After Effects CS4: Apprentice's Guide to Key Features

with Chris Meyer and Trish Meyer
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After Effects CS4: Apprentice's Guide to Key Features
Video duration: 0s 1h 29m Intermediate


After Effects CS4: Apprentice's Guide to Key Features was created and produced by Trish and Chris Meyer. We are honored to host their material in the Online Training Library®.

After Effects CS4: Apprentice's Guide to Key Features is a series of guided tours with Chris and Trish Meyer. It is designed as a gentle introduction to some of the major features of After Effects CS4. This quick–start course is for beginners who already know how to animate, users who are not familiar with the latest version, or those who need to get up to speed with advanced tools. Chris and Trish cover features such as text animators, shape layers, expressions, and motion tracking. These guided tours are also included with the second edition of Chris and Trish Meyer's book, After Effects Apprentice (Focal Press).

To learn the basics of animating in After Effects CS4, check out After Effects CS4 Getting Started with Chad Perkins in the Online Training Library®. To go deeper, see Chad's After Effects CS4 Essential Training. To get an overview of the new features in After Effects CS4, watch After Effects CS4 New Creative Techniques with Chris and Trish Meyer.

To purchase After Effects Apprentice—the book—go to

Topics include:
  • Understanding 3D Axis Arrows and Camera Tools
  • Working with Text Essentials and Animators
  • Using Tracker controls
After Effects

User Interface

- [Voiceover] For those who are new to After Effects, or who haven't used it for a while, we wanted to give you an overview of its user interface. Now you'll find that the user interface of many Adobe applications are similar, so things that you learn here can be applied to other Adobe programs. You'll also find that the Mac and Windows versions are almost identical. The many differences are in command keys. When we say command on Mac, we mean control on Windows. When we say option on Mac, we mean alt on Windows. Now the first thing you'll notice is After Effects resides in the master application window. You can move it as a whole. You can resize it by clicking on the lower right corner and changing it to how big or how small you need it to be to fill your screen.

After Effects's application window is broken into a series of frames. Each one of these major sections is referred to as a frame and you can tell that a frame is selected because you'll see this yellow outline around it. Each frame can hold a number of panels. Each panel holds specific information. For example, this frame in the upper right corner holds the info panel and the audio panel. I switch between them by clicking on their tabs along the top. If there are a lot of panels in one frame, you'll also see a scroll bar along the top that allows you to slide in between them.

Now to show you a little bit more about the user interface in After Effects, I'm gonna open a composition. A composition is where you build your graphics in After Effects. You can go ahead and make a new composition or open an existing composition by double clicking it in the project panel. And compositions open into two panels in After Effects. The composition, or comp panel for short, which shows you your graphical content, and your timeline panel, which shows you all the layers that make up a composition, their timings, plus any additional keyframes you have applied to those layers. Now this composition panel is very important because this is the same frame that's used to display other graphical content.

For example, if I needed to look at a movie, I could option or alt double click it and that would open a footage panel which opens into the same viewer. If I needed to do some detailed work on a specific layer in a composition, I would double click it and it would open into a layer panel docked into the same viewer frame. And I can click on these tabs to go ahead and move between these panels inside this frame. Now something you'll find working in After Effects or any application is that you'll have a constant fight for space. We can go ahead and resize the frames and panels inside After Effects to go ahead and use your screen's real estate to the best advantage.

Position your cursor in between frames and slide to make frames smaller or larger. And you see that you trade off, making one smaller while another gets bigger. We can even click on a corner and do resizing on multiple frames all at the same time. You can also change what frame a panel appears in. If you click its tab, you'll see a series of dots in the upper left corner of each panel's tab. Grab those and drag to another frame to go ahead and move that panel's location. If you drag a panel into the middle of a frame, you'll see a little highlighted area in the middle which means you're gonna go ahead and dock it into this frame.

And there we go. Audio's docked in the same frame as my effects and presets. If you want to create a brand new frame for a panel, go ahead and grab those little buttons again. And drag it along the edges of an existing frame. Like this, or like this. By doing so, when I release, you'll now see a brand new frame has been created alongside the frame I was targeting. Of course, you do have to trade off space. So you might want to go ahead and dock it back in to another existing frame. If you want to create a brand new frame along the edges of your application window, grab those dots, and drag it until you see a green bar appear along one of the edges of the overall application panel.

That says you're gonna go ahead and open up a brand new frame along that edge. And you'll see what I've done there. And I'll put this back to where it was. There we go. Now in addition to docking panels into frames, you can also float panels into their own windows. To do that, you want to click on the options menu for a frame. Every frame has this little button in the upper right hand corner which opens up its options panel. It will include options that are specific to that panel, such as going ahead and opening up the view options for this particular viewer, and generic options such as undocking a panel or undocking a frame.

Undocking a frame means all the panels in that frame go into a floating window. If I want just one panel to go into a floating window, I say undock panel. And now you see I've got a nice little floating window. You can also dock multiple panels into your floating window. I can go ahead and grab that and dock it back into an existing window. Or I can just go ahead and hit this close bar and get rid of it as well. If you need to temporarily see one of your panels full screen, to see a lot of detail in a large composition, for example, hit the tilde key.

The tilde is the little button that exists between the escape and tab buttons along the left side of your keyboard. Hitting tilde again toggles you back to your normal user interface. Now we want to turn our attention to some things that are very specific to compositions. For one thing, you can open multiple compositions. I'll go ahead and double click them in the project panel. And now I've got multiple tabs to go ahead and navigate between them in the timeline panel. I can also click on the drop down menu along the top of a comp panel and select my composition.

Sometimes you'll have a chain of compositions where one composition is used as an element in another composition. After Effects CS 4 has introduced a couple of new ways of taking advantage of this. One is the composition navigator that exists along the top of the comp panel which lets you quickly move between a chain of compositions as one flows into another. There's also a more elaborate version of this called the mini flow chart. You can click on this arrow in the upper right corner and open up this fancier flow chart that actually shows how all these different compositions interconnect to each other.

A quick way of opening it is tapping the shift key. Go ahead and navigate. I'll click on the composition I want. It homed to navigate to the start of its time. Tap shift key again. Navigate back to another composition. Composition panels also have two very important concepts you need to keep in mind. Magnification and resolution. Magnification is how large you're viewing your current composition. 100% is full size. One pixel of your comp is one pixel of your screen. If you don't have a very big screen, you may want to do up to 100%, which automatically resizes the composition based on the amount of available space.

If you have a little bit of trouble looking at crunchy things at partial scales and in between scales, you go ahead and pick a very specific size like 50% or 100%. I'll go back to 50 for now. Similar but different is resolution. That's whether or not you're seeing all of the pixels in your composition. Full means every pixel is being rendered. However, if you're only viewing it at 50%, you might as well save some rendering time and only have every other pixel rendered. So you go down to half resolution when working at 50%.

And when you go back up to 100%, then you'll want to go back up to full resolution so you can see all the fine detail. Now once you have an arrangement of panels that you like, you can save this as a work space. Go ahead and say new work space and say my favorite layout. Click okay. If you want to go back to one of Adobe's preset work spaces, just pick it from this work space menu. We do most of our work in the standard menu. But there's also other useful layouts such as the animation layout, which has smoother, wiggler, and motion sketch all open at the same time.

Or text which opens up the character and paragraph panels for you. After Effects saves any changes you make to a work space. And when you recall it, it goes back to the state you last left it in. If you need to reset a work space, for example, standard where we docked the audio down to effects and presets, just go ahead and pick reset from the bottom of the work space menu. I'll go ahead and discard my changes. And now I'm back to my original layout. If you need a window that's not open, and you don't feel like going through all the work spaces to figure out which one has that window, just click on the window menu.

And go ahead and open up the window that you need, such as the character palette to go ahead and do text type setting. And finally, a lot of these panels can indeed be resized to go ahead and save some space. For example, we often close down the preview panel to just show us the transport controls. We rarely need to play around with these RAM preview options, so we'll go ahead and close them away to save more space. Now the one problem you might get yourself into is you might get carried away closing panels in After Effects. You might say command or control W to close, close, close, close, close. And all of a sudden, your timeline panel's gone altogether.

Well don't worry, you can get it back. One way is just to go ahead and open up another composition and it'll open up your comp and your timeline panels for you. Or just go ahead and open up work space and it'll restore your panels to where you last saved them, and necessary, you can go ahead and reset them so you can get back to a nice clean starting point. So that's a quick overview of the After Effects user interface. It's pretty flexible to move around and customize to your needs.

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