By Kevin McMahon


March 20, 2009

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.
UH-OH: at first glance (especially with all the panels displayed). After Effects can look a bit, well, intimidating. But fear not, while AE takes some getting used to, learning this app is well worth the effort.
Like most who experience such After Shock, I did my best to poke around and bend After Effects to my stubborn will – but with little success. For those comfortable with other Adobe apps, there are some 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 my quest to reach AE special effects wonderland – or to fight back the fears and 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 Education 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 – with the right approach.
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 Tips for Learning After Effects” below might make your own AE quest much easier (and possibly save you a few months of mind bending toil):
5 Tips for Learning After Effects
1) Know your DV basics first. As a longtime editor, a good understanding of DV was the only thing I had going for me when faced 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 DV terms and concepts:
For just the bare bones of DV, you can start with:
For the hardcore user, checkout the extremely thorough DV primers on Adobe’s site:
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 (e.g., Premiere Pro). 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 a dedicated editing application. Because AE is dedicated to special effects, it is appropriately different in many respects – and truly does have a logical structure and workflow (e.g., its object based timeline). By embracing these differences and the rationale for them, 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 shortcuts to be an AE editor. By learning just 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 on a project:
With a new blank project, import your master video clip (a.k.a. “plate”), and drag it straight to the comp timeline. This method is often preferable to creating a new composition first because, by dragging your video file to the comp timeline, it creates a new composition that automatically 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 properties 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 with 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) Use the wealth of AE resources– and take a class. The incredible range of AE means that its structure has a corresponding range of complexity – which can be tricky to figure out at first. To this end, I am all for books (e.g., Adobe’s Classroom in a Book series), web tutorials (e.g.,, DVDs (Total Training), etc., but when it comes down to it – there is nothing like project-based, hands-on training. When things get confusing, there’s simply no replacing a live instructor. A live instructor can not only answer individual questions that might take hours to look up online – but also show you techniques and workflows that simply translate better in person. Moreover, if you can take an AE class that is project-based, you’ll be able to incorporate your own special effects ideas into the training – and make it far more likely to have your individual needs met.
In After Effects, you can get into the exciting world of 3D, motion graphics, and special f/x pretty quickly by using the range of resources out there. Couple these resources with a class – and you are on your way.
Looking back, I certainly took the long way to get there, but I am happy to say that After Effects is now my favorite application to use – and to teach. I am excited to have clients pleased with AE results – and students creating some of those the same special effects I first fell in love with on the big screen. Hopefully, you’ll be able to learn from my initial After Shock travails and get to where you want to go with AE a whole lot sooner with these 5 Tips for Learning After Effects.
All the best,
Kevin McMahon
Video Production and Graphic Design Instructor
Bellarmine College Preparatory