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Getting Started With After Effects



In After Effects the project file is the main document which references all your project assets. Whenever you start a new project, you will create a new project file to hold all of the assets for that project. When you save in AE you are saving the project file, and this is the file you will open next time you want to work on that project. The standard extension for AE projects is .aep (for 'after effects project'), and while it is not neccessary to use this extension on the macintosh it is useful to help you distinguish your project files from other files.

Within a project you will have two types of assets - footage, and compositions.


'Footage' is the term used to describe any assets you have imported into a project. These can include still images, video clips, audio files, and vector art(i.e. Adobe Illustrator files).

In AE, your footage files are not actually contained in the project file; instead they are 'referenced' by the project file. This simply means that the files exist somewhere on your hard drive and the project file knows where to find them. Because video files can be very large, referencing footage allows your AE project file to remain small. However, it also means it is possible to seperate the actual media from the project by accident. For this reason it is a good idea to keep your project and media files all in the same folder.


A composition (or 'comp" for short) can be thought of as your canvas in after effects. When you create a new composition you tell AE how big your video will be (in pixels), how long it will be (in hours, minutes, seconds and frames), and what the frame rate should be (in frames-per-second). For example, a common comp for multimedia work might be 320x240 pixels, 10 seconds long with a frame rate of 15 frames per second. A video destined for DV would have a setting of 720x480 pixels, 10 (or more) seconds long and a frame rate of 29.97 frames per second. The settings you choose will have an effect on the final output size and length of your finished video, so it is important to start your project with a good idea of your final destination.

Once you have created a blank comp you can add footage items to it to create your video. Any assets which are listed in the project window may be placed into a comp. Deleting footage from a comp will not remove it from the project, but deleting it from the project will remove it from any comp it has been used in.

Comps exist entirely within the project file and are saved when you save the project file. A single project file may have several comps within it, and you can even place comps within comps if you are creating complex videos.

The Interface

After Effects 7 has a completely new interface - however, most of the windows and controls are the same as previous versions, they just look different. If you've used a previous version you should be able to familiarize yourself with the new one fairly quickly. If you prefer to seperate the various palettes and windows so that they behave like previous versions you can do so by right-clicking (control-click with a single button mouse) on the tab for the window or palette and chosing 'undock' from the contextual menu.

For those just starting we'll be looking at the most commonly used elements of the interface. Upon starting AE7, you'll be presented with the following screen: While there are a lot of elements here, we'll start by focusing on just four sections of the window: 1) the Project Tab, 2) the Composition Tab, 3) the Timeline, and 4) the Toolbar.

The Project Tab

The Project tab is usually in the upper left hand corner of your screen, and shows the title of the current project at the top. When you first launch AE it will, by default, create an empty untitled project for you to start working with. In the lower half of the window is a list of all assets which are contained in the project. The various columns in this list provide information about various aspects of your assets such as file name, type, size, duration, etc. By clicking at the top of any one of the columns you can sort the list according to that column, i.e. click the 'type' column header to sort assets by file type.

The column with the small color squares in it is known as the 'label' column, and simply provides a way to visually differentiate between files in the list. For instance, by default still images are labelled pink, while quicktime movies are labelled yellow. You can change these labels on an item-by-item basis in order to group footage items visually in a manner which is meaningful to you.

When you import files into a project they will be added to the list, and one shortcut for importing files is to simply drag and drop the files from a finder window into your project window.

If you select an asset from the list, a summary of it's properties is shown at the top of the project window in addition to a thumbnail image representing the footage.

At the bottom of the project tab are four buttons:

The folder, new comp and trash buttons can have footage 'dropped' on them. For instance, dragging a footage item to the folder button creates a new folder and places the footage in it, dragging to the comp button creates a new composition the same size as the footage item with the item in it, and dragging to the trash button deletes the item you dragged from the project.

The Composition Tab

The Composition tab is your main workspace in AE. The area in the center represents your video, and any footage items you place in a composition will be visible here. At the bottom are several buttons which control how your composition will be displayed. We are only concerned with three of these items at this point:

We will discuss the remaining buttons as they become relevant to our projects, but for now you can just focus on those three areas.

At the top of the comp tab you can see a tab with the name of the comp on it. When you open more than one comp at once, each comp will have a tab in this area. This lets you toggle among multiple compositions at once without having multiple windows open.

The Timeline

Each composition has an associated timeline, and it is displayed in the timeline tab whenever you open a comp. The timeline tab is similar to the layers palette in photoshop; it shows all of the current layers of a composition, with the topmost layer being the front item in the composition. However, the timeline, as it's name suggests, also incorporates time for each layer. On the right side of the window each layer has a colored bar which represents it's duration. The duration bar for the currently selected layer has a slightly darker color to it, and the layer colors correspond to the label set in the project window. Across the top of this section of the timeline you can see the time, marked in seconds, and the blue arrow is the 'playhead' which points to the current frame visible in the comp window. In the upper left corner of the window the current time is displayed in hours:minutes:seconds:frames.

There are a lot of little switches, buttons and icons in the timeline window, and if you try to learn them all at once it can be overwhelming. The main areas you need to be concerned with for now are the layer names, their duration bars, and the playhead:

As we move into more advanced projects we will discuss the other controls as needed. For now, just get comfortable with these three basics.

The Toolbar

The toolbar is just like the toolbar in click on a button to select the tool you want to use. However, AE has far less tools in it's toolbar than photoshop, and even then some tools are used very rarely. Right now you just need to know about three tools, all of which should be familiar to you if you have worked with Photoshop before:

That covers the basics of the AE interface. As you can see there is far, far more than we have covered here...but there is simply too much to try and memorize it all at once. These are the things you need to be familiar with to get started, and the rest of it will get filled in as we move forward.