ILLUSTRATION FEATURE Animating Your Illustrations Pt 2

A concluding look at how to bring movement into your illustrations through animation, by Anne-Marie Perks

The crossover between illustration and animation, or animation to illustration, is a natural one. After all, who doesn’t want to make their characters come to life? Or play with filmic sequences for visual storytelling? In the article I wrote earlier in 2020, Animating Your Illustrations, Creating a GIF, you were shown a step by step on how to create a character’s simple eye blink. This time, you’ll build on a similar process developing a short animated sequence for a 2D GIF animation. It’s a great way to learn movement breakdowns by closely analysing video reference to create a short animation sequence. Though there are several different timeline and drawing software programmes available, and many animators apply more than one software programme to finish an animation, we’ll be sticking with Photoshop for this tutorial.

I always begin my planning on paper, and for the purposes of this article, I decided to use a child dancing as my reference. When you have something specific in mind for a moving sequence, it is of course great if you can shoot your own video reference, but for this one I went out to This website is a great library for high resolution photography and video for free, though of course the photographers and videographers ask for a credit where reasonable, sharing on instagram how you used their work and donations if you can give it.
The reference video I used is by Cotton Bro, Dancing Child.

Import your video reference into Photoshop by selecting – Import – Video Frames to Layers.

Begin with an idea of what type of movement you want to animate. Perhaps it is a signature movement your character would make as part of their personality, or a short sequence from their narrative. Once you know what you want to do, either shoot your own reference (your phone works great) or find a reference from an online stock library like the one mentioned above. When you import the video file (see above caption) Photoshop will give you a dialogue box to choose how much of the clip you want to Import to Layers. Fine tune your selection to a very short clip using the scrubbers for the in-point and out-points. This will still be a lot of frames! I began with over 200! You’ll also see in that same dialogue box that you can choose to drop frames – importing every fifth frame, dropping others, for example. 

Final edit using colour coding to identify Keyframes (frames at the beginning and ending of a movement ) Breakdowns and Inbetweens. This will be cut down even more as you work through the clip choosing which frames are most important in communicating the movement sequence.

This next step takes a while, but is worth it. 

The first run through the clip is to identify the frames which begin and end a movement, and colour code those Keyframes for easy viewing. If you have some experience with working on a timeline, you would have come across this terminology before. 

The Twelve Principles of Animation, which, if you want to dive deeper into animation, are worth learning as they will only improve your technique. Youtube has a very good series, The Twelve Principles of Animation, the Alan Becker Tutorials, the Official Full Series.
Run through the timeline again so you can identify and colour code the Breakdown Frames. Breakdown Frames occur between the Keyframes, and describe the action between Keyframes. Inbetweens fill in the gaps between the Keyframes and Breakdowns. The more nuance in movement you have, the smoother the animation. This also involves applying timing and spacing within the frame to describe how fast or slow a movement is. 

For this article, my edits came down from 206 frames to six frames from a very short part of the whole sequence, which I then looped to give a sense of continuous movement. Part of cutting out so much had to do with keeping this tutorial manageable and playing with how many frames could be dropped and still describe a specific movement. You might wonder why you would bring in so many frames when you end up cutting down to so few, but I promise the process is worth it to find those perfect 6, 12, 24, or 48 frames to reference! It will also be very useful for your future animation projects as you are building a rich reference resource that you can dip into again and again.

Before beginning to draw the gestures for each pose in the movement, check the frame rate for the timeline. I prefer to work in 24 frames per second instead of the default 30 frames per second. This is so I can easily plan the timing and spacing between each frame. Timing references the overall time it takes to complete a moving sequence. Spacing references the incremental movement or space between frames and the moving objects location in the frame. 

With my reference ready, it’s now time to put my pencil to paper. I like to sketch on paper but you can use a tablet or Procreate.

On A3 sketchbook paper I map out the size ratio between gesture drawings of each movement. Included in the gesture roughs are the arc movement lines as the character’s arms move forward or backward, and up and down. I also noted down the frame numbers in my edit so I can easily return to the original reference.

The other way I could have done this part of the drawn animation process was to use a light pad and printing paper with a peg bar to hold each paper in place as I flip through the gestures. If you don’t have a peg bar and light box, you can draw using an onion skinning approach digitally or put down measurement lines. Continuously check each image in order to keep on character. In any of the above techniques, you need to keep checking that you are staying in character in features, size and mass. 

After the rough gestural poses for the sequence are done to my satisfaction, it’s time to do a bit of clean up drawing. Using a tracing paper taped above the sketches, I draw over each pose still using a pencil, cleaning up those scratchy rough areas with cleaner, confident line work. Once the clean up is done, these drawings are scanned in at 100 percent, 300 ppi and cleaned up a bit more in Photoshop as needed.

All the frame layers are cleaned up, modified and placed correctly and ready to put on the timeline.

An important aspect of how Photoshop works is to understand that the Layers in Photoshop are the Frames on the timeline. However, as you will see when I colour the first frame, a Layer can influence the look of another frame. If you are familiar with working with layer content folders and comps in Photoshop, you can integrate this way of working particularly in more complex animations. To start with, I would keep it simple and build up to more complex built animations. The concept of Layers are the Frames on the Timeline, and that you can have a layer that doesn’t show up on the Timeline if you choose, can be difficult to grasp, but once you understand this, you’ll find it much easier to work between the two. 

Go through the Layers checking that you have consistency of placement and scale and no jarring changes, make adjustments as necessary. Consistency is the key!

It is good practice to concentrate on one aspect of the movement at a time, from beginning to end. For example, follow through and adjust all the movement placement and gesture of the torso, then the right arm, then the left arm; movement of the dress moving with the child’s body movements; each leg and hair. This allows you to concentrate on one element at a time while always checking the overall look and feel of the movement as you work. 

Only one frame has been coloured completely for this article. Warning: you think you are almost done when the drawings are ready but that is only roughly a quarter of the work more or less! 

Now you are ready to colour your character. I do not flatten colour into my frames unless I am very sure nothing else will change. Those of you who work digitally know it’s always best to keep a full layered file for adjustments and corrections!

Finally, ready to actually put this on the Timeline!

To create and work with the Timeline you will need to change your workspace to [Motion]. If you have the plug-in for Animator’s Toolbar, that will come up too. I like to edit in the [Video] Timeline, so I choose that as my Timeline option. Notice that Photoshop automatically creates a 5 second timeline with all the Video Frames placed on top of each other in the same order of Layers. The numbers above the Timeline references the number of frames that are active. Again, you will need to adjust the Frame Rate to 24 frames per second through the drop down menu on the Timeline work area. You will also need to manually move Video Layers over to expose the Video Layers frames below. (For a good visual, go to the next photo.) You’ll do this by using the scrubber as a marker, picking out the points to move your video layers to and where to make your cuts 


Use the arrow keys on your keyboard to move the Scrubber frame by frame. This makes it easy to keep track of how many frames to hold to and where the next Video Layer Frame begins.

Another tip to remember is to deselect the Video Layer you just cut and select only the ‘copy’ layer you want to delete. Don’t worry, you never loose anything because you can drag out or in each Video Layer Frame to the time you wish.

What my final animation Video Timeline looked like!

The best way to work out timing is a combination of the ‘feel’ you want the movement to give and information from what you learned from your video reference. For example, slower movements with lots of sweeping arcs, or jerky and sharp movements? Watch the movement in your reference and see if you can achieve that same feel in your animation by adding or taking away frames from each Video Layer. I purposely wanted the first Video Frame to be a little longer, giving time for the colour to rest on the eye and to give a sense of preparing for the arcing movements of the character’s body and arms.

Time to export to a GIF!

Yeah, you made it! After you’ve played through your short sequence a hundred times, adjusted and adjusted and modified it, you are now ready to export to a GIF. Notice, there is a sound layer in Photoshop, but GIFS do not hold sound. That will be for a future article perhaps.

Photoshop protects your files by not allowing you to close without saving, so don’t worry about loosing any of your work. (Okay, one exception, when Photoshop crashes!) My suggestion is to go to Export – Save for Web (Legacy) then choose the [Optimised] version. You can also choose [Render Video] (File – Export – Render Video) and go with the default settings if you’d like to see the animation as an .mp4 or Quick Time file.

Last words 

Good luck and have fun! There are so many ways to animate different parts of your illustration, adding another layer of bringing life to your artwork. Don’t get discouraged, be patient and have fun with it!

If you’d like to look up other 2D animators, here are a few of my favourite.
Jocie Juritz
Julia Pott
Moth Animation
Also, Instagram #womeninanimation 

* Header animation @Anne-Marie Perks



Anne-Marie Perks has illustrated picture books, book covers, older fiction and non-fiction books for US and UK publishers. Also an animator who teaches illustration and animation at Buckinghamshire New University, recent books include the wordless When Dad Hurts Mum, and A Safe Place from Domestic Abuse (Books Beyond Words Publishing, London). The Silkie (Clucket Press) a middle grade novel, is now available.

Anne-Marie’s most recent personal project is a graphic novel called Wolf Girl.

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