Know the Basics: After Effects Part 1: Interface

We're using a simple food video to communicate the necessary steps to take it right from the end of the rendering process all the way through to a final polished video.

We're using a simple food video to communicate the necessary steps to take it right from the end of the rendering process all the way through to a final polished video.

In part 1 of our "Know the Basics: After Effects" video series, we take a tour of all the important aspects of the interface...

After Effects is a fantastic program for compositing your videos and creating motion graphics and visual effects. It can be used for both CG content and live action footage, and is perfect for bringing all of your files together and turning them into something truly special. Over the course of 10 parts we're going to delve into the basics so that you know how to find your way around, and how to take a single project through from beginning to end. We'll start off with the Interface as this can be a bit daunting.

Step 01: Main menus

As with any piece of software this is where you find a whole host of things to do with files, preferences and showing/hiding toolbars. Specific to After Effects are menus which let you set up your projects, add layers to your projects and apply effects to those layers. Most of the things inside of these menus can be achieved through the main interface so to be honest I don't use them very much.

The main menu is found right at the top of the software. Unlike a lot of other pieces of
software Adobe have decided not to adopt a ribbon style menu.

Step 02: Toolbar

Just underneath the main menu is the main toolbar. I use this all the time, although a lot of them have shortcuts which speed up your workflow even more. We'll be using many of these tools as we work through the whole series. There are some selection and navigation tools, drawing tools, text tools as well as the ability to quickly switch between workspaces.

The toolbar provides a quick and easy way to access some of the primary tools that you'll need in every project.

Step 03: Project explorer

By default on the left-hand side there is a window called 'Project'. This is where you put all of your assets for your project. This includes all the video and audio. It also holds any assets that you create inside of After Effects such as compositions, shapes and other objects.

Organise all of your assets into one place. Make use of folders to keep everything in order.

Step 04: Composition

Once you have your assets sorted you will want to put them somewhere! This is where the composition comes in. Think of your composition as the window into your video. It has set pixel dimensions and a background colour as well as some other properties. You can see your composition by using the 'Composition' window.

Customise the size and properties of your video by creating a composition.

Customise the size and properties of your video by creating a composition.

Step 05: Timeline

Once you have created your composition you'll gain access to the timeline for that particular composition. This is where you place all of your assets and layer them either on top of each other, or sequentially or both. The timeline has a set length and enables you to access the properties that are specific to each layer such as position and scale information.

Layer all your assets together to bring your video together.

Step 06: Effects and presets

You will regularly want to apply effects and presets to your layers. After Effects gives you a window to be able to access all the built in effects. These can be dragged and dropped onto your layers. You can also access all of these through the main menu bar at the top.

Take your assets to the next level by applying effects and presets.
These include things like colour corrections and blurring.

Step 07: Effects controls

With an effect applied to a layer and that layer selected you'll more than likely want to customise the effect. You can do this using the 'Effect Controls' window which is usually coupled with the 'Project Explorer' window. If you layer multiple effects on top of each other then these will all be stacked on top of each other. They can be minimised to enable you to find what you want quickly.

Stack up your effects in the 'Effects Controls' window. The window enables you to set the properties of each effect.

Step 08: Character and Paragraph

Once you've created some text using the main tool bar you'll want to customise the text. After Effects gives you two primary windows to be able to do this and they are called 'Character' and 'Paragraph'. 'Character' lets you change things like the fonts whereas the 'Paragraph' window lets you change text alignment and things like that.

These two panels let you customise how the text appears.

Step 09: Align

Another immensely helpful window is the 'Align' window. With your assets added to your composition you'll probably want to align these to certain parts of the composition. You can do this quickly and easily using the built in buttons such as centre vertically or centre horizontally. This removes the need to calculate these values and enter them manually.

If you can't see the 'Align' window then make it visible by using the 'Window' menu up on the top menu bar.

Step 10: Preview

With your composition created and your assets all set up inside your timeline, you're ready to preview what you've created. After Effects gives you a 'Preview' window with tools that let you play your video back. This will try to play back in real time but its ability to do that is dependent on how complex your timeline is and how many effects have been applied.

View your footage using these handy preview tools. There are also some other properties that enable you to customise your preview.

Top tip: Saving your workspace

Once you've got your workspace set up exactly how you want it, you'll want to ensure that you save it as a preset. Do this by going to the main menu and selecting 'Window' -> 'Workspace' -> 'Save as new workspace'.

Work in the way you want by saving your workspace.

Related links

For more from Paul Hatton, check out C A Design Services
Download After Effects
Check out Video Copilot for plug-ins
Find some useful scripts for After Effects

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