Join Ian Robinson for an in-depth discussion in this video Defining layers, part of After Effects CC Essential Training (2015).
- Layers and compositions go together like pages in a book, for a book with no pages is just a cover and a comp with no layers is just as empty. Now, when you're working in After Effects, you may notice that there are different icons on each different kind of layer. While we can't change those icons, we can change the color of the layers. Now, before I show you how to do that on an individual layer-by-layer basis, let me just show you this one preference. If you go up to After Effects, Preferences, or if you're on Windows go to Edit, Preferences, and then within your Preferences, I want you to go to the Labels section.
Here under Labels, notice I have all these different Label Colors. Each of these colors correspond to a specific kind of layer within your After Effects project. Notice I have a video file like 02. It's got kind of that color here. If I look at the key, that color is Aqua. I could change that color here to a custom color or I could just choose any one of these other colors from my pull-down.
Now, I'm gonna leave the default settings here because I often like to make adjustments to my layer labels a little later in the process. Let's just go ahead and click Cancel for now. Before we start going into labeling layers, I want to explain the actual functionality of each different kind of layer inside of After Effects. See in After Effects, there are primarily two different kinds of layers. There are the layers that are referencing external files like your video files or your Photoshop or Illustrator files.
But then there are also layers that are generated from within After Effects. To show you what I mean, let's select layer 4. This is a video layer, it's the 02.mov file. Now, if I don't know where this files lives, inside my Project panel, I can go ahead and just right click or ctrl click on a Mac to bring up this contextual menu. So when I right click on the layer, I can choose Reveal Layer Source in Project. When I do that, it'll automatically open this Graphics_Animated folder and show me the video here and give me the icon for what that video looks like.
This is kind of a blurry blue Light_Leak layer that's being used to stylize the background footage. Now, what if I don't know where this video file actually is on my hard drive? I can right click on the piece of footage itself and choose Reveal in Finder, or if you're on Windows, Reveal in Explorer. When I open that up, check it out, this is in my Light_Leaks folder. That folder is contained within my Assets folder, within my Exercise Files, you get the idea.
Okay, so let's go back into After Effects here. I wanna select layer 1. This is a Vignette layer. If I turn its visibility off and on, you can see it's just creating a soft darkening around the corner edges of my composition. Let's right click on this layer and say "Reveal Layer Source in Project." Check it out, After Effects has created a Solid layer that I can use within my project. And I used that as an adjustment that I created this Vignette with.
Layer Solids are actually generated from within my After Effects project. If I try and right click on this, check it out, I can't reveal it in the Finder because it only exists within this After Effects project. Now, this is slightly different from one other kind of layer that you can create inside of After Effects that is actually generated from within After Effects. Those are shape layers. If we go to layer 3 here and just double click to open the Precomp, you can see I have shape layers.
I know I haven't talked about shape layers too much but if you remember when we imported the layered Illustrator document, I showed you how you can convert vector files into shape layers. When you do that, if I go ahead and right click on any one of these layers, look, I don't have any options for revealing this in the source window or in the Finder. This is kind of an important distinction. This is yet another kind of layer that is generated from within my After Effects project.
Now, let's get back to kind of labeling layers and keeping things organized. I'm gonna jump back into my 01 composition just by clicking on its name in the tab here in my timeline. Now we're back in the 01 comp and if you notice, I have a bunch of different layers and each different kind of layer has a different icon. Wow, this is great for my ADD, it's somewhat distracting when you're trying to make sense of what's going on in the scene. Many times, what I'll do is I'll kind of break it down according to function.
For example, as I'm looking at this, I can see I've got layers like this Vignette or this Adjustment Layer that are being used to kinda stylize this footage. I know that because I can turn the visibility off and on for the layers and you can see it's just changing the overall style. Layer 3 is actually a graphic element so if I turn that off and on, that's a graphic. I know that graphic is in a Precomp and right now it's got kind of a brown color to it. If you hover over this little square here to the left of the number and just click once, it'll open up a different layer group.
Let's go ahead and make this something nice and bright like Orange. Now I can clearly see that graphic element is orange. Let's select layers 1 and 2. I'll click on 1 and hold down shift and click on 2, and now they're both selected. Since these are gonna be stylizing the footage, I'll label these with a different color. I'll just go ahead and click on the label here and let's choose Purple. Kinda works with the orange but it's still a nice contrast. I happen to know that while this 02 element is a video file, if we look at our blend mode here, you can see it's being multiplied over the background footage.
So this too is being used to stylize my footage. 5 and 6 are exactly the same, they're all being used to stylize this background video. Let's select all three of those layers, 4, 5 and 6, and we'll make those purple as well. I'll just click on the label and choose Purple. Now, for my background video, of course I could leave it this kind of pale color but I wanna make it match a little more clearly so I'll go ahead and click on that label and this time I'll just choose Brown. It's sort of matching but it's a little different.
Actually, nah, let's go ahead and change it here. We'll make it Green, that's much more pretty. Now, when I look at this project visually, you know if I look at these icons it looks a little confusing. But the second I look in the timeline over here, it's much more coming. I can more clearly see exactly what's going on. I've got stylized footage and my graphic element kind of in the middle of that stylized footage so the graphic is being somewhat stylized but then I have all these other stylized layers above my background video layer.
As you can see when you're working in a normal After Effects motion graphics project, you'll end up with a lot of layers. The key to keeping things well-organized is to understand how those layers function, whether they're external layers or being generated from within After Effects. And then how to clearly label those layers so you can best understand what's happening in your project.
- Building graphics such as lower thirds, logos, and credit rolls
- Repairing and retiming video
- Keying green-screen footage
- Animating a 3D logo
- Motion tracking
Your guide, Ian Robinson, wraps up the course with some project management techniques that will help you merge projects from multiple editors, and get you in the habit of archiving completed work.