After Effects – Expression Controls (part 1)

We’ve started a new character animation in class today, which will be the first class of two to focus on animating a robot named TIX with expression controls. This time, Peter has actually provided the After Effects file we’ll be needing with all of the layers in the composition already – this makes it a little easier for us to dive right into finishing the set up and adding the controls.

Opening up the file, we first had to select everything in the composition and click on the button to switch vector layers on. vectorlayering This would mean the layers would continuously rasterize. As per Pluralsight:

The usefulness of this switch is to make vector layers look clear, no matter how the layer has been scaled up or down, or moved one way or the other in 3D space. But why? What is actually happening that causes this phenomenon? By turning on the switch you’re telling After Effects to no longer treat this vector layer as it would a pixel based layer.

Although we had the layers, we had to parent the different parts up so the robot will move properly – it was useful to think about which parts would connect to which, such as the L_ARM_7 (left arm 7, the claw) would be attached to L_ARM_6 (left arm 6, the wrist). As can be seen in the screenshot below, all the parts will have their parent, except for the plunger since it’s the “base camp” of the robot. The plunger might squash and stretch, but it will be taking the weight of the robot as it moves around the scene.


After that, we had to edit the control points of all the parts that would have their gravity at their base. We’ve done this in previous projects using the pan behind tool – by turning on snapping, we could move the anchor points towards the base of the body parts. For example, I moved the control point of the plunger to its base, the spring’s control point to its base, etc. The only one that didn’t need changing was the neck ball, because it would be rolling at the top of the body and the control point could stay in the middle. I only needed to turn off the snapping when I reached the arms and I used my best judgement to place the anchor points between the two elements.


It was finally time to add our expression controls, which could be found in the effects panel. We would be using the angle control this lesson, but later on we’d be looking into the point and slider controls. While adding the angles in, it could be helpful to think about the robot’s elements like the human body – we’d need four controls: shoulder, elbow, wrist, and hand (claw).


Next, we needed to add a new adjustment layer (which we would call CONTROL and would be the main layer for all the expression controls we added). I could the drag the angle control onto it and rename the control to L_ARM_Shoulder. Going forward, it would be so important to remember naming conventions and proper labelling, otherwise it’d be very easy to lose oneself amongst the whole composition.


I needed to start with left arm 7 and open up the rotation (pressing R for quick access). I could then ALT-click on the clock to open up the parenting tool and drag it to the angle of the angle control I just made. I could confirm this took just by seeing the expression show up next to the rotation, as seen below.


By doing that one, I could actually just copy and paste that rotation onto the other arm components. It was then easy enough to do the same edits/parenting for the right arm. This meant the shoulders were working and I could manipulate them from the control layer!


The best part was, after learning that, making up the elbows, wrists, and hand (claw) meant the same steps, just including less and less parts of the whole arm. In the end, I had 8 different controls for all of TIX wibbly-wobbly needs.

In the last twenty minutes or so of class, we were shown some quick final steps to prep the robot for animation, which consisted of bringing in some extra footage: a background, a movie clip for the head, a movie clip for TIX’s heart, an explosion to show he’s short-circuited, and an audio clip.

The background provided did seem a little light in comparison to TIX, so I darkened it with a quick curves adjustment. I then brought in the head movie clip and put it above the head layer – I had to set the mode to screen and parent it to the head layer. I also needed to set the brain pan’s layer to screen mode, so the animation would show through. The same was done for the heart clip.

Finally, the explosion went to the top of the list and was changed to screen mode, but I did need to move it so it actually occurred from the top of the head. It was then duplicated to make it a stronger effect.


Although this GIF doesn’t include the audio, it was also added to the composition. Peter mentioned that it may be good to get into the habit of putting any audio elements at the bottom of the composition.

Beyond that, TIX will be ready to go for our next lesson!


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