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Creating Advanced Animations In Photoshop

While animation in Photoshop is not a new concept, it definitely has come a long way in the last few years: The Timeline panel has been overhauled, video layers have been introduced, as has the ability to create keyframe animation. These additions have really upped Photoshop’s game.

Even though Photoshop is still a long way off from being able to create the high-end and cinematic animations of such programs as After Effects, it still has enough power to create complex animation — which is especially useful if you don’t want to spend time learning a new application.

In this article, I will share several advanced techniques to help you create complex animations. We’ll look at the Timeline panel and the different properties that can be animated. We’ll also explore the roles that adjustment layers, filters and smart objects can have in animation (and how to combine all three for some amazing effects). Because the topics and techniques in this article are advanced, a moderate level of Photoshop knowledge is expected.

Overview Of Timeline Panel Link

Opening the Timeline panel (“Window” → “Timeline”) allows you to select between two types of timelines: video and frame. The frame timeline is for frame-by-frame animation and can be very limiting. It generally works by converting the layers in your Layers panel to individual frames. I won’t go into any more detail on this timeline; I want to focus on the video timeline.

Photoshop has two timelines for you to choose from.1
Photoshop has two timelines for you to choose from. (View large version2)

Video Timeline Link

The video timeline allows for keyframe animation — which is an animation process in which you define key points of animation along a timeline and Photoshop will interpret the in-between frames to create a cohesive animation. Let’s go ahead and create a very simple animation to see how this works.

The Video Timeline panel shows a layer (1) with layer properties (2). The timeline shows the Current Time Indicator (3) and existing keyframes (4).3
The video timeline panel shows a layer (1) with layer properties (2). The timeline shows the current time indicator (3) and existing keyframes (4). (View large version4)

As you probably noticed from the image above, the video timeline shows a representation of layers in the Layers panel. Each layer in the timeline has a dropdown panel that exposes the layer properties (these are the properties that can be animated). To animate a layer property, simply click the stopwatch icon, which enables keyframe animation. Notice that a keyframe is automatically placed at the current time indicator.

The stopwatch icon has been selected for the Position property. A keyframe is automatically added to the timeline.5
The stopwatch icon has been selected for the “Position” property. A keyframe is automatically added to the timeline. (View large version6)

Move the current time indicator to another point in the timeline and reposition the layer. Again, another keyframe will automatically be added to the timeline.

Moving the layer automatically adds a keyframe at the current time indicator's location on the timeline.7
Moving the layer automatically adds a keyframe at the current time indicator’s location in the timeline. (View large version8)

Playing back the animation shows how the object on the canvas moves from one position to the next.


Photoshop automatically creates the animation in between the keyframes.

Layer Types Link

Now that we have a good idea of how the animation process works in Photoshop, let’s take a closer look at the common layer types that can be animated. Because different layer types have different properties to animate, pay attention to which layer types are being used.

The standard (pixel) layer is a layer that contains pixel information. This is the most common (and most basic) layer in Photoshop. Layer properties include:

  • position,
  • opacity,
  • styles.
A standard layer in the timeline with the layer properties exposed.
A standard layer in the timeline with the layer properties exposed.

Adding a layer mask or vector mask to any layer will introduce additional properties specific to that mask. Layer properties that are added to the layer’s existing properties include:

  • layer or vector mask position
  • layer or vector mask enabling
A layer with a layer mask in the timeline
A layer with a layer mask in the timeline.
A layer with a vector mask in the timeline
A layer with a vector mask in the timeline.

A shape layer contains a shape (whether from one of the shape tools or the Pen tool) or a line segment. Because shapes and line segments are built with vector mask information, those mask properties will appear in addition to the other layer properties. Layer properties include:

  • position,
  • opacity,
  • styles,
  • vector mask position,
  • vector mask enabling.
A shape layer in the timeline with the layer properties exposed
A shape layer in the timeline with the layer properties exposed.

A text layer contains editable text. If text has been rasterized, then the layer will no longer be a text layer, but rather will be a standard layer with pixel information. Layer properties include:

  • transform,
  • opacity,
  • styles,
  • text warp.
A text layer in the timeline with the layer properties exposed
A text layer in the timeline with the layer properties exposed.

A smart object can contain any one or combination of the above layer types. A smart object acts like a wrapper for any layer, preserving the original layer while using a new set of properties. These properties include:

  • transform,
  • opacity,
  • styles.
A text layer in the timeline with the layer properties exposed
A text layer in the timeline with the layer properties exposed.

A word of warning when using smart objects. Because a smart object preserves the original quality of the layer or the set of layers it contains, it can be scaled and rescaled without losing quality. However, it cannot be scaled any larger than the size of the original layer it contains. Doing so would cause the smart object to lose quality.

At this point, I want to mention two other layer types — a video layer and a 3D layer. Both of these layers are completely unique from the other layer types mentioned. The video layer is actually a layer group that contains its own set of properties, while the 3D layer — besides containing a unique set of properties — is manipulated in an environment entirely separate from the other layers, adding to the level of complexity. Due to the uniqueness of these two layer types, I will not go into detail here. You can see how both layers are represented in the timeline below:

A video layer group in the timeline with the layer properties exposed
A video layer group in the timeline with the layer properties exposed.
A 3D layer in the timeline with the layer properties exposed
A 3D layer in the timeline with the layer properties exposed.

I encourage you to explore these two layer types on your own. For the rest of this article, I will be focusing only on the traditional layer types, excluding video and 3D.

Layer Properties Link

Now that we have a grasp of the different layer types, let’s examine the different properties that we are able to animate. Knowing how each property works is important to understanding their limitations and how to get around them. Let’s look at the common animation properties.

The Position property allows for movement along the X- and Y-axis. Manipulate the position of an object by using the Move Tool.


The object’s Position property was keyframed to move the ball back and forth along the x axis.

Opacity allows you to keyframe the opacity of a layer. The Opacity control can be found in the Layers panel.


The object’s opacity was keyframed at 100% and 0% to create a fading animation.

The Style property allows you to keyframe the layer styles of a layer. Access the layer styles by double-clicking a layer in the Layers panel.


The object’s layer styles (Bevel & Emboss, Color Overlay, and Drop Shadow) were all keyframed to create a pulsing animation.

The layer mask or vector mask position keyframes the x and y positions of each mask. It works best when the mask is not linked to the layer.


The mask’s position is keyframed to scrub across the layer, revealing the background layer.

Enabling or disabling a layer or vector mask is also possible. To enable or disable a layer mask, go to “Layer” → “Layer Mask” and select either “Enable” or “Disable.” For vector masks, go to “Layer” → “Vector Mask.” Alternatively, you can “Shift + Click” the mask in the Layers panel to toggle on or off.


The mask is keyframed to be enabled, then disabled after a short time, causing a reveal.

Specific to text layers, the Text Warp property allows you to keyframe any text warp applied to a text layer. You can access a list of text warp effects by going to “Type” → “Warp Text.”


A Flag warp was applied to the text and keyframed to create a warping animation.

The Transform property allows you to keyframe transformation to a layer. Various transformations (such as Rotate and Scale) can be accessed by going to “Edit” → “Transform,” or by pressing Control + T to enter Free Transform mode.


The object’s Scale and Rotation are keyframed to create a spinning star that grows and shrinks.

Footnotes Link

  1. 1 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/p1-01-overview-opt.jpg
  2. 2 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/p1-01-overview-opt.jpg
  3. 3 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/p1-02-timeline-1-opt.jpg
  4. 4 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/p1-02-timeline-1-opt.jpg
  5. 5 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/p1-03-timeline-2-opt.jpg
  6. 6 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/p1-03-timeline-2-opt.jpg
  7. 7 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/p1-04-timeline-3-opt.jpg
  8. 8 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/p1-04-timeline-3-opt.jpg
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Stephen G. Petrany is a full-time Graphic Designer and a part-time Instructor at Bradley University in the United States. He enjoys working in Photoshop developing new techniques to share in the form of tutorials.

  1. 1

    That’s nice, but what can you export the animation as?

    Adobe just needs to bring back Flash as a prototyping programing, it’s free form ability to animate things and semi easy learning curve would make it perfect.

    1
  2. 2

    Mikul Gohil

    June 19, 2015 4:50 am

    This remember me of flash animation.

    1
  3. 3

    Wow, this organic effect is awesome. Very clever!

    2
  4. 4

    Shantha Abeyrathne

    June 19, 2015 12:09 pm

    Very useful article. I was designing few animated banner ads the other day and had to Google few times to find out new features in Photoshop CC timeline. I guess you have covered pretty much everything what I was searching for! :)

    1
  5. 5

    It’s a shame there is no easing functionality!

    6
  6. 6

    Could you export this to unity if you wanted?

    0
    • 7

      Stephen G. Petrany

      June 24, 2015 4:20 am

      Micah – Photoshop lets you export as a GIF, MP4, or image sequence.

      0
  7. 8

    The only reason why i do not like to use Photoshop is because it does not do easing in a way that gives you more control. Thats when I moved to After effects and got some great control and output.

    The timeline as a construct is great for creating animation where timing and intensity of motion needs to be controlled.

    That said since my primary use was UI animations, often I needed to show how a UI feels under the control of a finger or a cursor, and thats when I had to go for more responsive tools.

    I am now using Quartz Composer with Ideo’s Avocado and Facebook’s Origami. And I love it. Its very easy to make changes, test for feel and after you get a hang of the tool it takes very little time to bang up a prototype. Its pretty powerful and also outputs code, which is not production ready, but it often serves as good pseudo code if the Quartz file is hard to follow.

    0
  8. 9

    useful article…

    2
  9. 10

    Thanks for this videos.

    I really had no idea about making animation in PS and even my friends don’t know about it. Glad to find this post. tnx :)

    3

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