Pro Tips, Tutorials

How to Create and Track Masks in Adobe Premiere Pro


Blurring out a logo or face, vignetting, replacing a screen, or even moving an object with your mind are all just a tiny sliver of the visual effects that can be done with simple masking in Adobe Premiere Pro. Once you start to realize just how much you can do with masks, including moving or “tracking” them over time, you start to see your project in a new way and can add a lot of production value to your videos. Here’s how to get started.

What Does Masking Do?

Masking is basically like cutting out a section of your video to reveal whatever’s underneath. It can also be “reversed,” cutting out everything that’s outside of the mask. These masked areas can be blurred, covered, and highlighted, and effects can be applied and color correction can be done. You can use the built-in shapes (ellipse, 4-point polygon) or the pen tool (free draw bezier) to draw a custom shape.

Where They’re Located and Different Types

In the Effect Controls panel, you’ll see the opacity control, and when you twirl down the arrow, you’ll find the three aforementioned shapes for creating masks. The ellipse mask is for creating a circular or elliptical mask, the 4-point polygon is for making squares, rectangles, rhombi (anything with four straight sides), and the free-draw bezier allows you to create any shape you want, with as many vertex points as you want/need.


Creating and Adjusting a Mask

To create a mask, simply click on the type of mask you want. If you choose an ellipse or a 4-point polygon, they’ll pop up on your clip automatically in the program monitor. With the pen tool, you’ll need to click to make your own shape, then click on the first vertex to close the shape. By clicking and holding the pen tool, then dragging the cursor, you’ll create bezier points and curve the line depending on how you move the cursor.

Once the mask is created, adjust its size, shape, and position by clicking on the vertex points in the program monitor and dragging them where you want. Move the entire mask by dragging from inside the shape, or select and move multiple points by dragging a box around them (polygon and free draw only). You can also move the mask or single vertex point with the arrow key (1 unit movement) or by holding shift + arrow key (5 unit movement).

To add a vertex, mouse over the border of your mask until a mouse with a plus (+) sign shows up. To delete a vertex, mouse over the vertex and hold command (Mac) or control (Win) until you see a mouse with a minus (-) sign, then click. To change a straight vertex to a bezier, hold option/alt and click on the vertex.


Mask Expansion and Feathering

Feathering, represented by a dotted line around the mask, softens the edges of the mask, helping it blend in with the rest of your footage. Expansion does exactly what it sounds like, but it can be both expanded outward and inward. Sometimes expanding the mask is way easier than moving individual vertices in or out if the mask is already lined up, so I suggest you try expansion first. Often, but not always, you’ll have to also expand the mask when you feather it, because feathering a mask can shrink the overall masked area inward.

There are two ways to adjust the mask feather and expansion. You can go into the Effects Panel in your mask and tweak the values to get your desired look, or you can go to the program monitor and adjust it there. The feathering control is the circle at the end of the solid blue line coming out from your mask, and the expansion control is the square next to the circle. Dragging either one in and out will adjust each setting accordingly.

The opacity controls are in the Effects Control panel, along with a checkbox for inverting the mask if you want to get rid of everything outside of the mask.

Basic Mask Uses

There are several typical uses for masks, and more advanced ones that involve simple keyframing or even rotoscoping. For several of these, it’s actually the same process. Premiere makes it so easy that all you have to do is apply the effect or filter and then mask the effect to your desired shape, rather than duplicating layers or creating separate layers for adjustment. Let’s go over just a few of the many basic ways to utilize masks.

Cut-Out or Highlight
You can simply draw a shape to cut out a section of your video, then insert your replacement footage under that video layer in your sequence, and you’re good to go. This works great for replacing the screen on a television, phone, or tablet, and is really easy (as long as the shot is locked down and the screen doesn’t move, but more on that later). Conversely, try inverting the mask to create a highlighted section that you can then use on another video layer, like highlighting a section of a photo to use in a picture frame in the background.

Blur or Obscure
Covering up a face or logo, or many logos, if you’re somewhere like Times Square, can be done in a snap. Go to Effects > Gaussian Blur or Effects > Stylize > Mosaic, apply that to your footage, and use the effect’s opacity tool in the Effect Controls panel to draw a mask around the item you want to cover. When you invert this mask, the blur or mosaic effect will be applied to everything outside of the masked area.

Blurred Face Looking at the Camera by Vulk

Vignette, Two Ways
You can do a very basic and effective vignette in the Lumetri Color Panel, but if you want to make a custom vignette, you can simply click on your clip, go to the opacity tool in the Effect Controls, and then apply a mask or draw one yourself. Just change the shape, size, feather, and opacity to your preferred look.

Another way to create a masked vignette is to create a new black video layer (or color matte, if you want it to be a different color), place it above your video layer, then add a mask on the layer in the shape you want. From there, invert the mask and adjust the feather and expansion accordingly.*

*The “circle” video effect under Effects > Generate > Circle will also work when placed on your black matte/video layer, but you don’t have as much control as you would with a mask, and it’s adding an extra step.

Color Correction
If you want to enhance the saturation, contrast, or brightness, or use other color filters and effects, you can apply the filters just like you would a blur or mosaic. Drag the effect you want to apply onto your footage, then mask the effect to the area you want to enhance.

Tracking a Mask

Masking objects can become a little more complex when either the object you’re masking or the clip itself is moving, so this is when you need to track your mask. Premiere has the ability to move your mask automatically within the Effect Controls panel, which is amazing. You have three ways to track the mask in the settings (wrench tool):

1. Position: This just moves the mask’s position each frame, and is good if the mask doesn’t change perspective.
2. Position And Rotation: This moves the mask’s position as well as rotates it, which works great if there’s any tilt in the shot, but the relative distance/scale stays the same.
3. Position, Scale, and Rotation: This moves the mask’s position, rotates it, and scales it as it moves, which should be used in shots where the masked object changes positions and size.

To track your mask, find a frame where your object and its borders are clear and easy to draw around, then apply your effect, create your mask, and adjust the effect to how you want in the Effect Controls. Next, create a keyframe in the mask path control. From there, click on the arrows to track forward or backward, and Premiere will do its best to follow your masked object. You can move forward one frame at a time with the arrow/vertical line combination for more control (this takes more time, obviously), or you can click the regular arrow to track forward or backward continuously and automatically.

Tweaking Your Track

Premiere does a pretty good job of tracking objects, especially when they’re clear and not moving too fast, but there are times when you’ll need to adjust a few keyframes to make it work to your liking. Just scrub through the clip to the keyframe you want to fix, move your mask, then either continue tracking and adjusting, one frame at a time or continuously. Keep doing this until you’ve got a good result.

Now that you’ve got the basics of masking in Premiere Pro, you can experiment with even more advanced techniques going forward like invisible cuts or other transitions and cloning. The best part is, you don’t even have to leave Premiere to do all of it!

What are some of your favorite uses for masks in Adobe Premiere Pro? Tell us in the comments below!

Top image: Still from Office Desk And Tablet Computer With Green Screen by Myndziak