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by Eden Maxwell

Bookmark this page for future reference when you do begin your adventure with After Affects CS3.


To intrigue potential readers about my latest book, An Artist Empowered, I wanted to replace the static image of the book cover on my website with a more 'e-motionally charged' promotional video that would also include animation. My plan was to also post the video on YouTube, Gather, and other relevant sites.


For starters, After Effects CS3 is not a video editor like Final Cut Express HD, which has many professional tools—from producing feature length films to a three-to-four-minute video describing the merits of my book. While I could choose from various title sequences and effects available with FCE, I felt my talking head approach needed a bit more eye-catching visual interest.

Without a quality presentation, the greatest of content can linger unnoticed. We also live in a media saturated world of the dwindling attention span further compounded by the quest for sound bites, quick edits, text messaging shorthand, and where newsworthy often translates into pandering and sensationalism instead of things that do matter. To be realistic, art, books, and videos, which are my concerns here, and perhaps yours, do compete in the realm of getting attention in a vast sea of look at me.


The introductory title sequence and animated interludes that I had in mind for my promotional video would require another power player: Adobe After Effects CS3, a high-end professional compositing, effects, and animation tool. Although you might not have known it, you’ve seen motion graphics and visual effects created with After Effects in film titles (including Hollywood movies), video, DVD, and on the web.

After Effects animations are typically of short duration—from several seconds to fewer than 30. This can be a simple, or a complex undertaking as the possibilities and combinations for innovation are limitless.


While After Effects incorporates tools you will find in Photoshop, Illustrator, and nonlinear video apps such as Final Cut Express or Adobe Premiere, it is unlike any other image creation or editing program because it works with motion and time in 2D imagery; and in 3D mode you can also control camera angles and depth of field within compelling environments—which, of course, you must also construct.

Finding a metaphor to describe After Effects is a good place to begin.

Antony Bolante, author of After Effects CS3 Professional: Visual QuickPro Guide from Peachpit, describes After Effects as the opera of digital media. This metaphor works for me as opera incorporates the gamut of theatrical elements: acting, drama, music, sound, lighting, speech, art, costume, set design, and, to pull it all together—direction.

After Effects is extremely flexible, allowing users with various needs to create compositions (called comps) from disparate media sources such as Photoshop, Illustrator, QuickTime movies, and 3D modeling programs. AECS3 brings together typography and layout, photography and digital imaging, digital video and audio editing, and 3D animation. Animating elements over time, or motion graphics, is what After Effects is about.


While After Effects will happily import files made with other apps, AECS3 offers fabulous tools for creating original work directly from within the program—most notably vector graphics (including the new and innovative Shape Layers feature) and a state of the art typography engine that renders out superb 2D and 3D text effects.


After working with AECS3 for nearly two months, my impression was this: I was an auteur (writer, producer and director) with control over all the elements in my 'Indie' production, from setting the stage, animating my ‘actors’—to such advanced tools as sound, lighting, and camera angles. This precise control over motion and time does demand grasping many new concepts—familiarity with Photoshop and Illustrator provides you with a slight edge.


To say that After Effects is feature rich with tools and options would be an understatement. Learning the intricacies of this app with its many levels, parameters, and transformational properties is a challenge. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, you can get a head’s up by first focusing on the basics until they make sense: for example, as apparent as it might seem, begin by taking the time necessary to familiarize yourself with the application window (AE7 users will still find this interface familiar), which, for all its complexity, is extremely well thought out by its designers.

Getting a handle on the After Effects jargon, which draws heavily from digital video editing (footage, keyframes), plus often-used keyboard shortcuts will also get you up to speed. To easily switch between apps, remember to invoke command > tab. Help from the dropdown menu is comprehensive and can answer many of your questions. Fortunately, there are also excellent tutorial books and videos to jumpstart your adventure in the realm of After Effects. Please see links in the tutorial section of the sidebar.


When you add a file (called ‘footage’ by After Effects even if it’s a still image) to the timeline of your comp, After Effects automatically stores it as a layer and provides you with all the transformational properties that can be applied to animate the elements of that particular file (Photoshop, Illustrator, and on QuickTime movies—various effects, trimming a clip or a slip edit).

Simply put, animation is change or motion over time. You animate a layer or an effect on a layer by changing one or more of its transformational properties over time. Basic transformational parameters typically include: position, scale, opacity, and rotation. There are, of course, advanced transformational parameters, especially when working with 3D comps.

Layer properties can then be keyframed in the timeline to create an animation over time. For example, you can animate a layer’s opacity property from 0% to 100% (from one keyframe to another in the timeline) to make the layer fade in. Any property with a stopwatch button to the left of its name in the Timeline panel or Effect Controls panel can be animated. But having the option to animate a property doesn’t mean you have to—in fact, you will find yourself mostly working with a base set of options, and subtly goes a long way in animation.


The final After Effects compositions (you add footage to your comps to create animations) for my book promotional video aren’t yet ready; however, I did want to show you where I'm heading; see the QuickTime movies (1 through 4) in the sidebar; to conserve bandwidth for faster loading, I reduced the file size of each movie with the very handy Sorenson Squeeze with great results.

Text movement is good; however, note the added value of incorporating film and sound (4: Film & Sound); sound quality is as important if not more so than your video. To hear audio in your movie, remember to check the audio output box in the AECS3 output module settings before rendering (to QuickTime, Flash, other format) your composition.

Film & Sound sequence: ocean waves stock footage courtesy of Artbeats; ambient surf and waves sound courtesy of

After Effects CS3 is a vast program; my goal here is to introduce you to a few features plus several fundamental concepts of what the program does, which may then also inspire you to get your feet wet. Please see the sidebar for examples.


While introducing new tools and features, the current release of After Effects is as much about seamless workflow with other apps in Adobe’s Production Premium suite—something Adobe has been refining over the years with great results. For example, AECS3 integration becomes especially apparent when importing layers and effects directly from Photoshop Extended and Illustrator CS3 files—another incredibly efficient time saver.


Photoshop provides a variety of layer styles many of us are already familiar with—such as shadows, glows, and bevels—that change the appearance of a layer. After Effects can preserve these layer styles when importing Photoshop layers. You can also apply layer styles directly in After Effects and then animate their properties.


Another significant feature in After Effects CS3 Professional is support for the new Video Layers in PSD files created with Photoshop CS3 Extended. You can create new video layers by adding a video file as a new layer or creating a blank layer.

You can edit or paint on individual video frames to create an animation, add content, or to remove unwanted details. In addition to using any brush tool, you can paint using the Clone Stamp, Pattern Stamp, Healing Brush, or Spot Healing Brush. You can also edit video frames using the Patch tool.

Note: Painting (or using any other tool) on video frames is often called rotoscoping; traditionally, rotoscoping involves the frame-by-frame tracing of live action images for use in animation.

Integration enables you to combine After Effects and Photoshop’s toolsets when working on video rotoscoping and other design tasks. The way this works is that a layered PSD file is saved on disk alongside the movie file it incorporates. When you import the PSD file into After Effects as a composition, it then references the associated movie file for content on the corresponding layer.

In fact, all your AECS3 compositions are constructed solely from links to the source files on your hard drive; this is incredibly effiencient.


Vanishing Point in Photoshop lets you specify 3D sets of planes of perspective onto a 2D image. After importing your PSD file, you can then use those planes as layers to build your 3D comps in After Effects—this feature works quite well for subtle arrangements of perspective and depth—from transforming a 2D image of a building into a 3D model to sliding a flat album label insert onto the shape of a half open CD jewel case.


In Adobe Illustrator CS3, you can add vector graphics to pre-production plans and create new film and video documents that integrate directly into capture and production functions. The new Crop Area tool in Illustrator CS3 provides a working environment that includes dimensions and units tailored to your output. For video and film, predefined Crop Area characteristics set up your workspace so that it’s automatically prepared for the type of media that will display your designs.

The next step would be to import your Illustrator file (already properly sized for your comp) into After Effects as a Composition. This way, all individual layers in the file remain separate so, if necessary, they can be adjusted or animated separately in After Effects.


Not to be overlooked, Adobe Bridge CS3 acts a convenient go between applications, file organization and sharing, and provides centralized access to your project files, applications, and settings, along with Adobe XMP (Extensible Markup Platform) metadata tagging and searching capabilities.

Bridge also serves as your dynamic environment for viewing animated AECS3 presets on the fly, and then having the option of applying that effect to your composition.


An After Effects composition (comp) has spatial dimensions plus a temporal dimension, called duration, or length of time. A composition is where you create all animation, layering, and effects.

When you create a new comp (the comp icon represents the After Effects native file format), you are defining the size, video format, and time duration of your animation. Should you change your mind, After Effects does permit you to come back later to alter your original settings. Every composition you create opens a comp window (which shows how your animation looks) with a corresponding timeline (where you add the source material for your animation as layers for that comp).

Compositions include one or more layers. Any item that you add to a composition—such as a still image, moving image, audio file, light layers, camera layers, or even another composition—becomes a new layer. Simple projects may include only one composition, while elaborate projects may include several compositions to organize large amounts of footage or intricate effects sequences.

As Ko Maruyama often points out in his AECS3 Essentials Total Training video, one handy feature for viewing the timeline or other panels with lots of information is this: To quickly maximize a panel beneath the pointer, press the tilde (~) key. (Do not press Shift.) Press the tilde key again to return the panel to its original size.


Still images and animations based on vector graphics are a mainstay of print, web, video, and film design. Previously, many motion graphics artists would create these elements in programs such as Adobe Illustrator and animate them inside After Effects, or use web-oriented software such as Adobe Flash.

Shape Layers is a new, powerful, fully integrated vector graphic creation and animation tool. Based on the vector drawing standards of Illustrator, this exciting new feature simplifies the process of creating and animating shapes. Built-in parametric shapes include polygons and stars as well as ellipses and squared or rounded rectangles; in addition, you can draw your own shapes with the Pen tool. Shape Layers can be used to create anything from simple abstract objects to entire cartoons. You also have full control over fill, stroke, and gradients.


After Effects CS3 boosts vector graphics to the next level by including the ability to animate nearly every parameter and also by providing a wide variety of useful shape effects such as Twist, Pucker & Bloat, Wiggle Paths, and the powerful Repeater effect. A Shape Layer may have multiple shapes, and you have many options for how these shapes are grouped and combined. They can also be used to create stroked paths for underscores and other graphic elements. Shape Layers offer artists, especially for those on deadline work, a quick and easy means for creating sophisticated, beautiful shape-based animations.


You can now add a new dimension to your text animation with the power to move and rotate individual characters in 3D space.

The remarkably versatile text engine in After Effects combines the precision typesetting capabilities of Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator with animation tools that provide control over how every line, word, character, or range of characters will scale, rotate, move, fade, skew, change color, track, fade, and blur. AECS3 adds another powerful feature: the ability for each line, word, character, or range of characters to move independently in 3D space—on the X, Y, and Z axis. After Effects ships with hudreds of professionally created presets, including 3D Text Animation Presets. You can also make and save your own presets.

While you can create and animate text inside After Effects, you may find yourself importing a Photoshop CS2 file with text as a composition; with one simple click you can then convert the Photoshop text into After Effects editable text.


Designers will also relish the new and innovative Puppet tool. As the name implies, you can use the Puppet tools to quickly add natural motion to raster images and vector graphics, including still images, shapes, and text characters.

The Puppet effect works by deforming part of an image according to the positions of pins that you place and move. These pins define what parts of the image should move, what parts should remain rigid, and what parts should be in front when parts overlap.

Clip Notes allows you to collaborate externally with others to review and comment on projects. New color management capabilities allow artists to maintain precise and predictable color from input to output. And the new Adobe Device Central CS3 software makes it easy to prepare content for delivery on mobile devices—from cell phones to iPods.


This is, of course, a mere speck of what AECS3 has to offer and what you can accomplish with this unique motion graphics program. With fantastic new animation tools, time-saving features, plus impeccable integration with other Adobe apps, After Effects CS3 is a must have upgrade and an ideal entry release for new users who want to know how far down does the rabbit hole go.

After Effects CS3 Professional US$999
Upgrade from: US$299
Or as part of the Production Premium Suite, US$1,699




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