March 15th, 2016

At LookThink, we work hard to conceptualize and broadcast fresh visual solutions that embody both the needs of our clients and stay ahead of current in the design space. One of my recent projects gave me the opportunity to utilize animation. Done well, animation can take otherwise static content and turn it into a highly dynamic and fluid visual experience. Animation can be a little intimidating when you’re approaching even the basics. With that in mind I wrote a quick guide, a crash course, if you will, in Adobe After Effects.

Animation showing example of technique

Adobe After Effects is one of the best tools to use for basic and advanced animation because it supports many different file formats and offers a robust set of features that can integrate your work flow with ease. If you’re a designer, it opens a door to an unlimited amount of possibilities. Lets jump in, and build an example animation.

STEP 1: Create a graphic with more than one layer in Illustrator
For this example I created a simple radial element.

Showing screen shot of how to create graphic

Make sure to name your layers. In more complex graphics, it can become a nightmare if you don't specify your layers. (layer1, layer2, layer3 does not cut it.)

Showing layering labels

STEP 2: Build a strong file structure outside After Effects
This means exactly what it sounds like: make sure your files are structured in a strategic way:

PREVIEW - Contains Exported Movie Files
ASSETS - Contains Graphic Elements
SOURCE - Contains AE Source Files

Place the AI file we just created under the “ASSETS” directory.

File structure example


STEP 3: Open After Effects
Select “New Composition” under “Composition” menu. From here, a dialog box should appear and give you a bunch of options related to the composition size. 

Choose a video “Preset" of your choosing, and click “OK.

Select “Comp 1" from the library we just made, hit return and re-name your composition. (This is where the animation will eventually live.)

Gif showing selection from library

STEP 4: Import graphics
Import your desired graphic by simply dragging it into your “Library." When you drag in your AI file. Make sure you select “Composition” under “Import Kind.” (This will honor the layers that you’ve set up in AI.) From here, double click “Circle Graphic” composition as shown below to open that composition to reveal its content.

Showing library options

As you can see below, “Composition” setting has honored illustrator layers. 

Showing composition options

STEP 5: Add Some Animation (AKA: The hard part)
Select each individual layer and hit “R” to open the “Rotate" effect and then hit the little clock icon next to the rotate effect layer to create the first keyframe. (click on the diamonds to the left of the timeline to add additional keyframes.)  Keyframes are shown as a "Diamond" in the timeline. Once a keyframe is designated, you can then apply the "rotate" effect by adjusting the effects layer under the item in your timeline. I like to think of keyframes as checkpoints. When the timeline scrubber crosses a checkpoint, it changes the effect on that layer to the following checkpoint settings. Kind of complicated at first but it starts to make sense once you work with it.

Showing source animation steps

STEP 6: Place new animation into project
Select the “Circle_Graphic” composition and drag it to “Video_Final.” This will allow you to compile the animated layers into a single layer. (a.k.a. composition inside a composition!)

Showing how to set duration

Make sure to set the duration of the composition to the duration of the animation by moving the scrubber to the end of the animation and pressing “N” for end. (“B” is to set the beginning of the animation but this usually will default to 00:00)

Showing how to set up rendering

STEP 7: Setup rendering
Select the “Video_Final” composition and then select the “Composition” menu and hit “Add to Render Queue.” This will export the selected composition into the pre-export rendering list.

Showing how to select output

Select the “” text in “Output To” for export options.

Rendering example

Select the "Preview" directory, and then select “QuickTime (*.mov)” under "File Format" and click “Save."

Showing rendering

STEP 9: Render it out!
Hit “Render” and watch the blue bar render out your animation. When the process is done, you will be left with a QuickTime movie file!

showing rendering

STEP 10: Watch the preview
Open your movie file and receive a preview of what was created!

Final product - moving circle graphic