After Effects Animation Tutorial – Assistants and Layers

By Tom Womack

Alongside the basics of animation that are easy to implement in After Effects, ‘assistants’ are provided to help you with the next stage of your animation development. This is a great time to learn about and begin implementing layers too.

Layers are just what they sound like and if you use other graphic products such as Photoshop or Fireworks, you will be familiar with the layer concept. Layers allow you to place different objects on your stage, on their own ‘layer’.

This gives you the freedom to treat them differently, to give these different ‘actors’ their own personality. We think of backdrops and mattes that provide a background color or setting for your stage.The action of your animation may very well involve different players.

Even a simple logo unfolding on the stage might play with a waterfall or sunrise, a motorcycle zooming into center stage or an instructor walking into your tutorial to address the audience. All of these ‘players’ will be placed on their own layer and each layer has it’s own definition including what may be the most fundamental, and that is where it appears on the timeline, where this object enters into your animation.

Because we are blending layers and assistants in this tutorial let’s return to assistants for a moment. We learned about the Motion Sketch assistant in our last article, how to record the movement and animation of your object by simply tracing the path as you would on a piece of paper. This method is very easy to use, very easy to visualize but it lacks a bit of finesse. This is where two assistants appear: the ‘smoother’ and ‘auto-orient’.

The ‘smoother’, much like it’s name implies, smooths out the velocity and distance of the keyframes you created by tracing with motion sketch. In the same way it is practically impossible to hold your camera perfectly still when you take a photograph, it is nearly impossible to trace a motion path without a bit of ‘gittery’ hand motion. Once you have drawn and reviewed your motion sketch, choose the smoother, under Window>Smoother. Select all your position keyframes by simply selecting the position property under your animated objects and click ‘apply’ under the smoother options. That’s it. You will see the number of keyframes reduced, and your path will be ‘smoothed out’. If you increase the tolerance setting on the smoother, it will further reduce the number of keyframes. Like most After Effects settings, the best way to determine what works best for you and this particular animation is to try some different settings. Play with it a little bit then execute your movie and observe how this assistant has refined your animation.

Another assistant that belongs to this lesson is the ‘auto-orient’ rotation assistant. This too is a pretty intuitive tool. Imagine a bird or a plane flying, an automobile cruising along a curvy country road. Animating the motion only would appear comical if your automobile wasn’t always oriented along the path ahead. Auto-orient (choose under Layer>Transform>Auto-Orient) offers an ‘Orient Along Path’ option which will keep your object aligned to it’s forward motion. Your car will appear to be oriented along the path it follows, as will your bird or plane.

These simple assistants help your refine your animation, save you time, and help create control that would be very difficult to create manually by setting each keyframe yourself. Experiment with the animation assistants and you will appreciate their ease of use and simple contributions.

Next? Let’s learn more about layers!

Full Moons, Dogcreek, think globally, act locally.

Web Designer Tom Womack uses Adobe Design Suite creating dynamic sites with rich media.

Adobe After Effects is my application of choice having endless possibilities. I use Premiere Pro for video editing, Flash for final Web compatible movie. I am on a constant learning curve and regularly update my media page.

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