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How to Turn Illustrator Designs into Motion Masterpieces

By Emonee LaRussa
After EffectsIllustrator

Have you ever wanted to take your awesome Illustrator designs and add a little motion? We’re going to pull some Disney princess magic and bring these inanimate objects to life.
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I am constantly creating illustrations or hiring illustrators to design scenes for music videos. Today I’m going to show you some important tips and tricks on how I turn Adobe Illustrator designs into really cool animations using After Effects.
In this video you will learn:

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How to Turn Illustrator Designs into Motion Masterpieces


This tutorial is going to be extremely helpful if you are an illustrator that is looking to animate your designs, or if you are collaborating with another illustrator’s designs.

How to analyze your Illustrator design and prepare for animation 

For me, this is the most important step to creating an animation. I am a visual learner, so I always get a pen and paper to jot down my ideas and plan. The most important thing to is analyze your scene so it is cohesive and really pops.
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This mind-blowing, amazing, fantastic, beautiful super-awesome illustration was created by Kevin KH Kim. I’ve worked with him many times, and he is absolutely phenomenal...and he was gracious enough to provide us this illustration as an example. 
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So let’s imagine we were given the task of bringing this scene to life. Our client wants everyone to get along, like a community, and we have a decent amount of creative control.
My first initial idea would be for the robot to give a thumbs up, so I’m gonna write on my robot “thumbs up.” But what does this mean for the scene? 
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If the robot gives a thumbs up, then that must mean his arm moves, and then his shoulder must move...and if his shoulder must move, the character on his shoulder would move as well. It's important to break down how one character's movement is going to affect everything around them, including the environment.
The goal here is to really break down the cause and effect of your animation. There are so many elements to this that could really take this design to the next level, but if we aren’t connecting the motions together it’s really not going to look like a cohesive piece.
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Once I have my character animation concept written down, I also want to break down the environment. I think environment animations are super underrated, and I’ve seen a lot of pieces that could’ve taken it to the next level had the environment been flowing as beautifully as the characters. 
I strongly recommend writing everything down before you get to work. This way you won't forget any of your ideas, and you'll be able to come up with a more accurate timeline for your workflow. That's not just important for organization, but to communicate with your client about when the final product will be delivered.

How to import your Illustrator designs into After Effects

In the video above, I show you a neat plug-in that I use regularly to speed up my Ai to Ae workflow. For now, let's take a look at how to quickly bring your Illustrator files into After Effects to animate.
First, let’s make sure that—when you are in Illustrator—your layers are organized. This is going to be extremely important for when you are bringing in the files to After Effects.
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Go to File > Import > File... and select the correct...file (so many files). Make sure you are importing as a Composition rather than Footage so that the file isn't merged together.
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Now you have all of your layers in After Effects, and the format is the same compression and layout as we had in Illustrator. To give us more control, we want to convert these into Shape Layers.
Right-click on the layer and go to Create > Create Shapes from Vector Layer
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Now we have two files: the original Illustrator file and the new Shape Layer. I usually delete the Illustrator layer.
So this is why it’s import to make sure your files are organized in Illustrator. Say I have my files scattered everywhere—you’ll see when I convert it to a shape layer, all the layers lay on a different shape layer—when I go to animate the path of one character it is going to be a mess.
Say I want to move his head. I would have to grab the path of every individual keyframe and move it. But when you have it on one layer, you can just highlight all of the keyframes in one section and they all share the same transform settings.
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And here’s where the fun part happens. We need to go in and label all of our layers so we know exactly what we are animating. I already took the liberty to label these files for you, but when you are working on your own designs it’s super important to make sure that you label all of your groups in your shape layers.
There are a ton of non-native tools you can find to help streamline your work. A great extension is Overlord from Battle Axe, Adam Plouf's company. It allows you to import shape layers with the click of a button. I don’t want to spend too much time going over those, but if you want to spend some money to make your workflow a little faster I suggest getting this extension.

The Dos and Don’ts of working with Illustrator files

I want to go over some do’s and don’ts when illustrating designs for motion. These rules aren’t written in stone, but they have really helped me and I think they’ll help you too.

Don’t ever expand or compound your strokes in Illustrator.

When we go into Illustrator and we want to have a red line go through a stroke, we are unable to use the Shape Builder tool or the Pathfinder because there’s technically no fills that are being registered.
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So if you were just designing in Illustrator, you would go to Expand, make these a fill, and take them out so we have an effect that’s working. But when we bring this into After Effects, we’re going to see something a little funny 
We lose the ability to add effects normally available in the Shape Layers panel. Compounding and Expanding are destructible tools, which is fine when we are designing but becomes an absolute time-sink when we try it in animation.

Do expect to recreate assets in After Effects!

If I’m the one designing the artwork, I would simply create it in After Effects using Shape Layers and a Matte.
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That way I can animate the red inside without have to spend too much time trying to fit it within the mask.
I often recreate assets for an animation, and I include that step in the timeline of how long this piece will take. For instance, I really wanted to move one of the smaller character's arm during the animation, so I had to create a new Stroke in After Effects to achieve the right look.

Watch the video for more tips!

And lastly...DO have fun ;) Motion design is problem solving and keyframing and rendering...but it’s also art and creation. At the end of the day, animating illustrations should be—and can be—extremely fun. 

Now you can be a motion illustrator!

And that’s how it’s done! If you have any questions at all feel free to contact me! Subscribe for more tutorials on motion design and visual effects, and make sure to click the bell icon so you’ll be notified of any future videos. 
If you want to learn more about using the motion graphic tips and check out Illustration for Motion.
You'll be empowered to create your own illustrated works, gaining valuable knowledge and insights from one of the top talents in the industry: Sarah Beth Morgan. Thanks for stopping by! We’ll see you next time.