Bend and stretch with Puppet Warp

Puppet Warp is a one of Photoshop CS5‘s coolest new features that—as you may have guessed—allows you to twist and bend an object into new positions just as though it were a puppet. In this tutorial, I’ll explain how it works and show you how to make the most of the feature.

Understanding Puppet Warp

Closeup of the Puppet Warp mesh. You can toggle visibility.
Puppet Warp overlaps your image with a mesh that you manipulate with control pins. Open any image in Photoshop CS5, choose Layer -> New -> Layer From Background and then choose Edit -> Puppet Warp. Your image will remain unchanged at this point, but you’ll notice that a number of new items have appeared in the Options Bar. Click the checkbox to Show Mesh, and a gray mesh will be overlaid across your image. Choose More Points from the Density pop-up menu to double the mesh density, which will increase the accuracy of your warp. Now uncheck the option to Show Mesh, as we don’t want it getting in the way.

Popping in control pins is easy—just click the image in an appropriate spot and a yellow circle will appear. It’s important to note that pins function both as control points and point locks, meaning that if you don’t want part of an image to be warped, you should add control pins to that area of the image to pin it into place. After you’ve laid down your pins, you can click any pin to select it (indicated by a black circle inside the yellow circle), and then drag it wherever you want. You can also delete any pin by selecting it and then tapping delete on your keyboard. Once you’re happy with your warp, simply press return to lock it in.

That’s the basics—now let’s look at two specific examples.

The density of the mesh will affect the level of detail of your warp.

Bending objects with Puppet Warp

In order to bend objects freely with Puppet Warp—whether it’s an action figure, a long-stem flower or a shoestring—the object must be cut out of its original picture and placed into a layer on its own. That is beyond the scope of this article, but you can learn how to do this in An Introduction to Masking.

After you’ve isolated your object on a new layer—in this example, we’re using an action figure—choose Edit -> Puppet Warp and then click the checkbox to Show Mesh. You?ll notice that the mesh now covers only the object itself, and not the entire image. As before, you’ll want to increase the mesh density by choose More Points from the Density pop-up menu, and then toggle the mesh visibility so that it doesn’t get in the way.

First, lay down pins to lock areas into place (i.e., head, torso, and shoulder/hip joints), and then make additional adjustments one pin at a time. You can reposition an arm by placing a pin on the wrist and then dragging the arm into place. As you drag around the arm, it will bend as though it’s rubber, and you’ll find that you can actually drag the arm across the action figure itself. Puppet Warp even allows you to control the depth of each control pin, so you can send the arm behind the action figure’s back. Just select the control pin, and then in the Options bar, click the Backward Pin Depth icon (the one with the arrow pointing down) until it disappears behind the action figure.

You may notice that your results are a bit ropey, which may not be always seem natural for a more rigid object like an action figure. Instead of dragging limbs around, you may have more success rotating pins as though they were joints. As before, you’ll want to start by laying down pins to lock key areas into place (head, torso, shoulders and hips). Now select a shoulder joint and press the option key; immediately, you’ll see a circle appear around the yellow control pin. Click and drag around the pin to rotate the arm, and then move on. Add a point for the elbow and rotate the forearm, then add a point for the wrist and rotate the hand. Keep in mind that you can click and drag points at any time to fine-tune the positioning, and tapping return will always lock in your warp.

Puppet Warp lets you position part of an object over (or under) itself.

Photo tweaks with Puppet Warp

Puppet Warp’s talents go beyond object manipulation. It can also be used to make more mundane tweaks to photos—such as leveling a landscape—with much greater ease than earlier methods.

Let’s you’ve taken some wildlife photos, and a subtle slope in the grass line is, unfortunately, making the foreground look a little lop-sided. It’s an easy fix with Puppet Warp. Open the image in Photoshop and choose Layer -> New -> Layer From Background. Choose View -> Rulers to show rulers at the edge of the canvas, and then click the horizontal ruler and drag the cursor downwards. This creates a new guide (cyan blue line); place it where you would like the landscape element to be level.

Choose Edit -> Puppet Warp and increase the density of the mesh by choosing More Points from the Density pop-up menu in the Options bar. Now place pins to lock down the parts of the photo you don’t want to be affected by the warp; in our example, this would be around the chipmunk and his plastic cohorts and along the upper edge of the photo itself. Next, place pins along the uneven grass line, dragging each one to the guide. You can fine-tune the placement of any pin by using the arrow keys, and to move more than one pin at a time by shift-clicking additional pins and dragging them as needed. You may notice that the edges of your photo are pulled inwards by the warp; to compensate, add control pins near those affected areas and drag them off the edge. Once you’re happy with what you see, press return to lock down the warp!

Uneven Grass Line.png Caption: Protect key areas from warping with a generous number of control pins.


[Chris McVeigh is an author, illustrator, and toy photographer based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.]


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