After Effects is Adobe’s robust program for creating visual effects and motion graphics. The first in a series aimed at helping beginners learn the program, this article will review key parts of the After Effects interface and show you how to begin a project, open a composition and create layers in a timeline. Open the software on your computer and follow along; let’s get started!

Beginning a new After Effects project

When you open the program, a splash screen will appear. Here, you can choose to learn from a variety of tutorials, open an existing project or begin a new project. You can also close out of this screen without choosing anything.

Next, setup the workspace to your liking. The Window menu shows the available panels you can open, and they can be aligned next to other panels or nested within an existing panel. However, I recommend you go to Window > Workspace > Standard to select the standard preset workspace. My custom workspace is shown below:

Regardless of the workspace you choose, the most important panels include Tools, Project, Composition and the Timeline. The Tools panel is on the top left. Of most use for this article will be the Selection Tool (your main tool that is to the right of the “Home” icon) and the Text Tool (the “T” icon).

The project panel is below the tools panel and will hold all the assets for your project. This includes files you import into the program as well as elements you generate within After Effects. You can create folders here for better organization. A project holds your composition, which is the collection of layers that you work on in a timeline.

Opening a composition

To better see this, let’s create a composition. Go to Composition > New Composition. The Composition Settings box will appear. Type a name for your composition. Then, choose a preset or create your own settings. My typical workflows are either 1920×1080 or 1280×720 at 29.97 frame rate with a square pixel ratio. Then, type the duration of your composition and select OK.

Now you will see the composition in the composition window, although it will be a black screen by default. If you highlight the composition in the project panel, you can always go back to Composition Settings to change anything.

Creating layers in a timeline

Notice that the bottom timeline panel now shows your composition name. Layers are managed in the timeline panel and represented visually in the composition panel. Layers can be elements that you import, such as a photo, or things you create in After Effects itself, such as a text layer or a colored solid.

Let’s create a colored solid layer. Click in your timeline panel area to make sure it is active (it will become outlined in blue). Then, go to Layer > New > Solid. Choose the name, size, and color of your solid. When you select OK, the solid will appear as a layer in your timeline. You’ll also see it in the project panel in a folder entitled Solids.

Now, let’s create a text layer. Click on the text tool in the tools panel. Then, click in your composition and type a word (don’t worry about font options for now). Notice how the text layer appears on the top of your timeline. Just like Photoshop, the layers on top appear over the layers on the bottom. In the timeline, drag the solid layer above the text layer and you will see in the composition that it covers the text. Then, drag the solid layer back underneath the text layer in the timeline.

Working with timelines

The After Effects timeline that holds layers has some similarities with the Photoshop layer panel. The biggest differences are that you have a lot more options and time extends out to the right. By clicking and dragging the time indicator, you scroll forward in time. If you hit space bar, the timeline will play forward. If you hit the Page Down button, you will advance one singular frame.

In video, frames make up time in the timeline. The timecode and frame numbers are seen in blue text on the top left of the timeline panel. Remember the frame rate you selected in your Composition Settings? If you selected 29.97, then basically 30 frames equal one second of time. You can make adjustments to your layers on a frame-by-frame basis.

Click on the text layer’s colored bar (red by default) in the timeline panel and drag to the right until the beginning of the bar is at the 1-second mark (1:00f). Alternatively, you could select the layer, move the time marker to the 1-second mark, and hit the Left Bracket key to move the layer in time. Now, drag your time indicator back to the beginning of the timeline (0 seconds). Press space bar to play the timeline. Note how you only see the solid layer during the first second of playback. Then, once the time indicator hits the 1-second mark on the timeline during playback, the text layer appears because that is where we dragged its starting point. This is how you position layers in the timeline to appear at certain points in linear time.

Let’s look at a layer and review all options (follow along on the above image). On the far left of a layer is the show or hide layer button. Click the eye icon to toggle visibility of the layer. Next is the audio option to turn on or off the audio in a layer. Our layers do not have sound, so this option is not available. But, if you brought a video with audio, sound effect or music in as a layer, this option would appear. Next is the solo button. If you select this, you will only see the clip that is soloed. Finally, you’ll see the lock button. Selecting this will not allow any changes to the layer.

To the right of the lock is the label. You can select the color of your layer. In Preferences>Labels, you can select default colors for different types of assets, such as compositions, audio, video, stills, etc. This helps you recognize what type of asset the layer is. Next is the layer number (in our case, Layer 1 and Layer 2).

Next comes the source name and icon. For the text layer, we see the “T” symbol next to the name to denote a text layer. For the solid layer, we see a solid color symbol. The source name for a text layer usually defaults to whatever word(s) your type. If the source was a file from your hard drive, you would see the file name here. If you click where it says Source Name on the timeline (above the layer), it will toggle to Layer Name. You can highlight the layer and rename it to whatever you want. The source name will remain the same, but renaming the layer name to something more helpful is useful when dealing with hundreds of layers in a composition.

To the right of the layer name are a series of switches. Since this is a beginner lesson, we do not need to worry about the switches now. Just know that some switches that are turned on for a layer will only activate when a master button (above, to the right of the search bar in the timeline panel) is selected. Note that on the bottom of the timeline panel, there is an option to Toggle Switches/Modes. If you click this, the switches will disappear, and you will see blending mode and track matte options for the layer. You will be familiar with most of these from Photoshop.

Finally, you’ll see the Parent & Link option. This allows you to have a layer follow the actions of another layer. For example, say you want 10 different layers to revolve around a middle layer. You just need to animate one layer to do the action and then have the other layers linked to that layer so they’ll move the same way.

In the next article, we will explore the properties of layers and introduce keyframes, which set parameters for properties/movement.