How to use Non Destructive Motion Design to spice up still images 🖼️

As a motion designer, we’re often handed still images or 3D renders that are then supposed to have the illusion of life pumped into it. 8 out of 10 times, the images are low resolution or just don’t have any room for creative interpretation.

This past month (- 2 weeks), I’ve been busy animating a bunch of renders for an upcoming government property launch. Turns out, there’s only so many ways you can animate a bunch of cubes on sand (if you were to break down the buildings into its core shapes) in a non-destructive way to accommodate for feedback. Playing with type can also take you so far 🤷

Here’s 4 things I’ve picked up:

1. Parallax animation technique ✂️:

I’m not going to explain what parallax animation is since Google can do a much better job. However, using this technique will provide you MUCH more options to play around with instead of the usual zoom in/out, pan etc etc. For this technique to work well, keep movements smooth and a bit slow since that helps to give a more “cinematic” feel.

Tip: Use Photoshop to separate your image into different layers and then import that into After effects or the animation program of your choice instead of starting directly. This is beneficial because clients will inevitably come back last- minute requesting for the picture to be swapped out. If your layers have been built in Photoshop, you can simply swap out and replace the layers (Keep the same file names) thus not wholly affecting your animation.

2. Use adjustment layers 📚:

This method is specific to After effects since that’s the tool I use, but adjustment layers are a life saver! Throw all your basic adjustments such as color balance, hue, contrast on an adjustment layer which can then be placed right on top of the footage. This will save you a HUGE amount of time when you’re neck deep in the project and can’t figure out which comp/effect belongs to which.

Using nulls also helps to maintain control over individual aspects of your footage while still making it easy to go back and change stuff out.

3. Layering and expressions:

This is a bit of a hack to get a a quick “complex” look. Layer your VFX. There are tons of free stock footage of generic stuff available online which can be used to create complex animations. Don’t restrict yourself to just one.

Using different opacities and blending modes, layer your effects to give a richer feel.

Example: The image is of a villa in the middle of the desert. After getting the parallax bit out of the way, I would layer in some sand blowing subtly followed by another layer of dust clouds. If the image has a sky, swap it out for a time lapse of clouds. Take liberties while still maintaining the core structure.

Also, take the time out and learn a few basic expressions. This helps to increase the workflow speed and automate it to some extent. For example: if I was to loop footage of sand blowing across, instead of keyframing the position property repeatedly, I could simply add in this expression “loopOut(“cycle”). This is helpful because in case there are changes, your animations fundamentally remain the same.

4. Sound design 🔊:

Consider this the icing on the cake. Add sound effects where applicable to give your video a sense of realism. Does the image have trees/ water/ sand? Add in some wind noises layered with a slight rustling of trees.

If you don’t have a subscription to one of the stock sound sites such as Epidemic, Youtube audio library has a massive collection that can be used.

PS: it’s good practise to lower the decibels by about 10 to avoid it being too loud when being played on mobile phones.

Lastly, remember that concept beats execution 🧠. A piece can be animated amazingly (hitting all the technical notes, smooth movements etc) but if the core idea isn’t solid, the execution will subconsciously get affected. Take time time out to plan before-hand before diving in.