By Ryan Nau
Are you ready to take your film and production expertise to the next level? After Effects could be the answer you’re looking for—from awesome logo reveals and title sequences to quick alpha channel animations, AE can help you upgrade your project’s production value with reasonably little effort. Although there any number of tutorials out there for creating cool effects in After Effects or working with ready-made After Effects templates, it can be hard to know where to start if you’re unfamiliar with the program. That’s why we’ve created a beginner’s guide to After Effect’s most essential tools.
Here’s a quick overview of what you’ll find in this guide to AE’s basic workflow.
- Top Menu
- Panels and Frames
- Importing Files
- Importing Folders
- Organizing Your Files
- Renaming Files
- Creating Folders / Moving Footage
- Searching for Files
- Using the Options Menu
- Creating a Composition
- Placing Footage in a Composition
- Using Pre-compositions (or Pre-comps)
- Setting Project Information
- Saving Files
- Exporting Compositions
- The Render Queue
- Processing Your Movie
Part One – Learning the Program
Before you can import and work with your project footage or animation, you first need to know the tools you have in front of you and to understand how each of them can help you with your project.
When you open After Effects, you will see a menu at the top of your screen. We’ve numbered each of these menu selections based on their order in the menu and provided a short description for each.
1. After Effects CC – This is a very important menu for program preferences.
2. File – This menu allows you to open, save, import, and export files.
3. Edit – This menu includes the cut, paste, duplicate, history, and redo functions.
4. Composition – With this menu you can create compositions, toggle settings, and set the render output module.
5. Layer – This menu controls layer creation, settings, style, and precompose options.
6. Effect – This menu provides a list of possible effects for your composition layers.
7. Animation – This menu includes functions for animation presets, keyframes and expressions.
8. View – With this menu you can adjust resolution, zooms, 3D toggles, and guides.
9. Window – This menu lists of all possible panels or frames you can open.
10.Help – From this menu you can access Information based on search or direct guidance for proper use.
In first menu, After Effects CC, you have an important drop down item titled Preferences, which gives you control over the program’s core customizations and options.
Here’s a brief overview of what each of these preference options let’s you do:
General – Toggles for different components in the programs interface.
Previews – Allows you to set your preview quality’s resolution.
Display – Includes settings for motion path key frames and toggles for time and rendering.
Import – Includes settings for still footage, sequence footage and import options.
Output – Allows you to set size limits for segmenting output video.
Grids & Guides – Allows you to change your grid colors and size limits.
Labels – Allows you to create your own color scheme for labeling.
Media & Disk Cache – Includes settings for disk cache and cache locations.
Video Preview – Includes Advanced Mercury Transmission option, if applicable.
Appearance – Allows you to adjust the color values of your workspace.
Auto-Save – Allows you to adjust your auto-save timing.
Memory – Allows you to adjust the memory usage for AE and your other programs.
Audio Hardware – Selects the audio drivers you wish to use to play sound in AE.
Audio Output Mapping – Allows you to specify map for audio output.
Sync Settings – Allows you to sync your profile settings.
The main toolbar is also in the upper left portion of your program window. The toolbar contains all the tools you need to create working files/layers in After Effects.
By clicking the icons that have the smaller triangle in the bottom right corner, you can open up the drop menu, which provides more options within that specific tool selection. Once selected, some of the tools will open access to controls for active tools, as seen in the image above. Below, you can see the toolbar items that have more options within their drop menus.
Panels & Frames
When you first open After Effects your workspace is set to standard mode. The standard AE workspace contains multiple panels as seen below. Each panel has its own name and individual functions. In AE CC you also now have the Essentials panel, which has all the basic panels you need in a stacked formation, allowing the user quick access to the right panels. You can also create your own custom workspaces by going to the Window tab in your main menu, turning on the panels and frames you want. Then within the same drop down you can click on Workspace and save your layout.
Part Two – Working With Your Footage
It’s important to know how to import and organize your footage, as well as how to create and manage compositions. The most essential part of any movie is the footage it contains. Your footage can be virtually anything—raw video, stock footage, images, audio, AE templates, and other Adobe program files. So in this section we’ll discuss how to bring this footage to life inside your project panel.
There are three ways to import footage into your project. But first, you’ll want to create a new project (File > New > New Project and save it using File > Save As). Now that you have saved your project, you can begin to import your footage. Here are the ways you can do it.
- By clicking on File > Import > File
- By double-clicking the project panel window
- By pressing Command+i or Control+i
All of these methods will allow you to open your import window. From here you can select a single image or you can select multiple images. Once you have the footage selected, click open and all your files will appear in your project window.
After Effects can also import an entire folder of footage files. Just select the folder and click open. Make sure the files are acceptable in AE, such as images, video, audio and other adobe application files. You will receive an error message if the footage in unreadable.
Organizing Your Files
Once you’ve imported all the footage you need to get started, it’s time to start organizing your files. When you’re working with smaller projects, it may seem easier to see everything you’re working with. However, once you become more experienced you could have hundreds of footage files inside your project—when this happens, being organized will save you both time and headaches.
It is very easy to rename files, as well as efficient in the long run. Let’s face it, most of the files we create and or download to use in our projects have generic names (or names that make no sense at all). The best way to fix this is to rename footage by selecting the file and hitting the “return key,” which will open up the text field for you to type in your own title/name for that specific file. Trust me, when you have 50+ images all starting with DSC008, it really helps to have “Red Car” or “Dog on Beach” as a title.
Creating Folders / Moving Footage
AE makes it easy to create folders and to move files around to keep footage organized. It’s always good to keep things together like images, audio, or movie clips separate in different folders for each media type. You’ll then be able to create specific compositions in other folders—this way each working component of your movie can be easily located when you need to go back and make adjustments.
To move a file, simply drag one or multiple files into the desired folder. Once you have your folder full, you can collapse the folder by clicking the triangle next to it on the left. To open a folder to reveal it’s contents, click the triangle again.
Searching For Files
There may come a time when you need to locate a file. Hopefully you named them so you can locate the file easier later during production. AE has made it easy to simply search for a file name. In the project window, right above where all your files/folders sit, you will notice a small magnifying glass. If you click the magnifying glass, you will be able to type into the search function for locating those lost files.
Using the Options Menu
By right clicking on an imported file you will see quite a few options. These give you the ability to do some cool things that come in handy later. The most common feature is to replace or to reload footage with new footage.
Part Three – Creating Compositions
Finally, here comes the fun stuff. Now that you have imported some files we are ready to create a composition, which acts as a container for us to place our files in and begin to make a movie.
There are two easy ways to make a composition:
- By clicking on the New Composition Button
- From your menu go to Composition > New Composition
You will then come to the composition settings pop-up window. From here you can change the size, resolution, aspect ratio, frame rate, duration and some advanced options for motion blur and so on.
Motion Blur Note: Make sure your shutter angle is 180 or 360 degrees for best results.
Placing Footage in a Composition
There are quite a few ways to add footage to your composition. However, the best and most efficient way is to simply drag your footage down into your layer panel—this gives you the best control because you can place certain footage files above or below to have your footage sit in the desired order of your project. Once you footage is in the comp, the title of your footage will appear. You can change the title by selecting the layer and pressing the return key. Once your footage is live and resting in the layers panel, you can begin to use effects and adjust the basic position, scale and opacity to animate your layer footage.
Using Pre-Compositions (or Pre-Comps)
A very useful feature in AE is a pre-composition. This feature takes selected layers of your composition and combines the animated keyframes and any effects you have added to a new composition, leaving behind the flattened version of the clip you created. You can then go into that composition and make edits and adjustments that will automatically update in your original.
To perform a pre-comp function select single or multiple layers from you composition, go to Layers > Pre-Comp or you can use Ctrl+Shift+C to bring up the pre-comp settings.
There are three main options for a pre-composition function.
- Leave all attributes: This feature creates a new composition containing only the source file and leaves all effects, masks and other adjustments applied to the Pre-comp layer.
- Move all attributes to new composition: This feature creates a new composition while duplicating the master composition and moving all applied effects, masks and other adjustments to the new composition.
Open new composition: This checkbox will tell AE to open the recently created pre-comp. The pre-comp will show up in your project window.
Part Four – Saving and Exporting
In this section we’ll discuss the options and most crucial part of any movie production: Project Information, Saving Files, and Exporting Compositions.
Setting Project Information
Every time you make a new project in AE you should immediately save it, this way the program knows where your file is located through your file extension. This pathway keeps track of everything you will do during this project. AE files are low in file size because they work off of paths to your individual footage locations. The worst thing you could ever do is accidentally rename, remove or straight up delete a footage file you were using for a project, because AE will not remember what it looked like. AE only remembers where that file was when you imported it, so make sure you’re organized.
It is always best practice to move the files you are working on into a folder located in the same folder you have just saved your project. There is nothing worse than trying to locate files after you open up that really cool project you had going on six months ago, only to have multiple files missing. Or, you can perform a cool trick if you have created a project by importing footage from multiple places on your machine.
In AE CS5 and CS6, go to File > Collect Files or
In AE CC and go to File > Dependencies > Collect Files.
Once you click on “Collect Files,” a window pops up, which allows AE to pull all files from all the locations on your machine and place them into a single location of your choice. This is by far one of the best features of AE. Just keep in mind, AE is going to duplicate those files, so if you have larger movie clips of 2GB or more, it will take some time to duplicate everything. In the end, all your files will be stored in a single location, which will help you out the next time you open an older AE file.
Another good feature is saving in short intervals, let’s face it, we get sucked into a project and can sometimes go an hour without saving. Why not let AE do it for you? Ok, let’s try it, go to Edit > Preferences > Auto Save. From here you can set your own save interval and AE will create an autosave version at the interval you decide on. Another decent feature is found at File > Increment and Save which will create five save points in increments that you will see (Filename_01.aep then Filename_02.aep and so on). This way you can go back five saves which could be nearly an hour ago, allowing you to jump back in time if your production efforts start to fail.
You have a few different options for exporting your composition. To export your project you can go to File > Export and select the file type you want. You want to use that method if you are going to be exporting this composition to another program for post-product work.
The best way to go about exporting your movie is through the render queue. From inside the queue you can place multiple render points to literally “queue” your compositions and allow AE to rendered them all at once. Rendering can vary from project to project, blurs and effects can slow down render time, however, creating pre-comps and utilizing existing movie footage can help cut down some of those precious seconds.
Part Five – Rendering Your Movies
One of the best feelings in the world is knowing that it’s time to render out your digital masterpiece. Here’s the best way to navigate the render module.
The Render Queue
First, make sure you have your final composition open and selected in your window prior to going to Composition > Add to Render Queue. Once you click this, you will be taken to a new section of the export preferences panel. The graphic below shows you the information for each area of the queue.
In this area there are 3 main data points to modify prior to hitting render.
1. Render Settings: By selecting the highlighted letters (Best Settings) you can go in and adjust some information, such as the duration of your comp, where you want the rendering to start and finish, and the resolution type. The other settings are advanced.
2. Output Module: The most important part of rendering is the output module; from here you can control virtually everything. You will need to experiment a little, based on what your final project/movie should be played on, but the best settings for HD quality video is 1920×1080, unless you are using 4K video then you will need to set your resolution much higher to match your video quality, Your initial format should be (QuickTime for MAC) or (Windows Media Video for PC), you can also add format options to your video which are compression settings. For HD TV quality video, I suggest you render your movie full size and uncompressed, however you can easily adjust the formatting of your video to get the right compression without losing video quality. When using a MAC I like to compress using H.264 and when using a PC, I use animation or Photo-JPEG with 90-100% quality depending on if you need to reduce file size.
3. Output To: This is where your movie will be created, so pick a location on your machine, not on a USB drive/stick. Your movie will normally be anywhere from 100mb on upwards toward 5GB or more. You really need to choose a space that has adequate RAM and processing speed to render out your movie, or you’ll get errors instantly. Once you have selected your desired location you can hit render and watch your movie play out frame by frame in front of you. Or you can take a break and come back when it’s done. You should see the estimated time of completion after it renders out around 10 frames.
Processing Your Movie
Once you have all your settings adjusted correctly and your output location created, hit render. Your final comps will begin to render frame by frame and you will hear a beep when the render is complete. The status bar will continue across the screen, allowing you to see how far along the rendering is. Pay attention to your movie from time to time to make sure there are not any errors inside your comps.
Ready to get started creating in After Effects? 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.