A Basic Introduction to After Effects

Open Adobe After Effects – a welcome box will pop up with some tips in etc, but just close this box. I rarely use it, unless there is a recent project in the list it shows that I want to open. But for starting a new project, just close this box. You will now have a blank workspace.

Go to 'Composition' and select 'New Composition'. A box will pop up with the title 'Composition Settings'. Here you can choose the format, frame size/ratio, frame rate, resolution and timecode. These are the most important settings to focus on at this stage.

In the 'Preset' box, you can choose the format of the piece – ie. Whether you want it to be widescreen or letterbox, or a different format. Click on the downwards arrow in the box and a long list of settings will appear. I generally use the 'PAL' settings as these are most compatable with other applications, and are good quality. The 'HDV/HDTV' settings are more sophisticated. You may want to look into other settings at a later stage, but I would recommend using 'PAL'. I often use 'PAL D1/DV Widescreen'. Click through the settings and decide which is best for your animation – the 'PAL D1/DV Widescreen Square Pixel' will give you a wider screen than the 'PAL D1/DV Widescreen'. Notice below the 'Preset' bow that there is the 'Width' and 'Height' settings. You can get an idea of the size from this – quite simple. If you click on one of the presets and decide the size isn't what you want, just click on Undo and go back to 'Composition' and start the settings again, choosing something better.

For now, choose 'PAL D1/DV Widescreen' as it gives a format that is often used – 720 pixels by 520 pixels. Animation festivals will usually ask for either this format (sometimes known as 4:3) or for 1024 pixels by 576 pixels (16:9) which is widescreen.

If you later want to use a 16:9 ratio, you can choose custom settings and select the correct pixel width and height. To change them manually, click on the yellow numbers and type in the number you want, such as 1024 into the width box. The height will automatically change to 819, which you won't want. To change this without the width changing again, look to the ticked box next to the width and height, which says 'Lock Aspect Ratio'. Untick this box, and you have full freedom to create whatever size ratio you like.

For this session, just go back to the list and reselect 'PAL D1/DV Widescreen' and retick the 'Lock Aspect Ratio' box.

Below the Preset, width and heigh options, there is 'Pixel Aspect Ratio'. I never use this box, as if you change the selection, then more often than not, it will change the 'Preset' settings automatically for you, so don't worry too much with this option. Feel free to have a look at the settings and play about with it to see the differences, but remember to go back to the PAL setting for this lesson! Now go down to frame rate. The lowest rate I would suggest is 12 – it runs smoothly. But many film festivals will ask for 24 or 25 frames per second as this is what it needs to run on TV. If you only want your work online then a lower frame rate wont matter so much. You can always select a lower frame rate here, and when it comes to rendering out, select a setting of 25 frames per second (I will go into this at a later stage). Today choose 25 frames per second. In the drop down list there are different frame rate settings to choose from, but 25 is a good one to choose due to the festival/TV/cinema issue. It is also useful for lip sync. There may be more frames for you to work on, so double the amount if you were going at 12 fps, but you will get a smoother lip sync which will match the sound. It's no use if your character is talking fast and you miss out loads of vowels etc...won't be believable! I would still recommend animating at 12 frames per second for hand drawn as it saves time and paper, but just double up the frames when putting it into the computer – take two photos instead. I did this on 'Who Stole Frank?', and took three photos of the last frame of every second. I added the lip sync on afterwards in After Effects, so I had no need to draw 25 frames per second, I only needed it on the computer for lip sync. If you want to draw the lip sync directly onto the frame, then 25fps will be best, but it depends on how much work you want to give yourself.

Now look to 'Resolution'. It should automatically be on 'Full'. This will give you the best quality image. If the lower the resolution, the less sharp the image will be...simple.

Below is the 'Start Timecode'. It will be on 0's all the way across. Leave this as it is – you don't want to be fiddling around with this, unless you have animated a chunk of work and have decided you don't like any of the beginning bit, in which case you can change the start of the animation to the point where you would like the piece to start, and it will ignore the animation up until that point – like an easy delete without any fiddly bits.

Next is duration. This is simple. Just type in how long you want the piece to be! For the piece of film you have, type in that length – just round it off to a full number and don't worry about how many milliseconds it is etc as it can get complicated. It doesn't matter if the duration is 5 frames longer than your footage as it can be useful to have a fade out to black at the end.

Don't worry too much about background colour at the bottom of the box. It's best to leave this black, unless you want to fade out to white or another colour. It isn't generally something that is needed.

There is an advanced option but more than likely you will never have to use it, so ignore that.

You can name the Composition, but I tend to just leave it as I will only use one composition in the piece – it doesn't matter. Name it if you intend to use more than one composition, else it will just appear as Comp 1.

Now that you Composition is set up, click OK.

You will now have a black space on the work area which will show your film (once it's imported. To the left you will see 'Comp 1' which will show the settings and what is showing in that composition, which will be currently a black box. Below that will be the 'Comp 1' file in the file space – all the files you use in the piece will list here. At the bottom is the timeline. 'Comp 1' will automatically create the timeline, ready for use. There is a time ruler which can be adjusted so during playback you just play a small section, or if you only want to render a small piece and not delete all your work, then you can adjust the ruler. The vertical red line with the yellow cursor on top is the 'Current Time Indicator'. Click and hold the yellow cursor to drag to a specific time in your animation – it will indicate what point you are at during the animation.

Now you need to import your image file. Go up to 'File', and drop down to 'Import' and select 'File...' from that menu. Now find your image/animation file. Select it and either double click or click 'Open'.

It will now appear below 'Comp 1' in the file list, and it will say what file type it is and the length. Right click on it and select 'Interpret Footage' and select 'Main...' from the menu. Here you can choose to 'Loop' the piece, or change that files aspect ratio, and you can also change its frame rate. If you want the piece to run faster, then make the frame rate higher (e.g. if it was originally 12 fps, change it to 24 and it will run through twice as fast). Change anything you feel necessary and click OK.

Now left mouse button click on the file you just imported, and drag and drop down into the dark grey space next to the timeline. A still version of your moving image will now appear in the black box in the work space. You can now edit your moving image.

Your animation may be a different size to the aspect ratio set – it may be too big or too small, or appear squashed. There are a few ways to resize. Either you can click on the pale blue boxes at the edges of the moving image and resize it to fit the black box – this is probably the best method if the image is too small. If the image is too big and you can't see the edges, either you can zoom out on the work space, or you can click the downwards arrow next to the blue box in the timeline list. A menu called 'Transform' will appear and click on the downwards arrow next to this. You will now have 'Anchor Point', 'Position', 'Scale', 'Rotation' and 'Opacity' appear. Click on 'Scale', and hover the cursor over the numbers next to it. If you click and hold the left mouse button and drag either left or right, the image will either get bigger, or reduce in size. Just drag the mouse in the direction you need.

The position of the image will automatically be centred on the workspace, but if you need to move it to another area within the space, either left click on the image and move it manually, or you can click on the 'Position' tab and drag the numbers, like with the scale tab. The 'Anchor Point' will be the same, and is usually at the centre of the image. 'Rotation' is also the same, however if you wish to rotate it manually (i.e. by not dragging the mouse button left and right) you can click on the rotating arrow button at the top left of the the workspace – just below the composition button. When this button is active, you can only rotate the image. To go back to the usual cursor, click the mouse button on the end. To close the 'Transform' menu, click on the first arrow again, and the menu will be hidden. To open it again, just click the arrow again and so on.

Make sure the Time Indicator is at 0 on the timeline. Open the 'Transform' menu again, and this time click 'Opacity'. It will read at 100%. Click and drag the number to the left so it goes down to 0%. (Or, double click on the number and type in 0 – this is generally quicker). Now click the little stopwatch icon next to 'Opacity'. This has set a keyframe at the very start of your animation. Now move the Time Indicator to 1 second into your animation. Drag the opacity back up to 100%. A new keyframe has been set – NEVER press the stopwatch icon for the opacity on this moving image again, as you will loose the first keyframe. Any changes you make from that point onwards will set an automatic keyframe. Drag the Time Indicator to a second from the end of your moving image (where the blue bar ends – this shows the length of the piece in the timeline. If the blue bar goes further than the time duration you have set, go into 'Composition', the 'Composition Settings', and change the duration – the box that appeared when you created the composition will appear, so it will be the same layout etc) Now you are a second away from the end of your clip, drag the opacity to 100% again – just a small drag to the right will do. It will make another keyframe. Now go to the end of your moving image, and drag opacity down to 0% again. It will make another keyframe. You now have a piece of moving image that fades in and out at the beginning and at the end.

Now to add audio is the same as adding a video file. Go to File and Import, and select the sound file you want to use. Drag the file down into the timeline area below the moving image file. Now if you hold the green bar for the audio with the left mouse button, drag it to the right to either where the image is at 100% opacity, or to the point at which you want it to start. If you click the down arrow on the audio file, a drop down menu will appear which reads 'Audio'. Click the next arrow button and 'Audio Levels' will appear which will read at '+0.00dB'. Click on the arrow next to 'Waveform' and the waveform of the sound file will appear. Here you can see what points get louder, and which are quieter. This can be useful if you are trying to line up a specific loud point of the piece. Like the opacity levels, you can adjust the sound levels to fade in and out. For example, if you click to the beginning of the sound track and bring the audio levels down to -48.00dB, then click the stopwatch to start the first keyframe. Then go to another point when you want the sound to increase, and drag back to +0.00dB, or higher up to +12.00dB – this is the loudest it can be.

One thing to note about After Effects and sound files, is that mp3 files don't generally work, and when rendered out they can be crackly and ruin the piece. I find .wav files to be best. I think most sound files will work, just not mp3 files. To add more image files, just follow the previous steps, and drag the coloured bars along the timeline to the point you want that piece to start.

To cut down piece, say there is a part at the end of one of the clips which you want to cut out, then hover over the end of the bar and a two headed arrow will appear. If you left mouse click on this when you see the arrows, then drag to the left then the piece will be shortened – just drag as far as you need. The same applies for anything you want to cut out at the front of the clip.

To play through your animation, go up to the right side of the work space where there are play and rewind buttons (listed under 'Preview'). Click on the play button with two lines with it, at the far right of the buttons. This will render preview, so it may play through fast, or very slow first time round, but once the green bar along the timeline is full, then the animation will play through at the proper speed with sound.

If you are happy with how your piece looks, then you are ready to render. Click on 'Composition', and go to 'Add to Render Queue'.

The timeline at the bottom will switch to 'Render Queue', and you can click back to 'Comp 1' by clicking the tab next to it.

Now click on the yellow writing which reads 'Best Settings'. A box will pop up. You shouldn't need to change anything here, unless you have set the previous frame speed to 12fps. If you have, you can render the piece out at 25fps, and this won't affect the animation or sound at all, it will just ready it for TV/cinema usage. There is just a section 'Frame Rate' where you can change that – either select 'Use comp's frame rate', or click below on 'Use this frame rate' and change the '30' in yellow to whatever frame rate you need. Then click OK. If you want to render out a lower quality or smaller version, you can change the 'Quality' and 'Resolution' in the top box. Click OK to close the box.

Now click on 'Lossless' in yellow writing. Another box will appear called 'Output Module Settings'. Click on the top box labelled 'Format'. It should say 'AVI', but click this and go down to 'Quicktime'. Now go to 'Video Output' and select 'Format Options' to the right hand side. It should say 'Animation' in the 'Video Codec' – change this to MPEG-4 Video'. This will give the animation a high quality look, but the file will be slightly smaller, so you can fit it on your memory stick or disk etc... Now click on OK. Now you will go back to the 'Output Module Settings' box. Make sure the 'Audio Output' box is checked, else you wont have any sound. Now click OK.

Now click on the 'Output To' section where the yellow writing says 'Not Yet Specified'. Click this and a 'Output Movie To' box will appear. Here you can name your piece and choose where to save it. Save it to wherever you like, and click 'Save'.

Then click 'Render' which is on the far right of the workspace. After Effects will automatically start rendering. It will give you and estimated time, and all you have to do is wait for it to finish – grab a cup of tea and a biscuit time...

Once it has rendered (it'll generally make a chirpy bell ding sound...) you can find it in the folder you have saved it, and it will play in Quicktime, VLC, Windows Media Player...wherever you like. And you're done! If you want to change it, then return to the After Effects file and edit it to how you like.

Just make sure you regularly save the After Effects file to keep it up to date, in case the computer crashes and you loose your work. It's not nice when it happens...so save REGULARLY. Also, if you return to the file at a later date, make sure all the files you used in the project are in the same place as before, as After Effects will loose the location of the file, and you will have to reload the footage. It saves time if you don't delete files off a memory stick or rearrange your files. It can be a pain if you have to find all the files again and reload things.