After Effects for Beginners: Advanced Techniques


When we launched we asked you to tell us what content you wanted and quite a few of you told us you wanted the basics. This is the second installment of our 3 part series for after effects beginners. Each section lists at the top the topics that are covered in that section. Even though this series focuses on the latest CS4 release, most of the concepts apply to all the versions of After Effects.

This third part of the Essential Training series will teach you some advanced techniques in After Effects. You will learn all the basics you need to be able to use After Effects and understand the cool tutorials out here.


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After Effects CS4 - Essential Training

This third part of the Essential Training series will teach you some advanced techniques in After Effects. You will learn all the basics you need to be able to use After Effects and understand the cool tutorials out here.


In this last Part of the extensive and hopefully useful Essential Training series which is intended to teach all beginners the basics of After Effects, we'll learn some advanced techniques of After Effects CS4. The three sections in which I split this Tutorial are:

  • Part 1 - Getting Started
  • Part 2 - Effects & Animation
  • Part 3 - Advanced techniques

Part Three - Advanced Techniques

In our final part we'll go over how to set our workspace, use several types of motion tracking, like stabilizing a shaky shot and we'll cover the basics of 3D in After Effects. Another interesting Part of this tutorial is the Expression section. Expression is the scripting language of After Effects. In the chart below you can see a listing of the steps explained in this Tutorial:

1. Workspace

  • Change Panels & Frames
  • New Workspace
  • Choose Workspace
  • Delete Workspace
  • Discard changes

Change Panels & Frames

Now we'll learn how to customize our Workspace. To change the size of the Panels you can go to the positions I marked with numbers. If you locate your Mouse between two Panels (3.) your cursor will change and you'll be able to click, hold and move your mouse to left and right. You can do the same in Y direction (4.) or even changing the siz.JPGe of more than two Panels at the time (5.).

Adding a Panel to a Frame

To disconnect or connect Panels from each other you can click, hold and drag&drop.JPG your panel to another position. In this example we drag the Info Panel out of the Frame where it sits with the Audio Panel and drop it in the purple area (1.). This will separate the Info Panel and connect it to the Composition Panel.

Separating Panels

We can also separate a Panel from a Frame. To do that you can drag and drop the Info Panel to the top, left, bottom or right side of the Composition Panel (1.). This time the Panel will be placed between the Composition Panel and the Audio, Preview and Effects & Presets Panel as a seperate panel. Hold down Alt and drag a panel to open a floating panel.

New Workspace

After changing and customizing our Workspace by resizing and dragging & dropping the Panels and Frames we are ready to save our Workspace as a reusable Workspace. After Effects already comes with some pre-made Workspaces which can be useful. To create your own click on the triangle next to Workspace and then on New Workspace.

Name the Workspace

You can give it a name you like. For Example your own name to recognize it fast. Your co-workers or other persons who use your Computer can easily create their Workspace too. Every time someone uses your Computer the Workspace can be changed.

Choose Workspace

Your Workspace is saved and you can select it. There are many different Workspaces you should try out.

Delete Workspace

If you want to delete a Workspace you can only do that when you are not using it momentarily. Choose another Workspace, go to Delete Workspace > Select > Delete.

Discard Changes

Imagine you are working on a project using your lovely Workspace and you just left your desk. Your little brother comes to your desk and closes all the panels or changes all the sizes and positions. You come back and realize that your Workspace is messed up. Don't panic, just go to Reset "My Workspace" where you can discard all the changes and reset your Workspace.

2. Motion Tracking

  • Types of Motion Tracking
  • Settings and Target
  • Null Object

Motion Tracking

As the name says the function of this feature is to follow an object as it moves around from frame to frame in a piece of footage. Maybe this sounds complicated but it's not that difficult to learn. To start tracking a footage we need to open up the Tracker Panel. In previous versions of After Effects it was called Tracker Controls. The Tracker Panel should appear somewhere on your workspace.


The Motion Source is set to none (1.) since we are in the composition panel. We can't motion track our footage in the Composition Panel. We have to double click on the footage to open up the Viewer. Immediately after double-clicking on the footage the Motion Source will select our footage. You can also go to the Motion Source dropdown menu (2.) and select the footage you want. The Viewer will open.

Motion Tracking Types

After selecting the footage, we want to track it. There are two motion tracking types: Track Motion and Stabilizing Motion.


By selecting Stabilizing Motion a Track Point will appear in the Viewer. It consists of the Inner Square and an Outer Square. By clicking on the Inner Square you can move the Track Point around. It is the area, what to search for in each frame. The Outer Square is the actual search area. To make sure not to get out of place you must select a high contrast area for your tracking area. When grabbing and moving the Track Point it will zoom in for better view.

If you have slightly rotation in your footage you should enable the second Track Point to achieve a better effect. Click on the Rotation checkbox to open up the second Track Point. Make sure to select a high contrast area.

After setting up the Track Points we are ready to analyze our footage. To do that click on the analyze forward button (1.). you can analyze the footage frame by frame (2.) or by clicking on analyze forward/backward (1.). After Effects will analyze the footage and add information to the layer. After choosing our Target (3.) the only thing we need to do is click on Apply (4.). The Motion Tracker Apply Options will appear and you'll need to select the Apply Dimensions, X and Y and click on OK.

After applying the information to the layer, After Effects will set keyframes which move the layer in X and Y direction to stabilize the footage, causing a little problem. We'll see black bars at the sides of our composition.JPG since the footage moves in X and Y direction while displaying a stabilized movie. To correct this problem you can scale the footage or reflect the edges if its not too shaky.

Motion Track

The only difference in choosing Motion Track is that the information won't be applied to the same layer. This time we'll create a new solid layer which will receive our tracked information. Click Edit Target > Select the Layer > hit OK > and then Apply. Everything else is modifiable the same way.

Null Object

We already applied our tracking data to our layers but there is one more interesting feature in After Effects. We can apply our tracking data to a Null Object which actually doesn't do anything except retaining our tracking information. You can create a Null Object by Right-clicking in a blank area in the Timeline Panel, selecting New > Null Object or by going to Layer > New > Null Object.

Target Null Object

Now select Track Motion, track the footage and apply the information to the Null Object by clicking Edit Target > Select the Null Object > OK > Apply. Since the Null Object doesn't do anything at the moment we can turn its .JPGvisibility off by clicking on the eye checkbox on the far left. By turning its visibility off the square won't interfere with our objects in the composition.

Parent to Null Object

Now the Null Object contains our tracking data but what can we do with that. Now we'll notice the real power of this tool when we parent another layer to the Null Object. We could have applied the tracking data to the layer but once we want to move more than one layer the Null Object is the best way to go since we can parent (1.) multiple layers to the Null Object (2.).

3. 3D

  • 3D Layer Switch
  • Moving in 3D space
  • 3D Light
  • 3D Camera

3D Space

First it is important to say that you can't create 3D objects in After Effects. 3D, in our case means that we are working in 3D Space. In this section you will understand how the X, Y and Z axis are working.

  • X - Left and Right
  • Y - Up and Down
  • Z - Forward and Backward

3D Layer Switch

The first thing we need to do is turn our layer 3D. Before clicking on that checkbox hit P for bringing up the Position values (1.). We are looking at the X and Y values (X and Y). Go to the checkbox (4.) for this layer and turn it to 3D. Now After Effects added another value (2.) which is the parameter for the Z axis (Z) since we are in 3D Space now.

3D Z-axis

We'll now select the layer and move it backwards, away from us by grabbing the Z arrow in the center of our Layer and pushing it backwards. It looks like we are scaling it down but we are actually moving it back in Space.

3D Rotation

Let's take a look at the Rotation options. It's not only one anymore but four. We will focus on the Rotation values not the Orientation (1.) value since it only sets where an object exists, it orients it. We'll only animate the Rotation (2.). By changing the values you will realize that changing the X Rotation value seems to be rotating up and down and not to the left and right as it should since it is the X axis. When we rotate our Object it will rotate around the axis. If you take a closer look you will realize that we are rotating around the X axis. To rotate around a axis select the Rotation Tool or hit W and go to the X, Y and Z arrows.

3D Layer order

Another important thing you need to know about 3D layers is the stacking order. The purple Layer in the Timeline is below the green layer and it will also stay below the purple layer in 3D Space. But if you have two layers like here which are on the same position and you change the Z value from one layer it will move back in Space and disappear behind the other layer, even if it is on top of the other Layer in the Timeline. This is the second time I'm mentioning this and you'll see what I mean in the next step where we'll take a look at Lighting and Camera.

3D Layer order

Select the green layer, hit Shift+P+S to open the Transform options and change the values to 120% for the scale and 650 for the Z-position value. The green layer which was in front of the purple layer will now move behind it.


Using 3D Lights you can make your composition look better and more realistic. You can add highlights and shadows and determine how the light affects your layers. The Light not only has its position but also the point of interest. To move a Light you can use the Selection Tool (V). You can move the Emitter (2.) which produces the light or you can select the Point of Interest (1.) and move it. We'll create a little composition where we play with the Light and Camera to create a very simple animation.


For this section we need to prepare a composition with two Layers. One white background layer and a text layer on top of it. Now its time to select the Text Tool from the Tool palette. Type in or anything you like. You can also Right-click > New > Text and then type in your text. There are a few new things you need to know. After creating the Text Layer the Character Panel will appear where you can modify your Text. I think you already know how to use the options there. Since the Anchor Point of the Text is on the bottom-left corner you need to change the position settings considering this.

Light Settings

Go to a blank area in the Composition Panel and Right-click > New > Light. You can also go to Layer > New > Light in the Layer menu. In the Light Settings, give it a name (1.), set it to Spot Light (2.) and check the checkbox where it says Cast Shadows (3.). We want to create a Spot Light which lightens a Text Layer and the Text Layer casts shadows. Since lights only work in 3D Space we definitely need to turn our Layers 3D.


If you click on the triangle on the background and text layer and go to Material Options (1.) you will see that the layers are set to Off (2.), not to cast shadows. Since we want them to cast shadows we need to turn that parameter on for both of them. Also we need to make sure that the options Accept Lights and Accept Shadows are set to On (3.).

Layer order

After changing the values we should see the shadows but we don't. The reason why we can't see them is because our background layer and text layer are on the same Z-position (1.). We need to select the background l.JPGayer and move it backwards on the Z axis. To make sure the Background layer fills the whole composition change the Scale to 150%.


Now we achieved our shadow casting effect. To make it more interesting I would like to introduce the Camera. We'll animate the camera to make a cool movement from left to right to "film" the text layer with its shadow on the wall. I imported a wall texture to make the wall look more realistic. I selected the Background layer, pre-composed it (Leave all attJP.JPGributes) and added the texture to the new composition. I used the same techniques from the second part of this tutorial to blend this texture with our background layer. If you missed that tutorial make sure to check it out. Below you can see some steps.

Camera Tools

Like everything else the Camera has its own special tools. If you check the Toolbar or hit C on your keyboard you'll find four different tools. The Unified Camera tool, the Orbit tool which rotates the Camera's view around the point of interest, the Track XY tool which moves both the camera and its point of interest in each direction and the Track Z tool which moves the camera and its point of interest forward or backwards along the Z-axis.

Camera Settings

To create a Camera you need to go to a blank area in the Timeline Panel and Right-click > New > Camera. You can also go to Layer > New > Camera in the Layer menu. The Camera Settings will appear. There are different Presets with different virtual camera lenses you can choose from. We will select the 35mm Preset.

Camera Animation

Now we will apply our knowledge of the previous tutorial where we've learned how to animate basic Shapes and Layers. We'll use the Position of the Camera and the Stopwatch to create some Keyframes, consequentially our cool animation. Use the tools explained above to move the camera in 3D Space. You should be able to do that but if you need some assistance take a look at the images below.

Click on Stopwatch

Select the Camera layer, hit P to open up the Position control and click on the Stopwatch to set the first Keyframe.

Select Tool

Select the Orbit Camera Tool to move the Camera around.

Move Camera

Move the camera to the left, where our animation will start.

Move Camera

Now drag the CTI (Current Time Indicator) to the right to 5 seconds or wherever you want your animation to stop. Move the camera to the right.

4. Expressions

  • Basics
  • Wiggle Expression
  • Learn more


Using Expressions we can modify or set values like Position, Scale, Opacity and the other ones we've learned. All controls which have a Stopwatch are programmable. Create a composition with a Solid Layer, name it and hit T to open the Opacity control (1.).

Step 1

To open the Expression text field, Alt-click on the Stopwatch (1.). After Effects will create a text area (6.) where we can type in our Expression. As you know you can easily change the parameter of each Transform control. Ignore the existing text (6.). There are four options we can enable or disable (2. - 5.) The first one switches the Expression off but the Expression in the text field will stay there. By Alt-clicking the Stopwatch again it would delete the Expressions and Keyframes you've set so far. The diagram gives you more controls but we won't use it this time (3.) We already know the Pick-Whip (4.) and we'll be using it in a second. The little triangle (5.) opens a palette of many Expressions you can use if you already know what they do.

Step 2

Now go to the text field and type 50, hit return (1.). This "Expression" sets the value of the Opacity to 50 (2.) which means 50%.

Step 3

You can also let After Effects calculate some values. Type 50 + 25, hit return and watch what happens (1.). You can do alot more so try some mathematical formulas and see what they do. Positive values beyond 100 will set the Opacity to 100% and negative values will be treated as 0.

Wiggle Expression

Here we have a little Expression: wiggle(25,50) (1.) which will make our footage flicker since we are applying it to the Opacity control. The first value inside the parenthesis is frequencey which means the value of the opacity will change 25 times in a second (1.) by the second value which is the amount of change in this case 50 (2.)


A few frames later you can see that the value has changed. It will wiggle 25 times a second by a maximum value of 50.

Wiggle duration

This Expression will be enabled throughout the whole duration of our composition. Since we don't want that to be enabled the whole time we need to change a few things to make it possible to animate. We'll replace the second value in the parenthesis (1.).

Slider Control

First thing to do is: go to Effect > Expression Controls > Slider Control, to apply that Effect to our Layer with the Expression.

Slider Controls

The Effect Controls Panel will appear if its not already there. Now we have the Slider control which gives us a few values to play with. By sliding to left or right we can set a value between 0 and 100.


Now delete the second value and place the cursor at the position after the comma (1.). Select the Pickwhip (2.) and drag it to the top of the screen where the Slider Control is and let it go over the word Slider (1.).

Slider Control code

After doing that After Effects creates the following code. Lets split the code and see what it means. Effect is self explanatory. In the first parenthesis the Expression addresses the name of the Effect, in this case Slider Control. The second part addresses the Slider value. It will inherit the value and place it at the position where the value 50 was before.

Wiggle - Animating

Now its time to animate our Slider control (1.). We can click on the Stopwatch in the Effect Controls Panel or we can click on the little triangle to open up the Slider Control at the layer.

Wiggle - Keyframes

Set the Slider value to 0 and move forward a few Frames. Set the first Keyframe and change the value to 30. Move forward again, set another Keyframe using the diamond on the far left not the Stopwatch button. Move forward 2-3 Frames and set the Slider Control value to 0 again. The Slider Control will start at 0, bounce to 30 after a few Frames, stay at 30 for a few Frames and go back to 0 at the third Keyframe.

Learn more

If you want to learn more about Expressions you should definitely check out the Help file of After Effects and their Website for more information. Below I listed some websites you can take a look at:


I hope you've learned everything you need to start working with After Effects. Thanks for working through this Essential Training.

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