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After Effects: A Beginners Guide to Basic Effects & Animations

By Ryan Nau

It’s time to brush up on the basics and get animated. From eye-catching logo reveals and title sequences to mesmerizing alpha channel animations, After Effects is a vital tool for all filmmakers looking to up the production value of their projects–especially when working with shoestring budgets. Although there are many tutorials for creating individual effects in AE–or for working with ready-made After Effects templates–sometimes you need a more comprehensive introduction to working with the program’s animations. That’s why we’ve put together this After Effects Animation 101 guide, covering the essential techniques and workflows for working with fundamental AE effects and animations.

Here’s a quick overview of what you’ll find in this guide to applying basic effects animations in After Effects. You will also learn how to set keyframes and set up layer controls, which will allow you to animate quickly and efficiently.

Part One – The Basic Controls

  • Anchor Point
  • Position
  • Scale
  • Opacity
  • Rotation
  • Multiple Transform Control Section

Part Two – Keyframes

  • The First Keyframe
  • The Second Keyframe
  • Easy Ease Adjustments

Part Three – Parenting, Null Objects, and Motion Blurs

  • Parenting
  • Null Objects
  • Animating a Null Object
  • Motion Blur

Part Four – Effects and Preset Animations

  • Learning the Effects and Presets Menu
  • Applying Effects and Presets
  • Using the Effects Control Panel
  • Adjustment Layers

Part Five – Keying

  • Built-in Keying Tools
  • Creating Masks for Keying
  • Removing Unwanted Background

Part Six – Masking for Animation

  • Animating Your Mask
  • Mask Modes
  • Mask Path
  • Mask Feather
  • Mask Expansion
  • Mask Copy

Part Seven – Transparency and Transfer Modes

  • Transparency
  • Transfer Modes
  • Track Mattes Defined


 

Part One – The Basic Controls

After Effects is completely designed and built for animation. It’s the main reason many filmmakers and editors use the program, so in this next section we’ll cover the animation basics: scale, opacity, position, and rotation. These Transform controls allow you to make adjustments to your layers with regards to the various cardinal characteristics of animation.

To explore these controls, let’s start by creating a new composition. You can right-click in your layer area and > New > Solid. The solid settings will now appear.

Give it a name such as DEMO, make it the comp size then select a color like RED.
 
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Now you will be able to see your DEMO layer in the layer panel and you will be able to see it in your composition preview window.
 
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Next, start by flipping the small triangle next to your layer name down. This will open up your transform option tab–if you click the triangle on Transform you will now see all the basic values you can adjust or animate.
 
After Effects Beginners Guide - Effects and Animations
 

Anchor Point (Key Command “A”)

Your anchor point is a position from which all scaling, rotating, and positional movement controls occur. If your anchor point is dead center, your layer will rotate and move from that point. If your anchor point has been moved to a true corner of your layer, then when you scale or rotate your layer, it will rotate from this new anchor point. This is very useful when you are making multiple layers all rotate from a single point.
 
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Position (Key Command “P”)

Position is one of the most commonly used transform controls. The tool strictly adjusts the vertical (Y) or horizontal (X) position of your layer. When working in 3D space, you can also adjust the Z-axis position, which pushes layers back or forward toward the camera.
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Scale (Key Command “S”)

Scale is measured by two values, x and y or width and height. By default the scale is set to keep it’s original ratio. However, if you want to adjust a single side of your solid or layer separately, you will need to deactivate the lock between the two. You can do this by clicking on the small (link) icon next to the “100.0%, 100.0%.” This will now make each side an individual value. Animating the scale of a layer can be used to create a logo or image that appears to be moving toward you or away from you.
 
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Opacity (Key Command “T”)

Opacity is simply the amount of opacity–or translucence–the layer has. 100% is fully opaque and 0% means the layer is completely invisible or fully transparent.
 
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Rotation (Key Command “R”)

Rotation is a great way to add subtle movement to layers and solids. Again, there are two types of rotation: 2D and 3D. In 2D rotation, you have two values. The degrees on the right will show you a numerical value from 0 – 360 before starting over. After you reach 360, the number on the right will change from 0 – 1 and so forth, for every complete 360 degree rotation you create. So, for example. if you had a value of 5x+180, you have rotated your layer 5.5 times around.
 
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Multiple Transform Control Selection

Often times you will want to select multiple transform controls to animate at a single point or keyframe. For example, you may want to adjust the scale, position and rotation of your layer all at once. To do this, you need to hold down the shift key and hit your shortcut keys for each transform control.

To try this, hit the “S” key and then hold down the (Shift Key+P+R).
 
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Part Two – Keyframes

Now that we’ve discussed how to locate the basic transform controls for your layer, it’s time to set keyframes for animating our basic values. So, what is a keyframe? Well a keyframe is just that, a frame in the movie that is a key piece to understanding what you want your movie to do. Without a keyframe, you would have no animation–keyframes are essential in allowing After Effects to know at which point you want to change a value, and at which key point you want to change the value back–or even change it to a completely new value altogether.

To begin exploring keyframes, select your DEMO layer, and hit the “S” key to pull up your scale control. Next, change the value in the first number from 100% to 40%, and hit the return key.

You should now see that your red DEMO layer got much smaller–60% smaller, to be exact. By placing a 40% in the value, you are telling AE to show this layer at 40% its original size or a reduced size of 60%.
 
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The First Keyframe

With your layer at 40%, you can set your first keyframe. Remember, this keyframe holds the information about every value you adjust per transform control. Make sure you are at (0;00;00;00 or frame 1).

Back to your keyframe insertion, make sure your DEMO layer is selected and that you have pulled up the scale “S” transform control. Next to Scale should be a stopwatch icon. By clicking on the stopwatch you will see a diamond appear to the right in the track view and over to the left next to your transform control. The diamond is your keyframe.

Note: FPS stands for “Frames Per Second”–standard film animation and television falls at 29.97fps. This indicates that you have 30 frames in one second of animation or film. Higher frame rates, such as 60 or 120FPS, allow for higher definition for detailed effects like slow motion since there are 60 -120 frames in one second of animation.
 
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The Second Keyframe

Since you have locked in your values at the beginning of your composition, you can now scroll out your timeline or Current Time Indicator (CTI) and drag it to 1 second or (0;00;01;00). From here you have two easy ways to create another keyframe. Just make sure to pay attention–if you click the stopwatch again, all your keyframes will vanish.

The first way is to start editing the value of your scale control again. For example, if you begin to scroll the scale percentage up to 100% again, a keyframe will automatically appear in your timeline. The second way to do this it to first set a keyframe by clicking the small diamond to the far left, in between the small triangles. This will make a keyframe; however, it will still need some more information. As long as your CTI is still at this point, anything you change within the transform control for scale will be remembered inside this keyframe.
 
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Easy Ease Adjustments

There are great features built into After Effects and one particularly helpful one is the Easy Ease Keyframe. When you select it, the animation will become smoother when it finishes its upward scale. The concept behind easing the animation is so the movement becomes more natural.

The basic parameters you need to know are that your keyframes are not moved or altered, but the values between your first and next keyframe become slower or closer in value as they move toward the last keyframe. Without the Easy Ease, your animation will scale up and stop too quickly, making it seem less natural and more robotic.

To use Easy Ease, you can either select the last keyframe and hit the shortcuts, or you can right click > Go To Keyframe Assistant > Easy Ease. You can also choose between Easy Ease In or Easy Ease Out. In will respond to the animation moving into the selected keyframe, whereas Out will respond to the animation moving out from the selected keyframe.
 
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Note that your keyframe will change from a diamond to an hourglass shape, this way you know which keyframes are affected by your specialized keyframe assistants.
 
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Part Three – Parenting, Null Objects, and Motion Blurs

Parenting in After Effects is similar to parenting in real life, only in AE the child layers actually listen to their parents–all the time, every time. Imagine you have 32 layers that you want to move onto the screen all at one time. You could either animate all 32 layers and tell each one where to start and where to go, or, you could make one layer the parent and simply link the other 31 layers as children to the parent layer. This feature allows you to create a single animation and have each layer follow along.

Let’s see this in action. First, click on your DEMO layer and hit command+D or ctrl+D, which will duplicate your DEMO layer. Select the top layer and from your main AE program menu above click Layer > Solid Settings > and then change the name and color to something different to avoid confusion.
 
After Effects Beginners Guide - Effects and Animations
 
The next step is to use the parenting feature, which is called the Pick Whip tool. You can click on it and drag it to the layer you want to follow along. This process is what we call, parenting. It specifically defines the layer you choose as the child–all animations that happen to the parent then also happen to the child. You can also select the child layers by using the drop menu to the right for each layer and assign the parent that way.
 
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Parenting Example

To see how how this works, you will need to select your parent Layer. Once you have it selected, move the layer around inside your preview window and notice that your other solid layer is moving with it. This is because you have told AE that this layer is the child.

If you select the child layer and then move it on screen, the parent layer will not imitate the child.
 

Null Objects

What is a null object? A null object is an invisible layer that you can create to be a super parent. For example, you may have created multiple layers, all of which are parented to child layers, but now you want to move everything off screen at once, or better yet, spin off screen while flying towards the camera. Animating that over the keyframes you have already created will be a nightmare, so this is where null objects come in.

To create one, right click in your layer panel, then hit New > Null Object. The next step is to make the null object the parent to all of your current parent layers.
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Animating A Null Object

To animate a null object, open up the transform controls the same as you would any other layer. Set your keyframes for scale, opacity, position or rotation. No matter how many or how few layers you have, you‘ll find that null objects can help tremendously in any sequence–they’re your invisible helpers making animating easier and stress-free.
 
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Motion Blur

After Effects has motion blur built right into the layers panels with an easy on/off toggle. If you have layers moving around, it’s best practice to make it blur. You can easily turn on motion blur by selecting the layer(s) you want to blur and select the Motion Blur switch. You can also apply motion blur to your entire comp by selecting it from you comp toolbar.

To save on preview time, keep your motion blur off until you are ready to render, as motion blur will take longer per frame to RAM Preview.
 
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Part Four – Effects and Preset Animations

Learning the Effects and Presets Menu

As long as you have one of your layers selected inside your comp, you can click on the Effects & Presets Panel on the right hand side of your program window. You can also use the search box to find a specific effect or preset you may be looking for.
 
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Applying Effects & Presets

Once you find the effect or preset you wish to use, you can double click on it, or drag it out onto the layer you wish to affect. This will automatically create the Effects Control Panel which will allow you to adjust your newly added effect or preset.

You can also apply effects by clicking on the top program Effects menu and selecting your effects from the list. Another way is by right-clicking on your layer and choosing Effects.
 
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Using the Effects Control Panel

After you apply an effect to your layer, the Effects Control Panel will automatically open in the project window panel.

Just for fun, let’s add Effect > Generate > Lens Flare. In this panel you will notice the effect you just applied as well as all of the effects you place later. You can drag and rearrange effects based on which you want to occur first or last in the sequence. Every effect comes with editable values that you can adjust and animate similar to the basic transform controls. You can also copy effects from one to layer to another.
 
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Adjustment Layers

You can create an adjustment layer by selecting from the top menu Layer > New > Adjustment Layer. Adjustment layers are invisible and allow you to place multiple effects on a single layer so that all of the layers beneath it will be affected by that single adjustment layer–this technique is used for creating custom control panels.
 
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Part Five – Keying

Keying is an important part of AE if you are using items or characters on different backgrounds. You know the infamous green or blue screens. The reason green is used so often is that the human body has shades of red already in the skin–green is the opposite of red, so it’s a great background color for contrast. A vibrant green is easy to key, thus it’s also easy to extract and make transparent–this allows you to replace the screen with a different background. In this next section let’s learn the following:

Built-in Keying Tools

After Effects offers many tools for keying that can be found inside the Effects and Presets Panel, you can also find them by going to Effect > Keying. Some of the keying tools that AE offers are:

  • Color Difference Key
  • Color Range
  • Keylight
  • Color Key

Plus many more depending on your version of After Effects.
 
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Masking

It’s useful and more efficient to mask out unwanted areas of footage that you are not going to see. For example, if you have a dancer in front of a green screen, great! But if the footage was filmed from 45 feet away, and you can see various objects around the border of the green screen the dancer was filmed in front of, you’re going to want to mask out those areas to keep a solid selection in and around your focal point.

Just remember, the subject will move and you don’t want to have to consistently animate your mask, so try to maintain a decent amount of space around them. You want to just mask out the nonsense around the border of your footage. This will make keying much easier.

To create your mask, first select the layer you want to place the mask on, then select the Pen Tool from your toolbar. Draw out your mask directly on the layer. Your mask doesn’t have to be perfect the first time around–you can always go back and adjust the segment points.
 
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Once you have completed the shape of your mask, the outside area will become transparent. This area will reveal the background color of your comp, so make sure your background is black for best results. You will want to scroll through your footage and make sure that no one moves beyond the borders of your mask or you will have to animate your mask’s shape as well.
 
After Effects Beginners Guide - Effects and Animations
 

Removing Unwanted Background

Now that you have your area masked, you’ll want to remove the background. Select your layer and go to Effect > Keying > Color Key. Once you select this as your effect, the Control Panel will open up. Select the Eyedropper and click on an average green area to set the Key Color that will be removed.

Once you’ve clicked on this area, AE will start to cut out the green. To improve your final look, you will have to adjust the values for the Tolerance and Edge settings.
 
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Part Six – Masking for Animation

Now that you have worked with masks for keying, let’s move into something used more regularly. Create a new composition and drop in any image as your main layer. With your layer selected, double-click on the shape tool in your top menu. If it is on rectangle it will automatically create a mask around the comp size window for your layer, if you choose oval it will create an oval mask that touches all sides equally of your comp window. This process is the easiest way to create a quick mask and you still have the ability to make adjustments to it.
 
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Animating Your Mask

Always keep in mind that your mask is the viewing area of your layer. Once you gain experience with your tools, you’ll find yourself using masks for almost everything–so it’s very important to understand why and how to animate them. First, once you have created your mask, you will see the word Mask underneath your main layer title. From here you can make the following adjustments by clicking on the side arrow for your mask:

  1. Mask Mode
  2. Mask Path
  3. Mask Feather
  4. Mask Opacity
  5. Mask Expansion

 
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Mask Modes

Every time you create a mask you have these following options for what you have selected inside the mask:

  • None
  • Add
  • Subtract
  • Intersect
  • Lighten
  • Darken
  • Difference

Typically, you’ll want to use either Add or Subtract; however, feel free to experiment with all of the mask modes.
 
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Mask Path

The mask path is one of the most important controls for your mask–it specifically defines each vertex point. You can animate your mask by creating keyframes like we discussed earlier. Set your keyframes to the Mask Path Controller. This is the control point for the shape and position of your mask. You can animate the position on and off screen as well as the shape all from one control point.
 
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Mask Feather

The feather controller will soften the edges around your mask based on how high you define the percentage. You can do your own experiments with the feather control to find the right outcome. Feathering is great for blending images together or creating soft edges.
 
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Mask Opacity

Your mask opacity is just that, the opacity of your mask. You can animate your mask on and off using the opacity–you can also use this to soften your mask. Unlike Mask Feather, which only feathers the edges of your mask, Mask Opacity softens the entire mask.
 
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Mask Expansion

This is a solid tool for growing your mask without having to animate the actual size of your mask. You can simply animate the expansion of your mask by bringing up or down the expansion size to make your mask grow or shrink.
 
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Mask Copy

Creating a mask and animating it can be tedious at times; however, as long as you have your timeline at the first frame, you can copy your mask to other layers, and you can also create multiple masks on a single layer.

 

Part Seven – Transfer Modes and Transparency

Transfer modes and transparencies are essential in creating professional looking movies and animations. They allow us to blend, cut and compose images and layers together in ways that they cannot achieve on their own.
 

Transfer Modes

Transfer modes in AE are similar to those in Photoshop. Next to every layer you have Mode and TrkMat (Track Matte).

First, click on the triangle next to the word Normal to reveal all your transfer modes. You will have to have an image or color layer below the image you are about to make these transfer mode adjustments to or nothing will happen. From here you can experiment with all the styles and find the one(s) that suit you and your media best.
 
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Transparency (Track Mattes)

Track mattes allow us to use alpha channels which cut defined areas out and reveal other layers in it’s place. For example, say we have 2 layers in our comp. The top layer is text, the bottom layer is an image of a beach. We can use a specific transparency on the beach layer to only show the text above it with the beach visible where the letters are, or show the beach image with the text cut out of it. This process is achieved using track mattes.
 
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Track Mattes Defined

The track matte allows us to add transparency to a layer that currently has no transparency Track. If you want to check to see if you have transparency in your layer, below your preview window there is a chess-board looking icon. Once activated, a transparency screen will appear in areas you have transparency.

By setting the track matte to a layer, you are telling it to use the layer above it as the source for your transparency. Choosing Luma Matte will make black areas transparent and the white areas will show through. Choosing Luma Inverted Matte will show the opposite. You can experiment with the Alpha Matte and Alpha Matte Inverted as well.
 
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Remember, practice makes perfect, so experiment and find out what works best for you. And if you’re ready to start creating in AE, check out our After Effects Quick Start Guide and our Ultimate AE Shortcuts Cheatsheet. Or check out our library of customizable, royalty-free After Effects library.

 

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Ryan Nau is an After Effects hero and long-time VideoBlocks contributor. Explore his portfolio.

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