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After you have been working in your composition for a while, there comes a point where you will want to preview it and then eventually render it to disk. There are a few different ways to preview. The most obvious way is usually not the way you want to do it. For example, if you just press the Spacebar, After Effects will start calculating frames from the Current Time Indicator forward, then attempt to play back the calculated frames in real time. The problem with this is that it calculates your entire composition, and if you have a really long comp--maybe a few minutes--you may not want to play through the whole thing. You may want to play through only an isolated segment.
The better way to preview is to make sure your Preview panel is open, reveal enough of it to see this Preview button in the upper-right corner, and select RAM Preview. The shortcut is pressing the 0 key on the extended numeric keypad. This also tells After Effects: calculate all of the frames, store them into RAM, so you can play them back quickly, then play them back in real time. The additional advantage of RAM preview is that it obeys something called the work area. This gray bar called the Time Ruler, we can actually adjust its start and end points and say, I only want to work on and focus on and preview just this section of my composition.
When you do that, invoking a RAM Preview--such as by pressing 0--plays back just that segment of your comp. This makes it much easier to focus on a piece of the time as you work your way through a longer composition. There are shortcuts to quickly set the work area, to set the beginning, move the Current Time Indicator where you want to start, and press B for Beginning. To set the endpoint of the work area, move the Time Indicator to where you like and press not E for End but N for End; E has other uses in After Effects. So, N ends the work area.
If you want to go back to previewing the entire composition, double-click in the middle of the Work Area bar and it will fill the entire length of your Timeline automatically. Most of the time on working After Effects, we perform a normal RAM Preview; however, if you are finding that your computer is a bit slow, you might to try a Shift Preview. In this case, if you hold down the Shift key while pressing 0 on the numeric keypad, you will use this alternative set of options in the Preview panel. The default option is to skip frames, basically render every other frame.
So if you have a high-resolution composition or a slow computer, this is a quicker way to perform a preview, because you are just previewing every other frame. You can also change the frame rate, you can change the resolution, as well as other options. A new form of preview that they added in After Effects CS5 is the Option or Alt Preview. If you hold down the Option key on Mac or Alt key on Windows then press 0 on the numeric keypad, After Effects will preview just the five frames before the Current Time Indicator. This is useful if you trying to check very specific motion, such as the edges of a mask or a blue screen, just to make sure it's not chattering or moving in ways you don't expect.
Again, highly specialized but useful in certain situations, and those are the various preview options in After Effects. Let's move on to rendering.
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