Education, Tutorials

The Keys to Composition in Adobe After Effects


Adobe After Effects is a powerful motion-graphics program that can take any one of your productions and turn it into a VFX masterpiece — but there are a lot of moving parts that need to work together to make your life easier when you’re editing. One of these parts is the most basic, but also the most essential to masterpiece achievement: composition. Once you’ve had an overview of the After Effects workspace, it’s time to get started by creating a new project, complete with a composition or two.


Before all of the hours of fun spent keyframing, animating, and endlessly rendering, we have to start by laying out our battlefield. A proper composition setup makes building your project easier, and can help you maintain a clean/efficient workspace. Think of it like this: you are going to construct a train, to carry your ideas across the world. But before the train can move, you will need to lay down your tracks.

Let’s start by opening After Effects and creating a new composition, commonly referred to as a “comp.” The composition dialogue box has quite a few variables that we’re allowed to edit in order to create the exact comp we need.

After Effects Composition Settings


By adjusting the various settings in this dialogue box, your workspace/comp can be adjusted to the type of footage or image you are eventually going to output.

Composition Name: Naming your comp will help keep things in order as you start to build out your project. You can name it whatever you want; just make sure it’s easy to understand.

After Effects Presets
Presets: If you’re planning on working with pre-existing footage, or exporting files to put into video, you can choose from the presets list. Here, you will see some of the more standard composition setups that AE uses. (We typically use HD 1080 24fps.) It’s always a good idea to know what pixel ratio and frame rate your final piece should be when choosing your composition settings.

Height/Width: The pixel ratio of your composition can be adjusted manually as well. By clicking on the number, you can type in a custom size, if need be.

After Effects Height-Width
Pixel Aspect Ratio: This setting refers to the specific height/width of the individual pixels in your composition. Some older forms of footage used non-square pixels, and if you are working with pre-existing media, you can adjust your settings to match. The default setting is square pixels, as most newer cameras shoot this natively.

AE Pixel Aspect Ratio
Resolution: This setting (if adjusted from full) controls the resolution of your current composition. It can be controlled at all times within your workspace (at the bottom of the composition viewer) and is used mainly for previewing purposes. At full resolution, After Effects will render previews and playback at high quality, but it requires a large amount of your RAM and processing power. Working on a lower resolution setting for preview purposes can make for smoother/faster playback, but it can be more pixelated and tough to see details in your video.

Start Timecode: This setting can help when working with other editors, when you’re trying to sync up exact edit timing. If a graphic is being produced to later be added to a video sequence, the timecode can act as a marker for the editor.

Duration: This adjusts the composition’s length, down to the frame. Simply adjust the numbers to the right to set the necessary time.

Background color: Simple enough — here, you can choose the color of the background. Note: This color will be rendered into the final piece if you have not created a new layer, or selected Alpha Channel rendering.

After Effects Background Color
If at any point you want to rename the composition or change the composition settings, you can always use ⌘+K (Mac) or Ctrl+K (PC) to bring up the settings dialogue box, or click Composition > Composition Settings and change whatever you need to change.

Your Project

From here on, compositions should be a piece of cake. And like cake, your comp can have all kinds of layers. But at a certain point, too many layers is just too overwhelming. The idea of using one single composition for all of your assets, slogging through layer after layer, keyframe after keyframe — it’s just not easily manageable.

But we can make it manageable! Let’s create three compositions, all with the same settings, but with different names, so we can keep track.

Three Compositions in After Effects
Now our train tracks have been built. We have three different assets (compositions) within our Project panel, and we can see the tabs at the bottom of our interface, the “timeline.”

After Effects Timeline
In the “Level 2” composition, let’s create a new solid layer (Layer > New > Solid, or ⌘+Y/Ctrl+Y). For now, make it full comp size, and any color you want. Nothing more needs to be done with this composition, so after you make the new solid layer, go ahead and move to the “Level 3” composition.

After Effects New Solid 1
In the “Level 3” composition, create another new solid. This time, make it a square shape (same height and width), and a different color than the previous one. So, now that we have assets within these two comps, let’s revisit “Level 1.”

After Effects New Solid 2

A Comp Within a Comp

Right now, in the “Level 1” composition, we have no assets and no layers, but we do have assets in our “Level 2” and “Level 3” comps. So what do we do when we want to bring these layers together and form a more powerful composition? We “pre-comp,” of course!

After Effects Pre-Composing 1
Click and drag the “Level 2” and “Level 3” comps from the project window into the “Level 1” timeline. As you can see, we are inserting a composition within another composition, meaning entire multi-layer animations and visual effects can be placed into other composition as a single layer. This is known as “pre-composing” or “pre-comping.”

This idea of “pre-comping” is one of the most important aspects of working with AE. Trying to create every asset, every layer, and every keyframe within one comp can be an absolute nightmare. So, we pre-comp assets and drop them in as layers within our more simplified comps.

After Effects Pre-Composing 2
Imagine these two pre-comped layers being fully animated, containing dozens of layers each. If we wanted to then take those animations and put them together, we can place the pre-comps into a new comp, and treat those like any other layer. Meaning they can be animated, color-corrected, re-timed, and more.

Final Build

Who would have thought something as simple as composition settings could end up being the window to one of your most utilized techniques?

Pre-comping and building your projects with this in mind can save you a lot of time and energy. Not only does it keep your overall workspace more organized, but combining pre-comps, animating those layers, and dropping in even more effects can create amazing outcomes otherwise unavailable within a single comp.

Top image: Particle World by ArtvarkFilm

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