Animating a Roller Coaster


A roller coaster ride isn’t always fun. This project uses a roller coaster to symbolize undesirable fluctuations in cash flow (whatever that is) and suggests that my (fictional) company may be able to help.

Here’s the animation:

You will notice that the cars move and rotate to follow the track. In PowerPoint terms, motion paths are combined with Spin effects. If I were to use a realistic roller coaster profile, it would be difficult to synchronize the Spins with the motion path to get a smooth action. On the other hand, if I use a series of straight lines and circular arcs to define the path, there will be no rotations required during the straight segments and a single Spin will work for the arcs. However, I will need to do a little arithmetic to time the Spins. All of this will become clear, one hopes, as we progress.

Here is the layout for the track profile:


Note: You can always click on these images to see a larger version. Click Back on your browser to return to this post.

To make this easy to construct, I used 45 degree lines with equally sized circles and, as you can see by the green dots, I allowed the lines to snap to the 45 degree points on the circle. With this construction, each peak/valley will require a 90 degree Spin, either clockwise or counterclockwise.

The roller coaster will have several cars. Since the animation is not simple, I don’t want to manually animate each car; there are two ways to accomplish this:

  • If your version of PowerPoint has the Animation Painter, you will be able to transfer the animation you built for the first car to the next car in a couple of clicks. This is the method I will use but there is a wrinkle for this project; details later.
  • If you don’t have the Animation Painter, animate a rectangle picture-filled with the first car image. Then, after the animation is applied, duplicate and change the fill of the rectangle to create animated versions of the next car.

In either case, duplicate the second car several times and position all the cars at the starting point. Then add a delay to the start of the second and following cars to create a “train.”

The cars are create using standard shapes and applying a black fill. I decided to do this project in a silhouette form; you may want a more colorful roller coaster and cars. Here’s my construction:


The wheels are equidistant from the center of the car and the wheel spacing is the same for both cars.

Next, the lead car is sized so that so that the car will go through a “dip” without colliding with the track:


Now, I want to build a series of “targets” on the track to help with the animation; this is a technique I use often in these posts to create accurate motion paths. I converted the lead car to a png and added an outline. I added Lines to the png to identify the center; the Lines (red) snap to the midpoints of each side:


The reason for the conversion to png is to allow these center lines to be easily drawn. Group the lines with the png. Then, position copies of the target at selected points on the track profile and rotate appropriately:

The first target is placed at the starting point, off the slide to the left. The next target is placed at the point where the car enters the curve – the front wheels are at the transition point. I added a rotated target at the bottom of the curve and at the exit, continuing to rotate and position all of the targets.

Next, position the original car at the starting point. Apply a Custom motion path drawn through the center points of each “target.”  Eliminate the Smooth Start/End for the path. Edit the points of the motion path to add the curves. Set the appropriate segments to Straight. Here’s what the motion path (red) looks like:


Now the car will follow the track profile but it does not rotate as it should; that’s the next step.

The speed of the car is constant; it is determined by the duration of the motion path. So, I need to know the distance for each segment so that I can determine the start time and duration of the rotations. To get a “distance,” I drew a dashed line along the track profile and counted the dashes. Here’re the numbers:


The first (straight) segment is about 16 dashes long; the curved segments are about 6 dashes long, etc. Since the smallest increment in animation timing is 0.1 seconds, I won’t need greater accuracy.

I set the duration of the motion path to 3.5 seconds and the total path distance is 54 dashes. Now, the first segment duration is

((number of dashes in the segment)/(total number of dashes))*(total duration) =
(16/54)*3.5 = 1.0 seconds.

That is, the duration is proportional to the distance. By the way, this says that the start of the first curved segment is at 1.0 seconds so this should be the start time of the Spin. I did a little spreadsheet to calculate the duration and start time of each segment (for a 3.5 second total time):


To add the first rotation, select the car and apply Spin/Quarter Spin/Counterclockwise animation effect With the motion path. The start time for this segment is 1.0 seconds and the duration is 0.4 seconds. You can adjust the timing directly on the animation pane by moving and changing the size of the bar representing the effect; using Zoom In on the animation path makes this easier. Here’s the animation pane for the path and the first rotation:


And here’s the result:

Adding the additional rotations using the calculated timing results in this animation pane:


I will use the Animation Painter to add the second car; however, the second car is shorter than the lead car and doesn’t quite track. To fix this, group the second car object with a rectangle that is the same size as the lead car; the rectangle can be made invisible (No outline) later. Here’s the process:


Now, select the animated lead car, select the Animation Painter, and click on the second car group. Position the second car at the starting point of the animation. Using the Animation Pane, delay the effects for the second car by 0.2 seconds. Here’s the Animation Pane:


Duplicate the second car and add the delay as many times as you like to create the “train.”

All that’s left is to create the roller coaster structure. The “track” consists of three lines: the rail (a 4.5 pt line), the ties (a 4.5 pt dashed line) and the base (8pts):


It will take a little fiddling to line these up with the layout and each other.

The structure is built using the “group and dupe” method outlined in an earlier post. Create a group of aligned vertical lines along with groups of lines at plus and minus 45 degrees. Position the three groups over the layout like this:


Now, edit the lines to fit the track; if you hold down the Shift key while editing the lines, the angle will tend to “stick”:


The flags are a Wave shape with a vertical line.

I added the text and the logo to create the final version; I also changed the color of the structure to a light gray to de-emphasize it.

If you want a free copy of the PowerPoint file for this post, please use this form (please double check your email address – if it’s wrong you won’t get the file):

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