You’ve heard that Adobe After Effects (AE) is really cool, powerful software you could use to enhance the eLearning video you’re working on. You open it up for the first time. You take one look at the screen and what looks like a zillion panels that start swimming in front of your eyes. You scream and close the program. You don’t open it again for a few years … or ever.

You’re not alone! Sure, there’s a timeline at the bottom of the screen just like Premiere Pro, but then there are all those different panes inside the main window. If you’ve used Premiere Pro or Premiere Elements to edit your video, it looks both familiar and alien at the same time. Don’t worry. This tutorial will have you understanding in no time how After Effects works. You’ll be well on your way to getting a handle on the ins and outs of this incredibly powerful software that can quickly add all sorts of visual elements to your eLearning that you might have thought were out of reach. Let’s begin.

Why you should use After Effects

The bar is rapidly moving up for eLearning video creation. Most of us who create media for training need to expand our toolbox to embrace the challenge. We need to create the very best work we can do … every time. After Effects is a program unlike any other image manipulation software on the market. Many others have tried to make something similar, including Apple. No company has been successful. There’s a reason why many Hollywood films use After Effects as a part of the post-production workflow. It works. And it’s an extremely powerful software tool. (See the sidebar “Top 10 Things You Can Easily Do with After Effects to Give Your eLearning Video Punch.”)

This is what you see when you open AE (Figure 1). What looks like a hodgepodge of panes is really a well-thought-out series of workflow steps you’ll use all the time when you’re working inside the program.

Figure 1: The After Effects workspace and all those panes

If you’re familiar with Photoshop, you’ll notice that while there are a lot of differences, there are also a lot of similarities, many of them buried. They’re not deep, but you need to find them. AE is in many ways like Photoshop on steroids, so once you understand a few paradigms, you’ll be able to easily work in the program and start thinking about what you’re going to do, which in turn will make you even more creative with the program. Let’s get started to make you fearless in After Effects.

Compositions, timelines, sequences, and projects

This might be the hardest thing to understand about the whole of AE:

  • AE has projects and compositions. Premiere Pro has projects and sequences.
  • In Premiere Pro, a sequence timeline is infinite (in theory). It’s as long as whatever media you place on it. In AE, you create a composition with a time (duration) that you set (and you can always change it later).
  • In Premiere Pro, projects contain sequences. In AE, projects contain compositions. There is a paradigm shift between the two programs. A sequence has a timeline after you add media. A composition has a duration set when you begin the composition.
  • In both Premiere Pro and After Effects, you have to start the respective sequences and compositions inside the program.

Clear as mud? Let’s make a composition in After Effects and you’ll see what I mean.

How to make a composition in After Effects

The easiest way to make a composition in AE is to get the media you need to work with and import it to the Project pane. You do this by:

  1.  Double clicking on a blank space inside the Project pane (refer to Figure 1) then navigate to the place where the files you need are. Click on those files and then click OK. This is much like most other software. Then, in the project pane, take the file you’ve going to use and drag it down to the “Create a New Composition” button (Figure 2).

    Figure 2:
    Dragging a file to the “Create New Composition” button

  2. When you release the file with your mouse, a new composition will instantiate using the file’s name, the dimensions of the video, and the duration of the clip. Here it’s sometimes easier (but not always) to have your video clip cut to the duration you need … or you can dynamically link a sequence in Premiere Pro. In Figure 2, I’ve isolated the composition window. You can see there aren’t a lot of moving parts inside, and it is simple. The “Create a New Composition” button is enlarged. Or…
  3. Sometimes you’re making your own media; For instance, if you want to make a super with words or letters that move (see the tutorial here), you need to start your own composition. You can do this easily when you open the program or by going to File >New>Composition and the Composition Settings pane will open (Figure 3). You can set the duration, size, etc. of the composition. Remember that a composition doesn’t have to adhere to any dimensions … you can make a wide and skinny composition for a super and simply work with that size in your project.

    Figure 3:
    The Composition Settings pane

Dynamic linking

One of the real powers of After Effects, besides being a powerful program itself, is dynamic linking. Dynamic linking allows you to “link” an AE composition to a Premiere Pro project and insert it into your video sequence just like regular footage.

It used to be that to put an AE composition inside a Premiere Pro project, you had to render it first in After Effects and then import it as regular footage into a Premiere Pro project. The render took time. If you had to change something in your AE composition, you had to go back to AE, make the changes, and reimport it into Premiere Pro. It was a complete pain.

Check out a short video tutorial here.

Here’s another example of how dynamically linking a composition to Premiere Pro works: Let’s say you’ve inserted a super and just found out you spelled the name incorrectly. Either alt+tab to AE (if it’s already open) or open AE, navigate to the project, select the composition inside the project, change it, and save the file. It already links to your project in Premiere Pro. You’re done! It doesn’t matter how complex the composition in After Effects is, it’s a dynamic link. So when the contents of the composition change, the changes appear instantly in Premiere Pro. No rendering needed!!! Simple and easy.

One more thing

I haven’t even touched on this, but hiding inside After Effects is a hugely capable 3-D program. It’s called Maxon Cinema 4D. When you install AE, it’s included inside the program. This is a completely different piece of software with a totally different engine. You can only access it from within AE, and after you work on the 3-D part of your project the 3-D project dynamically links inside your AE project. The software is very different. The workflow is very different and it’s very complex, but not scary. I’m not going to cover it here because it’s totally different software to learn, but it’s good to know it’s there.

Sidebar: Top 10 Things You Can Easily Do with After Effects to Give Your eLearning Video Punch

  1. Titles and supers that move—we’re not just talking about moving the letters either.
  2. Stabilize your shaky shots with the built in motion tracker.
  3. Animate figures.
  4. Make animated figures look like they’re talking.
  5. Create animated infographics for your lessons or animated any graphics at all!
  6. Integrate “green screen” shots with great backgrounds. (But please don’t overdo this!)
  7. Track motion so you can add objects that “attach” themselves to the motion… very similar to #2, but with some variations.
  8. Dynamically link an AE composition to Premiere Pro so that you can make active changes to your document.
  9. Use a lot of the same filters you use in Photoshop.
  10. Make really cool whiteboard effects like you’re writing on a wall.

A how-to example—camera stabilization

This example will show you how to stabilize a shaky camera shot. If you’ve made video for a while, you’ll know the shot you want isn’t always steady since a lot of us can only do shoot-and-scoot … get the shot and go to the next. In this tutorial, you will create a dynamic link that interacts with Premiere Pro and After Effects and you will gain an understanding of how AE works on a more subtle level. You’ll also learn how to nest an After Effects composition inside another AE composition.

Stabilizing a shot is not as hard as it looks, but there are a few quirks. It’s somewhat more an art than a science and, as usual, there’s way more than one way to do this. This example calls for some creativity on your part. As you do the exercise, be aware that it can be an iterative process, but we’ll also show that. Let’s begin.

  1. Open After Effects and Premiere Pro.
  2. Double click in the middle of the project pane and locate the file with the camera shake. Select that file and click OK.
    NOTE: The file you select should need stabilization, but it should also allow for some cropping. The stabilization moves the image around in the window and, depending on the clip, some or a lot of it may go out of the screen after you’ve finished stabilizing the image.
  3. In the Project pane, click on and drag the file down to the new composition icon at the bottom of the Project pane. The icon looks like a frame of film with sprocket holes on the sides.
    NOTE: Here is the video clip I used, if you want to practice on that.
  4. As you drag the little video clip down to the icon, it will create a new composition the length and dimensions of the video clip. There are easy ways to trim the clip here, but I’ve found that if you trim and export the clip from Premiere Pro before importing into AE, things go much smoother.

Now the fun begins: Look closely at your shot. Focus attention on one little part that has high contrast (the difference between the lightest and darkest pixels or a larger part of what you want to search, perhaps someone’s ear) and look at how that little spot moves around in the screen. Put the timeline cursor back to zero and zoom in on the tiny spot using the scroll wheel on your mouse or trackball.

  1. If there’s a pan in the shot, where different objects go into and out of the shot, don’t use it to stabilize unless you can break the shot up. This is for after you’ve got some experience with stabilization. You might have to get creative and divide the shot into two or even three parts and treat each one separately. For now, let’s say you’ve selected a shot … or used the one included with this project.
  2. Go to the side panel that says “Tracker” and make sure your video clip is active (click on it once) and you’ll see the Tracker box light up. If the Tracker panel isn’t visible, then go the file menu, click on Window > Tracker. The pane will become visible on the right side of the screen.
  3. Click anywhere on your clip and the “Stabilize Motion” in the Tracker panel will light up. Now comes the artistic part…
  4. Move both boxes together (when the cursor is black with the “cross arrows” next to it, that’s when you can move the whole thing) to the part you want to use as the focus for your camera stabilization. Then zoom in on the area you want to use as the attachment point for stabilization. I’ll mention this here again: High contrast makes tracking easier for the algorithms in AE to do this so if you’ve got a little region that has a very bright and a very dark area, use this.
  5. Once you have sized the inner box to the feature you want tracked, make the outer box larger (usually) or smaller to define the “Search Region” for the tracker.
  6. Now click on the right-pointing arrow in the Tracker panel. This is not a playback button as it looks, but rather a “search from here” switch that moves forward on the timeline. You can use the left-pointing arrow to search for tracking earlier in the shot. As the feature moves, the search region will move along with the feature. This IS NOT a foolproof method. Sometimes the search region gets a little confused and you’ll notice a frame jump completely out of the range. I don’t know exactly why this happens, but it does. I think the algorithms will become more sophisticated as time goes on.
  7. Once you’re sure you’ve got it, click on the “Stabilize Motion” button and After Effects will track the motion … you’ll see the little box moving around. If the box moves out of the region you’re using for position, change it around until it stays in that region. Then click on track motion again. Eventually, it’ll figure it out and you’ll have stabilized motion.
  8. When you’re happy with the way it all looks, click on “Apply,” and your shot is stabilized. Note that one of the things that stabilizing does is to move the video itself around in the frame.

    You’ll have to adjust this part by hand to make sure the video stays framed. The easiest way to do this is to “zoom out” a little and scrub the timeline to the point that the stabilized video is out of the frame, and then enlarge it enough to be inside the frame. You’ve zoomed in somewhat, but the shot now looks steady. Dynamically link the clip and…

That’s it. You can now make a composition in After Effects, stabilize your shot, and make it work with your eLearning video! You are a pro!!!