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The Align panel is very useful when you need to align layers or distribute layers across the comp. You open it by selecting the Align panel from the Window menu, and it will open on the right-hand side of the Timeline. I don't like to give up valuable Timeline space, so I am going to drop it so it shares the same frame as the Effects & Presets panel. The Align panel is divided into two sections: options for aligning layers and options for distributing them. To see this in action, I'll Shift+Click my two video layers.
Notice they don't quite align at the top, but they are actually the same height. As soon as I select the layers, I can choose to align them to the selection-- meaning themselves--or to the composition. Let's try selection first. As you roll over each option, helpful tooltips pop up. In this case, the three icons on the right will align layers vertically. Since both layers are the same height, I can choose any one of these icons and I'll get the same result.
If I add the Snowflake into the mix, because it's a different height, there will be a difference when I align to the top, center, or bottom. But notice I can't quite control which layer moves. Now I might have wanted only the snowflake to move, but I find the Align panel has a mind of its own. You can also align layers to the edges of the composition. This is a new feature in CS5. If I select it, all of the switches will now refer to aligning to the composition.
So I could align the layers to the top of the composition, center, or bottom. To explain the options in Distribute Layers, let me bring forward my second composition. Here I have a number of snowflakes, roughly just duplicated and put in a line. I probably have space for another one here. Let me duplicate it and move it around. And you can see I can be as sloppy as I need to be because the Align panel will come to my rescue. The first thing I might want to do is align the snowflake to the left edge.
Again, set Align Layers to Composition and click on the left icon. I'll select the rightmost one and align to the right-hand side. Now I can select all and distribute them, which will even up the space in between each snowflake. Again, as you roll over the options, tooltips will pop up to help you make your choice. Horizontal center sounds like the good one, though I often find I click the wrong one, so just undo and try a different one, until you arrive at the result you're looking for. Now I also might want to center these so that they are in a straight line vertically as well.
In that case, I'll need to switch back to Align to Selection, choose my vertical center alignment, and that should straighten them up. Remember that Align layers to Composition is new in CS5, so if you are using CS4, you'll miss out on this feature of aligning to the top, center, and bottom of the composition. If you're using CS4 and you need this feature, remember you can start dragging layers and then add Command+Shift on Mac, Ctrl+Shift on Windows, and the layers will snap to the edges of the comp, so you're not totally out of luck.
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