How to Cheat in After Effects

How to Cheat in After Effects

by Chad Perkins

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Get the most from the most widely used application in the postproduction field! Gain the insider tips you need to compose eye-catching, imaginative Adobe After Effects projects quickly and effectively.

In How to Cheat in After Effects, Second Edition seasoned AE expert Chad Perkins provides dozens of concise, step-by-step tutorials and lavish


Get the most from the most widely used application in the postproduction field! Gain the insider tips you need to compose eye-catching, imaginative Adobe After Effects projects quickly and effectively.

In How to Cheat in After Effects, Second Edition seasoned AE expert Chad Perkins provides dozens of concise, step-by-step tutorials and lavish 4-color illustrations to get you on the fast track to producing amazing motion graphics and visual effects. Updated for CS6, this new edition has been revised to include:

  • A brand new chapter on the most popular 3rd party effects including Trapcode Particular and Video Copilot's Element 3D
  • New cheats on professional compositing, expressions, and high end visual effects
  • Tons of cool light tricks and lessons on how to use Video Copilot's Optical Flares
  • A thorough explanation of the Ray-trace 3D engine introduced in After Effects CS6
  • An all new companion DVD with project files allowing you to work alongside the exercises in the book, as well as QuickTime movies displaying techniques

There’s no time to waste! Whether you are an intermediate After Effects user in need of its more advanced tools or a novice looking for techniques to up your game, this book will bring your motion graphics, visual effects, and graphic compositions to the next level.

For customers who buy an electronic version of the book, all the DVD project files are available for download at

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Chad Perkins' How to Cheat in After Effects, Second Edition is an entertaining, visual cookbook of easy-to-follow recipes, featuring the most coveted effects. Whether you're just learning After Effects or a seasoned user wanting to quickly add new skills to your repertoire, this inspiring book is the ideal reference."

- Michele Yamazaki, Pluginologist, and author of Plug-in to After Effects

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Read an Excerpt

HOW TO cheat IN After Effects

By Chad Perkins

Focal Press

Copyright © 2011 Elsevier Ltd.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-240-52203-6

Chapter One

Cool Tricks Appetizer!

WE'VE GOT A LOT OF JUICY STUFF TO COVER IN THIS BOOK. So let's get warmed up by just getting the sampler platter of sweet After Effects tricks at the outset. This chapter will be a great warm-up for the rest of the book, and we'll even conclude this chapter with a small section about getting extra help in case you find yourself stuck as you go through the cheats.


WHAT BETTER START TO A BOOK COULD YOU HAVE than a fire breathing dragon? In this cheat, we're going to be turning a plain red blob into this glowing fireball above.

1 We'll start in the Fireball START comp in the Fireball.aep project in the Chapter 01 folder in the Exercise Files folder. In this cheat, we're going to take a simple animated shape layer (discussed in Chapter 7), and apply fire from the Fractal Noise effect (discussed in Chapter 10), and then roughen it up. Note that we learn how to make the pretty background from scratch in Chapter 10.

2 Apply the Fractal Noise effect to the Fire layer. In the Fractal Noise settings in the Effect Controls panel, increase Contrast to 150, and in the Transform area, decrease Scale to 80.

3 Now apply the Colorama effect to the Fire layer. In the Colorama effect controls, open the Output Cycle area, and from the Use Preset Palette drop down, choose Fire.

4 To make this blob look like a fireball, apply the Roughen Edges effect to the Fire layer. In its effect controls, take Border to 75, Edge Sharpness to 0.5, Scale to 80, and Complexity to 3. It's looking pretty good, but perhaps we could get a better final result by playing with the Fractal Noise and Roughen Edges settings?


To animate the fireball, animate the Evolution value in the Fractal Noise effect, and the Offset and/or Evolution values in the Roughen Edges effect.

Growing Vines

THIS CHEAT IS A LITTLE MORE INVOLVED and takes a bit more time than the others in this chapter. But nevertheless, having vines or filigree grow is a very common trick. It's a great way to draw a viewer's attention to something important.

1 Start out in the Growing Vines START comp in the Growing Vines.aep project in the Chapter 01 folder of the exercise files. This contains a few vine layers from Adobe Illustrator. It's very important for this trick that the vines are cut up into separate components like this. I'm going to solo just the Main Vine layer and work on it first.

2 Apply the Write-on effect to this. In its effect controls, increase the Brush Size to about 30 so you can see it. Change the Brush Time Properties value to Size, so that you can animate the size of the brush along the path if you need to. Adjust the Brush Position value so that the brush is at the bottom, then animate it painting the vine as above. Also animate Brush Size as the vine gets more narrow. Trying to paint the spiral at the top is the biggest challenge.

3 Once you've completed painting the vine, go back to the Write-on effect controls and change the Paint Style to Reveal Original Image. Now, there's no more paint. Your "paint" is just unmasking your layer. This is how the growing vines effect is created. You then repeat this for each vine and time their reveals so that it appears that they are growing together.

4 After doing this for each layer, I selected all of these layers and pressed [??][Shift][ctrl][Shift] to precompose them. I then added some glow and a gradient background. But another secret to this trick is duplication. I pressed [??][D][ctrl][D] to duplicate this precomp, then rotated and scaled the duplicates and shifted them in time. This creates the illusion that your project is far more complex and intricate than it actually is, and the result is beautiful.


If you don't change the Brush Time Properties to Size, then when you animate the Brush Size parameter, it animates the size of the entire brush stroke at once.



Tracked Text

EVERY EPISODE OF THE NOW-DEFUNCT HEROES TV SHOW had this really cool effect that people always wanted to duplicate. It basically featured 3D text that moved with the scene. I still see this effect everywhere from TV commercials to movie trailers. It's actually a pretty easy trick in After Effects.

1 Start in the Tracked Text START comp in the Tracked Text.aep project. Double click the cool layer to open it in the Layer panel. In Chapter 4, we'll look at Mocha, which is a better way to track motion. For now, let's use the native motion tracking in After Effects by choosing Tracker from the Window menu at the top of the interface. In the Tracker panel, click the Track Motion button.

2 Now we need to figure out what to track, and we don't have many options. We can't track the bird because the bird moves. That leaves the background. The only area of contrast I see is on the light and shadow between the two fence posts. Drag the tracking point over there, and expand the feature and search regions to include the edges of the posts. Believe it or not, this gave me a near-perfect track.

3 In the Tracker panel, click the Edit Target button, and choose the text layer (TALKING Bird4) as the target. Then click the Apply button, and OK to choose X and Y dimensions, and that's it! Our text is tracked to the background, and now moves with it realistically.

4 I've applied some color correction to make this look more intense (we'll cover color correction in Chapter 9). And, to heighten the realism, I've created a spotlight and created shadows (both discussed in Chapter 2). I've created some 3D distance between the bird layer and the text so that the shadows make the text look farther away. Looking at this again, I'm wondering if I shouldn't have reduced the scale on the text and increased the distance even more to increase the apparent distance. What do you think?


Normally, you wouldn't want to ever track a horizontal surface, because the tracking system will easily drift off track. In this case, we're also using the contrast of the wall posts for tracking, so it works.

Blooming Flower

BECAUSE OF THE STATIC NATURE OF BOOKS, we aren't going to look at a lot of tricks that need motion in order to be demonstrated. These include the transition effects.

However, these transition effects can often be used in unconventional ways. We'll look at the power of the Card Wipe transition in Chapter 3 when we talk about 3D objects. In this cheat, we'll look at a simple transition that can be used to reveal content like a blooming flower.

1 We're going to be using the Blooming Flower.aep project, where I've created this flower scene using shape layers (discussed in Chapter 7).

2 We're going to be using the Radial Wipe effect, which is intended to transition between two clips like a clock wipe. Here is one clip from the stock video company uberstock, that has donated a lot of great video clips for this book.

3 When the Radial Wipe effect is applied to the video clip, and the Transition Completion value is increased, a transition occurs as above and you can see the blue background layer behind the main clip.

4 Apply the Radial Wipe effect to the flower petals layer. As you animate the Transition Completion property, the flower will seem to disappear. To animate it blooming, animate it from 100% to 0%. This is a great trick for flowers, plus all circular motion graphics as well.

Tilt Shift

TILT SHIFT IS A TRICK IN PHOTOGRAPHY USUALLY USED TO SIMULATE MINIATURES. I'm actually seeing this effect more and more in commercials these days, as entire cities appear to be tiny miniatures. It's a pretty cool trick and it's easy to do.

1 Open the Tilt Shift.aep project. This photo comes courtesy of Angela McInroe, one of the photographers at Zombie Crush Photography (they did the photography on the cover of the book). I love their stuff.

2 When miniatures are photographed, the depth of field is so shallow that only a small area is in focus. When we recreate that same, small area of focus on a regular photo, it creates the illusion of miniature footage. Press [??][??][Y][ctrl][alt][Y] to create a new adjustment layer and apply the Lens Blur effect to it.

3 In the Lens Blur effect controls, check the Repeat Edge Pixels option so that we don't get feathered edges. Then, with the layer selected, create a mask as shown above.

4 In the Timeline, change the mask mode from Add to Subtract. Press the letter [F] and increase the Mask Feather value to 70. And now this looks like a tiny miniature model of a mall.


If you are currently reading this book while in the bookstore in the image (in the Southcenter Mall in Tukwila, WA), I apologize if this is a really Twilight Zoneesque creepy experience for you.



Ink Spatter

THE GRUNGY LOOK OF INK SPATTER SEEMS TO BE SOMETHING that is always sought after. Computer graphics usually look too clean and perfect, and a little noise, grain, or ink spatter can sometimes make things (like backgrounds) look much more organic and engaging.

The problem is that ink spatter can be time consuming to create, assuming you create actual ink spatter, scan it, convert it, blah, blah, blah. It's a lot of work. Here's a way that you can fake that in After Effects.

1 Start with a brand new comp at 1280 x 720. Create a new solid of the same size, and change the color to whatever color you want your ink spatter to be. Apply the CC Particle Systems II effect to this solid. We'll talk a lot about this effect and many other particle systems in Chapter 8.

2 In the CC Particle Systems II effect controls, change the Birth Rate to 0.6 and the Longevity (sec) value to 0.4. It's still looking more like fireworks and less like ink, but just stay with it.

3 In the Producer area, take Radius X to 30 and Radius Y to 7. In the Physics area, take Velocity to 0.7, and Gravity to 0. And to make this begin to look like something decent, take the Particle Type drop down in the Particle area from Line to Lens Convex. We're getting closer to ink spatter, but this little system looks pretty sweet in its own right.

4 For the final touches, go to the Particle area in the Effect Controls panel. Change Birth Size to 0.01, Death Size to 0.5, Size Variation to 100%, Max Opacity to 100%, and change the Opacity Map drop down to Constant. Now, this will change every frame, so you'll probably want to render this out as a still image, then re-import it back into After Effects to use. You might also want to try the Roughen Edges effect to roughen the edges of the ink spatter.


As suggested by the color in the initial screenshot, you can also use this technique to create blood, paint, and spatter from other liquids.

Damaged Film

WE SPEND SO MUCH MONEY PERFECTING THE QUALITY OF FOOTAGE. The world is adopting HD and the quality of video cameras seems to be improving on a daily basis. But for some reason, people still love the look of bad film and video. It can give our footage some character, add a nostalgic style, or make it feel more edgy and raw. Here are a few solutions for creating that damaged film look.

1 Start in the Damaged Film START comp in the Damaged Film.aep project. This contains a stock video clip from

2 As we'll learn in Chapter 9, color is the secret to everything. Apply the Curves effect to this layer. Take the bottom left corner of the curve up just a little bit; about halfway up to the first line. This will lighten the shadows, creating a faded look. Then change the Channel drop down to Blue, then take the upper right point down to the first line. This will add a vintage yellowness.

3 Now apply the Fractal Noise effect. In its effect controls, change Fractal Type to Smeary, Contrast to 320, Brightness to 300, Complexity to 1, and change the Blending Mode to Multiply. Then open the Transform area, uncheck Uniform Scaling, and increase Scale Height to 6000. This creates those dark vertical lines seen in old film.

4 Now apply the CC Burn Film effect and take its Burn value to 38. You might also want to adjust its Center value to get the burn in the right spot. Now you have damaged film! See if you can trick a coworker into believing that you have old bootleg footage of your favorite classic rock band!


If you're looking to create a damaged TV footage look, there are several animation presets that ship with After Effects that will instantly help you create that look as well. Animation presets are covered in Chapter 10.

The Master Solid

THIS MIGHT NOT BE THE COOLEST TRICK to everyone in the world, but this is one of my favorite little tricks. There are several times when I have used this and it just makes me happy, honestly.

I use solid layers all the time. And when you create a solid layer, and then duplicate, After Effects quietly maintains a link between those solids in case you need to make changes.

1 We'll start with this comp in the Master Solid.aep project. This is a composition that only contains solid layers, a light, a camera, and a background.

2 As you can see, there are loads of solid layers here. If we wanted to make a global change to every solid, it would take a very long time. Thankfully, all of these solids are duplicates from a single solid.

3 Select any one of the green solid layers (note that they appear red because of a hidden adjustment layer). Press [??][Shift][Y][ctrl][Shift][Y] to open the Solid Settings dialog box. As long as you check the option that says Affect all layers that use this solid, whatever changes you make will be instantly reflected in all solids that are duplicates. And you don't have to select the original solid — any duplicate will do. I took the Height down to 20 and the Width up to 300, and I also changed the color.

4 In one fell swoop, all solids reflect the changes. Isn't that incredible?



Using the Help

AS WE BEGIN THIS ADVENTURE together into the rest of this book, I wanted to have this little interlude to mention the incredible help system that comes with After Effects, and all Adobe apps. For the last few versions, the help has only been available in an online system. I'm very happy that there is also a local version now, and it's better than ever.

Now I realize that the idea of reading a manual sounds like the most boring concept one can imagine. Like you, I've spent hours reading manuals in every category of life, from software applications to cable boxes. It's almost always a frustrating experience. I can hardly find what I'm looking for, and when I do find the answer, it's so poorly written that the manual raises more questions than it answers.

Adobe's help is different, especially with After Effects. Of all the software manuals in all the world, the After Effects documentation is the most well written and helpful that I've ever seen. As a matter of fact, it's one of the best references on After Effects expressions I've ever seen

To access the help, just click in the Search Help field in the upper right corner of the interface, type what After Effects feature you want to learn about and hit Enter. This will automatically launch the Adobe Community Help application. This application will search not only Adobe's help, but it will search through many helpful (and free) online resources as well. As shown in the screenshot on the opposite page, you can choose to search through Adobe's help only if desired. The selections (and search field) show up on the left, and when you choose one, it shows up on the left. The help system is also well integrated with itself, offering hyperlink references that will take you to other places to learn more.


Excerpted from HOW TO cheat IN After Effects by Chad Perkins Copyright © 2011 by Elsevier Ltd.. 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Chad Perkins is an Adobe Certified Instructor and Expert in Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Acrobat, After Effects, Premiere, and was one of the first in the world to be a Certified Expert in Adobe Encore DVD. Chad also owns Aveconta, an architectural rendering studio that creates photo-realistic renders from AutoCAD drawings and blueprints. Chad served for over two years as the Digital 3D and Animation Specialist at a leading lenticular art creation facility in Southern California, where he produced finished art for Warner Brothers, Paramount, and Disney, among others. True to his passion for movies and animation, Chad is currently directing and producing an all-CGI short film.

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