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.

Essentially, when looking back at my early AE efforts, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I slowed my own progress by forming some common AE misconceptions. So, for those of you just setting out with AE (or hoping to some day), following these AE tips will make your experience much better:

Tip #1: Master 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 the Wikipedia DVT overview.

For the hardcore user, check out some extremely thorough Adobe DV primers.

Tip #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 the 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 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 work flow. Embrace these differences (and the rationale for them) and you’ll be far less likely to fall into the common trap of wondering, “Why doesn’t AE work like my editing software?”

Tip #3: Learn 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. But it certainly helps to know some of them, especially these:

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. Start simple, and I mean super-simple.

Tip #4: Take a class at a great school. The incredible range of AE means that its structure has a corresponding range of complexity – which can be tricky to figure out. I am all for books, Web-based tutorials, DVDs, etc., but there is simply nothing like project-based, hands-on learning, like students get in After Effects courses at Digital Media Academy. 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.

I’ve come a long way from my initial problems, and am proud to now 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 completely psyched to have clients pleased with AE results…and students creating dazzling special effects.

Written by Kevin McMahon