In the past few months I have received a lot of questions regarding my process for the construction of environment assets in animation so I decided to make a tutorial of sorts. It's the first of its kind for me so any criticism is appreciated.
The Limited Translation Environment Rig is a simple workflow which leans on the individual strengths of Photoshop and After Effects to create flexible 2.5D and 3D animated environments. Having a foundation understanding of each software's operations is required to use this tutorial effectively.
Cheers and enjoy.
a. Think of a sweet environment and start sketching. Be sure to keep your intent for the camera and its motion in mind. Consider how the composition will change as you camera moves. Work large, your drawing will need to be substantially bigger than the resolution of video you intend. (3500 x 2300 is a nice starting size.)
b. Recently I have started drawing a faux wire mesh for surfaces where I know I will need a figure to ground or prop to ground relationship. The mesh will also make estimating the accuracy of the deformation due to perspective easier.
c. Stay organized, as with literally everything, keeping a clean layer hierarchy in your psd will make the rest of this process much easier. (Notably the next step, separation.)
a. Organize the image into several layers according to their depth given your vision for the camera. More layers is not necessarily more effective. Keep in mind the separation of depth is relative to the camera so it may not be necessary to have as many separations as you first expect.
b. You will have to redraw aspects of the image that were previously blocked out due to foreground elements. Toggling the visibility of the layers will make this easy.
c. The surface mesh style of drawing is again very effective here as it allows you to efficiently communicate form. Traditional methods of portraying form through light and value are just not as quick or editable.
III. Transposing from Photoshop to After Effects
a. Now that you have several overlapping planes aligned in one PSD you want to render out each plane with alpha so that we can reassemble this scene in a 3D environment.
b. The easiest way to do this is to create a frame timeline for your document and set each plane to it's own frame. It is totally fine if more than one layer makes up a plane. This will allow for easy reference of each individual plane throughout the rest of the process.
c. Save each frame of your timeline as an uncompressed TIF with an alpha channel.
d. Open After Effects and make a new document and composition. Set the framerate and resolution to whatever you prefer. (1920 x 1080 @ 30fps)
e. Import the TIF's that you just rendered out from photoshop and add them to your AE composition. They will appear on top of each other, and may need to be re-ordered from foreground in front to background at the back.
IV. Organizing the 2.5D Space
a. The images still do not have any z-space depth to them and they only offer a reasonably convincing perspective when aligned on top of each other as they were originally drawn. We are going to arrange them in front of a camera that will allow for some more convincing perspective when converting from a 2D image to a 2.5D animated environment.
b. Create a 2 node or single node camera in AE and enable each image (layer) for 3 Dimensional space. A 2 node camera has a keyable locater node that will direct what the camera is looking at. A single node camera will require you to angle the camera by keying degrees in the x,y, and z axis of the camera node.
c. Spread the AE layers out in z space. Enable the 2 window viewfinder to help get a realistic sense for how far things are from one another. Once you have the layers arranged on a reasonable spread, scale the middle and background elements that are further away from the camera until they resemble their original scale before they had a location in z space.
d. Before you are done tweaking the z space locations and scale, verify that the frontal view closely resemble your original drawing. Compare a frame render in AE with your original PSD for reference and to more easily check the scale of the deeper layers.
e. You should have no keyframes set in AE yet and therefore no animation. But feel free to translate the camera around and feel out your 2.5D space.
V. Motion Test
a. When you started designing the scene, you pictured the camera moving through the space. Now the 2D sketch is a 2.5D space, and you have a camera's viewfinder with which to see your environment. Animate the camera according to your original intention for the scene. Use as little key frames as possible and bear in mind one of the limitations of using 2D assets is that even small amounts of rotation can cause clipping in your scene.
b. Once you have reasonable motion click on each keyframe and adjust the bezier tugs to smooth out the changes in direction and camera translation.
c. Ram preview or render the animation and watch it several times. Note where the outer edges of your planes become visible and look out for instances where the depth of your scene is compromised due to camera rotation or false perspective.
d. First adjust the z space depth of your planes, still without keyframing them. Increasing the space between the planes will make lateral camera movement more visible and may help resolve issues with your perspective. Secondly, check each keyframe on your camera and adjust the animation to reduce plane clipping. The more extreme the motion in your camera, the more likely it is that the illusional depth of your environment will be compromised and it will be more difficult to create a realistic animation. Of course the clipping and visible edges can be used as a stylistic device so just use whatever looks good to you.
e. If you still can't fix some issues with the scene, go back to the PSD and extend the borders of your sketch. The larger assets will allow for much more versatile camera movement.
a. Now that you have some cool environmental animation with simple assets it is time to go back to photoshop and work on the look for your scene.
b. Since you set the camera motion and focus, you already know which areas of the environment will need more focal detail. Use visual design elements like texture, saturation, and contrast to add interest to the important areas of your scene. Be efficient and don’t over work areas that do not get much screen time.
c. As you update the assets, save new tif's and swap the updated asset into After Effects and see how it looks. Be smart with your PSD layers and try to preserve the original sketch in case you need to fall back on the simpler composition.
d. Consider the lighting environment for each asset and try to make the scene exist cohesively with a single unified light schema. This will save you time later when color / gamma correcting the individual layers in post.
e. Adding too much detail (especially texture) can work against you as it is easy to tunnel vision on one layer while overlooking its role in the larger environment.
a. It will likely be necessary to go back and forth between AE and PS. Your image assets will need a fair amount of trial and error editing / painting before they mesh well. However this ties with one of the greatest strengths of this workflow in that building a better scene is a pretty intuitive process almost entirely dependant on aesthetic decisions.
b. As your scene is finalized keying some tasteful blurs on individual AE layers can help sell the depth of the space. Lowering the saturation and brightening the background elements will also deepen your space. Gaussian blur works well for this and is efficient to render.
c. If you are looking to push the motion you can always key some animation for the AE planes individually. After getting the feel for it you can make some very interesting spaces and interactions. Tread carefully as this can also very easily break the integrity of the scene if the elements don’t move cohesively.
d. Rotating or warping the planes through cc-effects to slightly face the camera can help mitigate the distortion caused by camera rotation. This will require keying attribute on the individual layers so always use as few key frames as possible.
e. Go easy on layer effects and filters. This is an elegant process and it deserves your aesthetic respect.
a. Here you can see the same scene from 2 different cameras. I added some blur to the background elements and tweaked their rotation and position in z space individually for the 1st camera.
b. Notice how much larger the background elements are than their foreground counterparts. You can also see the motion path I have set for the first camera. I will still likely need to smooth out the curves a bit more.
c. I added some birds, some fog, and some snow in post. These elements help give the scene a narrative context while also adding a level of visual complexity.
d. Note how close in chroma and value the environment assets are. It is crucial to build assets which exist in the same space and under the same lighting conditions. I usually stay away from rendering hard shadows and highlights when building environments for this reason.