Getting started with Adobe After Effects

By Zarxrax

January 2008

This is a basic guide to getting started with Adobe After Effects for the purpose of creating AMVs. Originally published in 2004, I have now rewritten this guide from scratch in order to make it more relevant and informative to the current state of AMVs and in regards to the technology itself.

This guide has three primary goals:
1) to explain what After Effects is used for, and how it can be used in the production of anime music videos
2) to show you how to approach learning this complex program
3) to provide some basic tips and tricks for common problems that newcomers to this software may encounter

What exactly IS After Effects?

After Effects is essentially a swiss army knife for video. It can do lots of different things, and it can do many of those things very well. It is not always the best tool for the job, however. The first thing that you need to realize is that After Effects is not designed for editing video. Editing, in this sense, refers to the most basic operations that you would perform when creating an AMV--dropping clips onto the timeline, chopping them up into pieces, cross-fading between them, etc. For these basic types of things, you should use an NLE (non-linear editor) such as Adobe Premiere, Sony Vegas, or perhaps even Windows Movie Maker. As I said before, After Effects can do many things. You CAN edit video in it--but the experience will be very frustrating!

Now you may be wondering, "if you don't edit with After Effects, then what else can it be used for?" One of its strongest points is compositing. Compositing basically means combining multiple elements together into a single shot. Perhaps this is easiest to understand from the perspective of a Hollywood film. In many films, actors may be filmed against a green screen, and then computers are used to composite the actors against a computer generated background. Compositing is not as simple as just pressing a button and magically receiving a great-looking result, though. It is an art form unto itself, and you can spend endless hours trying to tweak everything until it is just perfect. You must consider a number of factors, such as lighting and shadows, focus, color, how the edges of objects blend with their surroundings, and more. With anime, we don't have the benefit of having the characters filmed against a green screen, so if you want to composite a character from one scene into another scene, you must go through the painstaking process called rotoscoping, where you carefully draw outlines around the character or object in order to cut it out from its background. Working frame-by-frame, you may have to spend hours just to rotoscope one or two seconds worth of video!

In order to really give you an idea of what compositing can do for an AMV, here are some examples of AMVs that I feel use compositing very well:
The Race
True Fiction
Whisper of the Beast ( Making Of )
I strongly encourage you to view the making of video for Whisper of the Beast, as it shows how many different scenes were all brought together in order to create a truly amazing result!

Another primary use of After Effects is in creating motion graphics. Motion graphics are pretty much just what they sound like--graphics that move. This may be as simple as having text scroll across the screen, or something so complex that I would not be able to describe it in words. Here are a few examples of motion graphics in AMVs:
Bleach Technique Beat
Chaos -Around the M@D-

So now we have determined that After Effects is great for compositing and motion graphics, and not so great for editing. What else can it do? Well, technically, I think that pretty much everything it can do is covered under those three topics! After Effects has often been called "Photoshop for video", in the sense that like Photoshop allows you to modify images in just about any way you can imagine, After Effects allows you to modify video in just about any way you can imagine.

Learning After Effects

Alright, you decided that you want to use After Effects on your next AMV, and so you open it up, and you are completely lost! Don't worry, because I think we've all felt that way the first time we opened it up! After Effects has hundreds of features, so it's easy for a new user to feel lost and have no idea what to do. The trick is to just ignore everything that you don't know, and take it one piece at a time. You don't have to know the program inside and out in order to do anything with it. You should be able to have the basics down in a few hours, or maybe even less. As long as you keep at it, you'll find that you continually learn new and exciting things to do with your videos!

First off, I would strongly recommend every beginner watch the excellent After Effects 101 tutorial by Andrew Cramer. This relatively short tutorial walks you through most of the basic features of After Effects.

Once you've gotten that under your belt, you should be off to a good start. At this point, you might want to just try playing around with things, and see what you can discover. After Effects is lots of fun ^_^

For really learning the depths of this software though, I can not stress enough how useful the tutorials found on Creative Cow are. They have hundreds of GREAT After Effects tutorials available, many of them being video tutorials! In particular, I would recommend that you start out by watching the tutorials created by Aharon Rabinowitz. Many of his tutorials are aimed at new learners of After Effects, and tend to cover simple but important concepts, as well as things that tend to trip people up. I strongly urge you to follow as many tutorials as you can. Even though you may not ever need to use a specific thing that was taught in a tutorial, you will learn many important skills and concepts that can be applied to your creations.

Tips and tricks