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After Effects CS4: How to Use All Those Panels

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When you first start working with After Effects CS4, all those many panels and tools onscreen can be really intimidating. Antony Bolante provides a quick panoramic overview of the main panels, pointing out the uses for each, to help you get familiar with the interface quickly.
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When using After Effects CS4, you'll spend a lot of time working with the many panels that are part of the interface. This article gives you a quick overview of the most important of these panels.

Primary Panels

Most of your work in After Effects will be concentrated in three panels (see Figure 1):

  • The Project panel lists references to audio and visual files (footage) that you plan to use in your animation. It also lists compositions, which describe how you want to use the footage, including its arrangement in time, motion, and effects.
  • The Composition panel represents the layers of a composition spatially. The visible area of the Composition panel corresponds to the frame of the output animation and displays the composition's current frame. You can open more than one Composition panel; doing so is particularly useful when you want to compare the image in a composition to a corresponding frame in a nested composition, or view a 3D composition from different angles. It's common to call compositions comps and a Composition panel a Comp panel, for short.
  • The Timeline panel represents the composition as a graph in which time is measured horizontally. When a footage item is added to the composition, it becomes a layer. The horizontal arrangement of layers indicates each layer's place in the time of the composition; the layers' vertical arrangement indicates their stacking order. You access and manipulate layer properties from the Timeline panel.
    Figure 1

    Figure 1 After Effects work takes place primarily in the Project, Composition, and Timeline panels.

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