After Effects Time Savers

When working in the world of motion, time acts as a continual constraint against our approach and workflow. It acts as the major limitation to our practices within the commercial realm. Deadlines exist, corners need to be cut, chopped and even recycled when necessary. Time is a necessary measure and with adequate time-saving measures in place it allows us to explore the fun side of our work – being creative and creating chaos, as the (compositional) controllers of time.

After Effects is a rich application with numerous ways to do the same thing

Despite still feeling like a rookie only having worked in post production for a couple of years, sites like Motionworks have proven a real benefit in developing my skills and improving my understanding of motion graphics and After Effects. In fact I have found that watching how professionals work and the workflow they engage in to be on an equal par to the things covered in the tutorials themselves. These have expanded my knowledge of After Effects and its capabilities a great deal, and also helped me laugh at some of my previous approaches to doing things.

So in the spirit of collaboration and helping one another, here are some of the major time-savers that, with with the benefit of hindsight, have helped me out a great deal as a professional.

I hope this post can also prove as a suitable reference and contribution point, so that we can all build upon our time saving practices and have a laugh at the things we did the “long way”.

Tidy workflow and precomposing

Whilst still falling victim to messiness in extreme situations, I can’t stress the importance of how much easier collapsing your layers into pre-comps is, it saves a lot of time. This is particularly useful in longer projects where breaking your animation down into sections is essential in successful project management, rather than the alternative of fighting through dozens of layers.

Using Proxies and Pre-rendering

A great benefit of being able to section off your work into appropriate pre-comps, is that it allows for the creation of more flexible and easily managed proxies. This greatly speeds up pre-rendering, previews and creating test movie files. If changes are made to a proxy, simply re-render and re-link the proxy, this way you can lock off sections for quick previewing as they are finished and faster final renders.

Understanding plug-in and preset capabilities and discovering best practice

The web is a great resource, and in this field of work it really pays to keep informed both with the potential of the plugins and how others use them. Visit plug-in manufacturer’s websites and explore the details, sample projects, plug-ins and presets. This can save a lot of time lost shooting in the dark when the pressure is on during a job.

Knowing when to use Mattes and Masks

For quite some time, because I didn’t know any better, I always used masks by default. I had little understanding of Track Mattes and when they would have been more appropriate. Now I’m  embarrassed  to admit that in quite a few instances a lot of time was wasted using a mask instead of a matte.

Scripting and Expressions instead of keyframing

In my days of studying, this was my worst nightmare.  The blame lays squarely with Flash and I’m sure a lot of people can relate to this fear.   Again fortunately there are a lot of great resources out there, to make this language of expressions easier for motion graphics designers to utilise, implement and deconstruct.

Most useful day-to-day expressions include wiggle, time-based and linkage expressions, value expressions and pick whip expressions. All relatively simple, straightforward time-savers when compared to the traditional keyframe approach.

The Expressions examples section in the After Effects Help helped me build upon the things I picked up in the MILG series. Many useful resources also exist on the web to help take your expression writing skills further. If like me you find this a little daunting, my advice would be to start using short expressions such as the wiggle expression them move to more complicated expressions as you feel more comfortable. Dip your foot in the water and you will be paddling around in no time.

20:20 hindsight

We all fall victim to hindsight, and how to do things better. After all, After Effects is a rich application with numerous ways to do the same thing. What has been a big help to you along the way? With reflection can you look back at any key moments that helped make your life as a motionographer easier? Are their any things that you now look back on and think, if only I’d known that then, life would have been so much easier? If there is, share them, we would love to know.

  1. John Dickinson

    I remember when I used to split layers manually by duplicating a layer and trimming both copies…. The Split Layer command put an end to that (EDIT > SPLIT LAYER).

  2. Jason Peacock

    “Scripting and expressions instead of keyframing”.. As you say Jonathan start small but don’t be afraid to think big! There are so many resources out there at your finger tips, which you can adapt to any number of situations regardless of what the original expression was use for or with.

    I love expressions and use them in every single project no matter how simple. This said I still don’t fully understand what I’m doing a lot of the time, but that doesn’t hold me back.. With any program a lot of experience / success comes from experimenting with what we’ve learnt from the likes of John, Jerzy and Andrew taking it that step further.

  3. guilherme lima

    Very Good !!!

  4. rawmeyn

    or just select the layer and hit command+shift+d on a mac.

  5. Grundly

    When I have a ton of layers/properties twirled down, I hit CMD+A to select all the layers, then hit CMD+~ to collapse all of them. Way faster than closing them all up one at a time!

    With the proxies. Rendering proxies combined with BG Render script saves a lot of time.

  6. Joachim

    A year after we started using AE at work I discovered holding down the shift-key would make things snap to the right position! It was almost as sad a discovery as when I discovered masks in AE. ( I had been rotoscoping every single frame in Photoshop before that!!) Oh well. The days go by and I’m still learning new things every day. Thanks to JD, Andrew, and all the other AE-shareres.

    (note to self: buy MILG5 as my own little christmaspresent!)

  7. Jonathan Clegg

    This one took a while to realise as well, I had forgotten about it, I can remember in the early days spending way too much time twirling. I think AE really pays of knowing the shortcuts, I definitely know more here than in other programs…

  8. zeniamai

    In our line of work, time is very important since post production companies send us their work because they want to save time. Before we used Mocha for our rotoscoping projects, the recursive process is complex and sometimes it can get to a point where it is unbearably long. With the right tool to aid us in our line of work, we are now able to deliver projects faster.

  9. Maltaannon

    What can I say? Expressions, expressions, expressions… and good management. Managing your project well is as important as knowing shortcuts or using expressions. Thankfully AE CS4 has a great deal of features that help us navigate through our huge projects.

    As for the expressions, well, I don’t need to tell you they not only a great time saver, but also help you animate things that would be otherwise very hard to do – mostly time based animations (like swinging jumping, bouncing etc) and random motion.

    Sometimes they take time to set up, but once that’s done, you end up with project flexible enough to handle any amount of changes.

    (shameless ad here) Make sure to check out MILG5. It has a great deal of tips and techniques to make your work easier and faster, thus giving you a chance to spend your time with your friends and family, or making up stupid AE jokes.

    Two AE guys walk into a bar. One says – “Bartender! Gimme a beer!”, and the second one says: “Make that a CTRL+D or CMD+D on a Macintosh”.

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