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The 10 Most Important Tools in After Effects


When first using Adobe After Effects, you’ll quickly notice how overwhelmingly dense the program is. With all that it has to offer, it can be difficult to know what the most essential aspects of it are. To help steer you in the right direction, here are ten of the most important tools in After Effects.

1. Shape Layers

One of the best places you can start is with the shape layer. Shape layers are 2D, flat objects created either manually by the user with the pen tool (see below), or with a predetermined shape that After Effects offers, such as a rectangle, oval, or pentagon.

Shape layers allow you to customize properties such as their stroke (outline of the shape), fill (the inner area of the shape within the outline), and even specific details like corner roundness. Because of their extensive customizability, they are ideal for quickly generating symmetrical shapes, complex patterns, and 2D art.

The 10 Most Important Tools in After Effects:  Shape Layers

However, keep in mind that shape layers are taxing on processing power, and should generally be used in moderation. If you just need something very simple, it may be a better option to turn to the shape layer’s more simplistic sibling, the solid layer.

The 10 Most Important Tools in After Effects: 03.2 Solid Layer Properties

Solid layers are quite useful as well, but aren’t complicated enough to warrant detailed explanation. They are simply a shape layer without customizable properties beyond dimensions, color, and standard 2D transform properties like position, scale, and rotation.

2. Pen Tool/Masks

We can’t discuss shape layers and solid layers without touching on the pen tool. The pen tool allows you to create a shape or line by drawing a vertex at a time. This can be used to mask off a specific area of a solid layer, and it can also be used to draw a new shape layer. These are its most fundamental purposes, but the pen tool also allows you to draw and adjust paths.

Paths can be used as position guidance for a layer to move along, or even for text, down to the individual character if desired. In this same vein, the stroke effect can be applied to a solid layer with a path, which will draw an adjustable line along said path — a more efficient substitute to animating a shape layer’s built-in stroke.

The 10 Most Important Tools in After Effects: Drawing a Mask

With these various applications, the pen tool can be used to rotoscope (trace an object to add or remove it, usually from live action footage), create artwork, and achieve a variety of cool text effects, such as simulated hand writing or wavy movement. While there are practically endless ways to utilize the pen tool, these are among the most notable.

3. Track Mattes

The pen tool is similarly important regarding track mattes. A track matte uses one layer to mask another according to the transparency or luminance of the masking layer. For example, if you set a layer to Alpha Matte, it will limit its appearance to non-transparent areas of the layer above it. Alpha Inverted Matte would limit the layer’s appearance to only the transparent areas of the layer above it.

The 10 Most Important Tools in After Effects: Alpha Matte

A Luma Matte would work similarly, but it would instead limit the bottom layer’s appearance to the brightest areas of the top layer.

The 10 Most Important Tools in After Effects: Luma Matte

Track mattes are great for using existing assets to modify layers — especially Luma Mattes, since they are based on brightness rather than transparency. However, the main selling point of the track matte is its flexibility. When using the pen tool to mask off a part of a scene, applying said mask to a dedicated matte layer will allow you more room for error.

For instance, if rotoscoping a person within live-action footage, you might find yourself masking off the footage layer itself. Rather than limit yourself this way, you’re better off rotoscoping this mask onto a dedicated solid layer separate from the footage, then placing it above your footage layer and setting that footage layer to Alpha Matte.

The 10 Most Important Tools in After Effects: Rotoscoping

For one, this will allow you to view your mask with a flat color, emphasizing flaws. Additionally, with this mask applied to a processor-friendly solid layer, you can duplicate it and use it to mask off other layers later on without bogging down your render times or dealing with the difficulties of duplicating masks.

Track mattes boast efficiency benefits as well, as you can more quickly achieve some masking effects via the position, scale, and rotate properties of a matte layer, as opposed to the frustrating workflow of complex position, scale, and rotate mask animation via the pen tool.

4. Blending Modes

Right next to the track matte options, also under the mode column, you’ll find blending modes. Blending modes are fairly straightforward; each blending mode implements the layer in the composition in a different way. There are 38 unique blending modes, each with their own purpose. While there are simply too many for us to explore all of them, here are a few examples of how they work.

The 10 Most Important Tools in After Effects: blending modes

You’ll most likely only find yourself using a handful of these, but keep them in mind as a way of integrating elements more seamlessly into live-action footage, or as a way to simply stylize your project. Regardless of how you apply blending modes, using them will drastically expand your composition potential by freeing you from the limitations of only adjusting opacity.

5. Pre-composing

As your work becomes more complex, you’ll find that your projects can become messy and therefore difficult to navigate. Pre-composing is the most important aspect of project organization, in that it allows you to divide your project into smaller sections.

Technically speaking, a pre-comp is just a composition, and nothing more. However, within the context of your own project, a pre-comp is a composition that serves a smaller purpose within a main composition that yields the final result. To pre-compose a group of layers, highlight them, right click, and select Pre-compose (Cmd-Shift-C, or Ctrl-Shift-C). This will place them in their own composition that you can modify just as you would a layer.

The 10 Most Important Tools in After Effects: Precomps

By consolidating your various layers into groups, you can apply an effect to many layers at once. Similarly, you can use multiple layers as a single track matte by pre-composing them. You can also duplicate a group of layers more efficiently by just pre-composing them and duplicating the newly created composition. This will prevent your project from growing unnecessarily crowded, and it will even allow you to make mass adjustments in seconds, since modifying the contents of a composition will affect all duplicate copies of that composition.

6. Adjustment Layers

Adjustment layers serve a similar purpose to compositions, in that they aren’t entirely necessary, but provide a quicker and more efficient method to otherwise tedious processes. An adjustment layer works exactly like a solid, but is only used to modify layers below it. An adjustment layer by itself would be a blank image, but when placed above other layers, all of its effects are applied to them.

The 10 Most Important Tools in After Effects: Adjustment Layers

You can mask, set the dimensions of, and modify the transform properties of an adjustment layer just like a solid layer, and whatever area it covers will be affected by it. Even overusing the pre-comp feature can extend your render times, so for situations where you want to apply an effect en masse, adjustment layers are ideal.

7. Pick Whip

Have you ever wanted you “attach” one layer to another? The pick whip allows what After Effects calls parenting, or pairing one layer to another so that it behaves as though it were physically attached to its parent layer.

The 10 Most Important Tools in After Effects: Pickwhip

The pick whip is wonderful for adding secondary animation to a moving object, or for adding imitation-based effects such as shadows or reflections. Rather than copying and pasting keyframes from layer to layer, you can simply use the pick whip to attach layers to one another.

8. Null Layers

The logical next step after learning to use the pick whip is to try null layers. Like an adjustment layer, a null itself is technically invisible. While an adjustment layer serves to apply effects to multiple layers, a null serves to apply its transform properties to multiple layers.

Nulls are based off of the pick whip function in that they are intended to be the parent of other layers. They therefore allow you to indirectly modify groups of layers by attaching them to it. Nulls are often used for animating character rigs, arrays, and complex designs with many moving parts.  Like compositions and adjustment layers, they provide efficiency and organization.

The 10 Most Important Tools in After Effects: Null

Nulls are also very forgiving to mistakes and last-minute adjustments. For instance, say you have four text layers grouped together that are collectively too small. Highlighting them all and increasing their scale or font size would make them grow independently of one another. Alternatively, you could create a null layer, pick whip all of the text layers to it, increase the null’s scale, then delete the null — resulting in a proportionally larger group of text.

9. Cameras

Adding some perspective to a scene can go a long way in selling it, and can often be necessary, especially when working in 3D. Camera layers do exactly what they sound like — they frame the composition according to a virtual camera, usually based on real camera technology.

The 10 Most Important Tools in After Effects: Camera

With cameras, you can put your cinematography skills to use, with cool angles and movements to spice things up. While cameras can technically only exist as a 3D layer, you can use them to make 2D sequences more dynamic by moving from one part of the frame to another.

10. Graph Editor

One might argue that keyframes themselves should be on this list, but we thought it better to be a bit more specific. The graph editor allows you to adjust the motion curves of your keyframes, leading to smoother motion and more stylized animations.

The 10 Most Important Tools in After Effects: Graph Editor Linear

The 10 Most Important Tools in After Effects: Graph Editor Curve

For an immediate professional look, you can always just use the keyframe assistant to apply variations of “Easy Ease” to your keyframes. But for more specific looks, you’re best tweaking the graph editor itself. Keep in mind that the graph editor can adjust both the value curve and the speed curve of a set of keyframes.

With a solid understanding of these essential tools, you can get started bringing your ideas to life in After Effects! What tool do you think is often underestimated? Let us know in the comments below.