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After Effects: Presets vs Plugins vs Scripts vs Expressions vs Templates

Caleb Ward

Confused about the lingo in After Effects? In this post, we break down the key differences between presets, plugins, scripts, expressions and templates in AE.

There is is a lot of confusion out there over the different terms used in After Effects…and rightfully so. The terms above are often used online interchangeably adding to the uncertainty. In the following post we’ll clear up the differences, explaining how to create, use, and correctly talk about each one!

After Effects Presets

Presets

Animation presets are a collection of effects that can be saved for later use. Animation presets are made up of effects (and keyframes in those effects). If you ever create an interesting look on a single layer in After Effects you can save your effects as an animation preset and recall them in the future. Expressions can also be saved into presets to give them added functionality (more on that below).

To save a preset in After Effects simply go to Window > Save Animation Preset with your effect layer selected. You will now be able to see your new effect in the effects browser.

Skills Needed to Create: Basic After Effects Knowledge
Notable Examples: Super Awesome Presets, Color Grading Presets
Resources: Saving Presets in After Effects

After Effects Scripts

Scripts

A script is a block of code that tells After Effects to do something. Scripts can be used to perform various tasks inside After Effects, from creating layers to batch rendering. Like presets, scripts are usually used to save time in After Effects, but scripts aren’t limited to effects only. Generally scripts are used to perform utility functions inside of After Effects.

Scripts use a coding language called Extend Script, a deviation of JavaScript. Scripts can’t be directly written and tested inside of After Effects. Instead, script creators usually use the ExtendScript Toolkit included in the Adobe Creative Cloud. The ExtendScript toolkit can be used to write scripts for most of the programs included in the Creative Cloud, not just After Effects.

Special Skills Needed: ExtendScript or JavaScript
Resources: Introduction to After Effects Scripting, Learn How to Write After Effects Scripts, AE Scripting Guide
Notable Examples: Dojo Toolkit, Motion 2

Plugins

Plugins

Plugins give After Effects users extended functionality beyond what is possible inside of After Effects alone. Plugins are created using external code that essentially creates a new software that works alongside After Effects. Some of the most revolutionary tools in After Effects like Element 3D, Optical Flares, and Trapcode Particular are all great examples of plug-ins.

Plugins are difficult to create so it’s unlikely that you will be able to create a plug-in on your own without an extensive background in coding.

Special Skills Needed: C/C++, JavaScript
Resources: Intro to After Effects plugin development for beginners
Notable Examples: Element 3D, Trapcode Particular, Optical Flares

Templates

Templates

A template is an After Effects project file that is intended for customization. Templates can utilize plugins as long as the person opening template has the plugin installed on their computer. Any project can be turned into a template just go to File > Save As and in the dropdown select After Effects Template. However, its important to remember that templates can only be opened in current and future iterations of After Effects, not versions from the past. So if you save your template in After Effects CC you can’t open it in After Effects CS6.

Special Skills Needed: Basic After Effects Knowledge
Resources: How to Create an After Effects TemplateFree After Effects Templates: Title and Logo Effects
Notable Examples: Retro Titles, Blood Splat Titles

Expressions

Expressions

An expression is essentially a snippet of ExtendScript written directly into After Effects. Expressions are typically used to manipulate values for a single parameter like color, position, or intensity. Expressions can be used to link values to sliders and checkboxes, making them great for anyone looking to create well organized templates. Expressions can range from a few words to hundreds of lines of code. It all depends on the functionality.

Special Skills Needed: Basic JavaScript
Resources: Expression Basics, Top 5 Expressions for Better Design
Notable Examples: Wiggle Expression, If/Else Expression

Still confused? Check out the following video by Mikey Borup where he explains the difference between scripts, plugins, and presets.

This video was first shared on Mikey Borup’s YouTube Channel. Thanks for sharing Mikey!

Want to learn more about After Effects? Check out the After Effects section of the PremiumBeat blog. We have hundreds of articles and tutorials dedicated to helping you become an AE master.

Know of any other ways to explain the difference? Share in the comments below.

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