After Effects is Adobe’s robust program for creating visual effects and motion graphics. This is the second in a series aimed at helping beginners learn the program, and will cover layer properties and keyframes.
If you haven’t read the first article, click here. To follow along, just create a composition and make a text layer so you have something to work with.
To view layer properties, click the triangle that is in the label column to the left of the layer name. The triangle will rotate downward and available properties will appear for the layer. In the case of a text layer, this includes the text and transform properties. The transform properties will be our focus for this lesson, as they are available and important in any type of layer.
Using transform properties
There are five transform properties: Anchor Point, Position, Scale, Rotation and Opacity. If you want to call up one individually, you can hit the hot key. The hot keys for the five are “A” for Anchor Point, “P” for Position, “S” for Scale, “R” for Rotation and “T” for Opacity (Transparency).
When you select a layer in the timeline, you will see it become outlined in the composition window. The anchor point is designated by the target symbol. It is prudent to set the anchor point first before doing animations, as that is the point on the layer that other actions (like changing scale or rotation) originate from.
Working with anchor points
In Example A below, the anchor point is in the bottom middle of the text layer and I’ve placed a guide at the bottom of the text to help you visualize what is happening. When I scale up the layer, it scales up from the anchor point. In Example B, the anchor point has been moved to the middle of the layer. When I scale up now, the layer scales out evenly from the center.
The anchor point can be adjusted from the transform properties of the layer by clicking on the X and Y values and changing the numbers. The hot key for anchor point is “A,” so by pressing that key you will just see the anchor point property without the other properties.
In addition, you can change the anchor point directly in the composition window itself. With the layer highlighted in the timeline so it is outlined in the composition, press the “Y” key to change your tool from the Selection Tool to the Pan Behind Tool (or just select it from the Tools panel … it is to the right of the camera icon). Then, you can click on the anchor point in the composition window and drag it where you want it. Remember to hit the “V” key afterwards to return to your normal selection tool.
The other four transform properties are self-explanatory. Position moves the layer in the composition window. Scale sizes it up or down. The dimensions will move together unless you select the Constrain Proportions box (to the right of the scale number) to remove the link icon. Then, you can scale the dimensions to different values. Rotation, of course, rotates the layer and opacity sets the transparency level of the layer.
The results of changing any value will immediately be seen in the composition window. However, if you want to animate the layer (change over time), you need to set parameters called keyframes.
Setting keyframes will be your most common action in After Effects. When you set a keyframe, you set the attributes of a layer at a point in time. Then, you set another keyframe further down the timeline and After Effects will automatically fill in the movements needed on each frame to get from the look at the first keyframe to the second keyframe.
Let’s practice with position keyframes, so press “P” to bring up the position property. To set a keyframe, press the stopwatch icon to the left of the word position. The stopwatch turns blue in color and you’ll see a blue diamond keyframe appear under your colored layer bar exactly where the time indicator is in your timeline. Keyframes are made wherever your time indicator is. Now, move the time indicator further down the timeline. Then, we’ll set another keyframe.
Setting the second keyframe can be done in a number of ways. You can change the numeric property value (in this case, the X or Y coordinates of the position property) by typing in new numbers. Or, you can hover over a value and click and drag your mouse to scroll through values. Hitting shift while clicking and dragging scrolls through values much faster. If the layer is highlighted, you can also change the position in the composition window. You can either click and drag it to a new position or use the arrow keys to move the position.
Note: Remember that arrow keys move layer property values. They do NOT move the time indicator, like in some editing programs. Page Up and Page Down buttons move the time indicator.
Whichever method you used to move the layer to a new position, you’ll see a second blue diamond keyframe appear. Now, drag the time indicator back to the first keyframe and hit spacebar. The timeline will play and you’ll see the position of your layer change in-between the first and second keyframe. Congratulations, you made an animation!
You can set infinite position keyframes on a layer, and you can set different kinds of keyframes on the same layer. For example, you can also set rotation keyframes so you layer will rotate and move at the same time. Play around with it. If you want to see all the layer properties that you have created keyframes for, press the “U” key. It’s commonly referred to it as the Uber button since it is especially useful.
Managing keyframe placements
You can move keyframes by clicking on them and dragging them along the timeline. If you want to clear all your keyframes, just hit the blue stopwatch and it will erase them all and you can start over. Or, you can click on a keyframe to highlight it and hit delete. You can also click on a keyframe and copy it. Then, you can paste it in a different spot (wherever your place your time indicator). You can even paste it to a different layer.
To the very left of the layer property you are altering, you’ll see a left arrow, empty diamond keyframe and right arrow. Clicking these arrows will move the time indicator from one keyframe to another. The diamond will turn blue when the time indicator is on a keyframe. When blue, you can click on this diamond area to delete a keyframe. If not blue, you can click to add a keyframe at the time indicator.
If you right-click on a keyframe, a menu will pop up. Two selections in the menu are quite useful. Keyframe Assistant has options to ease in or out of a keyframe. This means that the animation can accelerate slowly out of a keyframe or slow into a keyframe (much like a car coming to or moving away from a stop sign). This would be instead of the movement being at the same speed the entire time.
Keyframe Interpolation affects the change of a property over time. Will it make a straight (linear) path from point A to point B, or a curved (bezier) path? Perhaps these are more advanced nuances, but worth noting here.
Working with layers
Finally, let’s right-click on the colored layer bar in the timeline. Here we see a whole host of options. You have the ability to create masks to hide certain parts of a layer (similar to Photoshop). You have some transform properties (like flip horizontal or vertical). You have the ability to reverse a layer (play backwards), speed up or slow down the layer, and freeze the layer (if a video clip). In addition, you’ll find blending modes and layer styles, which will make a Photoshop user feel at home.
Some of the other options on this menu are more advanced and for another day. In our next article, we’ll place effects on layers and use keyframes to animate them.