The Death of the Keyframe – How expressions are making everything look the same

September 2, 2009 - By 

Don’t let a computer animate for you.

Here is the link mentioned in the video: Crazy Enough by Jr.Canest

  • I am with you 200% on this one !!

  • “Don’t let a computer animate for you.”

    But where does it end? We’re all letting AE tween and interpolate between those keyframes that we set by hand. If you didn’t want a computer to animate for you, then you’d have to draw every single frame by hand.

    By using software (and plugins, presets, expressions, scripts, etc.) to animate, we’re implicitly accepting a certain amount of computer-aided automation in our work.

    The key is to not let automation or other prefabricated elements dominate your work, but rather to own them, and use them to help you work more creatively–for example, by not having to waste creative energy on monotonous tasks.

  • It’s all about balance. Like spices, using a sprinkling at the right time will make the difference between a decent meal and a great meal (for the eyes). Never say never to anything in my opinion.

  • You’re right Nick. I’m so dumb and easily manipulated I thought you HAD to use expressions. “Crazy Enough” is really cool.

    Keyframing may take longer but at least the work is yours not someone elses.

    I feel relieved! Doffing my cap to JR Canest and Nick Campbell. Peace. Love the site.

  • I think it all depends upon the expression. You can come up with some very complex expressions that no one else will have done. Also, look at processing. It can aid you in making cool shit quickly. The beginning of my reel is a mix of frames generated in processing attached to the audio with AE expressions and it looks pretty unique. That said, I think wiggle and the like often lead to the problems you’re addressing. I just wanted to point out that not all expressions and code-driven animation is bad!

  • I agree with Leah. The advent of expresisons and such allows us to move forward creatively, instead of spending 20 minutes on that “seemingly random” movement the camera makes to look like handheld camera movement.

    obviously you shouldn’t just slap a wiggle on there and be done.. thinking outside of the box, even with simple things like wiggle, will get you far..

    I remember animating a hand-held camera type of thing once. I pick-whipped the camera to a null, pick-whipped the point of interest to a null.. then added large, slow sweeping wiggles to the nulls, and added sporatic small (2px) movements to the camera and POI themselves.. even then, I hand keyframed the camera and POI once the wiggles were in place.. it’s all about using them as a tool, instead of a crutch.

    I can understand a lot of novices, hobbyists, and beginners will latch on to certain tools and make them a mainstay, but as long as the artist thinks outside of the box about how to use them, then they’re golden.. this is what separates the good from the bad in our industry, and as such, just as any medium, there will always be those who use certain ways of doing things as a crutch, and it will permeate their work.

    • Well said Greg… The video is a reminder to try it by hand if you can. Certainly, there are ways to use expressions to make something you could never do on your own. But, if your stuck, or just can’t quite get that move to work, stop tweaking code and take control of your animation with keyframes.

  • Many animators succumb to the “when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail” syndrome when they get to a point where they feel somewhat comfortable with expressions. I get many asking me for help creating expressions to do something very specific, where I usually step in and suggest “Just use keyframes.”

    As others have said, it’s a balance. I think you can make expressions reflective of your creativity, if you take the time to understand what is going on. For example, wiggle()actually has 5 parameters, not just the 2 that most people use (freq + amplitude.) There’s octave control, time manipulation and more.

    Also, I think some things like exponential decay are ALMOST impossible with keyframes. The subtle parts that happen at the tail end are so minuscule that it is almost foolish not to use an expression to do it.

    So, anyway.. yours is a good point. But I see this argument come up every now and then, and it often scares animators away from expressions when in many cases, when it’s a perfect solution to the challenge at hand.

    • Is that the same concept as “When you have Helvetica, everything looks like a Heading”? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • I happen to agree with Harry here.
      I think as a beginning fx artist you first try to comprehend
      keyframes and later on get to know expressions.

      I always thought expressions are a time saver, and in a way they are. If you have a deadline within, let’s say 4 hours, i
      intend to use expressions rather then keyframes.

      Me for instance am still in the process of learning and understanding expressions, I am still looking for the perfect balance.

      Antwerp – Belgium

  • I heart expressions;

    Sometimes I’m working on stuff that I know will change so expressions are key. Like if I’m going to make a couple dozen solids that will be the same color, a color that might change. If I put an expression on there I can change them all at once, and then back ๐Ÿ˜‰ . Or referencing data from other comps is a breeze with expressions.

    But I guess thats more of a workflow thing than automatic animation

    • Totally, Great use of expressions dan. That color change thing is the perfect example of using expressions to save time and to automate tedious tasks.

    • I also use expressions a lot to make movement while still being able to move text on screen without having to adjust keyframes. A lot of times the text I have to work with changes size drastically, yet I still need it to move.

      Most of the time I use them to link things together.

  • Thanks harry! What a perfect person to comment on this.

    I of course agree that expressions are needed for certain, math heavy, small detail, situations. You hit it on the head though (pun intended) when you talk about the โ€œwhen you have a hammer, everything looks like a nailโ€ syndrome. Sometimes, you just have to put the code down and make it happen they way you want it to.

  • How can something that is dead like a computer can give live to something?… it simply can’t, lets take a look of the old days movies, the ones Disney started with… the characters are so exaggerated in their movements, anticipation, scaling, even the expressions… those animations are unique and alive! I’m also a wiggle fan but I’m also a fan of spending 5 hours to make a circle to fall in love to another circle fro 5 seconds :D… I started animation using motion tween in flash, and I strongly recommend that… start with something that there is no place for plug-ins… It helped me so much to understand curves of animation, time vs. position/scale/rotation/etc, ease in, ease out…
    use the computer for something you can’t do, not to make it faster ๐Ÿ˜›

    • I agree. I started with flash as well, but with all kinds of technology, thinks change and people get attached to trends. For example, when Serato turntables first came out people said it wasn’t good because it took away from the authenticity of the music. Now, I donโ€™t ever see anyone carry crates of records anymore. Itโ€™s all Ipods and digital turntables. I think that the expressions are great and once artists, not programmers, explore this tool even more, it will show its true creative capabilities.

    • I also started animating in flash as well, and I loved doing it. However with the increase of interactivity and making files as small as possible when uploading to the web. For animation it seemed like more and more code was being used and you never even touched the time line except to put code in the the first frame or reference to an external file with code. Which is one of the reasons I got away from flash since that is where I seemed to be heading at the time.

      Of course you can do crazy stuff with code especially with AS 3.O and it can be completely unique, but being able to see something in the timeline when it actually happens is how like to visualize stuff most of the time.

  • Hey Nick – always love this blog man.

    Great points here – Of course, these arguments have been around since the paintbrush and canvas were crutches for the true painters that used cave walls and blood. (THOSE were the good days I tell ya.)

    I like a new concept – Fearless design. Don’t worry so much about all this – just create shit that works for you, the story, and sometimes, the client. ;-P

    I will say that although i have little interest in character animation – studying it has improved my mograph – check out – book is cheap on amazon – dvd’s expensive – but you make it back fast. Well worth learning that stuff from old masters.

    It’s funny: traditional animators would tell you you should have a keyframe every two frames – if you’re tweening you’re letting the computer do the work for you. Bad animator! Bad!

    So… ya know… many parallels – remember it’s only the old guys that get left behind begrudging the ‘old days’ when men were men… and keyframes were keyframes. Move on – embrace all the new toys we’re given and make it work for you as you need it to.

    And then drink a Mai Tai.

  • Epressions and PARTICULAR make everything look the same.

    • I don’t think the tools are to blame. A camera is a technical piece of equipment, but what you do with it is as unique as the person holding it.

      Particular is VAST piece of software. After using it for years, I am still finding new things to do with it.

      So, I’d be hesitant to say that particular is at fault, or expressions are at fault. It’s the lack of creativity, or getting beyond the presets. How many times have we all seen the “Organic Lines” preset used in broadcast? I don’t blame Trapcode products for this. It just means that someone used a preset without much creativity.

      I think the bigger issue is a lack of ideas. OR, the fact that more people are doing “graphics” for their projects these days, and have little experience with design.

  • First point :
    As always the problem is that we are lazy, for sure creatives, but lazy.

    I think either that the perfect animation was so hard to do that we tested expression and it became more smooth, and beautyfull.

    But now we distort the pictures, we add noise we do everything to turn this (computed)perfection into a more realistic picture, more rough.
    In fact it’s funny, look at the number of grungy types, how many times we distord channels to make it look as our old VHS quality.

    For sure the best is to do it mannually with keyframes, but it is a very hard technic (bounce, random movements,… ) it’s a full job !

    The real creativ person use all the tools she need :
    You want to make it looks like bad VHS, print it on an old VHS and import it on your computer, I think it’s the same with expression and keyframes.

    Hope it is understandable, sorry for my bad english but it’s a question (laziness vs creativity, mixing the technics you learned, how far beeing trendy …) wich is very very important.

    • “The real creativ person use all the tools she need :
      You want to make it looks like bad VHS, print it on an old VHS and import it on your computer, I think itโ€™s the same with expression and keyframes.”

      As a side note, I was going to do that for a video once, but I never got around to it. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • I 400% agree!

    Thanx again Nick for not only giving jewel tips and tutorials but also for giving real prod experience advice and “human artistic direction” ones!

    I remember that time when I had to animate shassh ‘n squeeze fruits in flash, and, after spending like 20 minutes parametring my code tweens I finally did them by hand and could have the desired result only by this way.

    Then I also agree that for production process purposes or very speficic decay anims expressions are so cool.

    By the way, if I might add a techical question here, how can u make a “frame shivering” effects like the ones on this vid (at teh beginnig for example). Well you could shift the layer 2px back and forth every frame but I guess there’s a better way to do it!

    might be obvious, but i’m kind of a AE beginner …
    back to my curves now for practicing nice easing ๐Ÿ™‚

    thanx for all

  • hey don’t knock the presets completely yet…the environment you work in is not the same as the one any of us do…when you have days (even weeks) to get your animation (or your part of of the entire spot) completed, using presets is a bit lazy…but when you have nothing and are expected to produce a spot by the end of the day EST (and you’re on PST), well, sometimes you have to pull up a preset, tweak it to work with your piece, and end it…

    • I also agree with this. For a lot of my work it’s due end of day. I finish some 30 second spots in less than 3 hours from soup to nuts. When times were better, we made 100s of commercials a year.

      I have expressions and presets to move text across the screen, even to fade from and to black at the beginning and end. I also have a vast library of footage and graphic elements (though usually I end up making my own graphics).

      In my previous job, I had days/weeks to complete spots and sometimes I had an additional person and an editor. At my current job, I’m the entire production department. I didn’t have automaton expressions there. I’ve definitely seen both sides. Guess which one I like better, lol.

  • Not entirely true. Wasn’t this website built with code? How unique is it? I think it pretty darn unique. With expressions you have a huge control and many options of what you want it to do. Unless people start using the same exact values in every project thats where you lose creativity and randomness. But if you use random numbers and experiment you will get that uniqueness.

  • The only expression I’ve used lately was “Holy Crap!” when I saw the Jr.Cantest vid!

    I agree though.

    Even though we are using programs that can potentially filter out the “human element” we should be aware and try our best to maintain as much human control as possible.

    I like expressions for automating mundane tasks but never for actually moving stuff around the screen.

    It makes me feel cheap and slutty!

  • Well, well…

    The timing on this article seems quite fateful. I’m actually in the class below Jr.Canest at Vancouver Film School and have been asked to present at our showcase next week. The topic: Harnessing the power of expressions in AE.

    Last term we were working on a MotionSync project ( and got totally stuck conceptually because the keyframing alternative just wasn’t viable. In the end I adapted a technique from an old Dan Ebberts tutorial ( which uses layer markers and time-remapping to sync specific frames between layers.

    I too was very inspired by Jr.Canest’s piece. But the craft that he showed in his keyframing is borne of talent, rather than the act of keyframing itself. Automation will inevitably lead to a host of replication. However, it could be argued, so do Andrew Kramer tutorials. Expressions harness the power of math, allowing you to construct behaviours and theoretical constructs that go beyond the scope of direct keyframe manipulation.

    I donโ€™t think expressions are to blame. I would argue that expressions that result in standardized, uninspiring content embody the limitations of the person wielding them . And I suspect that the real enemy of keyframing โ€“ is simple laziness.

    • “I donโ€™t think expressions are to blame. I would argue that expressions that result in standardized, uninspiring content embody the limitations of the person wielding them . And I suspect that the real enemy of keyframing โ€“ is simple laziness.”

      There’s so much good stuff from everyone, but I think this is spot on.

  • I worked on the same project with Stu and thought I would throw up some screenshots that show the markers we used instead of keyframing. I think this project is a good instance of using expressions to really amplify keyframing (or in this case, laying markers).

    In case that link didn’t work:

  • I’m a traditional & digital animator. You couldn’t have said it better yourself. Computer inbetweens are asking for bland.

  • extremes and absolutes one way or the other is pointless. Do what you like. Expressions are great!

    • I have no beef against expressions in general. I use them all the time. It’s just, when you are having a hard time getting an expression to do what you want, I would encourage trying to do it by hand and with keyframes. I think the tone is, “Don’t spin your wheels”. Maybe the problem has a different solution.

  • another great post from u Nick (as always). im still a student here and i found that you’re thoughts and words are very inspiring to me. thanx!

  • I used to use Ease & Wizz RELIGIOUSLY for overshoots; to keep it flexible for the hundreds of client revisions that awaited me. Then one day the script’s math stopped feeling right to me. I realized that I just needed one extra keyframe (and some graph adjustment) to actually make it mine.

    Bottom line: Cheat it if you have to (deadlines rule everything), but start to find projects where you can force yourself to animate for real. It feels good.

  • I totally agree with you on this. My other pet peeve is people who don’t adjust any of the presets on their effects. You see it all the time on television. “Oh that’s the preset Trapcode particle”

  • Hey, the gorilla, I think your meaning is a bit missing of… grade.

    Let me explain my pov :
    When you telling “expression kill the animation”, i think that’s not the real point, who would be “the overuse of expression kill the animator”.

    Because as you said, overusing wiggle, etc just make things looks the same. That means producing video like that just lower the inside creativity /personality.

    If you work hard on your animation, keyframing well as applying a well usage of expressions or stuff, your job will be great. If you’re a lazy guy, or just unskilled enough, the job will reveal this kind of weakness.

    It’s the same thing with videocopilot. How many peepz are over copying it, proudly showing the apply of some tutorial, just changing some details, like texts, colors, or some movements… But what’s the value of that?

    Those kind of job are poor and are just the reflection of the quality of the authors.
    those people are just decreasing their own value!

    And, as a conclusion, I could resume this like that :

    Expression, scripts, presets & plugins are tools. The tools are made to be helpfull and to serve, not to be a finality. Those who just doesn’t makes that difference are just less valuable, especially compared with those who do.

    Regards Gorilla, and just keep the good stuff going on!


  • Well, I’ve been working with Flash a lot and I’ve learned Actionscript 3.0 because I had to. In Flash you have button-functions, other functions, etc. that simply need the script/code to work.
    But.. I’ve also realized that the Actionscript (and Motionscript) have replaced the manual work of animating giving the projects a more static effect/look.

    There are a few simple reasons for this:

    A) Using script save us some time so we can be even more effective. It’s all about money. The clients want the pieces done fast since the schedules are tight. Working faster means more work for you. And more money.

    B) We are lazy. Why animate when we can type a few lines and hit Enter/Return?? Why walk a few miles when you can jump on a bus? I have friends that live a couple of minutes from their work. But they travel to work by car..

    C) I know some designers working with motions (primary in Flash) that simply don’t know the basic fundmentals of animating. So they use codes/scripts. They don’t have time to learn. It’s almost like preaparing a meal.. Do you throw a pack of lasagne in the microwave or do you make it from scratch? We all know that are cooking aren’t that good.. So we salute the m’wave….!

    D) When it comes to Flash it really does matter if you’re using actionscript instead of manual animations. Because of the filesize. Manual animation might produce a filesize of 2 Mb but using script might reduce it to 1-1,5 Mb.

    Do, there are some fair reasons why it is the way it is. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to be productive by doing animations by hand. I agree with Mr. Gorilla when it comes to the personal mark on the projects you’re working on. Being unic is some of the best tools for being noticed.

    By giving your pieces your personal style makes you stand out from the crowd.

    But it’s not easy to be creative when the tools of lazyness is lying in front of you…

    • T. Fosse,

      Flash animations gain to have coded animation just because it’s another kind of media, especially because it’s an interactive one.

      Most of the time, it have to be flexible (The difference of displaying size/resolution have to be assumed) The timing also can be interactive.

      Also, in AS3 you have real tools to control animation in time, conditions and depending actions.
      Actionscript allows kind of multi-dimensional timeline, AE just doesn’t. Everything is strictly defined once the video is complete.

      Another point is : I’m REALLY not sure it’s easier &/or quicker to define every behaviour/condition & trigger in AE than simply place key frames ๐Ÿ™‚

      Finally as you said, it’s just a matter of courage ๐Ÿ™‚

  • I think you should have hand animated those 40,000 cubes falling instead of using C4D’s dynamics, cheater!!! ๐Ÿ˜›

  • actually it is copying what makes everything look the same!
    … you know what Iยดm talking about ; )

  • Isn’t this a bit of a strawman argument tho? I really need you to site some examples, the only thing I can think of off hand is the amount of showreels that start with camera-being-wiggled-by-audio-keyframes thing. Apart from that, I don’t think I can think of a single thing I’ve seen that I’ve thought ‘oh, that expression again’.

  • Nick..please Help me! can i “re-center” the gizmo of an object in after effects????..Iยดll aprecciate your help..Thanks!..greetings from Colombia!

  • That’s great to hear! Expressions hurt my brain! Long live key framing.

  • I like the idea of everyone making their stuff look different, but a sweeping comment about not using wiggle() should be followed with a little lesson about expressions that can take a complex idea and make it worth doing.

  • One way I found to get away from things like wiggle is to track some REAL camera movement and apply or parent it to a layer needing some realistic movement. I think the problem is we are all trying to simulate a natural or realistic feel in a computer with a limited number of ways to get it.

  • I think making things not look the same is key, which has nothing to do with expressions per se. Look at something like using Processing to make mograph. Amazing unique animations come off that platform that amount to one long expression.

    And after dipping my toe in Expresso, suddenly all After Effects expressions look like functional rule sets, and time savers, not shortcuts to great animation or deep interactivity between elements.

    just me tho…

  • Heh…
    That’s why AE7 still the best edition.
    Perfect balance between presets and imagination. You have to use your brain, not a “brain storm” button :O)

    For those who just start working with After Effects, I would recommend AE7. At least just for a beginning, to understand what is what.

  • Great tutorial!!.
    I think a good tutorial it would be the process of a motion graphics animation. I mean, the steps that are involved to create a motion graphic.
    Story board, the best decision to make on a given situation, …

  • As much as i agree with you in theory, i have to say from experience my work really started reaching a whole new level when i really dug into expressions, now that could be a result of the expression + simply the more time/practice in AE that it took to get where im at…but working in the industry ive run into many situations that expressions allowed me to do what i flat out wouldnt be able to otherwise…the way i see it knowing expressions well (and i mean really digging into the java and understanding the language) acts as just another very useful tool in the scope of AE, but just like any “Effect” form your drop down menu, its how you use it that makes it great. I Often use keyframes with my expressions, connecting sine waves to sliders and manipulating the freq/amp with keyframes…just an example of where instead of simply throwing an expression/effect on something and call it a day, you can take this new tool that everyone has access to and make it your own. With every technique that makes motion graphics easier and repetitive, underlies more motivation to push yourself to come up with something even more unique and inventive.

    ..this was an automated response written by a script…lol j/k.

  • Great discussion Nick. It certainly captured the imagination of quite a few.

    I’ve fallen in love with expressions over the last few years. They’ve helped my work flow on commercial jobs immensely. I agree with your premise for a junior animators, but as you get more experienced you can integrate expressions and still retain personality.

    For me I compare it to when I was a kid at school and the teacher wouldn’t allow us to use a calculator. Once you knew the basics it was fine to use one. I believe its the same with animation, learn the hard way with keyframes then you can use expressions to help you get there.

    Also expressions help in keeping ‘commercial’ jobs flexible and are indispensable for allowing changes in tight turn arounds.

    my 2 cents…..somewhat late in the discussion.

  • There is no right answer, it all depends on style, skill, speed, ability. To say that expressions make everything look the same is a vast generalization. Any real artist knows all the tools and will experiment with all the tools to find the right one for the job.

    seedRandom(index); may help you feel better ๐Ÿ™‚

    Also, for people using AE as a stepping stone into Nuke, Fusion, etc… learning a bit of some form of scripting is a great lead in to more robust math down the line.

  • I need a tutorial to convert text into smoke
    anyone can help me?

  • my after effects is a virgin…it never ran ANY scripts^^

  • You can just hold a camera and film the wall (with a dot or something for track point of course) and motion track it and use that information to make your own AWSOME UNIQE

  • piece_dope_lvl = (artist.isGreat && artist.isCreative)? 100: 0; // %

  • I never saw this post till today. Wow, i feel exactly the same. I’m running my own one man company and the DNA of my company is classic 2 animations.

  • Nick, I have always liked your thinking. Being myself in motion design for over 15 years, I agree completely with what you’re saying. I remember when I started out in motion design everyone used to be so impressed by how original everything looked and to be frank it had a lot to do with my lack of knowledge of expressions and automation. I would do everything by hand and it is pretty hilarious in hindsight. I’m am very impressed by your comments because they make perfect sense when I think back to that time. Maybe by learning something, I also lost something else along the way.

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.