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How To Animate Handwritten Text in After Effects
Richard Lainhart on Sun, April 24th | 0 comments
A common film and television effect is that 'writing on a script title', so that it appears as if the title is being drawn or handwritten on the screen in realtime. This used to be done with tradition

A common film and television effect is that 'writing on a script title', so that it appears as if the title is being drawn or handwritten on the screen in realtime. This used to be done with traditional cel animation, but you can also do it in After Effects, and without the need for drawing skills. Getting it to animate smoothly, though, can take some work, so this Feature Tutorial will require a little more of your time to complete. By the end though you'll have mastered a useful technique and learned some things about After Effects that perhaps you didn't know. So, let's get started.

Step 1 - Create Your Title

Start by making a new comp, our standard 720p 10-second composition (Composition > New Composition...), and call it Write-On. Add a 10-second comp-sized white solid (Layer > New > Solid...) to your comp to serve as our white paper background. Click the Lock icon for that layer so we can't accidentally move it. Now, select your Text tool, click in the center of the comp, and type in your first name, or whatever you'd like to have written on.

Select the text with the Text tool, choose a script-style font for your name, and make it a large font size that comfortably fills the frame. I'm using Apple Chancery here, which will give us a nice medieval look to our text animation:

There are other script fonts available, of course, but this particular one, in which the letters are detached from one another, will make it easier to set up our write-on animation. A fully-cursive script font, in which all the letters are connected to each other, requires a lot more tweaking to write on, although the procedure is essentially the same that you'll learn here. For now, let's use Chancery.

Step 2 - Create Keyframes with Motion Sketch

At this point, there are a couple of different ways we could approach the problem of creating the position keyframes we'll use to write on the script. We could do it frame-by-frame, but I think using Motion Sketch gives us a more organic animation, one that more closely imitates actual writing.

Motion Sketch is an After Effects feature that lets you create a motion path by dragging a layer around in realtime on the screen while After Effects captures your motion as you drag. After Effects then takes that motion information and generates position keyframes from it on the layer you dragged around. From there, you can apply that position information to any other layer or position-based property. It's a great way to get natural motion with a minimum of effort.

First we'll need a suitable layer to drag around - Motion Sketch needs to be applied to an active layer. Since we're going to trace our script, we need a small layer to drag, one not much larger than the width of the script lines themselves. So, make a new solid to be the length of the composition. Make it bright red, so it's easy to see, call it Red Solid, and size it to 20x20 pixels or so:

Position that red square off to the side of where we want the write-on to start - typically the first stroke of your first character - then open the Motion Sketch panel by choosing Window > Motion Sketch:

With your Red Solid layer selected, set up Motion Sketch's parameters as shown here:

Here's what those properties do and why we changed them. Capture Speed is the rate at which the Timeline moves when you start dragging your Motion Sketch layer around. A Capture Speed of 100% means that in a 10-second comp, you have 10 seconds to do your Motion Sketch. A lower percentage will slow down the capture rate and give you more time to do the sketching.

Because we want to carefully trace our script as we capture, a percentage of 25%, meaning 1/4 the original speed, should give us plenty of time to smoothly trace the script. If you find you need more time, you can reduce this percentage even further. If you find 40 seconds is too much time and you're finishing the sketch too quickly, try increasing that percentage. The amount of time you need will depend on your mouse skills and the complexity of your script.

Smoothing reduces the number of keyframe captures while you drag and usually gives you smoother motion after Motion Sketching. This will also give you fewer keyframes to edit when we tweak the motion path later. A value of 5-8 should work well here.

Show Wireframe will display the Red Solid as just an outline when you drag, which should make it easier to see the script as you trace.

Show Background is essential to have enabled here, or else we won't see the script we want to trace.

Step 3 - Capture the Motion

Once you've got your Motion Sketch parameters set, click the Start Capture button, then click on the Red Solid (with the regular cursor) and start dragging the solid over the script characters in the order in which you want the character strokes to write on. The capture won't start until you first click and drag.

We positioned the solid off to the side of the script so there will be a little lead time before the script starts to appear, and to give us a little room to get up to speed.

It's important that you don't release the solid until you've completely traced the script, or the Motion Sketch capture will stop - in other words, you need to capture one continuous motion. It's also important to take your time and smoothly trace over the centers of the letters as much as possible. You'll probably need a couple of tries to get it right, so if you mess up, just undo and Start Capture again.

As I mentioned, if you need more or less time to trace the characters, just decrease or increase the Capture Speed percentage.

When you have a successful Sketch, you should see something like this below (if you don't see the entire motion path, choose After Effects > Preferences > Display and under Motion Path click on All Keyframes):

And you should see a bunch of Position keyframes in the Timeline for the Red Solid layer:

Step 4 - Tweak the Motion Path

Next, let's take a look at our Red Solid motion path. Note that in my motion path, I dragged the solid well away from each character after I finished tracing it - this is both to  create a little space between the drawing of each letter, but also to make sure that the beginning stroke of each character doesn't impinge on any adjacent characters.

Now, if you zoom in on your motion path, you should be able to see any areas where the path doesn't line up with the center of each character stroke. If you see any of those areas, drag the keyframes at those points to make the path line up on the centers of the strokes - this is to make sure that when we start writing on the letters, each character stroke is correctly revealed. If you need to adjust the shape of the path, drag the Bezier handles at each keyframe to make the path line up with the character strokes:

Your objective is to make the Red Solid move smoothly and evenly along the characters, in a way that is reminiscent of writing. Preview the motion, and you should see something like this:

Step 5 - Apply the Write-On Effect to the Script Layer

Next, select your text layer, and choose Effect > Generate > Write-On to apply the Write-On effect. Once applied, set its parameters as shown here:

You'll notice that when you apply these settings, the script disappears. That's because of the Paint Style setting of Reveal Original Image. This is the setting that will make the Write-On effect paint the characters onto the screen, once we apply the Motion Sketch keyframes to it - which we'll do next.

Step 6 - Copy the Motion Sketch Keyframes to the Write-On Effect

Next, roll down the twirly arrow for the Red Solid layer, and click on its Position property name to select all its Position keyframes. Copy those keyframes, then roll down the twirly arrow for the script layer to expose the Write-On properties. Make sure your Timeline Current Time Indicator (CTI) is at Frame 0, select the Brush Position property, and paste the Red Solid keyframes into Write-On's Brush Position property. Turn off the visibility for the Red Solid layer, preview the composition, and you should see something like this:

As you can see, we're most of the way there, but there are a couple of problems we need to fix, either where not all of the character stroke is drawn, or where part of another stroke is drawn before it should be. This is because the size of the Write-On brush needs to be either larger at those points to reveal the entire stroke, or smaller to avoid showing adjacent strokes at those points where the strokes overlap each other.

Now, the best way to fix this involves a whole other series of steps in the initial setup - ideally, you would break each character up into its individual strokes in Photoshop, then import the entire script into After Effects as a composition, and animate each stroke being drawn on in succession to create the final animation. That way, we don't have to worry about stroke size or overlapping strokes.

However, for this tutorial we want to keep everything in After Effects, so the solution is to animate the Write-On brush size to deal with this problem.

Step 7 - Animate the Write-On Brush Size

This is why we set Brush Time Properties to Size in the original Write-On Effect Controls configuration - so we can animate the brush size. If we didn't enable this, any keyframes we set for Brush Size would apply to the entire brush stroke. So, let's do it.

Set your CTI to Frame 0, and enable keyframing for Brush Size in the Write-On Effect Controls. Control-Click on that first keyframe, and choose Toggle Hold Keyframe from the pop-up menu:

This will ensure that all subsequent keyframes are Hold keyframes, so that the Brush Size values snap from one size to another, rather than interpolate. By doing so, we'll be able to more precisely write on our script and make sure we reveal only what we want to reveal in the course of the animation.

Now, step ahead your CTI one frame at a time (Command-Right Arrow) and locate the frames where either the entire stroke doesn't get written on, or where parts of another stroke are revealed. When you get to that position, set the Brush Size value to the minimum size that reveals the stroke correctly  - this will depend, of course, on the actual characters you're using. You might find it helpful to toggle the Write-On Paint Style setting between Reveal Original Image and On Original Image - because you're painting with a white brush on black letters. On Original Image will show you those areas where the brush doesn't completely cover the character:

Continue stepping through the frames and keyframing the Brush Size as needed to reveal the character strokes correctly. Take your time, preview as needed, and eventually, you'll get something like this:

You should see a nice smooth organic reveal of the characters, as if they're being drawn on by hand, thanks to your original Motion Sketch motion capture.

And that's it! As always, experiment, and have fun.

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