After Effects articles

Until now all the articles I’ve written on After Effects have appeared on the Creative Cow.
Further below you’ll see some articles discussing my original Creative Cow tutorials and how things have changed since then…

Building Projections

Last modified on 2012-04-13 01:04:50 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

I’ve been fortunate to have been involved with a number of projection projects lately. I’ve put together a 2-part video presentation on building projections, which you can find over at the ProVideo Coalition.
Part 1 gives a general overview of building projections, while part 2 looks at the specific After Effects problems and solutions we faced on the Melbourne project.

After Effects Leftovers…

Last modified on 2010-10-21 10:47:13 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

I’ve just finished a new series of video tutorials over at the ProVideo Coalition.  I called it “After Effects leftovers”, because it looks at features that have been in After Effects for a while but are often neglected.  I find it interesting how some features of After Effects are rapidly adopted and others aren’t.  In my experience parenting, for example, is something that seems to have been picked up pretty quickly and used by many people for all sorts of things… shape layers – not so popular.  I can also add that there’s no correlation between how many keyboard shortcuts someone knows- or how well they know After Effects in general – and the quality of their work.  You can memorise the manual but it won’t make you a great designer, but equally one of the most talented artists I’ve ever worked with had no idea that you could alt-drag to replace items in the timeline, something I do many times every day!

I tried to keep the videos short and snappy and so I won’t waste any more time typing about them now… check them out at the ProVideo Coalition!

The Centrica Carnivale

Last modified on 2012-04-13 01:14:19 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

The’Centrica Carnivale’ is a 3-part video series that takes a very detailed look at the production of a corporate awards opener – from pitch to delivery. It includes an overview of how to use After Effects to produce results that look like they were made in a 3D animation program:

The Centrica Carnivale – Part 1
The Centrica Carnivale – Part 2
The Centrica Carnivale – Part 3

This was the first time I attempted a video tutorial after a few years of submitting written articles to the Creative Cow, so I was especially flattered by the kind comments from Adobe’s Todd Kopriva:

“Your Centrica Carnival making-of videos are among the best I’ve seen. When I saw the Tiny Inventions making-of video (, it was your making-of videos that I was measuring it against. It came up roughly even.”

Considering the popularity of After Effects and the huge number of free tutorials that are out there, this is high praise – and it’s even nicer coming from an Adobe employee who works with the After Effects team. You can check out Todd’s blog here.

Pre-compose to layer duration (a script)

Last modified on 2009-02-05 11:18:13 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

Ever since I started using After Effects I’ve been annoyed at how the pre-compose function works. It’s always bugged me that when you pre-compose a layer the new composition is the duration of the original composition, not the individual layer.

Pre-compose - How it normally works

It bugged me a lot. Then I found a script on Dan Ebbert’s site which solved this quirk and introduced me to the world of scripting. I was absolutely thrilled by this discovery because it meant that a few lines of text could add new features to After Effects without the need to eagerly await the next version release, hope that your feature requests had been included, and then pay for the upgrade.

Although the script on Dan’s site was a great improvement there was one additional tweak I wanted to make: when I pre-compose a layer I sometimes want the layer to begin at the start of the new pre-composition and not maintain its original in-point. So I took Dan’s code, modified it slightly, and came up with a version that did exactly what I wanted.

You can download it here.

Pre-composing by using the script

You may be wondering why this is useful. So let me describe a typical working scenario:

A video production company is working on an fx-intensive project. They’ve pitched the concept, won the job, written the script, shot the images and an editor has come up with an approved edit. The next step is to start the graphics and fx work- which is your job. All the visual-fx in the project will be completed using After Effects. The editor exports the approved edit from Final Cut Pro as a single quicktime file because the production company is too tight to purchase Automatic Duck. You import the quicktime file into After Effects and run the brilliant Magnum edit detector script by Lloyd Alvarez. This automatically cuts the Quicktime file into individual shots. But if you were to build all of the graphics and fx into this one composition you’d end up with a monstrous creation that has thousands of layers! So you decide to pre-compose each fx shot into its own composition. Some of the shots will have additional elements in them that have been rendered out of a 3D program like Cinema 4D, and the 3D artist has rendered them out as TIFF sequences that all begin at 0. To make sure they line up properly it helps if each pre-composition in After Effects also begins at frame 0. This way if you need to alter shots or identify specific frames then the frame number in AE will be the same as the frame number in Cinema 4D. So this is where the script comes in handy… and also explains why it renames each pre-composition according to the original layer number.

Your finished timeline would look like this:

And your project window would look like this:

Other AE users have also generously modified the script to add different functionality they would prefer and you try them all over at the AE Enhancers web site.

If you’re not familiar with scripts then all you need to do is drop the downloaded .jsx file into the “Scripts” folder of the After Effects application folder. Next time you start After Effects it will appear in the list with the other scripts.

Looking Back: Morphing with AE

Last modified on 2009-02-11 17:49:16 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

The Creative Cow website is an incredible resource and it has certainly grown since its launch. I have been proud to contribute several articles to the Creative Cow site over the years but as software and techniques change with time not all of those articles are still current. I thought it would be interesting to look at the articles I’ve written and make some observations about how they stand up today…

Original article: Morphing with AE.

Creative Cow morphing tutorial using the Reshape effect

This was the first article I had published on the Cow and I’ve often suspected it’s the most popular. It was written in October 2002 and I still get emails from people asking questions or simply thanking me for it.

Ironically, although it’s the oldest article it’s probably still the most relevant because none of the AE upgrades since version 5.5 have directly superceded the Reshape effect. If you want to do a simple morph then you could still follow the tutorial and get a decent result. However for anything more complicated I would almost certainly use the Liquify effect instead of Reshape – it offers much more control over the distortion process. The 3 basic stages of a morph effect outlined in the tutorial introduction would still apply, but by using Liquify instead of Reshape you can manually line up features like eyes and mouths as well as the overall outlines.

So in summary – the article is still relevant but for more control I would use the Liquify effect instead of Reshape.

Looking Back: Cogs & Gears

Last modified on 2009-02-11 17:49:25 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

Original article: Creating cogs and gears in After Effects

Creative Cow tutorial - creating cogs and gears in AE

Creative Cow tutorial – creating cogs and gears in AE

This is a 5-part behemouth of a tutorial that I wrote a few weeks after finishing the morphing tutorial. I needed to animate some cogs for a corporate presentation and was faced with the problem of how to create cogs in After Effects. When I figured out a solution I was so pleased with myself I wrote these articles as a self-congratulatory exercise.

The original problem that I faced was – how do you get an image to follow a path without changing its size? I needed to have the teeth of a cog wrap around circles of different sizes, but without changing the size of the individual teeth. The solution I came up with was to use the Path Text plug-in, which allowed you to have text follow a mask shape, and use text to create the teeth instead of an image.   So the trick I devised was to build cogs and gears out of letters and punctuation marks…

Looking back this tutorial is dated in several ways but the most obvious is that the Path Text effect is now obsolete – replaced by Text Layers.  I think Text Layers were introduced with version 6.0, although it took so long for me to have the software upgrade approved by the accounts department that I eventually jumped straight from v5.5 to v6.5. The basic principle is still valid and so you could still use this process for creating cogs and gears but use Text Layers instead of the Path Text effect.

There is now a 3rd party plug-in available to distort an image along a path so you could make your cogs and gears that way – Rakka – but not everyone likes buying 3rd party plug-ins.

One thing that has always bugged me is that I rushed this tutorial out the door and the resulting cogs & gears don’t really look that good. If I had spent more time the end result would have been much better – the cogs & gears look flat (no texture) and the colours are garish (no colour grading) and so on…

… however the thing that has embarrased me even more is that I spend ages in part 4 describing how to use trigonometry to animate a piston, completely oblivious to the fact that Dan Ebberts had already posted a much more elegant tutorial on the same thing.  In fact the approach I use with trigonometry is actually incorrect and has a bug in the code, but since November 2002 only 1 person I’m aware of has discovered it and emailed me.

So to summarise:

– Path text is obsolete and you would use Text Layers instead

– The Cycore FX Rakka plug-in is an alternative approach to text

– The textures don’t look great and the colours need grading

– The trigonometry in part 4 of the tutorial is simply wrong, Dan has a better method.


With the release of After Effects CS6, it is now possible to use the same basic technique to create fully ray-traced 3D cogs inside of After Effects. This video tutorial at the ProVideo Coalition demonstrates the process…

Looking Back: Flying through a tunnel

Last modified on 2009-02-13 14:27:33 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

Original article: Flying through a tunnel with After Effects

Tunnel effect using the Polar Coordinates filter

This article was written in July 2004 (AE v5.5) and demonstrates how a tunnel fly-through effect can be achieved by using the polar coordinates filter. I make it quite clear in the introduction that you cannot get a “Hollywood level” tunnel effect using only After Effects, because you can’t get twisty 3D geometry in AE.  So this tutorial was only ever intended to demonstrate a “quick and dirty” technique for faking it.

The tutorial is still relevant and the technique is still valid- none of the techniques or plugins used have dated and if I needed a tunnel effect today I might still use this process… but there are alternatives to consider.

In fact the basic trick demonstrated in the tutorial – using the polar coordinates filter – is so simple that the article’s substance comes from detailing additional procedures with fractal noise and reshape.

So really, there are three stages to this tutorial:

1) creating a texture for the tunnel with fractal noise

2) using the polar coordinates effect to create the tunnel

3) using the reshape effect to add twists and turns to the tunnel

The polar coordinates filter is one way to make a tunnel effect, and in July 2004 with AE version 5.5 it was the only feasible option without 3rd party plugins. But these days another option is to use the CC cylinder effect and align it so the camera is pointing down the middle of the cylinder – the CC Cylinder effect was included with After Effects from version 6.5 onwards. CC Cylinder creates a nicer looking tunnel than using polar coordinates but even using this approach the process of creating the fractal texture would be generally the same, and you’d still end up with a straight tunnel and so the reshape effect technique would still need to be used for bends.

I have tried creating a truly 3D tunnel in After Effects by arranging thousands of 2D circles with small offsets in their Z-space. It’s not difficult to do with expressions and you can try it yourself using the pattern generator project on the downloads page.  But although this can be done it’s really just an academic curiosity – you need thousands of layers to get a decent result and the render times go through the roof – especially with lights and shadows which are needed to give the illusion of depth. So you end up with a project that takes longer to render than a 3D application, doesn’t look as good, and can’t be controlled as easily.

Taking 3rd party plugins into consideration opens up several avenues for creating tunnels and I haven’t looked into them. Even Trapcode’s Particular could be used with circular particles to create a 3D tunnel.

But the original article was always intended to demonstrate a “quick and dirty” After Effects trick and with that in mind it is still relevant today.