How We Taught Ourselves Animation — and How You Can Too

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Last spring, as part of our company brand refresh, we put out two original animated videos. Our design intern at the time, Chenyu, had strong animation experience, and we knew that animation was becoming a powerful tool in PR. Not only can animation enhance both graphic design and video, but it can combine the nearly unlimited possibilities of the former with the dynamism of the latter to create very compelling, fun, and engaging content.

When Chenyu’s internship concluded, we had a video editor (Sam) and a graphic designer (Jeffrey) on staff, but neither had animation experience. While animation certainly includes elements of both, it is a unique skill set with a fairly different interface in the Adobe Creative Cloud. We quickly realized that if we wanted to continue offering this service — and, given its many uses in PR, we very much did — we would need to find a way to teach ourselves.

Since then, we’ve not only learned enough animation to produce powerful visuals for clients, but we’ve learned about the process of learning animation. Below are the key principles that worked for us — and our recommendations for teaching yourself this useful skill set.

Set goals of what you want to learn. This goes for almost any type of project, but setting some detailed objectives at the start is extremely valuable. We learned very quickly that the goal of “learning animation” is way too broad — there are so many different things you can do with animation, it’s best to choose specific techniques you think would be useful and/or cool. We started with a large list, ranging from the very simple (like creating a “typewriter” effect for text) to the very complex (creating a glowing effect like a lightsaber — haven’t got there yet, but we’ll find a cool use for it one day!)

Set consistent, uninterrupted time aside each week. If you’re like us, you’re always juggling a number of different projects, and it can be hard to find the time to learn a new skill that won’t immediately be revenue-generating. However, if you just say, “I’ll learn it when I have some free time,” you’ll never learn it. Put a recurring meeting on your calendar — you can always cancel or reschedule if things get crazy, but if it’s on the calendar, it’s far more likely to happen. And the more regularly it happens, the more you’ll be able to build on your new skills.

Work together. Both of us had wanted to learn animation before, but it didn’t actually happen until we teamed up. When you’re working with a teammate, it brings in a level of accountability to ensure you’re making progress. Working together also allowed us to bounce ideas off of each other, both in terms of new projects to pursue and ways to accomplish those projects. Ultimately, it made our efforts better, faster, and more fun.

Watch tutorials (and test them in real time). The internet is a magical thing — if there is a technique you want to learn, you can almost certainly do so by Googling (or YouTubing) it. Type in something like “motion tracking after effects” or “how to rotate text in after effects” and you’re bound to find numerous tutorials on how to achieve these effects. Pro tip: these tutorials are helpful on their own, but they’re even more helpful if you test out the techniques yourself as you watch.

Get creative with project ideas. We’ve touched on this a bit, but it’s always easier to learn when you have relevant and exciting projects to apply your learning to. Ideally you can find projects that will help clients — for example, we were already producing a video for our client Imagineer Technology Group, so we decided to animate an introduction to the video with their logo. (This was done fully with keyframing, which is maybe the most important technique you can learn when starting out — essentially, it is the art of “making things happen on time”.) If you don’t have client projects, create your own projects! For example, we were interested in motion tracking, so when the NBA’s All-Star weekend came to Chicago, we found a fun way to test our motion tracking abilities. (Hint: you’ll have to learn what a “null object” is.)

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Our intro animation for Imagineer Technology Group’s video

Don’t be afraid to fail. Our last tip is the most important — if you’ve never done it before, animation is difficult. It’s often a trial and error process, and you will make plenty of errors. You might need to try a few things before you figure out how to do something, but the next time you’ll know how to do it. And the more you do it, the quicker it’ll become.

Perhaps the best example for this is the most recent (and most comprehensive) animated work we’ve produced, a short explainer video for MaterialsXchange, which displays how the exchange works. When MaterialsXchange wanted the infobox in the video moved, we painstakingly moved each part of the box separately. After a bit of research and trial, we learned how to “pre-compose” different objects together so they could all be altered in concert with one another. (This is also another very helpful tool. In a nutshell, precomposing is a way to save multiple elements together as a mini-project — such as the clock or the price table — within a project.) With that in our repertoire, we were able to make far more comprehensive changes to the video, incorporating a variety of different techniques.

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The animated explainer of how MaterialsXchange works

Looking back at when we started our “animation task force” last year, we could have never wrapped our heads around how to make a video like this one. But by following the structure above, we built our animation skill set to the point that it can be a driver for client projects. Interested in learning more? Reach out to jeffrey “at” or sam “at” and we’d be happy to discuss.

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PR & Communications for Fintech & Chicago Tech.

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