Looking to get started with Adobe After Effects? For those beginning their video editing journey, there might not be anything scarier than opening AE for the first time. There’s a lot to take in.

But, don’t let Adobe’s visual effects, motion graphics and compositing software freak you out too much, underneath its complex-looking interface there is actually a quite intuitive design that is surprisingly easy to learn.

So, before you dive into After Effects for the first time, take a deep breath, fill your lungs with willful and positive air, and follow along with this ultimate guide to getting started with Adobe After Effects…

How do I get started in After Effects? 

As with any video editing platform, the trick to learning After Effects is to simply understand why it exists and what makes it so unique. After Effects is indeed a very powerful application, however its main functionalities are all centered around empowering visual creators with enough tools and controls to quickly and easily create video compositions which can be both quite basic as well as advanced.

A brief introduction to the Adobe Creative Cloud

If you aren’t familiar, After Effects is a part of the Adobe Creative Cloud. (This is what the CC stands for in case you were wondering.) To use After Effects you will either need to purchase it directly, or you will need to subscribe to the Creative Cloud – which is how most of its users pay for the app.

Joining the Creative Cloud will allow you to instantly access, install and even jump between the different Adobe platforms like Photoshop, Illustrator, Premiere Pro and Media Composer. Looking specifically at After Effects, having this cross-functionality is especially key for the creation and editing of different assets which you might need to move across apps.

What sets After Effects apart from Adobe Premiere Pro? 

As we’ve covered in the past, Premiere Pro is another legacy video editing software offered by Adobe which is a true mainstay in the film and video industry. (And if you’re curious, here’s a helpful guide to Premiere Pro from the pros which you should bookmark for future reference.)

However, while Premiere Pro is a great NLE (non-linear editor) for editing your video projects on a straightforward timeline and with some basic effects, After Effects is a far superior editing system that offers much more in terms of visual effects, motion graphics and compositing.

Why should I try After Effects? 

To be honest, After Effects is not for everyone. At least not when you’re first starting out in film and video. For many video professionals, apps like Premiere Pro, or Apple’s Final Cut Pro, or Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve might be just fine.

However, for anyone who truly wants to up their game with some stunning visual effects and motion graphics, After Effects is by far one of the most powerful – as well as accessible.

A few more After Effects frequently asked questions

What can I even do with After Effects? 

Unlike other NLE (non-linear editing) apps, After Effects is one of the best programs for crafting more sophisticated visual effects, motion graphics and other animated compositions.

Is Adobe After Effects good for video editing? 

While you can certainly edit video in Adobe After Effects, it is mainly used for visual effects, motion graphics and basic animation. If you’re looking strictly for video editing you might want to explore more basic softwares like Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro or DaVinci Resolve.

How hard is After Effects to learn for beginners? 

After Effects can be a bit tricky to learn for those opening it up for the first time. However, if you follow along with the many learning resources available to you online you can learn the basics pretty quickly.

How long does it take to learn After Effects? 

It all depends on how much time and energy that you plan to put in, but with the right commitment you can learn After Effects in anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

Why should I learn After Effects?

After Effects is one of the best tools for editing visual effects, motion graphics and animation. When used in conjunction with other NLE apps like Premiere Pro, there is really no limit to your video editing capabilities.

How to add keyframe in After Effects 

Let’s start by taking a look at adding keyframes, one of the most fundamental building blocks to any After Effects composition. Here are the quick steps you’ll need to follow to begin to craft your compositions.

  1. Click the stopwatch icon next to the property name
  2. Select Animation > Add Keyframe

Once you’ve made a selection, you’ll be able to move and adjust the keyframes as you see fit as you add in further effects.

How to make a gif in After Effects 

After Effects is also one of the best programs around for creating animated GIFs. You can create these GIFs either from scratch, or from pulling in previous video assets. Follow along with the video above as you try out these steps:

  1. Select your composition
  2. Click “Add to Adobe Media Encoder”
  3. Click the triangle icon next to “Format” in the Render Panel
  4. Choose “Animated GIF” and select the size
  5. Choose your output file name and location
  6. Click the Render button

Crafting GIFs is very much an artform unto itself, if you’d like to learn a bit more about the process you can read up on turning videos into GIFs by using several different Adobe programs as well.

How to import media into After Effects 

To help you get started, you’ll also want to make sure you know how to import media files into After Effects. These files can include an array of video and audio clips and assets. Here are the two basic ways to add media files into AE:

  1. Choose File > Import > File (or Multiple Files)
  2. Double click in the Project Panel 

You can also simply drag and drop any media files into the Project Panel as well. Pretty easy right?

How to export video from After Effects 

Exporting footage is a little more complicated on the other hand as you’ll have many more options to consider. However, don’t worry, the basic commands for exporting a video in After Effects are as follows:

  1. Select the composition from which you’d like to export
  2. Choose Composition > Add to Render Queue (or drag composition to Render Queue)
  3. Choose name and location for output file
  4. Choose Render and Log Type settings (or go with templates)
  5. Choose your Output Module settings (or go with templates)

Once everything has been selected, your entry in the Render column will automatically be selected and changed to Queued and ready to render and export.

How to animate type in After Effects (in just 8 steps!) 

It’s easier than you think to create timeless type animation that will immediately up the value of your video — and help increase your view count in no time.

By using the animate functions within type layers in After Effects, you can copy and paste your animation to any other titles you wish. Let’s get started. 

  1. Open an After Effects composition. You’ll find the type tool in the top left corner in between the pen and brush tool. 
  2. Type out the title you’d like to animate.
  3. Go to Animate > Position.
  4. Once the animator appears, click on it. It will reveal the Range Selector and Position.  Change your Position value so the word is completely off the screen (down or up, dealers choice). To stay organized, rename your animator “Position.”
  5. Now, animate the Range Selector. With the Range Selector, notice that Start is at 100 and End is at 0. When you toggle these, the letter will fly onto the screen one by one. We want the first letter to come first, so with End turned up to 100 and Start on 0, set a key frame. Track forward about 1 second and set another key frame, with Start turned up to 100. When you play it back now, each letter should fly into place one by one. If we stop here, your animation will look good. But let’s make it great.
  6. Drop down the Advanced setting in your range selector. Under Shape set it to Ramp Up. This will make your animation look odd for a second and require us to fix the Offset. Turn on a keyframe at the start with the Offset at 0 and then a new keyframe at one second turned up to 100. Now it should animate more smoothly, with the letters flowing together, rather than one by one. 
  7. Now, drop down your Animate column and add Opacity. The Start Animator will automatically change your type’s opacity from 0 to 100 so your letters smoothly animate on.
  8. Last but not least, under Advanced, turn the value of Ease Low up to 100. Now you have smooth letters animating up onto the screen.

Bonus: If you’re already an After Effects pro, you can go into the speed graph to get the timing just right. Make sure to go through and fiddle with all of the different options in the Animate drop down — chances are you’ll stumble upon something awesome.

How to mask in After Effects 

Adding an animation behind an object in your video can give it that extra character in an otherwise static scene. To achieve this snazzy look, you need to mask out the object from your video, and then you can add in graphics or words behind it. Today we’ll intro you to basic masking (or rotoscoping), using the pen tool and animating a path. 

Let’s get started. 

How to make a mask in After Effects (in 9 steps)

For this very basic overview, we will be masking the beautiful Vimeo HQ building as it has a unique shape that will require us to use curves. 

  1. Load your video into the project area and then drag and add it to your timeline. 
  2. Now, add an adjustment layer above your video on your timeline. Go to Layer > New > Adjustment Layer. Name this layer “Mask.” Do this instead of masking directly onto your video. This is an ultra-secure method of saving your work. That way you’ll always have your original video file unharmed if something goes wrong.
  3. Now, move your play head to the first frame in your timeline. Click on your Adjustment Layer.
  4. On the top left corner of the screen, click on the pen icon. Click and drag your pen tool to begin outlining the object you want to mask out. Take your time to get your lines just right and make sure you close the path. Do this by connecting back to the first node you made. The mask won’t work if the path isn’t closed. You’ll know the path is closed when a small circle appears next to the pen tool when you hover over the node.
  5. When you start drawing on this Adjustment Layer, you will notice a Mask appear in the layer’s dropdown menu. Go to Properties and click the stopwatch symbol next to Mask Path. You will see a keyframe (small diamond) appear on the timeline.
  6. Step 6: Move your playhead 4-6 frames ahead on your timeline. You will see that either your object or the shot moves. You’ll need to move the mask to make it perfectly outline your object. Adjust your path while making sure you see another keyframe appear on the timeline. Then, move your nodes around to outline your shape again. Yes, it’s tedious, but the end results are totally worth it.
  7. Step 7: Repeat Step 6 over and over and over (however many frames it takes). By the end, you’ll be an absolute wizard at the pen tool. 
  8. Step 8: Drag the animation that you want behind your object into the timeline between your video and Mask layer. 
  9. Step 9: Finally, toggle on the Track Matte function on your animation timeline. To display your Track Matte options, click the little icon in the bottom left corner that looks like a circle and square overlapping(it’s the middle of the three). This will reveal a TrkMat column. In that dropdown menu select None > Alpha Inverted Matte “Mask”.

Make sure your alpha inverted matte is on, and play it back to see your animation in action!

Pro-tip: To edit your path, click outside the path the nodes will become tiny filled-in circles. Now when you click on them, you can move them and adjust the handles as you please.

How to start animating Illustrator files in After Effects 

Animating graphics is an essential skill to keep in your filmmaking wheelhouse. Whether you’re refining some beautiful bumpers or creating compelling lower thirds, you will undoubtedly cross paths with After Effects during your animating journey.

In order to properly execute in After Effects, you’ll want complete control over the elements within your graphic. The best way to achieve this is to design your graphic in Adobe Illustrator first, and then import it into After Effects as separated layers. We’ll walk you through the process below.

Why Illustrator over After Effects?

It’s not really one over the other. It’s more: Illustrator first, After Effects second. While you could use After Effects for some of your design needs, the truth is that Illustrator is just easier, more intuitive, and more functional.

For simple shapes and text animations, designing in After Effects might be the quicker route, but for more complex graphics, Illustrator will save you time and sanity.

Creating your graphic

To begin, create an artboard in Illustrator that’s the same size as your video. In our example, we use 1920×1080. The final version will be a vector image that you can scale infinitely, but it’s nice to design in the same frame size as your video for perspective.

After creating your graphic, consider which pieces of it will need to be controlled in After Effects. You may find that you want control of every single element, or it might make more sense to keep certain elements together. Once you’ve decided what you want to control, you’ll need to separate them out into their own layers.

Layers on layers on layers

To create these separate elements, you’ll have to create new layers (click on the box with a folded corner). Each will function as its own separate layer in After Effects, so create as many as you need and then begin dragging the elements you want to control into each new layer.

Be sure to keep your layers in the order you designed them, so the correct elements are on top. As you drag your elements into their own separate layers, give them a name. This will help you stay organized and keep track of them all. Bonus: these names will carry over when you move your work to After Effects.

Transferring to After Effects

When you’re finished in Illustrator, save your .ai file.

Next, open After Effects and drag your .ai file into the Project panel. When the menu pops up, make sure to choose Composition for Import Kind and Layer Size for Footage Dimensions. When you click OK, a new composition will appear in your Project panel.

Open the composition and boom your layers will appear, nicely separated, organized, and ready to be animated.

Before you begin animating, make sure to check your Anchor Points. This is good practice since Anchor Points can get messed up, creating problems with scaling animation, in addition to other types of animation. You can move your Anchor Points around using the Pan Behind tool (Y).

If you want the ability to scale your layers infinitely, turn on Continuously Rasterize for each layer. You can also right click on a layer and choose Create Shapes from the Vector Layer to give yourself even more control over your layer(s).

Happy animating!

More video editing insights

If you’d like to further hone your video chopping skills and techniques, check out some of these other editing-focused articles from Vimeo, like these:

Continue your schooling with Vimeo Video School.

Originally written by Niko Brown, Coco McGuire, and Mark Cersosimo. Updated in 2021 by Jourdan Aldredge