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If you want to become a resourceful creative artist then look no further! This quick reference to After Effects will show you how to open, install and get up-and-running to a professional level with Adobe's motion graphics and visual effects software package.
Curtis Sponsler guides you through some of the common stumbling blocks that frustrate novice and many intermediate designers. Clear and concise full color examples will help you to quickly learn the key features, interface and functional techniques used within the production workspace. By putting these key skills into practice you will discover how to build on and extrapolate concepts, enabling you to solve common production design problems straight away! You can then move on to build simple compositions and progress into the advanced feature-set of After Effects.
As you work through each section you will grasp an ever-increasing array of tools and capabilities to discover a program that will well and truly change your working life! Achieve excellent results, fast, through Curtis Sponsler's expert teaching
Interface Navigation The After Effects Workspace
Before you delve right in to creating a project, you should understand the basic structure of the After Effects interface. If you're familiar with most Adobe products, After Effects should look familiar – that's intentional and welcome. But to people who use many other programs, the interface can appear daunting. Trust me, After Effects is as simple a program to use as it is complex in its capabilities. Let's examine the interface and dispel any concerns about its intimidating layout.
A glance at the image below shows what a typical (though colorized) 'workspace' might look like. It contains the three primary production windows that you'll be continually using: the Project Window (in yellow), the Timeline Window (orange), and the Composition Window (green) or Preview Window as others might call it.
Primary Workspace Windows
The Project Window is where you organize all your assets (movie clips, photo and graphic stills, vector files, etc.). The Project Window looks similar to a Finder or Explorer directory window you might use to navigate through your computer's hard disk. It shows file names, the type of file it is, their size, duration, and location.
The next two windows are directly associated with one another. The Timeline Window and the Composition (preview) Window are where project design and construction take place. The Timeline Window should look familiar to any editor with its rows of project element layers and Timecode indices. Here's where you apply effects, create Keyframe animations and generally develop your projects.
The other main window, the Composition Window, is where you view your project results and physically manipulate your resource elements. Here you can move, scale, and rotate your files, zoom in/out of your rendered composition, create masks, paint/clone, and modify text.
Along with the main windows are several smaller free-floating palette windows (three seen at next page) that provide special functions and options to the production process. You can access these under the Window menu at the top menu bar of After Effects.
All palettes can be reconfigured, attaching to each other as 'tabbed' floating groups or free to be placed wherever you prefer.
The most common palettes accessed depend on the kind of work primarily created: designers might use Tools, Time Controls, Info, and Character controls, whereas effects artists might keep Paint, Tracker Controls, and Smart Mask instead of the Type tools. For this section we'll briefly describe the three most commonly accessed tools and some of their icons' functions: Info, Tools, and Time Controls. When available, shortcut keys identify the icon feature described.
Info Window – This provides critical functional data about current tasks. There are three areas where information is provided.
 Pixel Value – tells about the color of the current pixel residing under the cursor. Clicking on the Info Window will switch the readout for different Color-Space modes. HSV Hue (color), Saturation (vividness), Value (brightness); Web Web Browser color number in Hexadecimal or RGB precision where the individual primary additive colors are displayed in Web Hexadecimal, Percentage, 8 bit, 10 bit, or 16 bit depth.
 Cursor Position – provides the coordinates where the cursor's point is located in the Comp, Layer, or Footage Windows.
 Current Property Values – shows the information about any function being currently performed: rotation angle, scale change, timecode position, etc.
Tools Window – This is the primary resource for cursor functions. Many of the icons have multiple capabilities, which can be accessed by repetitive presses of the icon's shortcut key or by click and dragging on the icon to open a fly-out menu of options:
Select & Move – used to reposition or activate layer items.
Grab Hand – moves the whole workspace within the Comp Window.
Zoom – either magnifies or reduces the workspace.
Pan Behind & Anchor – repositions the pivot point of layers' and slides' Timeline layer elements for editing function.
Mask – creates an oval or square matte inside layers.
Type – allows for direct typography upon the Comp Window.
Pen – creates or modifies Spline Vector Paths for flexible Masks or paths for objects to follow. 3D Axis Modes – set the method for 3D Cameras, Lights, and Layers to respond to cursor input.
Erase – works with the Paint Tools, functioning like an eraser in Photoshop or any Paint program.
Clone – transfers an image's selected area to another area to hide or modify a feature in the target image.
Paint – allows for direct touch-up or complete paint work upon any layer. This operates in a vector paint mode where all strokes are recorded as Illustrator Splines, permitting continuous modification and non-destructive design.
3D Camera – operates upon the position, rotation, and zooming on any 3D Camera placed in a compostion.
Rotate – selects and spins any layer in either 2D or 3D modes.
Time Controls – Use this menu to perform RAM Previews or to manually examine the flow of your project. Think of these as your VCR/DVD remote functions for your project's playback.
CTI Controls – operate the RAM Preview playback or allow for control of any layer's review in the Layer or Footage Windows.
Preview Frame Rate – sets the speed the RAM Preview will play back in Frames Per Second.
Preview Frame Skip – permits RAM Previews to jump every 'nth' frame to accelerate the preview creation and use less system memory.
Preview Quality – sets the workspace pixel accuracy to render the RAM Preview. Lower quality percentages increase preview speed and use less memory.
Create RAM Preview – activates the rendering of a Composition or the playback of the Footage and Layer Windows for real-time playback.
Play Loop Modes – sets the method of playback, for either looping or one preview then stop.
The Project Window – Where You Gather Your Work's Resources
The Project Window's upper left corner displays a thumbnail image of every item you select and provides information about that item. Clicking on one of the little triangle arrowheads and the folder it points at will twirl open to reveal its contents.
I've emphasized good habits for the organized designer – use folders and use them often. If you don't use folders, your Project Window could end up looking something like the image at right – and that was just a small project.
Project Window Buttons
There are five small buttons along the bottom left of the Project Window, as seen here.
From left to right, they are:
Find Project Item
Project Bit Depth.
There are several ways to add items to the Project Window: using the Import dialog and by drag and drop from your Finder or Explorer. For consistency I'll be focusing on the Import dialog method because of its similarity to other file management techniques used throughout After Effects.
On the main menu bar under File you'll find the Import function. With this you can gather all the elements or resources you need to build your projects.
You are offered several methods how to import your resources:
Single File import
Multiple Files import
With Single File (Ctrl + I) you can grab just one file, clip or a continuous sequence (sequential frames) of related images for import. Alternatively, by holding either the Shift of Control keys you can select consecutive or random groups of files that reside in the same folder.
With the Multiple Files selection (Ctrl + Alt + I) you can gather numerous individual resources, as well as multiple sequences, residing in different folders at once.
The Placeholder function allows you to build projects while elements are still being created in other programs (i.e. while a 3D logo is being rendered, or a designer is illustrating a logo), allowing you to set up an After Effects composition in advance. Placeholders show up as frames of colorbars.
Solid import is similar to Placeholder but creates color-filled boxes useful for many effects applications. However, you'll be better off creating your Solids resources as you build your projects.
Additionally, you can access the Import dialog box by two other methods: either by double-clicking inside the Project Window (this opens the 'Single File' Import dialog) or by right-clicking inside the Project Window to reveal a floating menu.
The Import Dialog Box
Press 'Ctrl + I' to open the 'Single File Import' dialog. It looks similar to any Adobe style 'Open' dialog box with its simple navigation tools to move around your computer or network.
You can change the method of how files are displayed inside the dialog by clicking on the 'View Menu' (in the upper right corner) button to the right of the
'New Folder' button. I often switch modes to 'Details' to assist in the selection of the most up-to-date files.
At the bottom of the dialog box is a drop-down menu (shown left) that changes how After Effects manages certain imported files. Herein lies one of After Effects' great capabilities: automatic creation of compositions from Photoshop or Illustrator files while retaining a majority of the file's settings.
The 'Composition – Cropped Layers' option better isolates your layers' contents. For example, if you have a composition with many small graphics elements per layer, then imported the composition as Cropped Layers, each layer in After Effects would have its elements contained (seen below) within a tight bounding box, excluding all unused space outside the elements' boundaries. Selecting 'Composition' will make a full layer out of each element (see top of next page) filling the entire composition's size – which could be a huge waste of space and RAM, and especially annoying when it comes time to move each element.
Another method of importing Photoshop files is as 'Footage'. When you choose this option, a second dialog box opens, offering you even more import options (seen left). Here you can select each layer to import individually.
Again, just as importing the whole composition, you can specify whether or not it crops each layer on import.
The Timeline Window – Where You Build Your Work
The main production window for After Effects is the Timeline Window. It's here where people get most intimidated and overwhelmed – and that's quite understandable. With its dizzying array of columns, and rows upon rows (if you're working with an already created composition) of layered items, it's very easy to get anxious and lost.
To an editor who is familiar with non-linear editing programs (such as Final Cut Pro, Avid, and Premiere Pro), the window should be familiar. It has time control indices that show the frame/timecode range of your project, layer numbers and file names, and functions that let you show or hide your files. But there the similarities end, for After Effects offers considerably more options per layer than any editing program.
Top is Front – Bottom is Back
The first thing to know about After Effects is that it builds in a top-down mode – that is, the top item in the Timeline Window, layer 1, is the layer seen foremost above all other layers. Conversely, the bottom row layer will be furthest in the background of your project. Of course, as with all rules the exception occurs when you work with 3D layers – this will be discussed in a later section.
Let's begin with a clean sheet and create a new project.
 Press 'Ctrl + Alt + N' or use the main menu File > New > New Project. If asked to save your present work, click 'No'.
 In the Project Window, at the bottom of the frame, click the 'Make Composition' button (Ctrl + N) to the left of the trashcan. Alternatively, you can use the main menu Composition > New Composition.
 The 'Composition Settings' dialog opens, displaying production options for composition size, frame rate, duration, and more.
After Effects has several commonly used industry settings available under the Preset drop-down menu. Each is user modifiable and can be saved as a new preset. For example, the default HDTV preset is for 1920 × 1080 at 24 fps or digital cinema production. If you find that you work HDTV at 29.97 fps (for those of us stuck in the NTSC compatibility dark ages), all you have to do is change the Frame Rate number to 29.97, then click on the little floppy disk icon (seen right) next to the Preset name, type a new name 'HDTV 1080|29.97i', then press 'OK'. It's then added to the bottom of the Preset list.
Excerpted from THE FOCAL EASY GUIDE TO AFTER EFFECTS by CURTIS SPONSLER Copyright © 2005 by Curtis Sponsler. Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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