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Spring 2024   ︎ Purchase College, SUNY ︎ (DES2460) DMD2

Knitting circle:
The Basics of
After Effects

(AE pt.1)

What is After Effects?

How I think about After Effects is basically Photoshop/Illustrator + Time. You can do a lot of the same things you do in those programs (oftentimes in almost identical ways), but with the factor of time added. This makes some things more complicated, or rather, just adds a lot of stuff to the screen. Thus we’ll look at, on a basic level, how to start manipulating that stuff, and how to make it do the things we want.

To manage how a setting on a parameter changes over time, After Effects uses what are called keyframes, basically one parameter will have one value at one keyframe, and another value  at the next keyframe. After Effects will figure out how to transition between keyframes. You can also finely control how to change the transition or interpolation between keyframes.

I’ll do you one better, why is After Effects?

After Effects is usually used for creating what are called motion graphics
(these are graphics in motion ︎)

and full-fledged cartoons & character-based animations (with the help of other tools and programs like Flash/Animate and Photoshop), as in,  straight up the stuff you see on TV. 

Before you get too excited, we’ll only be scratching the surface of After Effects. I’m not going to show you how to do stuff like character animation in AE (though if you try it or want to be pointed in the right direction I’m happy to talk). This is not because I want to prevent you from making cool shit ︎, it’s simply because AE is a complex program. Complex in the sense that it is has a lot of small, easily digestible things that would take at least a semester to start exploring.


Workflow is the term professional designers and makers of things use for “how to do stuff.” The basic workflow of After Effects is:

  • import content (that you’ve created with animation in mind)
  • put that content into something called a composition
  • change the properties of that composition over time via keyframes
  • more than likely link that composition with other compositions...in one big composition

As you do this you’ll preview your work to make sure it looks good, and finally render it out. This will cause your AE work to actually become a video that people can look at, and hopefully enjoy.

What is all this shtuff I’m lookin’ at?

So you’re listening to me talk and you opened up After Effects, it finally loaded and there’s a lot of stuff. Here’s what you are probably greeted with and what this stuff is.

Composition Window

The Composition Window is where you see a preview of what your work will actually look like. You can zoom in and out, change transparency, as well as change the quality (lower quality so you can see a preview faster is typically what you’ll be doing).

Project Window

The Project Window is where...your project lives. To be more precise, this is where the files you import and can use in compositions go, as well as other things specific to After Effects like compositions and solids. Make sure to use folders to keep this organized, and organize your actual files in such a way that will reflect, somewhat, on what you’ve done here. Note that these are separate from the actual folders and files on your computer.

Keepin’ things organized

I organize my files and Project Window to be similar. This is what they typically look like
You do not have to do this system specifically, but the main point is to separate your files by type, and make sure the “main” composition or compositions that need to be rendered are clearly visible. This is why I use an underscore so that it will appear first in alphabetical order. Additionally, making sure you have your folders organized so that you don’t have to search for assets is a huge timesaver.

  • _out is where any renders go, this is usually what I am rendering from the folder I call _render in the After Effects project. 
  • assets is...all my assets or things that will go into my compositions. I have subfolders in here for img (jpg, png, etc), .psd files, and .ai files. 
  • proj is where projects live. Typically these will be Premiere Projects or After Effects projects. 

Creating a Composition

Here are two main ways to create a composition:
  1. On the menu up top go to Composition︎New Composition (︎ or CTRL + N). You’ll be prompted with a menu where you name the composition, set the size, framerate and length (in time). It should look something like this:
    If you want to adjust your composition settings later go to Composition︎Composition settings (︎ or CTRL + K).

  2. Right click on an imported file in the Project Window and select “New Comp from Selection”

Timeline Window

This is where we we’ll be doing most of our work. Your composition has layers. Those layers can be “twirled down” to reveal more properties which you can create keyframes for. There are also a bunch of switches and labels which you can change for each. Some of these may be hidden from view. Some are familiar like Blending Modes from Photoshop, while others more arcane now like parents and track mattes This shows a reflection of our composition as layers and properties. As we change and manipulate these layers they’ll be reflected in the preview of our Composition.


Adobe’s Help page on Keyframes for After Effects︎
Layers “twirled up” versus “twirled down”

Keyframes are the bread and butter of After Effects. To create a keyframe

  • move the indicator to any point in time
  • “twirl down” a given layer
  • click the icon that looks like a stopwatch to create a keyframe
  • then move to a new time, and click the diamond sthape on the left and then change the property. (Alternatively you can just start changing the property to automatically create a keyframe). 

You can either change the number itself or change the property on screen if it is possible to (for example click and drag to change position). If you press spacebar to preview, you should see the change animate over time. Note that clicking the stopwatch again, will remove all the keyframes on that layer.

Work Area

Adobe’s Help page on Previewing and the Work Area︎

The Work Area is the specific portion of the timeline we want to work with. Dragging the blue handles (circled above) will change the preview area. Alternatively, you can go to a specific time, and then press B to set the Beginning of the work area and N to set the eNd of the work area.

Rendering Video

Rendering video is important because it actually turns our file into a file that can be played, or uploaded to places like YouTube. To render video, we’ll use Adobe Media Encoder. To do this:
Select the composition you want to render in the project pane, and then select Composition ︎︎︎ Add to Adobe Media Encoder Queue This will open Adobe Media Encoder. 
You should see the name of your composition in a list, along with a number of other properties. Make sure the left dropdown says H.264. Click the dropdown that says “Match Source - High bitrate” The only setting you want to pay attention to in this new dialog is the “Bitrate Settings” these are important because they effect the size of your files and the time it will take to render. The bitrate is effectively the quality of the render. The higher it is the better the video will look, but at the cost of a larger file. Generally, around 10 - 15mbps is fine, but different websites or clients will ask for different settings.
  • VBR is “Variable Bitrate” and you target an ideal number for the bitrate to hit. The number of passes means, it will effectively re-render the video, taking longer, but giving you a smaller file (generally).
  • CBR is “Constant Bitrate” meaning that the bitrate will be one value. This is generally faster, but with a file size that is often bigger.

Clicking on the “save preset” button (the one that looks like a one-eyed rectangle with an arrow pointing down), you’ll be able to save your settings to use them in a pinch. 

With your first exercise, I’d try different settings, for example seeing how low you can go with bitrate and what happens. Get used to the rendering process so that you don’t have to rush it and you get used to it as part of the process. 

You can use different presets created for specific contexts (ie Vimeo or YouTube, etc) but opening this panel is helpful to understand. As you can see your preset is now readily accessible and you don’t have to mess with the settings once you have what you like.
Make sure to also change the folder where you want to save the video, as AE, by default, creates an “AME” folder in your project folder. 

Exercise #1 (HW and start in class)

Download this AE file. Open it, and modify it with your name. Render and upload the link to the spreadsheet for class!

Additionally, take time to play with After Effects, try to move stuff around make shapes, import JPEG’s, etc. I will not be checking this, but play in order to help structure your inquiry for next week. 

Keyboard Shortcut Cheat Sheet

(Here’s a link to a comprehensive list of After Effects Keyboard Shortcuts.You may also find an inumerable number of “Top 10 INSANE After Effects Keyboard Shorcuts you MUST know!” out there. These are, to my mind, the best to help accelerate your workflow)
I highly recommend getting familiar with the keyboard shortcuts in After Effects. There’s a lot of stuff going on and knowing the shortcuts will just speed up your work. 

Preview current Work Area
Edit current composition settings
Go to previous visible keyframe
Go to next visible keyframe
Set beginning of Work Area to current time
Set end of Work Area to current time
Move currently selected layer’s in point to current time
Move currently selected layer’s out point to current time
Set currently selected layer’s in point to current time
Set currently selected layers out point to current time
View the Opacity keyframes for currently selected layer(s),
(I think of this as “T for Transparency” eventhough the property is called Opacity)
View the Position keyframes for currently selected layer(s)
View the Scale keyframes for currently selected layer(s)
View the Anchor Point keyframes for currently selected layer(s)
View Rotation keyframes for currently selected layer(s)
CTRL/︎+ Click the current layer
Reveal ALL keyframes for clicked layer (This is useful for when we get into Shape Layers and a layer may have a lot of properties)
Duplicate the currently selected layers (This is different than copying a layer with CTRL/CMD + C and CTRL/CMD + V It will duplicate ALL the properties of a layer like Parent status or Track Mattes)

Videos you can pause and stuff, if you want.

Other topics you may want to know about

Easy Ease, is a quick way to make movement look more dynamic/organic. If you want even more control I would recommend Ease and Wizz (a free-ish plugin)

Precomposition is a simple little function that allows you to take multiple layers and convert them into a new composition.

Track Mattes are incredibly useful for the things that maks cannot do. They are similar to Clipping Masks in Illustrator

Parenting, is extremely useful. You can use it very simply to make two layers move simultaneously. Alternatively it is the basis for creating dynamic characters and for simulating simple machinery.

The Motion Tile effect is useful for creating patterns and transitions

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