Get Started with After Effects in 7 Steps

In this tutorial, I’ll be walking you through After Effects for the first time. Don’t worry if you’ve never opened the motion graphics application, this tutorial is for those of you taking their first mograph baby steps. I’ve broken down the topic into 7 steps:

  1. Learning the program layout

  2. Starting a new composition

  3. Importing assets to work with

  4. Understanding the available tools

  5. Adding text to your video

  6. Adding shapes to your video

  7. Adjusting layer scale, rotation, and opacity

Once you understand these seven steps, you’ll have the basic knowledge that you can continue to build from.

If you’d like to learn these skills in a video course, enroll in Dive into After Effects: Learn the Basics.

Step 1: Learning the program layout

When you first open After Effects for the first time, it can seem like a daunting program. There are so many windows and buttons. It isn’t set up like a traditional video editor, so even if you’ve been editing with Adobe Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro, there is still a big learning curve. Let’s walk through the program layout starting in the top left and working our way down.

after effects layout

  1. File menu: At the very top are your menus that can do everything from starting a new project to changing the layout. If your After Effects doesn’t look like the screenshot above, change the Window – Workspace to Editing.
  2. Tool bar: Just below the file menu is the tool bar. Selecting these tools will change what you can do in your composition (note: in After Effects, a composition is basically a sequence or a new video). We’ll go over the most important tools below.
  3. Project & Effect Controls Windows: Just below the tools on the upper left are two important windows. The Project window is where you’ll see all of your imported documents and compositions. The Effects Controls window, which can be viewed by clicking on the tab, is where you’ll adjust effects added to layers. A layer is like track in traditional video editing. Once you add a video clip, shape, text, etc. to your composition, it will create a new layer.
  4. Composition Window: This is the preview monitor where you can see what your video looks like. You’ll also be working a lot within this video to create shapes, write text, and make adjustments to layers.
  5. Other Windows: To the right of the composition window are an assortment of windows that can be customized by checking them on or off through the Window file menu. The windows that I find most useful are the Paragraph, Character, and Effects & Presets panels. Paragraph and Character allow you to customize your text fonts and design. Effects & Presets is where you’ll find all kinds of fun effects to add to your video.
  6. The Timeline and Render Queue: Below everything is the time line. This is where you’ll be changing the timing of your video, adding animations, and making other adjustments to your layers. Behind the timeline panel is the render queue, which is where you export videos and choose export settings.

Those are the basic parts of After Effects you’ll need to get started. Now, you might be saying ‘hey, there are like 1,000 more buttons and things I don’t know how to use!‘ We’ll be covering more of those in the future. But for now, you have a better idea of how to navigate, and that will help get you started.

Step 2: Starting a new composition

after effects new composition

after effects new composition button

The first thing you’ll need to do when starting a project is to create a new composition. This can be done a couple of ways. Click the new composition button at the bottom of the Project panel. It looks like a little film frame with a pyramid and sun in it. Or go to the Composition menu and click New Composition. Or use the keyboard shortcut command-N (on a Mac) or control-N (on a PC).

after effects composition settings window

The Composition Settings window will pop up. This is where you change the name and settings of your new composition. You can use a preset if you know what type of video you need. Or just adjust the settings to your liking. A basic setup for HD video for online playback is:

  • Width: 1920 px
  • Height: 1080 px
  • Pixel Aspect Ratio: Square Pixels
  • Frame Rate: 29.97
  • Resolution: Full
  • Start Timecode: 0;00;00;00
  • Duration: 0;00;10;00 (this means 10 seconds)
  • Background Color set to black

Click the OK button after choosing your settings, and you’ll notice a new composition pop up in your Project window and open in the timeline and composition window.

Step 3: Importing assets to work with

after effects import 1

While a lot of intricate graphics can be created right within After Effects, you may have a photo, video, music clip, graphic, or other type of asset that you want to use.

  • To import these, you can drag and drop them from your Finder/documents into the Project panel.
  • Or you can right-click within the blank space of the Project panel, select Import – File. Then find the file(s) in your documents to import.
  • Or you can use the keyboard shortcut command-I (on a Mac) or control-I (on a PC).
  • Or you can go to the File menu at the top and select Import – File.

Any of these ways are perfectly acceptable to import your files.

Step 4: Understanding the available tools

after effects tool bar

After Effects has an assortment of editing tools that help you create whatever type of motion graphic you can imagine. These tools are chosen in the tool bar at the top of the screen. Let’s go over the most important ones you’ll need to know to get started (with the keyboard shortcut in parenthesis). Remember, playing around with these tools on your own will help you understand what they do, more than anything else.

  • Selection Tool (S): This is your default mouse/pointer that you use to click things and move them around.

after effects composition size

  • Hand Tool (H): The hand tool allows you to move the composition within the window. You’ll notice that at the bottom left of the composition window is a percentage. This percentage is how big your composition is relative to the settings you chose for the composition. I typically choose Fit up to 100% which automatically adjusts the size of the composition so that it fits in the Composition window. But sometimes you’ll want to zoom in closer and actually move the composition itself around within the window to focus on a specific part of the frame. This is where the hand tool comes in handy.
  • Zoom Tool (Z): If you want to zoom in or out of your composition (without using the percentage option above), just select the zoom tool and click within your composition window. To zoom out, hold option/alt while clicking.
  • Rotation Tool (W): The previous two tools had to do with adjusting the composition itself, and not the objects within the composition. The rotation tool allows you to select an object in your composition and rotate by dragging to the left or right.
  • Pan Behind (Anchor Point) Tool (Y): We skipped over the camera tool, to this anchor point tool which allows you to move the anchor point for a selected layer/object. The anchor point is the point of the object which all other adjustments are made from. For example, if the anchor point is in the middle of the object and you want to increase the scale, it will grow from the center – increasing in scale in all directions. If the anchor point is at the bottom of the object, it would only increase from the bottom. Play around with it to see how it works.

after effects shape tool

  • Shape Tools (Q): Holding down this button will bring up a menu of different shape options including my favorites – the ellipse and rectangle tools. With this tool selected, click and drag in the Composition window to create a new shape.
  • Pen Tool (G): This tool allows you to create custom shapes or masks of objects.
  • Text Tool (Command-T): The text tool is your tool for creating text and text boxes. To create text, simply click in the composition and start typing. To create a text box, click and drag to make a bounding box for your text.

As I mentioned above, playing around with these tools is the best way to learn how to use them. The other tools in the tool bar are more advanced and can be learned by diving deeper into After Effects.

Step 5: Adding text to your video

after effects text

We just learned that the text tool allows us to add text to your video. Once you add text to the composition, you can adjust it using the Paragraph and Character panels. The Paragraph panel includes options for alignment and indentation. The Character panel is where you would change the font, color, stroke, size, horizontal scale, vertical scale, case, kerning, tracking, and overall style. Use it like you would in a standard word formatting application.

Once you are happy with the look of your text, use the selection tool to move it around within your composition to get it to the perfect spot.

Step 6: Adding shapes to your video

after effects shapeWhile truly learning how to add, edit, and animate shapes could take an entire course, there are some basic things to understand to get started. First, you already know how to create a shape using the shape tool. To create a perfect square or circle with equal width and height, hold the shift key down while creating the shape. Use the selection tool to move the shape(s) around.

after effects shape layers

Notice that when you create your first shape, a new layer appears in your timeline. With that shape selected, you can add other shape paths to that layer (therefore creating multiple shapes in one layer). If you want to create a new shape on a new layer, just deselect the original shape layer by clicking in the gray area of the timeline below any of the layers, and then create a new shape with the shape tool.
after effects fill color

Fill & Stroke: In the tool bar, above the composition panel, you’ll see options for fill and stroke. Change the color of your shape by clicking the Fill color box and selecting your desired color. Add a stroke by changing the Stroke pixels from 0 to your desired size. Change the stroke color by clicking the stroke color box and selecting your desired color. You may want a shape with just a stroke and no fill (perhaps a border/frame for something). To get rid of the fill, click the actual Fill text to bring up the Fill Options. Select None (the white triangle with the red line through it) to get rid of the fill.

after effects fill options

Step 7: Adjusting layer scale, rotation, and opacity

after effects transformations

Every layer has adjustment properties. To get to these properties, click the little triangle to the left of the layer name in the timeline. For standard layers, you’ll see Anchor Point, Position, Scale, Rotation, and Opacity. Make adjustments to any of these properties by clicking and dragging the number(s) to the right of the property. You can also input your own number by clicking the number you would like to change, and typing in the correct number.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 8.54.24 AM

Making these adjustments will allow you to move, rotate, shrink/grow, and make more/less transparent any object within your composition.

Putting it all together…

After these seven steps, you’ll have a basic understanding of how to use After Effects. You can create complex compositions just using the tools and techniques learned in this tutorial. The thing that makes After Effects so amazing is the animations you can create with it. To take your skills to the next level, enroll in the Dive into After Effects: Animating with Keyframes course. That is the next step to learning After Effects.

Thanks for reading!