can impress your friends with your fancy new tapered stroke. You can add additional animators or properties to add more complexity, apply color gradients, have the tail fade away - whatever you like. The world is your proverbial oyster. There are several effects that play really nicely with this as well.
  11. Bonus Tip: Since you built this all on one layer, you can save it as an animation preset!
Whee! Look at that tapered stroke go.

This is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

I've made a TON of cool stuff with just periods, dashes, plus signs, etc., but that’s just the beginning. Depending on the typeface you’re using, you potentially have access to thousands of cool glyphs, ASCII characters, Unicode characters, and Dingbats, and that’s not counting the nearly limitless number of custom ornamental fonts people have already made. If you decide the text animator is the best way to accomplish what you want to do, but you can’t find the symbol you need anywhere, you can even create your own fonts to use for your projects.

Now Get Creative!

Now you can make cool animated doodles, easily create super-useful motion design elements, and can probably be way more efficient at knocking out those boring text chunks, too. It’s bigger than that, though - not only will this help you be faster, more efficient and more creative with a tool you probably need to use all the time, it should help open you up to a mindset I think is really important: Don’t focus on what the tool is named. Take some time to explore it, and see what it actually does. After Effects is full of so many complex tools and effects that can be used and/or combined in creative and interesting ways. What amazing things can you create when you explore features you thought were scary or lame or useless, or combine a few you’d never thought to use together?
If you want to learn more about working in After Effects check out the rest of our tutorials here at School of Motion. Or if you're ready to get super-serious about your MoGraph skills, check out Animation Bootcamp. The course is a fantastic intermediate course for growing your skills and understanding professional animation techniques.