Know the Basics: After Effects Part 2: Timeline

In part 2 of our "Know the Basics: After Effects" video series, we examine how to correctly manage the timeline, and asset management...

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Know the Basics: After Effects Part 1: Interface

Continuing our look into the basics of After Effects, we're now going to look at the timeline. This is where you place all of your assets, layering them up on top of each other as well as sequentially over time. You'll spend a lot of time utilising the timeline so it's important that you know how to use it. We'll also run through a load of shortcuts that will enable you to work quickly and efficiently.

Step 01: Create composition part 1

There are two ways that you can create a composition in After Effects. The first way is to use the 'Composition' drop down in the main menu. Select 'New Composition'. This brings up a dialogue box which lets you set the composition dimensions, the frame rate and how long the composition lasts for. You can also set the background colour.

This way of creating a composition gives you the ability to edit all of the composition properties upon creation.

Step 02: Create composition part 2

The second way to create a composition is to create one from a piece of footage. At the bottom of the 'Project Explorer' window there is a 'Create New Composition' window. Simply drag your footage onto that button and it'll create a new composition to the exact dimensions of the footage. I use this option most of the time.

This is a quick way to create a composition where the composition takes on the properties of the asset being used.

Step 03: Layer icons

Now that we have a composition you can view the timeline for that composition. There are a stack of icons but we'll juts cover the main ones. For each layer you have toggles for various settings such as visibility, locking, motion blur and setting a layer to 3d. These can be toggled by pressing the buttons to both the left and right of the layer name.

Once you get your head around the icons they'll be quick and easy to find.

Step 04: Composition icons

To the right hand side of the search box there are some more icons which apply to the whole composition. This is where you can enable things like motion blur, hide layers from the layer stack and even open up something called the 'Graph editor' which we'll come to in a later article. Familiarising yourself with all of these icons will be essential to finding your way around the interface.

Composition specific icons enable you to customise composition wide parameters.

Step 05: Working with layers

If you're used to Photoshop then you'll be used to working with layers. The layer stack determines what goes in front of what with the higher up layers taking priority. You can drag and drop layers to move them around the stack. If you want to group a collection of layers then simply select multiple layers, right click and select 'Pre-Compose'. This will create a new composition with the selected layers in.

As After Effects is a layer based compositing software you'll need to make sure you're familiar with how layers work.

Step 06: Moving and editing clips

Photoshop provides you with a single image at a single point in time. With After Effects we need to think in terms of frames and that at every frame there may be a different set of layers visible. For example, we might only want our footage to be visible from 2 seconds to 6 seconds. We can do that by cutting and moving the clip. If you hover over the LHS and RHS of your layer on the timeline you'll notice that you can drag to change the start and end points. Do this until your happy with the length of the footage and then click and drag in the centre of the layer to move it around the timeline.

Put your video together by moving and editing clips in your timeline.

Step 07: Layer properties

Every layer also has a set of properties which can be accessed by clicking on the triangle to the left hand side of the layer name. The properties that appear are dependent on the type of layer and the effects that have been applied to it. For a simple footage layer you'll be able to access the 'transform' properties such as position, scale and opacity. These can all be adjusted either by clicking and inserting new numbers or by dragging left or right on the numbers.

Customise the properties of each layer to ensure every layer looks exactly how you want it.

Step 08: Applying motion blur

A very common task will be to apply motion blur to your layers. If you have things moving then you would expect them to create some motion blur. This is a 2 step process. Firstly, enable motion blur for the whole composition by using clicking the 'Motion Blur' icon at the top of the timeline. Secondly, enable motion blur for the particular layer you want it visible on. This is just to the right hand side of the layer name.

Applying motion blur to layers adds a level of realism to moving objects.

Step 09: Timeline length

Every timeline has a set length and this can be changed at any time. Simple go to the 'Composition' menu at the top and choose 'Composition settings'. Set the duration and hit ok. Note that this may cut off at the end some of your previously added footage. Don't worry, the footage is still there, it's just if you want to see it again you'll need to increase the length of your composition again.

Customise the length of your timeline using the duration parameter in the composition settings.

Step 10: Multiple Timelines

Within a project you are not limited just to one composition and therefore one timeline. You can create multiple compositions in the same way that we did in steps 1 and 2. To see the timeline of a newly created composition just double click on that composition in the 'Project Explorer'. All of your compositions/timelines will stack up in tabs in the timeline window.

Create multiple compositions within one project. This could be useful for creating multiple iterations of a video.

Top tip: Replace one clip with another

One massive timesaver is being able to replace one clip in your timeline with another one. Simply select your layer in the timeline and then select your new footage in the 'Project Explorer'. Hold down Alt (Windows) or Option (Mac) and drag the new footage over your old clip in the timeline.

Quickly replace a clip already in the timeline with this handy shortcut.

Quickly replace a clip already in the timeline with this handy shortcut.

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
Know the Basics: After Effects Part 1: Interface

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