The reason for this blog is to share my perspective as a video editor and camera operator, and what it is like to use After Effects (AE) in my work, learning it from scratch and on the job. I will say, I probably needed to start this blog a year ago (and AE about 20 years ago) – I didn’t, but here I am now, empowered by a blog workshop I attended to create my first blog, and so decided to talk about After Effects.

The author of this blog

This is not a boasting blog

I am not here to boast and sing out “nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah, I can use After Effects and you can’t.” I’m not going to even imply that I make really good effects or even good ones for that matter (compared to what’s out there). I never studied how colours make you feel, or what font works best, I just never really had the time or maybe interest for the deeper aspects of ‘design.’ What I do do, is kind of follow ideas that I get, or mistakes I make that actually look good (to me), or get an idea from the actual footage. So, I am kind of basic when it comes to design aesthetics, but kind of have a knack for getting an idea that may just work and go for it. An example is trying to make an icy effect to text in a recent video about cryogenic liquids. I couldn’t quite make the text look icy, but I was able to make the background look like liquid nitrogen ‘steam’. So, that is what AE is becoming for me, I have an idea what I want to do, absolutely no idea how to do it and then I find my way, maybe don’t get exactly what I wanted, but get something more than I could of produced in early projects. Kind of like getting better field position in rugby, perhaps.

Why After Effects? Why now?

I have worked in some sort of media profession since I graduated from Uni in 1999. After Effects was something that was around then and still is today (I had a film school friend who used it and we were all amazed that he even knew how to open it). And that’s what it’s like – it’s around – you see a motion designer use it in some dark office where you work, a pile of coloured lines (layers), with numbers, and ellipses, cameras, and text floating in space – with some amazing result on the monitor. It’s always been in a basket for me, like the, I don’t have time for that basket, I can’t afford it basket, or you don’t really cut the 6pm news with After Effects basket. So, it kind of fell away into the distance, on someone else’s machine.


So, when I took a new role for a year (secondment), in late 2018, I said out loud to colleagues, “I’m going to use After Effects” (they probably weren’t listening), but I said it, and to me that makes it real, it’s kind of like a dare, but to myself. After Effects, the easy to say but hard to use application where you can make videos look completely awesome, if you can figure out how it works. I have seen some great designers make stunning motion graphics. How they did it? I don’t have a clue. How long did it take them? No idea. How’d they learn? Probably the same way I am, trial and error and error and error and then render.

My skills background

I’ve been a video editor for some time now, and a camera operator. They really are a tandem skill, and have been since Final Cut Pro came out, in my opinion. Drag a speed effect onto my timeline and flash forward to today. Premiere is the “go to” it seems (others say DaVinci – they are probably right, but AE to me is like that mountain you always wanted to climb and never did). Adobe has Creative Cloud available online now and you can get any software you want. After Effects, has always just loomed there for me, tallest of the mountain range in Adobe’s software package. Premiere, Audition, and hmm, ok Photoshop was on my normal shopping list. Not this time. I was going to climb the Everest of video design software once and for all (don’t mention this to someone who uses Maya, or anything Autodesk, Cinema 4D – you get the idea).

My AE learning strategy

My plan was pretty simple. Use AE for everything except editing. Anything with text like a title, lower third, or graphic – make it in After Effects. Need a photo to zoom in and out on the screen? AE. Need some colour correction? Yes AE. My rational was that even if I could use Premiere, I would learn AE by making it my workhorse. Importing, making a folder, naming something, add a title, make a layer, transform, and on and on – all the things that can be done in Premiere, but do them in AE, stumble around, trip, bang my head but keep trying and get a little more in tune with it.

My first AE project

Freeze frame from video of original camera shot.

I was to make some videos about nanomaterials featuring some outstanding academics and experts in the field. Armed with only a medium, straight to camera of each person (I recorded with Canon XA25), it was up to me to make something more of the content that they provided. Learning materials were already created by a learning designer in Smart Sparrow, so I aimed to match that material to provide continuity by firstly finding images with Science Photo library.

Original motion graphic rejected for a few reasons. Watch it through and then look at the end where I scroll, you can see I used keyframes for position, scale, rotation, and can see the blue numbers changing — there has got to be a better way.

Better image, simpler graphics, feels a part of the video and entire learning design now. It’s always a good idea to get feedback, as people really see things in different ways.

I really like that AE can export lower thirds that you make with an alpha channel attached. So you can add a custom made title in Premiere. In the example below, I wanted to make the nanoparticles explode and be contained to the black shape. I didn’t know how to do that, so I stayed with this. Also, it’s not perfect, note the crop as it comes on screen, would be better to hold the shape of the explosion if that makes sense rather than a straight line.

How an alpha channel motion graphic appears in AE, with open space around the graphic. Export as lossless with alpha when rendering it out.

Final composite in Premiere, added over video. I would of preferred the ‘fireworks’ to be contained in the black shape.

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