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After Effects Essentials for Flash Users

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For a Flash user, the core principles of After Effects will seem similar. Elements are stacked from top to bottom in a timeline and then animated with keyframes. From there, the similarities pretty much end. Rich Harrington investigates the differences.
Like this article? We recommend The After Effects Interface Tour

After Effects is a powerful animation software program that offers many tools for creative effects, dynamic animation, and excellent compositing. Although After Effects and Flash now share the same manufacturer, they evolved as very different programs. After Effects began its life with the Company of Science and Art (CoSA), and Flash was originally developed as FutureSplash Animator and renamed Flash after Macromedia purchased it in 1996.

Over time, both programs have grown significantly in their scope and capabilities. For a Flash user, the core principles of After Effects will seem similar. Elements are stacked from top to bottom in a timeline and then animated with keyframes. From there, the similarities pretty much end. Sure, the interfaces look similar, but Flash users may find themselves scratching their heads a bit due to the subtle intricacies of the two applications.

Let’s jump into using After Effects with a crash course that shows the key tools as well as a standard workflow.

The After Effects Interface Tour

The After Effects interface provides several specialized tools and panes that assist in animation tasks. You’ll explore most of these in depth throughout the book, but a quick introduction is necessary to lay the foundation for the chapters to come. Even though After Effects takes just a few days to learn, it takes years to master. Let’s take a look at the essential areas of the program you’ll use most often.

Configuring the Application with Workspaces

After Effects CS4 offers nine default workspaces to speed up specific animation and effects tasks. Each workspace configures the visibility and arrangement of specific panels to increase efficiency for particular tasks. In addition, you can create custom workspaces based on user preferences. To ensure you are working with the default workspace in After Effects (so the standard tools and panels are easy to find), follow these steps.

  1. From the book’s DVD, copy the Chapter_01 Project Files folder to your computer.
  2. If it’s not already running, launch After Effects CS4. At the Welcome screen, click the Open Project button.
  3. Navigate to the Chapter_01 Project Files folder and open the file 01_Completed.aep. A project with footage and a completed sequence for reference opens. You’ll build this project from scratch shortly.
  4. In the upper-right corner, click the Workspace drop-down menu and choose Standard to reset the After Effects interface to the Standard view. If Standard is already selected, choose Reset “Standard” to ensure the workspace is at its default starting point, and then click Discard Changes. After Effects is now in its Standard view.
  5. In the Project panel, double-click the composition named Bumper to load the project into the Timeline and Composition panels.

Standard Panels in After Effects CS4

After Effects CS4 offers 26 different panels to control or view elements of your animation project. That can be a bit unwieldy. Let’s take the most commonly used panels that you will have visible most of the time when working.


The Project panel contains all the elements within an After Effects project. It is similar in functionality to the Library in Flash. Keeping the Project panel organized makes it easy to find elements and speeds up the animation process. The project is already filled with several elements. Let’s explore two ways to find footage.

  • To search for an item, just type its name or keyword into the search field at the top of the Project panel. Type the word chart in the search field to locate all files with the word chart in the name. To reset the search, click the X in the search field.
  • If an item is already added to the Timeline, right-click the object and choose Reveal Layer Source in Project. Try revealing the file in the Timeline.


In Flash, you build an application and see its elements on the Stage. The closest analogy in After Effects is the composition and related Composition panel.

After Effects allows you to create one or more compositions for a project. A composition can contain one or more footage items. Layers can be stacked in 2D space, or you can arrange them in 3D space. After Effects also offers masks, blending modes, and keying tools to composite or combine multiple layers.

Let’s load a composition to view it.

  1. Examine the numerous controls along the bottom of the Composition panel.
  2. Click the Magnification ratio pop-up menu and choose Fit up to 100% to show the entire composition as large as possible in the Composition panel.


Just like Flash, the Timeline panel is where most animation occurs. The Timeline provides easy access to core properties like Anchor Point (the equivalent of Flash’s Registration Point), Position, Rotation, Scale, and Opacity. Additionally, effects and masks can contain keyframes to change them over time.

The Timeline and Composition panels are linked. The yellow Current Time Indicator (CTI) determines which frame is shown in the Composition panel. You can move this indicator by

  • Clicking Play
  • Invoking a Preview
  • Using the Page Up or Page Down keys
  • Dragging the Current Time Indicator
  • Clicking the current time in the upper-left corner of the Timeline

Effects & Presets

The Effects & Presets panel is the easiest way to browse and apply effects and animation presets. While these options are all available via menus, it is much faster to browse and use effects with the panel.

  1. Click the disclosure triangle next to the category * Animation Presets. Several options are now visible and are sorted by category.
  2. Click the disclosure triangle next to the Image – Creative category.
  3. In the Timeline, click the layer clouds.psd to select it.
  4. In the Effects & Presets panel, double-click the preset Colorize – sky blue to enhance the color of the clouds.
  5. Let’s apply an effect to the line chart to further enhance it. Select the Chart.swf layer in the Timeline.
  6. In the search field of the Effects & Preset panel, type Glow. Results containing the word glow are filtered.
  7. Double-click the Glow effect in the Stylize group to apply it. The line chart is now enhanced with a distinct glow.


After Effects offers several tools that you’ll use during the design and animation process. These tools are located in the Tools panel across the top of the interface window. You’ll fully explore most of these tools throughout the lessons in the book.


The Info panel is a useful panel to leave open. It provides detailed information based on which tasks are being performed. When selecting items, it provides feedback on colors. When a layer is activated, the Info panel shows information about the active layer. Even during the rendering process the Info panel displays information about progress. It is a good idea to keep the Info panel visible at all times so you can learn more about After Effects as you work.


Audio will frequently play a key role in a motion graphics project, because you’ll want to include music or narration into the final piece. After Effects fully supports the use of sound, but it is not designed to be a robust audio tool. Be sure to use Adobe Premiere Pro or Adobe Soundbooth if you need to perform major audio edits. In the Standard view, the Audio panel is docked with the Info panel.

  1. Click the Audio tab to activate the Audio panel. When this panel is selected, you’ll see three sliders.
    • The left slider controls just the left channel of audio output.
    • The right slider controls just the right channel of audio output.
    • The middle slider controls both channels of output for a stereo file.
  2. Select track #10 Score.asnd in the Timeline panel.
  3. Lower the middle audio slider to approximately -4.4. You can also click the yellow number to precisely enter a value.
  4. To preview audio from the Current Time Indicator, choose Composition > Preview > Audio Preview (Here Forward) or press the period key (.) on the numeric keypad.


The act of invoking a preview indicates to After Effects that you would like to see all the transformations and effects applied to a selected area of your composition. Depending on a variety of factors (including the speed of your machine and type of effects chosen) this process can take a while. The good news is that as machines and video cards get faster, so does After Effects.

To speed up the preview process, it is common practice to view previews at a low quality and a low frame rate. The Preview panel makes it easy to drop the quality of previews that only affect previews (as opposed to the final output of the animation file).

  1. Click the Timeline panel and press the Home key to move the Current Time Indicator to the start of the composition.
  2. Press B to mark the beginning of the work area (think Beginning). The work area defines which part of the animation you want to preview.
  3. Move the Current Time Indicator to approximately 10:00. Then press N to mark the end of the work area (think eNd).
  4. Click the Resolution/Down Sample Factor setting menu at the bottom of the Preview panel. Choose Half, which renders only every other pixel. Because this option renders half the height and half the width for the preview, it is 75 percent faster than Full Quality.
  5. Click the Skip drop-down menu and choose 1. This renders every other frame for the preview.
  6. Click the RAM Preview button to invoke a RAM preview. The green bars indicate cached frames that are ready to preview. If you skip frames, the green line will be dashed. When all the frames are cached (or your system runs out of RAM), the file will begin to play back in realtime.

Panel Shortcuts

You can use the following keyboard shortcuts to quickly toggle the visibility for standard user interface items.



Mac OS

Project panel



Render Queue panel



Tools panel



Info panel



Preview panel



Audio panel



Effects & Presets panel



Character panel



Paragraph panel



Paint panel



Open or Close Brushes panel



Maximize or Restore panel under pointer

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