The Missing Manual: Time Saving Tips Nobody Wrote Down - AE Basix


One of the keys to mastering After Effects transcends the addictive process of adding your spark, the glamour, and making everything sexy. As fun as that is, the reality is that we often have the clock ticking against us, whether it’s our client nervously watching the hours rack up, or that family time we’re neglecting yet again. Everyone seems to agree there aren’t enough hours in the day, so why not earn a few easy ones back?


I’d like to think that most of these tips are obvious and that much of the professional world already applies them. However, I never found these in any of my instruction, so I’d like to share this workflow of mine that consistently helps me make better videos and cut my hours in half—by eliminating my most major mistakes.

Quick Summary:

  • Start with the audio
  • Plan it all on paper
  • Start your video as basic as possible so you can address major storytelling issues while it’s still easy.

Simple. For some reason it took me forever to “get” this, and why the seemingly boring process is so vital.

1) Audio first

Unless you’re in a market like digital signage, your video needs a soundtrack. And there are plenty of important reasons to start here before anything else.

  • Inspiration: the soundtrack of a song conveys many obvious and subtle emotions. Choosing the right soundtrack drives your viewer’s emotions and validates the video in a way nothing else can. Listen to your soundtrack with your eyes closed and you’ll see possibilities for your video that are uniquely yours and fit it far better than just following tutorials.
  • Essential: You want your major transitions to line up with set changes in the song. Because all music conforms to very consistent patterns: 4 beats per measure, 4 measures per set, we are very restricted about how much we can edit it later. Time your effects around beats in the song, not the other way around.
  • Practical: If you have a duration limit (like 15 or 30 seconds), you may need to do a little editing so the track has a decent start, middle, and finish. You want to do this before you have dozens of effects timed to the old music edit.

The bottom line is that video effects are very easy to move around. Audio is far more difficult to ‘nudge’.


Here is an energetic music track where the main instruments suddenly stop and a guitar slides down.
I felt like I was being dropped from mid-air here, so in my video I use a falling transition to
emphasize it. It‘s my favorite part of the video.

2) Storyboard: use a pad of paper!

Even if you’re a terrible drawer like me, you’ll still benefit a lot by doing your test run on paper first. Your brain has better things to do than remember every little detail you’ve conjured up, and the process just takes me three or four minutes (and often saves me hours).

  • Inspiration: Seeing your idea on paper gives you perspective, because you can find problems in symmetry, balance, or there not really being enough room for all that text, etc. Layout often makes sense in my head but just doesn’t work in a 16x9 frame. Staring at it lets you think outside the box, and frees up your brain to think of new approaches.
  • Essential: You can double-check timing. If you have a duration limit, will this all really fit in time? “Watch” your slides while listening to the audio track to see that you can comfortably read all of the text, and process all of the information at a good pace. Do this 2 or 3 times and you should have a good sense as to whether it will work like you think.
  • Practical: You’ll greatly accelerate your editing. With the big picture in place, you can more structurally lay out your compositions so they make sense. And rather than de-railing to remember what you planned next, you can glance at your storyboard to stay right on track and in your zone. This’ll save you more time than you probably expect.

I once spent 4 or 5 hours finishing the details on a great 30-second ad. But I didn’t storyboard, and when I hit the 24 second mark, I had only shown half the client’s talking points and hadn’t even gotten to their logo yet. Oops! Most of it had to be thrown out.

3) Make a “Mock Video”

Again in the spirit of ensuring that your timing will work, now create the entire video as basic as you can. Get any important elements in place but avoid adding anything that will tax your CPU or clutter your timeline for now.

First handle: Optionally add: Not yet:
Text Basic backgrounds Effects
Photos Basic transitions Blending modes
Layout Camera motion Color correction
Timing down to a ‘T’ Basic movement Anything not vital to your story

Here are two mock-ups I made for my videos. They are really dull, yes, and that’s good, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute.

Example: a very basic mockup

A more complex example: showing a mockup with 3D movement

For now you’re trying to avoid any details that aren’t critical to the storytelling. If you work on little details like glows and pretty effects early in, several bad things happen:

You make it very difficult to edit major things later
  • Layout: It’s very hard to click and drag a specific layer in a complicated scene. Instead you highlight a color correction adjustment or a big foreground layer by mistake. Gah...
  • Efficiency: lots of effects will seriously tax your CPU, making it a real chore to make any broad layout changes later
  • Timing: Imagine: some text flies in and you have a puff of smoke emanating from its landing place. That’s several layers of smoke, all keyframed to start in sequence just after the text lands. What happens if you need that text to land a half-second sooner? Instead of one key-frame to move, you could have a dozen. What if you need to move it back some? You’ve got to grab all those keyframes again. What if you forget a keyframe? Or several? You’ve got to track them down. What about all the layers that come after it, do they need to shift too? Gah...!

And the most dreadful: you could spend time working on scenes you might decide to cut completely. It’s happened to me a lot.

Watch your “mock” video again and again. Be sure you love it. Because this is the time when you can most easily play with and perfect it.

4) Have fun!

Your hard work pays off and the fun begins. Go through your video and add smoke effects, gradients, blending modes, textures, and everything else you’ve been eager to add. You’ll find yourself zooming through this faster than usual too, since you can fully focus on aesthetics and not question your storytelling again and again. Good luck!

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