Adobe After Effects: Working with the Puppet Tools

A marionette is a puppet that is controlled from above by pulling on strings attached to its limbs. In other words, you can animate the puppet by tugging on its strings.  

You can do the same thing in After Effects by using the Puppet tools. However, instead of strings, you will use pins. What happens is that the Puppet effect will deform part of your image based on where you place the pins. Those pins determine which part of the image moves and which do not.

In this article, we are going to learn how to use the Puppet tools, including how to:

  • Use Deform pins

  • Mark overlap areas on the puppet

  • Specify areas that do not move on the puppet

  • Animate the puppet

  • Use the Puppet Sketch tool

Using Deform Pins

Where you place the Deform pins will determine how an object moves on the screen, so placing the deform pins becomes an important part of the puppet effect, but also becomes a strategy.   Placing the Deform pins is also the first step in creating a puppet effect.

Let's start by placing Deform pins for our composition below.

Start out by clicking in the Puppet Pin tool in the Tools panel.

Next, click on the first area in your object that you want to be able to move. We are going to click near the wrist.   As you can see in the snapshot below, the Puppet Pin is a yellow dot on our composition.

Now let's add another pin on the other wrist.

We are also going to add a few more.

When you are finished adding pins, go to the Timeline.

Click on the triangle beside Mesh 1 to expand it.

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Then click the triangle beside Deform to expand its properties.

It will be helpful as we move along if you rename the pins so you know where each one is in the composition. 

To rename a pin, select it, press Enter, then type in a new name.

When you are finished, put a checkmark beside Show in the Tools panel. This will show you the distortion mesh.

Your composition should look like this:

Next, look at the Triangles value in the Tools panel. 

If you increase the value, the animation will be smoother. However, your video will take longer to render. 

You can also extend the mesh. Right now, the Expansion value is 3. You would do this to include a stroke in the deformation.

The Puppet Overlap Tool

Just for a minute, imagine your best friend is standing on the opposite side of a gymnasium. As they start to walk toward you, their legs move and their arms swing.   You stand there. You watch them walking toward you.   Pay special attention to their arms and legs. You will notice that, as they walk, there are times where you will not see their arm or all of their leg because they will be behind other parts of their body.

To animate this in After Effects, you will use the Puppet Overlap tool. It is grouped with the Puppet Pin tool. It looks like this:

Make sure that Show is selected in the Tools panel, as well as the Puppet Overlap tool.

If you need to, zoom in on the composition so that you can see the legs and torso of your "puppet," then go back to the Tools panel and change In Front to 100%.

What this does is hide anything that is overlapped from showing. You only see what is up front.

Next, let's look at the mesh in the composition.

Next, click interesting points in the mesh to define areas that should stay in front. 

The Puppet Starch Tool

The Puppet Starch tool gives you pins to place that determine which parts of the area stay rigid and are not distorted as much. 

You will use the Puppet Starch tool to define the areas that you do not want to have the amount of "motion" as other areas.   For example, perhaps the puppet's right arm does not move as much as the left – or barely at all. You would use the Puppet Starch tool to define this area.

Let's show you what we mean.

Click on the Puppet Starch tool. It is grouped with the Puppet Pin tool and looks like this:

Make sure Show is checked in the Tools panel so you can see the distortion mesh. 

Now place pins on the areas you want to stiffen. 

Animating the Deform Pins

Now that all the pins are in place, it is time to do the animation. This is the fun part! 

To animate it, select the layer in the Timeline panel. Press U so you can see all the keyframes for that layer.

Next, change the position of the Deform pins.

Create more keyframes to further animate the pins.

The Puppet Sketch Tool

Adding keyframes and changing the position property in order to animate the puppet can be a lot of work. It can also be very time consuming.

To save time, you can use the Puppet Sketch tool. The Puppet Sketch tool allows you to drag the objects into position.   After Effects records the animation as you drag pins.

Use the Puppet Sketch tool by selecting Puppet in the Timeline panel, then selecting a pin in the Composition panel.

Press CTRL. This activates the Puppet Sketch tool. 

You will then press CTRL as you drag the pin to a new position.   Release the mouse when you are finished. 

Repeat these steps for other pins. 

Using the Roto Brush to Create Mattes and Extract Objects

Rotoscoping is a process where you cut an object out of the background. You can use rotoscoping to trace the path of an object, then use the path as a mask to remove it from the background. Although you can accomplish the same thing by drawing masks and creating a matte, this is much more simple process.

In this article, we will learn how to:

  • Use the Roto Brush tool to create a segmentation boundary

  • Create a new base frame

  • Make adjustments to the segmentation boundary

  • Use the Refine Edge tool

  • Freeze the segmentation boundary

  • Replace the background of footage

Using the Roto Brush Tool

As stated in the introduction to this section, rotoscoping is the process of removing an object from the background. To do that, you use the Roto Brush tool to distinguish the item you want to remove from the background from the rest of the background.   When you do that, After Effects will create a segmentation boundary between the background and the object you are removing.

We are going to remove the man from this image below so we can adjust the color of the background without it affecting him.

The Roto Brush tool will be used to create strokes to a base frame that will distinguish the foreground from background. The base frame will be used by After Effects to apply the Roto Brush tool to other frames.

Next, go to the Tools panel and select the Roto Brush tool. It looks like this: 

Double click the layer you want to work with to open it in the Layers panel. The Layers panel is grouped with the Composition panel.

Now start to add strokes to the foreground using the Roto Brush tool. The foreground in our example is the man. You can use broad strokes for larger areas, then smaller ones for the border.

To access the brushes, go to Window>Brushes. You will then see the Brushes panel.

Select a brush size.

WARNING:  If you have ever extracted objects from Photoshop, do not worry. This is a lot easier!

In the snapshot below, we drew a green stroke down the center of the man.

When we release our mouse, we see the areas of the man that After Effects recognized based on our stroke.   These areas are in magenta.

As you can see below, it did not recognize all of the man.

Draw another stroke. We are going to do this stroke across his shoulders, followed by a stroke across each under-side of his leafy hat.

Take a look at the results below:

We have now created a segmentation boundary. 

If you accidentally have included some background in with the foreground, do not spend too much time trying to get it perfect. Instead, press ALT to access the red background stroke brush.   Add red strokes to the areas you want to remove.

When you are finished, click the Toggle Alpha button in the Layer panel. It looks like this: 

The foreground is now white, and the background is black. This makes the matte easier to see. 

If you click the Toggle Alpha Overlay button ( ), the foreground will be in color and the background will be red.

If you click the Toggle Alpha Boundary button ( ), you will see the outline again.

Creating a New Base Frame

The Roto Brush spans 20 frames.  There are ten in each direction of the base frame. If you need to create a new base frame, go to the frame in the time ruler and define the segmentation boundary using the Roto Brush tool.

All base frames are marked by gold rectangles in the time ruler.

The Roto Brush Tool and the Timeline

Once you create the segmentation boundary in one frame, the boundary will move with the foreground object throughout the footage. However, you may need to make adjustments to the boundary.

You can press 2 in your keyboard (not the numeric pad) to advance forward one frame at a time.

Making Adjustments to the Segmentation Boundary

Sometimes the segmentation boundary around your foreground image needs to be cleaned up.   You can make it smoother with very little effort. 

To do this, go to the Effects Control panel.   Increase the Feather amount and the Reduce Chatter.

Both are highlighted in the snapshot above.

The Refine Edge Tool

The problem with the Roto Brush tool is it makes creates a boundary that goes around the general shape of the foreground image. It does not pick up small details. There may be times when you use the tool when you want to include wisps of hair in the segmentation boundary and other tiny aspects.   The Refine Edge tool will allow you to do this.

The Refine Edge tool is grouped with the Roto Brush tool. It looks like this: 

Once you have clicked on it, go to the clip in the Layer panel.

Zoom in if you need to so you can see the details that you need to include in the segmentation boundary.

Set your brush size in the Brushes panel.

Now, move the Refine Edge tool over the edge of what you need to include in the segmentation boundary. Make sure you straddle the segmentation boundary as well.

In the snapshot below, we are refining the edges.   We zoomed in. The image is pixelated, but it allows us to include the fuzzy areas.

Once you release your mouse button, you will see the Refine Edge X-Ray view.   You can see how the matte has changed. 

Zoom back out when you are finished.

Freezing the Segmentation Boundary

Freezing the segmentation boundary simply means making the data for it (the calculations) so that it does not slow down your processor and, in turn, After Effects.

To do this, click the Freeze button in the Layer panel.

It looks like this: 

You will then see a progress bar as After Effects freezes both the Refine Edge tool and the Roto Brush tool data. 

When it is finished, there will be a blue bar above the time ruler in the Layer panel that tells you the segmentation boundary is frozen.

Next, click the Toggle Alpha Boundary () button in the Layer panel, then the Toggle Transparency Grid button ().

You can now see the foreground without the background.

Replacing the Background

Now that you have your foreground object isolated and a transparent background, you can add a new background if you wish. 

Click on the tab for the Composition panel if you are still viewing the Layer panel after creating a segmentation boundary.

Go to the Project panel. You can import another background and drag it to the Timeline panel, or import a new background then add it to your composition.

We have added a new layer to our composition which will serve as the background. 

You can see it in the snapshot below. It is blue.

If you need to, select the new layer in the Timeline panel, then go to Layer>Transform>Fit to Comp to make the new layer match the size of the composition.

NOTE:  Whenever you add a new layer, do not forget that you can go to Layer>Transform, then choose an option to make the new layer match the size of the composition.  

Now, with the newly added layer selected, you can go to Effect>Color Correction and adjust color of the new layer until you achieve the look you want it to have with the foreground object.