We’ve all been there, watching a film when an amazing special effect blows your mind – leaving you to wonder how did they do that? Well, several years back, I started asking fellow editors and educators this very question – and again and again I heard the same response: After Effects. Want to motion track? After Effects. Want to green screen? After Effects. Want color correction? After Effects. Want an intergalactic light saber fight scene with explosions and an amazing 3D camera move? After Effects.

I started to see a trend . . .

Satisfied with this answer – I happily downloaded the free 30-day trial of AE (that’s After Effects for short) from Adobe’s website. However, my initial enthusiasm soon waned, well, plummeted actually. Almost immediately after launching AE, I had a common new user experience – I will politely dub “After Shock”. To explain, as a full-time teacher of Adobe software for years, I had taught literally thousands of people how to use Photoshop, Illustrator, and/or Premiere Pro. Some would even say I’m bit of an Adobe zealot: I’ve beta-tested new releases, done workshops all over, and even trained new Adobe employees through the Digital Media Academy. Indeed, when it comes to Adobe software no mysterious button, workflow, or special effect is safe from my twisted desire to know everything an application can do.

But here was After Effects, and it appeared to be a different animal entirely. I must confess, I was a grown man . . . and I was afraid.

Like most who experience such After Shock, I did my best to poke around and bend After Effects to my will – but with little success. For those comfortable with other Adobe apps, there are some truly strange and downright spooky moments to be had when first looking at AE – for example, creating a new project does not involve a settings menu, there is no razor tool to cut clips with, there are over 200 effects each with a range of adjustments allowing for literally millions of possible combinations . . . and seemingly as many shortcuts. Clearly, this was not my beloved, intuitive Photoshop.

So given the choice of abandoning the AE quest – or to stubbornly plod on – I looked at every AE website I could find, read every book I could get my hands on, watched DVD tutorials, took a class with my fellow Adobe Ed Leaders, and even bothered contacts at Adobe for more info. It was not always a smooth journey, my friends, but along the way I came to three important conclusions:

1) AE is just as amazing as they say.

2) AE can be easy to learn – if approached the right way.

3) I could have realized #2 a whole lot sooner.

Essentially, in looking back at my AE travails, I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I slowed down my own progress by forming some common AE misconceptions. So for those of you just setting out with AE (or hoping to someday), I hope this list of “5 Beginner After Effect Tips” might make your experience much better – and possibly save you a few months of your life:

5 Beginner After Effect Tips

1) Know your DV basics first. As a longtime editor, this was the only thing I had going for me when I started with AE – and probably the only thing that kept me going early on. Basically, if terms like 24fps, interlacing, NTSC, or compression are entirely new to you, help yourself out by visiting some useful websites that define such basic DV terms and concepts:

For just the bare bones of DV, you can start with: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_video#Technical_overview

For the hardcore user, checkout the extremely thorough DV primers on Adobe’s site: http://www.adobe.com/motion/primers.html

2) Know what After Effects is (and is not) for. Think of AE as a dedicated special effects application for individual shots and short animations – and here’s critical part- you typically perfect these shots in AE and then export them to your preferred editing application. In other words, AE is a great enhancement to (but not a replacement of) your editing software. This paradigm shift is really important– because AE is not really designed to: capture footage, make a bunch of tight cuts, work with transitions, etc. as you would with Final Cut, Premiere Pro, etc. Because AE is dedicated to special effects, it is appropriately different in many respects and truly does have a logical structure and workflow. Embrace these differences (and the rationale for them) and you’ll be far less likely to fall into the common trap of thinking “why doesn’t AE work like my editing software?”

3) Know just enough of the AE keyboard shortcuts to be dangerous – and realize that this does not mean that many. While certain shortcuts are essential to AE, most are simply there to save you from a deep dive into the pull down menus and an extra click or two. Do not feel that you need to know a hundred of these to be an AE editor. By learning 10-20 of these clever little guys, you’ll soon adapt to a new way of editing – and find yourself having a much better time. To get you going, here are 10 shortcuts that I particularly like (and that took a while to discover):

 

When getting started:

With a new project, import a video clip, and drag it to the comp timeline. This is often preferable to creating a composition first because it auto-creates a new composition that matches the chosen video clip’s duration, scale, frame rate, and pixel ratio.

 

When making edits in the composition timeline:

Page Down moves the current time one frame forward

Page Up moves the current time one frame backward

; toggles the view to a full zoom in or out at your current time.

Ctrl + [ trims the “in” point(s) of the selected layer(s) to the current time - and as you might expect it has a twin . . .

Ctrl + ] trims the “out” point(s) of the selected layer(s) to the current time.

Ctrl +D duplicates selected layers or effects

Ctrl + Shift + D duplicates and cuts a layer at the current time. It’s as close to a razor tool as you will find in AE.

 

When animating/keyframing:

U shows only the keyframed attributes of a selected layer.

Alt + Drag selected keyframes stretches (or squeezes) the distribution of selected keyframe groups uniformly. This can save a ton of time when retiming a complex multi-layered effect.

4) Start simple, and I mean super simple. With all that you can do in AE, it’s tempting to try to make first project something colossal. So while making an HD sequel to the movie “300” (green screen and all) is certainly do-able in AE, it would lead to more than a little frustration for a newcomer. (Not that I’m speaking from experience . . . ahem). Try experimenting in a standard definition project with a few foundational elements – 3d space, keyframing, text animation, camera moves, etc. and you will have a much easier (and more fulfilling) sense of what can eventually be done on the grand scale.

5) Take a class (and yes, this is a shameless plug . . . but hear me out). The incredible range of AE means that its structure has a corresponding range of complexity – which can be tricky to figure out. To this end, I am all for books, web tutorials, DVDs, etc., but there is simply nothing like project-based, hands on training. Moreover, having learned differing approaches from so many AE experts over the years, I have worked hard to come up with a streamlined approach to learning AE that is enjoyable, easy, and avoids the mistakes that so many of us have made when first starting out.

Looking back, I’ve come a long way from my initial day of After Shock, but I am proud to say that After Effects is now my favorite application to use – and to teach. Even though I took the long way to get there, I am now proud to have clients pleased with AE results - and students creating with some of those the same special effects I first fell in love with on the big screen.

Hope to see you at DMA this summer,
Kevin McMahon