Parallax Animation: Bringing Still Photographs to Life

Update: the photographer made a followup tutorial to answer all the reader questions, see it here:

A little technique called “parallax” can add a lot of life to your photographs. Joe Fellows, founder of a London-based animation and short film production company called Make Productions, describes the parallax technique as the process of separating a photograph into layers, opening the layered file in a compositing program like Adobe After Effects, and then rearranging the layers and zooming a camera “into” the picture.

“The parallax technique is really useful when you don’t have live footage but you do have archival photography or stills,” said Fellows. “It gives the effect that it’s slow motion or at least it brings the photo to life.”

Fellows is highly-acclaimed in the animation world, but happily, he still has time for the little people—or at least time enough to create this brief-but-helpful tutorial about how to add parallax animation to a static image to create a multidimensional scene:

In his tutorial, Fellows provides a very basic, step-by-step walk-through of the parallax process.

First, he brings the selected image into Adobe Photoshop or another type of processing software and “cuts out” all of the different layers using a wand tool—in the case of the photo Fellows uses to demonstrate, the layers are: himself, each separate ping pong ball, and the background.

Next, Fellows hides those selected layers and paints the background in the empty spaces using the clone tool. Painting the background behind the object layers is what will help to create the “2.5D” effect by allowing the viewer to see behind the objects as if they’re moving through space.

After painting, he adds the object layers back in, saves the file with the individual layers, and brings the file into a compositing program like After Effects. This is where the magic happens and Fellows creates the illusion of moving through 3D space.

parallax joe fellows animation

Fellows also colorized several of the ping pong balls and added lens flare for the final image.

In After Effects, Fellows rearranges and re-sizes those layers, pushing some close into the foreground and others farther away. He also resizes the background layer and adjusts it so that it is accurate to the viewer, being mindful of the camera effect he plans to add.

All that’s left then is to add the subtle camera zoom and animate the objects by pinpointing various objects and limbs and adjusting them to move ever-so-slightly throughout the five second frame.

“Any movement that you have should be really subtle,” Fellows said. “Don’t suddenly bring an arm up really suddenly. It’s gotta be a really subtle, graceful movement, otherwise the viewer’s eye will pick up on anything that looks slightly strange.”

Fellows has worked on animation projects for Channel 4, Cartoon Network, Channel Five, and BBC, among others. He has most recently been working with Ad Hoc Films and World Wildlife Fund to infuse hundreds of WWF photographs with movement in a short film. This sequence showcases some of the resulting images:

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7 responses to “Parallax Animation: Bringing Still Photographs to Life”

  1. Steven says:

    Really interesting video, I enjoyed that. It’s a very powerful technique.

  2. Joe says:

    Nothing new or revolutionary about this technique, but definitely a powerful tool in the right hands.

  3. Ryan says:

    First time I’ve seen this technique, and can’t wait to try it!

  4. Soence says:

    I’ve done this before in 2d, but the addition of the camera and using the layers as 3d and pushing the bg layer way back really sells it. Great job Joe. Fantastic work. Now I’m going off to play.

  5. Derek says:

    Great effect and a lot easier than I would have expected. Wondering if you were creating the base shot to use the effect on why not grab a “plate” of the background at the same time? No filling in the BG after you cut out your animation subjects. As the BG is also manipulated you would not need to take both shots from a tripod but just close to the same camera location.

    Or am I floating in space?

  6. Rich Ladson says:

    I think the point of not creating a plate is to demonstrate the technique being used on existing still photos. That’s what I took from it anyway!!

  7. If a person was creating a 10 minute digital animation but only had 2 months to complete it. Would it be easier and quicker to use still image animation?

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