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Tutorial: How to Create a Toon-Shaded Look in After Effects

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Learn how to achieve a toon stylized animation in After Effects.

The “toon shaded” look is pretty dang popular these days. There are, of course, plugins and effects that can make something look “cartoonish,” but there is always a price to be paid for convenience and that price is control over the final look. This video is a little weird in that it shows you how to get a simple-looking effect in a complex-seeming fashion. The goal, however, is to get you to THINK LIKE A COMPOSITOR when you use After Effects. It’s a tough thing to get initially, but by the end of this lesson you'll have a good idea of how to approach look-development inside of After Effects.Check out the Resources tab for more info on that Mt. Mograph tutorial that Joey mentions in this lesson.

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Tutorial Full Transcript Below 👇:

Joey Korenman (00:15):

What's up Joey here at school of motion and welcome today, 24 of 30 days of after effects in today's video, we're going to talk about breaking down an effect into multiple layers inside of after effects and using a composite mindset to achieve a specific look that you're going for. On top of that, we're going to learn some cool tricks about ways to make things seem a little goopy, a quick shout out to Mount. MoGraph another amazing tutorial site, because one of the tricks that Matt showed in one of his videos I used in this video, because I thought it was great. So go check out Mount MoGraph. Don't forget to sign up for a free student account. So you can grab the project files from this lesson, as well as assets from any other lesson on the site. Now let's hop into after effects and get started.

Joey Korenman (00:59):

So in this video, I'm going to show you a few tricks and I don't normally like to just show tricks, but what's what I'm hoping that everyone gets out of this is that one of the things you can do in after effects is you can use effects in ways that they're sort of, I don't know, they're not really intended to be used. And if you think more like a compositor, you can get so much control over the way your image looks. Okay. And so specifically what I'm gonna talk about is how to get this kind of cartoony look, but have complete and total control over it. You know, after effects is designs to, to try and almost prevent you from, from using it the way that I like to use it sometimes because it tries to hide complexity from you, by making things simple. There's a cartoon effect that you can use, but if you really want to dial in a look and be very specific, then a lot of times it's better to just roll your own stuff.

Joey Korenman (01:57):

So we're going to start out, I'm going to show you how I did this kind of gooey popping thing. Um, and I have to, I have to first just say that this is, this effect is not something I figured out how to do on my own. I sort of, you know, I learned the basic trick a long time ago, and then, uh, I saw a Mt. MoGraph video, um, which did this cool little trick that I stole where, uh, you can get these holes in there. So let's hop in, let me show you how this thing is all put together. So let's make a new comp we'll just do 1920 by 10 80. All right. So here's what we're going to do. I'm going to start by making a circle and the way I usually do it, I just double-click, the ellipse tool makes a giant ellipse, and then I tap you twice to bring up my, uh, my size property.

Joey Korenman (02:42):

And let's just make this like a hundred pixel or maybe 200 pixel and I don't want to stroke on it. So I'm going to turn the stroke to zero and turn the fill on. So there we go. So we have a white ball right there. All right. And I'm going to name this ball one. And, uh, so what I want to do is I want to have this thing split, right? Like a cell or something like that, and this is pretty easy, so I'm going to duplicate it. So there's two of them. I'm going to hit P and I'm going to separate the dimensions, and I'm gonna put a key frame on X position for both of these. So then I'm going to jump forward. Let's say we want this to take a second. So let's go forward one second. Right? So by the way, the way I move around so fast as a page down and page up, move forward and backwards frames.

Joey Korenman (03:29):

And if you hold shift does 10 frames. So if I want to move forward a second it's shift page down page down, and then 1, 2, 3, 4 that's 24 frames really quickly, keyboard shortcuts are important. So let's move these, then let's move them in equal distance, right? So, uh, for, for this ball, uh, why don't we add 300 pixels to it? Okay. And this is a cool thing you can do in after effects is just select a value and type in minus 300 or plus 300. And this is a way you can be very, very precise with your values. Okay? So this is what's happening. Wonderful. We're done. Look at that. Perfect. So what I want is I want it to feel like at the beginning, these things are, are joined together and they're pulling and pulling and pulling and pulling, and they can't quite make it.

Joey Korenman (04:13):

And then, and then they pop, okay. So what we need to do is we need to adjust our animation curves. And so what, uh, you know what, I'm actually going to do this a little bit differently than I did for my demo and see if we can get even more of a cool kind of popping feel to it. So, um, why don't we go to the halfway mark here and at the halfway mark? Uh, I actually want them to still be connected. I want it to really have a slow build. So why don't we say this frame here, I'm going to, I'm going to put key frames here and I'm gonna move those key frames to the middle. So now, if we look at our animation curves, let's make this a little bigger. Okay. So you can see that, uh, we're easing into this value and then, and then it accelerates at the end. Okay. And I want it to even take longer to accelerate. So I'm going to, I'm going to pull these, Bezier handles out like this.

Joey Korenman (05:13):

There we go. So now when we play this, you can see that as really slow at the beginning, and I want it to be even slower. Um, and so what I'm gonna do is pull the initial Bezier handle out on both of these key frames. Okay. And now when it actually pops out, I want that to happen really quickly. So let me move this much closer and let's take a look at this. There we go. You'll notice every single thing I do. Uh, I sort of go through this process because if you're just animating without thinking about why, you know, like, why should this animate this way, then you're just animating, randomly in your animation's not going to, it's just not going to be very good if you don't at least take the time to think it through. All right. So it hits here. I want it to overshoot a little bit.

Joey Korenman (06:07):

Um, so what I'm going to do is I'm just going to go forward, maybe three frames and copy these key frames here. Uh, and then I can just go into the curve for each one and just pull this curve up a little bit. Right? So now I get a little bit of an overshoot like this, and I'll do the same thing on this one. The great thing is once you really understand animation curves and after effects, you can just look at this visually and make sure it's doing what you want. So now you get that nice little overshooting. It bounces back and it feels like it's sticking. Cool. All right. So now that we've got this, how do we get that? Nice gooey look now this trick, I don't know who first came up with it, but it's, it's at least a decade old someone on mograph.net or creative cow posted it.

Joey Korenman (06:55):

And I learned it from them and I don't know who it was, but, um, I will give credit Mt. MoGraph had this awesome, awesome idea for how to get these kinds of holes in the middle of it. So first let's get a nice gooey looking thing and the way you do this, as you just a, I just do it with an adjustment layer and I'll just call this goo, all right. And what you do is you blur these and what you're doing is you're blurring them because then the contours of them mushed together. That's what a blur does, right? But obviously you don't want a blurry ball. So the next step is you add a levels of effect and you change the levels of fact to affect the alpha channel. Okay? Now alpha channel means transparency. And so, because we blurred this, you can see that rather than having like a nice hard edge, where there is absolute transparency and no transparency, the blur sort of creates a gradient, right?

Joey Korenman (07:59):

And so that's why you've got this range of values in the alpha channel, going from black to white. And basically what we want to do is get rid of all the gray values. We either want the alpha channel to be white or black. We don't want much gray. Cause that's why that's, what's creating the blur. And so what we can do is we can take this arrow, this black input and this arrow, which is the white input. And if we compress them, bring them closer together and you can see visually what it's doing. When I move this one, it gets rid of black. When I moved this one, it, it creates more white. And if you, you don't want to do it too hard. Cause then you'll, you'll get those crunchy edges. But something like that, right? You get them pretty close together. And now this is what you get. You see it, it mushes them together. It's pretty cool. And if you turn this off, you can see that if you, if you keep these arrows in the middle, it'll even pretty much the same size as, as the layers that you started with. Fantastic. All right. And so now if we wanted to, I might look at these curves one more time. Um, it might be cool. It's a stretch this out even more like this, so that we get a little bit more time in the middle here where they're connected. There we go.

Joey Korenman (09:20):

Cool. All right. So now we've got that. Now let's add those holes in the middle. All right. And this is a really simple trick. Um, so what you do is you, uh, you figure out where you want the holes to sort of start, you know, happening, like maybe right in there. What I'm going to do is I'm going to, I'm gonna make an ellipse and I'm going to draw it like this, and I'm going to make it like a gray color or something, make it like that. Okay. Let's take a zoom in. So I've got one ellipse here. All right. So this would be ellipse. I move the anchor points. What's in the middle. All right. And then I'm going to duplicate it. And this ellipse, we can make a little thinner like this. Maybe I'll duplicate that. And then I'll have another one down here and maybe this will be a little one, and then I'll duplicate it and maybe have another like, kind of stretchy one like this.

Joey Korenman (10:21):

And you just want them to feel like they're, they're varied, right? Like, like you don't want to notice a pattern in it. So something like that. Okay. And then let's go back a frame. So I don't want those to appear until maybe this frame. So I'm gonna hit the left bracket. So now that's the first frame they exist and I'm just gonna animate the scale of each one. So I'm gonna put a key frame on scale and I'm going to unlink all of the scale properties. So that way, what I want to do is I want them to start kind of like fin like this. And then by the time we get to here, okay, I want them to be really thin. And I also, I'm going to have to move them. So I'm going to also put a position, key frame on each of these. All right. So now let's go forward. So this is going to be the last frame where these things actually exist because after that, we now have separate, um, objects. So let's go, let's go to this last frame and let's just adjust these.

Joey Korenman (11:23):

Okay. And then I'm going to scale them. I'm going to make them a lot wider. Right. And because they're getting wider, they might get a little thinner too. All right. And this is what it's going to do. Okay. And you can see, I may want to actually ease the position, key frames on each of these. I probably want to ease, I probably want to use the position and the scale on both of these, because position of those two balls is easing and you can kind of see already what it's doing. I remember I saw this tutorial. I thought it was so clever. I couldn't wait to not steal, but, but give credit. All right. So then you get this and then this should be the last frame that we see these. Okay. There we go. And just like that, you get this nice little group. Awesome. Now what I'm going to do is I'm going to pre compose all four of these and we'll call these holes. Um, and I thought it, it was helpful to put a turbulent displace effect on it, um, with a low, with like a little bit of a lower size and not a very big amount just to make them not so perfect.

Joey Korenman (12:44):

Okay. And then set the transfer mode of this hole's layer to silhouette alpha. And what that's going to do is it's going to knock out anything where there's an alpha channel. Okay. So now I've created transparency there. Cool. All right. So now here's where we're getting to the meat of this tutorial. So we've got this neat thing, right. But there's no depth to it. There's no color. And what's cool is you can treat after facts a little bit more like a composite thing program, right? Like, you know, uh, when you're starting out, what you're tempted to do is try and, and just like, you know, let's make this shape, the color we want, and then let's make this shape, the color we want. And then if we want a drop shadow, we'll put a drop shadow effect on this. And if we want a stroke, we'll matte a stroke to this.

Joey Korenman (13:32):

And, um, you know, you, you can, you can do it that way, but if you want to really have total total control treat after effects like a composite thing program. So here's what I mean. Let's, uh, and by the way, I haven't organized this very well at all. So let me just quickly take all of these pre comps and stick them in here, take our comp and we'll call this group. All right. So now I'm going to take my goop comp and this is where we're going to composite. Okay. So, uh, first thing, let's pick some nice colors and we're going to use the trick that I showed in my, uh, color hack video, or we're going to use, uh, Adobe color, which is one of my favorite tools now. Um, and let's just try and find like some interesting looking, you know, like this is a pretty cool color palette.

Joey Korenman (14:21):

So let's use that. So first I'm going to make a background and let's make the background. We'll use that blue collar. That's fine. All right. Now for the goop, I want to try and get, I want this kind of fo 3d, but cartoony feel okay. That's what I want. So how can we get that? Well, we, I did it by building it up in layers. All right. So first let's figure out what's the, what's the base color of this thing base color. I want to pick a base color for this. So I'm going to rename this comp base color. I'm going to add a generate fill effect to it, and let's pick one of these colors. Okay. That's cool. I like that color. That's nice. Okay. There we go. So now let's start adding layers to this. Okay. If I wanted a nice little stroke around it, how might I do that?

Joey Korenman (15:16):

Well, I could try to do it on this same layer, but there's no need, I can just duplicate it and we'll call this stroke. Now, what color should the stroke be? Well, let's not worry about that yet. Let's figure out how can we make a stroke from this? So there's a bunch of different ways you can get sort of get an outline for something in after effects. Uh, one way is you could actually add a layer style to it that will do it. Um, that does create some issues. Layer styles can act funny with motion blur and things like that. So, um, I actually use a more composite type of way to do it. Uh, and the way you do it is this, you add an effect called a simple choker, uh, and what this does is it expands or contracts, you know, the alpha channel of an object.

Joey Korenman (16:03):

Okay. And so if you expand, basically, this is what I'm going to do. If I duplicated my stroke like this on the bottom copy, if I expanded my mat out, and then I said, alpha inverted mat of the original. So basically I'm expanding my layer. And then I'm using the original version of that layer as a mat. And it creates a stroke like this. Okay. Pretty clever. So we're going to do that now, the simple choker isn't going to give us a, it doesn't let you pull it out that far. Doesn't let you pull that off channel out as far as I'd like. Um, so what I'm going to use is actually a different effect in the channel menu called mini max and mini max kind of does a similar thing. It does it in a different way. Um, but it'll work well for, for what we're going to do.

Joey Korenman (16:56):

So what I want to do is first set the channel to color alpha and color. Okay. Cause I want to expand the alpha channel and the default setting for this as maximum. And if I expand the radius, you'll see what it does. It sort of expands out all the pixels. So if I expand this out a little bit, now, if I can get, if I can basically knock out the original footprint of this layer, I will have an outline, which would be great. Um, so one way you can do this while only using one layer is to use one of my favorite effects, which is a channel CC composite. And then you can say composite the original as a silhouette alpha. And so this basically takes the original layer before you used mini max on it. And it composites it on top of the result of the mini max in a silhouette alpha composite mode, which knocks out a layer wherever there's an alpha.

Joey Korenman (17:51):

So now you've got this nice stroke and you even get a little stroke where there's goop there. Um, and you can control the thickness of the stroke by adjusting the mini max number. So you really quickly get this interactive stroke. And what's cool is this is actually a real stroke. This is transparent everywhere, except where you see a line. So then if I bring my fill effect down here and turn it back on, I can easily colorize that Phil too. All right. So let's, uh, let's pick a darker color for that, Phil. Um, well, let's see what happens if I use a lighter color like yellow, it's kind of hard to see that. So why don't we just make a nice dark, let's do like a nice dark kind of purplish color. There we go. All right, cool. So already, you've got this sort of cartoony cell shaded looking thing, because you've got a nice stroke and you have total control over the stroke cause it's on its own layer.

Joey Korenman (18:47):

And if you want to then just play with the opacity of it, you know, make it less or more. It's really easy to do that. All right. So now let's try to get some 3d depth to this. Um, so again, you, you can try and do it all on one layer by stacking a bunch of effects, but I like separating it out and then being able to easily mix and composite between them. So let's duplicate the base color again and we'll call this a, why don't we just call this depth? All right. So what I want to do, this is the strategy. Um, I am going to use an effect in the perspective group, it's called bevel alpha, right? And if I crank up the edge thickness what it does, it's the same as the bevel tool in Photoshop. And it sort of takes the contour of the image and it makes one side dark and one side light, you can control the light angle.

Joey Korenman (19:40):

You can control the thickness and you can control the intensity, but it, it just looks hard. It looks like, uh, I don't know, it, it like, there's this hard edge to it. It doesn't look soft. Uh, so that's not going to work all that well unless I can treat it. And so what I want to do is first, I want to create this depth in a way that I can composite it on top of my base color. So what I'm going to do is I'm going to fill that layer with a perfectly gray color. So I'm going to set the brightness to 50. I'm going to set the saturation to zero, and now I've got perfectly gray color with the bevel alpha effect on it. And I can turn the light intensity up like this. And now what I'm going to do is I'm going to add a blur effect. So I'm going to fast blur this and you can see that now it's just sort of mushing all that together. And if I, you know, I may want to put, pull the light intensity down a little bit. Awesome. So now I've got this nice shading, but it's all blurry and crummy. Um, and so I could do the same trick that did on the stroke, right? I can grab that CC composite effect.

Joey Korenman (20:54):

And I can say composite the original as a stensul alpha instead of silhouette alpha stencil alpha means it's going to knock out that layer anywhere that there is no alpha. So it takes the original and blurred on beveled thing. And it just uses it as a mat. Now it's all one layer. Now, the reason I made this gray is because now I can go into my mode and I can use some of these different modes here, like hard, light and hard light is going to brighten the bright pixels and dark in the dark pixels. And you don't want to kind of step through what I did here. I have my bevel alpha, right. Which looks like garbage, but then I fast blurred that to make it a little bit softer and more spiritual looking. And then I use the CC composite to get rid of all the blurry parts I didn't want. And what's cool is that this is working on a layer that's moving. So you can see even here, you get some nice little shading to it.

Joey Korenman (21:53):

That's just fantastic. All right. And then the last thing I did, uh, let me duplicate base color. One more time. We'll call this shiny. I wanted like a nice kind of light specular hit to this whole thing. Um, and so what I'm going to do is I'm going to do the same trick I did with depth. I'm going to fill, I'm just going to copy the fill effect here, fill my layer with gray, and I'm going to use an effect I've actually never used it before. Um, and it's called CC plastic. It's really interesting effect. And it basically kind of does the same thing as bevel alpha, except it does it in a way that makes things look very shiny. And after effects is filled, uh, with a lot of the CC plus, um, effects that, you know, they're really the only way to, to, to get the hang of them is to just try each one.

Joey Korenman (22:42):

Like, I, I couldn't tell you, I have no idea what Mr smoothie does. Um, but I'm sure there is some useful purpose for it, but plastic seemed to do exactly what I wanted in this case, which is give me a nice specular. Um, and so what I wanted to do was instead of using the luminance of my layer, right? So it takes a layer and it uses some property of that layer to create sort of a fake 3d version of it. So instead of aluminum, somebody use alpha and I'm going to soften it a little bit so that I get a little bit more of like a nasal specular hit there. Uh, and I'm gonna adjust the height. So we get something like that. And then I'm just going to go down to a, to shading and mess with the settings. So I can, uh, I can turn the roughness up and you see more, or if you turn it down and you see less becomes a little bit harder of a specular, um, metal kind of makes that specular spread out a little bit more. And I kind of wanted that nice, hard specular now, because I did this on a gray layer. And actually maybe the thing to do is to do it a black layer. So now I can set the transfer mode of this to add, right? And so now I'm just going to get a nice glow there.

Joey Korenman (23:55):

And so, and because it's, it's working on this pre comp, which has all this motion to it, you'll see it even sort of follows the contours of the dots as they're ripping apart. So now we've got all of these layers to this image, but they're all built up from different copies of the same comp and this makes it really easy if I want to, you know, if for some reason I wanted that specular highlight to be a different color, we'll, that'd be really easy. Now I can, I can use like, you know, a tint effect and I could tint that white to be maybe that yellow color and get a little bit of, you know, let's try that orange one. Yeah. I mean, and just get like a different kind of feel to it. Um, you know, and then you can also do, uh, you can also do stuff like, this is another thing I do.

Joey Korenman (24:42):

If I wanted these to cast a shadow, instead of using an effect to make that shadow, I might just duplicate a layer, call it shadow and maybe fill it with, uh, let's pick a nice dark color here. So why don't we use this as the basis for our shadow, but then darken it even more. And then I'll just use a fast blur and I'm just gonna move this layer down and over a little bit, turn the opacity down. Right. And so now I've got a shadow that I have total control over to. Right. So what I'm hoping you guys are seeing is that, you know, you, you can try and get things to look the way you want by just trying to find the right effect and try to find the right settings. But a lot of times it's better. If you break your image down into separate pieces and just figure out that one piece at a time, how do I make a stroke?

Joey Korenman (25:38):

How do I add some depth? How do I add like a nice, shiny specular to it? How do I add a shadow to it? Um, and you know, and, and just break it down piece by piece. So you have total total control, uh, one little thing too, that I want to point out. Um, so on the, um, on the little demo here, this is exactly how I made this. The only difference is if we, if we come in and we look at this there's one extra little piece, which is the little splatter, uh, so let me just copy, copy that and put that in, in our comp. So when that splits, get that nice little splatter. Um, this is actually an example of what's called secondary animation, and I've used this term incorrectly in the past, but what's happening is these two balls are, you know, ripping apart.

Joey Korenman (26:32):

And, you know, what's the, the that's causing a reaction of sort of this burst of smaller kind of particles in the middle. And that burst is the secondary animation, right? The primary is the two things ripping apart in the secondary. Is that burst? Another thing I didn't do in this demo yet, um, let me show you, because this will just help a little bit too, is I didn't do any squash and stretch and that can really help. Uh, and what, you know, what all you need to do is basically adjust, uh, and key frame the scale of these balls. So, um, let's go forward to this frame here, and let's just stretch both of these out a little bit. Let's make them stretch to like one 10. And when you're doing squash and stretch, if you stretch by 10%, you need to shrink by 10% on the other, um, on the other axis, right?

Joey Korenman (27:27):

So X goes up 10, Y goes down 10, and that way you can maintain the same volume, right? So it's going to stretch out and it's going to probably stretch out even a little more until about here. So now let's go to one 20 and 80, and then when it gets over here, it's going to squash a little bit because now it's, it's kind of, it's gone really fast and out slowed down. So let's bring this to like 95 and 1 0 5 and just notice, I'm always making sure that those two values add up to 200 and then it's going to go back to normal. So now it's going to go to 100, 100.

Joey Korenman (28:08):

All right. And now let's take a look at our animation curves. All right. And you can see that they're very sharp. Um, and so I'm just gonna sort of manually go through and make sure that there's no hard edges here and that when things get to extremes, there's nice. There's these nice eases. Right. And in general, I mean, it's, it's, you know, you're just looking for nice, smooth animation curves. You don't always want that, but it's a good rule of thumb to aim at that and then adjust if it turns out that's not what you want. Let's take a look what we got. Yeah. And you can see, and I need to do it to the other one, but that just adds a little bit more oomph and momentum to it. All right. So let's do the same thing here, and then we should be good to go.

Joey Korenman (29:02):

So, uh, while I'm adjusting this, I just want to say, um, you know, try this stuff out. Um, you know, I know that it's nice when you watch a video and maybe you learn some new tricks, but if you don't use it, it's not actually going to stick in your brain. Um, and usually for me, to be honest, it doesn't work and stick in my brain until I use it twice. Um, so if you, if you actually take the time to rebuild this whole setup and then go through the process of experimenting, um, with all of these different layers and trying to get, you know, a 3d effect that looks the way you want, um, you know, you're going to kind of wrap your head around this better and going to be more useful to you. So that little squash and stretch actually did help a lot.

Joey Korenman (29:45):

It makes it look a lot more sticky and goopy. So there you go. Uh, we kind of jumped all over the place in this video, but what I really hope you got in addition to like a neat little trick, which may be, is useful. I hope you understand that you can, you can do stuff like this with literally any layer in after effects. And then, you know, once you're done, you can just, pre-camp all these together and just call this goopy, right? And so now you've got all of that work and it's all saved. And if you want to, you know, then have like three copies of this, it's really easy to do. And, um, and so, you know, think in terms of breaking effects down and breaking them into individual components that you have total control over. And if you ever decide to learn nuke working this way, and after effects is going to be very helpful, because it's going to help your brain work the right way, because in nuke, this is sort of how you have to think.

Joey Korenman (30:38):

Anyway, I hope this was useful. Uh, thank you guys so much for watching and I will see you guys next time on 30 days of after effects. Thank you so much for watching. I hope you learned some cool stuff and I hope it rearranged some things in your brain that will help you think a little bit more like a compositor, even when you're doing animation and design in after effects, because the two disciplines have a lot of overlap. You can really become a better motion graphics artist by working on your compositing skills. If you have any questions or thoughts about this lesson, let us know, and don't forget to sign up for a free student account to access project files for the lesson you just watched, plus a whole bunch of other goodies. Thank you so much for watching this. I hope you got a lot out of it and I will see you next time.