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Starting with Adobe After Effects in 2020 — 5 Must-Know Features

Joe Frederick

Adobe After Effects is an exceptionally versatile piece of software. If you’re just starting out with it in 2020, here are five things to learn ASAP.

Whether you’re looking to create high-quality motion graphics or develop jaw-dropping VFX, Adobe After Effects is more than up to the job. Of course, because the software’s capable of so much, it can also be intimidating to learn.

Where should a new user even start? Well, right here. Here are five things I wish someone had shown me in my earliest days with After Effects.


1. Terminology

Before I started my motion graphics journey, my experience was limited to Final Cut Pro X. That meant I was faced with a whole new set of terms upon opening After Effects the first time, some of which were attached to features and concepts I knew by other names in other programs. For instance, a Project in FCPX is a Sequence in Premiere Pro is a Composition in AE.

Let’s sort it all out. Here’s a quick reference to the various naming differences between Premiere, FCPX, and After Effects.

Adobe After Effects: Terminology Table


2. Keyframes

Keyframes mark the point in time where you specify a value for a layer property. Using them effectively is a linchpin of motion graphics work.

For example, if you want some text to move from left to right over two seconds, you’d use two keyframes to do it, by creating one keyframe with the X-position on the left side of the screen . . .

Adobe After Effects: First Keyframe

And then another one two seconds later — the X value that brings your text over to the right-hand side. Once you play it from the beginning, you’ll see the text move between the two X values you’ve inputted.

Adobe After Effects: Second Keyframe

If a piece of text moves between two points at a consistent pace, it looks very unnatural. This manner of rigid, uniform motion just isn’t common in everyday situations.

Think about it. If you ride a bike between two points — let’s say fifty meters apart — you start off slow and begin gaining speed. Then, before you stop, you gently slow down rather than halting abruptly.

This is exactly how adding Easy Ease works in After Effects. Here’s what moving text looks like without Easy Ease.

Now, here’s the same text with Easy Ease applied. Take note of how much more natural everything feels due to the ever-so-slight shifts in speed at the beginning and end of the movement.

To apply this to your own footage, right-click your keyframes and select Easy Ease, as shown in the screen shot below.

Adobe After Effects: Easy Ease

You can have even more control over how your assets move between keyframes by using the Graph Editor, as seen in the following clip.


3. Motion Blur

Motion blur is an absolute game-changer! When animating an asset, it’s important to prevent said asset’s movements from looking mechanical, twitchy, and, well, like it was slapped together in a computer program. That’s where motion blur comes in. Here’s what moving text looks like without motion blur.

Why does motion blur make a difference? Most footage you see has a shutter speed of 1/50, meaning each frame is taken over 0.2 seconds. If something is moving quickly, then this is long enough for the object to have moved in that time, resulting in a slight blur around the object in motion.

Nice, smooth, visually-pleasing footage is a result of all these blur-featuring frames coming together. Our eyes and cameras naturally add this blur, but we have to apply it artificially when creating motion graphics, as seen in the example below.

Adding this effect is surprisingly simple:

  1. Create an asset and animate it.
  2. Go down to Toggle switches/modes and click on it until you see the multiple boxes appear next to the layer you’re animating.
  3. Search for the middle left box with the multiple circles. Toggle this on.
  4. At the top of the timeline next to the search bar, you can see the same symbol. You need to click this to enable motion blur.
  5. To fine-tune the effect, navigate to the Motion Blur section in the composition settings. Increase your shutter angle to increase the amount of blur you’re getting.

4. Dynamic Link

If you’re planning to work with both Adobe Premiere Pro and After Effects on the same project, then you’re going to love this.

You may have thought that bringing your animations into Premiere Pro meant you’d need to export them and then import them again. You may have also thought that making changes to your After Effects export meant you’d have to go through the process of exporting again and importing again. Nope.

Thanks to the dynamic link, you can avoid all of that potentially confusing, definitely time-sucking nonsense and import your AE comps straight into Premiere.

Here’s one way to do it: Simply drag your AE Project file from your finder window into a Bin in your Premiere window. You’ll then be given the option to import the comp of your choice. Then you can drag the comp into your sequence to work with it.

Here’s another way to do it: Select a piece of footage in the Premiere timeline, one that you want to work on in After Effects. Navigate to Replace with After Effects Composition.  As you’ve already figured out, this will automatically replace your footage with an AE Composition containing your footage.

Replace with After Effects

Select a piece of footage in the Premiere timeline, then replace with After Effects.

Easy, right? Any change you make in After Effects will automatically be visible in Premiere. This is going to save you so much time, so lock down these basics ASAP.


5. Pre-Composing

If you’re used to terms like “nesting” or “compound clip,” you’ll be familiar with creating pre-compositions. I’m of the mind that they’re used more frequently in AE than in many other editing softwares. Here’s how it works.

Simply select the layers of your choice, right-click, and select Create Pre-composition in order to put these layers into their own mini comp. They’ll now be represented in your main timeline by just one layer. If you double-click this layer, you can go into it to make changes that’ll now be visible when you return to your main composition.

Adobe After Effects: Pre-Comp

Adobe After Effects: Pre-Comp Created

Pre-comp created in Adobe After Effects.

Working this way can prevent timeline chaos, as well as allow you to add effects to multiple layers more easily.


If you’re new to After Effects, these handy tips/tricks/techniques/tools are just the tip of the iceberg. Again, this software is wildly robust, so keep reading how-tos, keep watching tutorials, and, most importantly, keep trying new things. If you spend enough time with resources like the ones below, you’re going to surprise yourself with how quickly you level up.


Cover image via DANIEL CONSTANTE.