Adobe After Effects is my go-to tool for most homebrew VFX and finishing tasks. It has the perfect blend of powerful features and editorial, layer-based ease of use. Is it as fast as a dedicated color grading system, or as responsive and powerful as Nuke for VFX compositing? No, but it offers a flexible, creative environment that’s tough to beat for the kind of creative, rough-and-tumble cinematic problem-solving that comprises most of my post-production work.
After Effects is a professional tool by any measure, but it is designed for a broad user base. So an artist who plans to push it hard will want to tune the application accordingly. Here’s what I do to a default installation of After Effects to prepare it for my special kind of abuse.
There’s a lot you can adjust within the standard After Effects Preferences window. Here’s what I set, and why:
- I set Levels of Undo to 99, because why should I expect to have fewer problems than Jay-Z?
- Enable Allow Scripts to Write Files and Access Network, so that you can run some very cool scripts. More on that below.
- I turn off Use System Shortcut Keys, because on my Mac, Command + M should map to Composition → Make Movie, not “purposelessly minimize the entire application in the most annoying way possible because I never learned Command + Tab for application switching.” This setting is a must for any Mac user who prefers using After Effects to hiding it.
- Under Previews, I set Zoom Quality and Color Management Quality to More Accurate. The latter especially matters if you use After Effects’s built-in support for a color managed linear-light workflow. You’ll see nasty banding during RAM previews at the default Faster display color management.
- Under Display, I turn on Show Rendering Progress in Info Panel and Flowchart. Although this may slightly slow down your interactive rendering, it’s worth it to be able to see what After Effects is doing under the hood. Be sure to expand the Info Panel vertically so that you can see the text display of the render activity.
- Under Import, you can set the default file sequence frame rate. I don’t know anyone for whom the cretaceous factory setting of 30 fps is useful. I set it to 23.976, but a PAL person might choose 25, and an NTSC nerd should probably choose 29.97.
- The After Effects Disk Cache (under Media and Disk Cache) is a splendid feature that is rightfully switched on by default, but you may want to both increase its size and choose a location for it on your fastest volume, preferably not the one where your media is stored.
- Appearances matter to pros, and under the Appearance section I always darken down the UI a bit,
- Turn on Cycle Mask Colors (so that each new mask you create will be a different color),
- And turn off Use Gradients. This UI preference was once offered to boost performance, but now is simply an aesthetic choice. I think After Effects, like almost everything, looks better without superfluous gradients. I wish Premiere had this option.
- Under Auto-Save, I always enable Automatically Save Projects.
- I Save Every 5 Minutes. Yep.
- And I set Maximum Project Versions to 20.
- Memory and Multiprocessing is one of the most critical areas for tuning your After Effects instal for the best results. Here you can make After Effects fly like a bird, or bring your machine to a crawl. And I have absolutely no idea what to do here. I’m not joking. The day I understand these settings is the day Adobe removes them. I would sooner fiddle with switches on a cockpit tour of a 747 I had just boarded for a transatlantic flight than touch this stuff.
There are some settings in After Effects that are invisibly established as you use the application. After Effects will remember your choices and default to them in the future. Some I find important enough to preemptively set up.
- I choose File → Project Settings, and select Frames as the Time Display Style, and set Frame Count to Start at 1. You’ll still see a timecode display in your timeline, but the primary expression of time will be in frames, which is much easier for me to conceptualize and type. This is very much a matter of personal preference.
- Then I create a new Composition, and without doing anything else, I tap the Shift key. This brings up the Composition Mini-Flowchart, which is a really spiffy navigational tool that any Pro AE user should embrace. It solves the single biggest problem with After Effects—the lack of a visual way of navigating between Compositions. The problem is that, by default, it’s backwards. Find the menu button in its upper right corner and select Flow Left to Right, and never worry about this again.
There is a secret world of After Effects customization. Like rigging your Nissan Skyline for NOS, this is purely an at-your-own-risk endeavor—but the rewards can be mighty.
Mac users will find the After Effects preferences file here:
/Users/[username]/Library/Preferences/Adobe/After Effects/[version number]/Adobe After Effects 10.5-x64 Prefs
And Windows users here:
\Users\[username]\AppData\Roaming\Adobe\After Effects\[version number]\
In those directories you’ll find a file called something like Adobe After Effects [version] Prefs. This plaintext file is editable with any text app. Use a search to find these areas and make careful changes. But don’t worry too much—if you corrupt this file, just delete it. After Effects will create a new one with the default settings. You can also make a backup of this file right there in the same directory. And eat your vegetables.
Here are the changes I make in the text prefs:
- "Show Tracker Apply Dimensions Dialog" = "0"
By changing this from 1 to 0, you defeat the annoying dialog box that comes up after a 2D track asking you if you want to apply the tracker in X, Y or Both. You always choose both, because as a pimp, you know how to extract one dimension later if you need it. So save yourself the annoyance of being asked if you’re a doofus each time you track.
- "Cone Size" = "0"
The text above this line gives you the clue as to what it does: ["3D Light Dimensions Preference Section"]. Here you set a number of “pixels” to use for the size of the spotlight cone widget in 3D views. No matter which size you choose, it will usually be wrong for what you’re trying to do. Unless you choose zero—in which (special) case, After Effects will draw the cone all the way out to the Point Of Interest, matching the behavior of most 3D apps. Nice.
- "Pref_TRANSPARENCY_GRID_COLOR1" = 00888888
“Pref_TRANSPARENCY_GRID_COLOR2” = 00666666
Photoshop has a preference for setting the brightness level of the checkerboard backdrop used to show transparent areas in your image, but After Effects lacks this control—unless you’re elbow deep in this text file with a scalpel like we are now. Make the above changes for a nice dark gray checkerboard that better matches your gradient-free, subdued AE UI.
- "Mouse Wheel Zooms Around Pointer" = "1"
Setting this to 1 will cause the scroll-wheel zoom to center around the mouse cursor rather than remain fixed to the center of the image. Although it can cause some disorientation at first, this mode is more like other apps with scroll-wheel zooming, and can speed your work by eliminating the need for panning around after a zoom.
Scripting in After Effects is very powerful, and luckily for we minor nerds, its power can be harnessed with little technical know-how. There is a rich community of scripting resources online; some cheap, many free.
An indispensable source of AE scripting awesome sauce is aescripts.com. Here you will find Load Project or Template at Startup. Drop this script in your Scripts/Startup directory and it will run every time you launch AE. And what it does is what it says: it opens a project file that you’ve specified. The same one, every time you launch AE.Why is this awesome? I’ll let the script’s creator, Lloyd Alvarez, explain:
"For example, if you have a certain folder/file structure or camera rig, etc that you like to keep for your AE projects, you can setup a virgin project the way you like it and save it as a template by giving it a .aet extension. Now every time you launch AE your custom setup will be automatically loaded. These .aet template files are unique in that, after opening them, you’re still in an unsaved, un-named After Effects Project. So you’ll never accidentally save over your template. My template contains camera rigs, folder structures, letterbox presets, and other goodies that I always seem to need."
Price: Name your own price.
- I’ve written about BG Renderer before. It is just unbearably useful. Render in the background and keep working, or, better still, render in the background and go take a “walk” (an ancient Sanskrit word meaning “nap”), confident that your phone will alert you to a completed render.Price: $29.99 (for the version that supports alerts) and worth every penny. This is my first suggestion that costs money so let me be blunt: If this sounds expensive to you, you should have stopped reading at “pimp.”
- The DV Rebel Tools, once only available with the DV Rebel’s Guide, now free, are a set of scripts that turn After Effects into a powerful color correction and mastering tool. Learn more and download here.
- There are many more scripts that I use routinely, too many to list here. Be sure to peruse aescripts.com, and keep an eye out for the redefinery scripts. These are the after-hours work of Adobe engineer Jeff Almasol, who also helped me make the DV Rebel Tools a reality—and some of them are similarly based on humble requests by yours truly.
Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy
Settings will only get you so far. The fully-pimped AE setup will include custom hardware, third-party plug-ins, calibrated displays, special input devices, chairs with umlauts in their names, and espresso gear. But some of these simple textual tweaks will dramatically change your After Effects experience.
Now go on, brush your shoulders off.