10 Tips for the After Effects Beginner

Lara Lee Design | 10 Tips for the After Effects Beginner, Read the Tips >

As I’m transitioning from animating in Photoshop to After Effects, I’ve picked up several tips for the After Effects beginner along the way. Learn how to increase or decrease the video’s duration, add new layers to already-imported artwork, make child layers inherit effects, and more.

1. Use Composition Settings to trim the video duration.

In Photoshop, the video played as long as the longest purple bar in the Timeline panel. As a result, Photoshop automatically trimmed the video duration. However, After Effects doesn’t. Designers have more control over the video’s duration. Nonetheless, the setting can be hard to adjust at first.

To trim the video duration in After Effects, go to the top bar > Composition Settings > Duration and input a value. Format matters. After Effects applies a specific format to precisely measure time. For example, a value of “0:00:28:00” translates to 0 hours, 00 minutes, 28 seconds, and 00 milliseconds.

2. Edit multiple purple bars at once with Cmd + click.

After Effects makes it easy to change duration of multiple purple bars at once. Select them by clicking and pressing Cmd, then drag the edge of one purple bar to adjust altogether.

3. Press Alt on multiple keyframes to stretch or shrink their durations on the Timeline.

This keyboard shortcut is a big time-saver. Slow down or speed up an animation by simply stretching or shrinking keyframes all at once. After Effects maintains the relative speed between frames automatically. Simply press “Alt” and click and drag selected keyframes to change the timing.

4. Replace an old file with an updated file using of several methods.

These After Effects beginner tips make it easy to update composition artwork!

Edit an Existing Layer:

Locate the layer in the After Effects Timeline panel, right-click > Open > Edit Original. The original artwork launches in the program in which you created it. Make the edits, save. In a moment, the After Effects artwork updates to reflect the change.

Edit Existing Layers:

Edit the original artwork, save, and close. Then, launch After Effects if it’s not already open. The imported artwork now reflects the edits.

Replace Existing Layers:

Right-click a layer in the After Effects Project panel > Replace Footage > File… Choose whether to a single layer or all layers merged into one.

Add a New Layer and/or Replace Existing Layers:

Adding a new layer requires a new import. Go to File > Import File, and locate the file. Then set Import as: to either Composition or Composition – Retain Layer Sizes. A second composition appears in the Projects panel as well as a second group of layers.

Add the new layer by expanding the new layers group, find the new layer, then click and drag it into the Timeline panel.

Update existing layers by click + Alt + dragging from the new layers group onto the layer of the same name below in the Timeline panel.

Troubleshooting: While After Effects prefers multiple layers to import, it doesn’t support multiple art boards. If a file is importing at 1×1 or otherwise looks blank, make sure all artwork is on a single artboard.

5. Create quick pre-set shapes natively by clicking the Shape Tool + pressing Q.

For easy access, After Effects remembers the last used shape. Switch between the Rectangle, Rounded Rectangle, Ellipse, Polygon, and Star Tools by clicking the Shape Tool’s arrow and pressing Q on the keyboard to expand the options menu.

Like Illustrator, press Shift to scale shapes proportionally. Similarly, press Alt to scale shapes from the center.

6. Use center and align tools to quickly arrange layers in the Composition.

Automatic center and align is a life-saver for any user, but especially the After Effects beginner.

Click + drag + Cmd while moving a layer to automatically snap it to the composition’s horizontal center, vertical center, or edges. The snap to center the layer occurs at the layer’s transformation point.

Similar to Photoshop and Illustrator, After Effects also offers quick alignment tools. Simply select the layers, and choose an option from the Align panel on the right-hand side to align the layers either to the Composition or to the Selection.

After Effects Beginner Troubleshooting Center and Align :

Troubleshooting Why the Layer “Center” Is Off-Center:

I discovered this issue while writing my After Effects 3D card flip tutorial: my card flopped all over the composition!

Troubleshooting the Y Rotation: make sure the anchor point is in the center of the flip control null object. If not, press Y for the Pan Behind (Anchor Point) Tool to drag the anchor point back to the center.
Troubleshooting the Y Rotation: make sure the anchor point is in the center of the flip control null object. If not, press Y for the Pan Behind (Anchor Point) Tool to drag the anchor point back to the center.

If the layer doesn’t seem centered, check the placement of its transformation point. Press Y for the Pan Behind (Anchor Point) Tool to manually drag the anchor point to the center.

Alternatively, Cmd + double click the anchor point to automatically center it. If there’s more  than one shape on the layer, try moving the anchor point to a blank space first to ensure the anchor point doesn’t align to the center of any particular shape.

Troubleshooting Why Align Is Grayed Out: The After Effects Align panel aligns layers rather than objects like Illustrator does. If the Align tools are grayed out, double-check a layer is selected from the Timeline panel. Note that using click + Alt + drag to duplicate a shape on the composition doesn’t automatically place new shapes on a new layer. Keep shapes on separate layers to use the Align panel. (You can always combine them later.) To duplicate shapes onto separate layers, instead use Cmd + D.

Troubleshooting Why Distribute Is Grayed Out: After Effects grays out the Distribute options when a selected layer has multiple shapes—it doesn’t know what to do with all the pieces! To distribute layers with multiple shapes, try grouping the shapes with Cmd + G. Distribute also doesn’t seem to be an option until there’s at least three (3) layers selected.

7. Consider zooming and/or panning to animate static images.

Import the image into a new After Effects project. Place the scrubber at 0:00 and expand the Transform menu on the static image’s layer.

Zoom In or Zoom Out on a Still Image:

Add the first scale keyframe at 0:00. Then, move the scrubber to the end, increase the scale value or resize the image larger right on the composition, and finally add the second scale keyframe. Combine with a Position transform to zoom into a particular part of the image.

Pan a Still Image:

The simplest way to pan across a static image is using the position transformation. Add the first position keyframe at 0:00. Then, move the scrubber to the end, and drag the image across the composition to automatically add the second position keyframe.

8. “Whip” objects under a parent to apply the same effects to the children.

If multiple objects require the same settings, try setting a parent element. Objects nested under the parent inherit the settings of the parent. Click the “Parent Pick Whip” swirl icon in the Timeline then drag it to another layer to link the two.

9. Reverse animations with Keyframe Assistant.

To switch directions on an animation, select multiple keyframes of an object then right-click > Keyframe Assistant > Time-Reverse Keyframes. This is a super useful tip for the After Effects beginner to create seamlessly looping animations!

10. Save After Effects videos as .mov, .gif, and .mp4 with the right render queue.

Coming from Photoshop, the After Effects beginner might not understand all the rendering options or how to save videos into the desired format. Fortunately, each video format matches with a render queue.

.mov [Default]

After Effects exports rendered videos as .mov files by default. To export an After Effects video into a .mov file, go to File > Export > Add to Render Queue. Adjust settings then hit Render.

Animated .gif

To convert the .mov file into an animated GIF, launch Photoshop > File > Import > Video Frames to Layers… then go to File > Export > Save for Web (Legacy) and select the .gif format.

To convert a .mp4 file into an animated GIF, launch Photoshop > Open and find the file. The MP4 imports into a Photoshop video timeline. Then go to File > Export > Save for Web (Legacy) and select the .gif format. Alternatively, you can also go to Photoshop > File > Import > Video Frames to Layers… like .mov files above.


To export an After Effects video as an .mp4, instead go to File > Export > Add to Adobe Media Encoder Queue. Next, Adobe Media Encoder launches with the video listed in its queue. (It may took a moment depending on file size.) Adjust settings, then hit the green the “play” button to Start Queue to render.

Ready to animate?

Check out my beginner tutorials for How to Animate Along a Path and How to Animate a 3D Card Flip, two popular motion graphics animation techniques.