School of Motion

The Ultimate Guide to Blending Modes in After Effects

  • By Patrick Butler
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So you want to use blending modes, eh? Here's a guide full of helpful blending mode info for Motion Design.

If you are anything like me, you may have used a few blending modes in After Effects here and there, but you are totally lost as to what they all do and why you might choose one over the other. My first bit of advice would be to actually open up After Effects and play around with the different modes. However, even after years of using After Effects I’ve still found myself confused as to what each of them do and why the heck there are so many of them!

So we thought it'd be helpful to take a look at all of the blending modes in After Effects and explain what they do. Yep, all of them.

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Exclusion, Classic Color Burn, Stencil Alpha, Wut?...

What are Blending Modes in After Effects?

A blending mode is a feature used to combine layers together. If you apply a blending mode to a layer it will affect how it interacts with all of the layers beneath it. If you are familiar with blending modes in Photoshop they work in the exact same way. It's kinda like having a colored filter.

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Will it blend?

How do Blending Modes Work?

So how does After Effects render blending modes? Glad you asked.

In your timeline After Effects will look at the bottom layer first. And when I say “look at” I mean it will calculate the masks, effects and transformations of that layer. Software doesn't have eyeballs you silly goose...

Then it will look at the next layer up in the timeline and do the same. At this point it will combine the top layer with all layers below it based on the chosen blending mode for that layer. By default it’s set to “normal” meaning it will simply display the color information of the top layer.

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#protip: With a layer selected you can jog through the different modes by holding down shift and pressing - and + on the keyboard.

The Math Behind it all

In chapter 9 of the book Creating Motion Graphics with After Effects Trish and Chris Meyer talk about “The Math Behind the Modes”. They do a wonderful job explaining what After Effects is doing and I’ll try my best to paraphrase it...

They break down some of the ways that modes can work. When a mode adds to the color values of the layer underneath, the numeric value for every color channel (red, green and blue) is added to the corresponding values of each color channel underneath. So if a pixel has 35% blue on the top layer and 25% blue on the bottom layer and a mode adds them together it will output 65% blue (a brighter blue). But if it subtracts the same values then it will result in 10% blue making that pixel darker. Multiply also does just what you might expect. .35 x .25 will equal .0875 or 8.75% strength.

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Some great education from some epic MoGraph teachers.

It's worth noting there is a more updated book by the Meyer’s on After Effects and Johnathan mentions it in this article on 10 Great Books for After Effects Artists.

Breakdown of each Type of Blending Modes

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In order to illustrate the different blending modes in After Effects I will be using two layers. The top layer (source layer) will be a vertical blue gradient which I’ll apply the different modes to. The bottom layer (underlying layer) will be a horizontal red gradient for most and for others it will be a photograph of a palm tree. Why a palm tree? Because palm trees are neat.

Normal Modes

The first section of modes include the default, Normal. If the layer is set to 100%, these modes make it so you only see the top layer.

Normal

This is the default setting. It just means that the source layer will be the only color visible.  If you set the opacity of the source layer to anything less than 100% then you will start to see the underlying layer. This is sometimes all you need to achieve the result you want.

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The blue layer is set to 50% opacity on top of the red layer.

Dissolve & Dancing Dissolve

With Dissolve & Dancing Dissolve each pixel will be either the source or the underlying color, depending on the opacity of the source layer. This mode actually doesn’t blend any of the pixels. It simply creates a dither pattern based on the opacity of the layer. So if you have the opacity set to 50% then half of the pixels will be from the source and half will be from the underlying layer.

This is a neat effect because it’s similar to blending them with normal and a lower opacity, but instead of blending, it randomly selects the top or bottom layer on a pixel by pixel basis.

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Dancing Dissolve does the same thing, but it processes it for each frame differently which creates a self animating “dancing” effect.

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Subtractive Modes

All of the subtractive modes darken the resulting image. If a pixel on either layer is black then the result will be black. But if one of them is white it will have no effect.

Darken

This mode looks at both layers and choses the darker of the corresponding color channel values (red green and blue). So no matter which layer is in front, it will pick the lower value for each channel on each pixel.

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The blue gradient layer is set to Darken with 100% opacity.

Darker Color

This functions much like Darken except instead of choosing the darker of the 3 channel values it chooses the darker resulting color.

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This isn't really doing any blending. It's just choosing the darker pixel from either the top or bottom layer.

Multiply

With multiply, the color is scaled down by the darker of the two color values. So this is different from Darken because it isn’t looking as deep as the channels (RGB), but rather just at the color value they create. This mode sort of resembles placing multiple gels in front of a light.

Pro Tip: Multiply is one of my most commonly used modes.

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Linear Burn

This uses the top layer’s color information to lower the brightness of the bottom layer. It will result in something darker than Multiply and it will also have more saturation in the colors.

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Color Burn & Classic Color Burn

This increases the contrast of the underlying layer via the color information of the source layer. If the top layer (source layer) is white then it will not change anything. They say this will give you a result that is in between Multiply and Linear Burn. The order you stack does matter with these because the bottom layer usually comes through more.

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Classic Color Burn is from After Effects 5.0 and earlier. It has some limitations so it's usually preferable to use regular Color Burn.

Additive Modes

A lot of these modes are the exact opposite of the Subtractive modes. They make the image brighter. If a pixel on either layer is white then the result will be white. But if one of them is black it will have no effect.

Add

This mode is just what it sounds like. The color values of each RGB channel are added together. This always results in a brighter image. It’s also one of the most useful modes. If you have an asset that was shot on a black background (like fire) this is often a great way to composite it over another image.

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You can see that more than 50% of the image is adding up to 100% or more resulting in pure white.

Lighten

This is the opposite of Darken. It looks at both layers and choses the lighter of the corresponding color channel values (red green and blue).

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With the opposite color channels for each pixel it's creating much different color values than when we used Darken earlier.

Lighter Color

The opposite of Darker Color. It it chooses the lighter overall color.

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Screen

Screen is the opposite of Multiply. It essentially replicates projecting multiple photos onto a single screen. Just like Multiply, I use this one a lot. If I have a layer with a lot of white and I want to overlay the image and let all the white drop out I'll try Screen.

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You can tell the colors are blending nicely because it's purple.

Linear Dodge

This mode will look the same as Add at 100% opacity. But if you lower the opacity down it will start to look a bit less saturated than Add.

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The blue layer is set to 50% opacity with Linear Dodge.
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Add and Linear Dodge look the same at 100% opacity, but when it's set to 50% you can see there are huge differences in how After Effects composites them.

Color Dodge & Classic Color Dodge

This decreases the contrast of the underlying layer via the color information of the source layer. It’s much like Color Burn, but the opposite, resulting in a brighter image. The bottom layer will be the one that comes through more so the stacking order is important.

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Since the bottom layer tends to come through more the resulting image is more red than blue.

Complex Modes

These modes work based on luminance. So they will do one thing to areas that are brighter than 50% gray and another to the areas that are lighter than 50% gray.

Overlay

Overlay is definitely one of the most useful modes. It applies Multiply to the darker parts and Screen to the lighter parts of the top image. This results in something that’s very close to the name. It feels like it overlays the top image onto the bottom one. The stacking order is important here because the bottom layer will come through more.

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Overlaying the blue gradient onto the red gradient.

Soft Light

This is a bit like overlay but it feels more subtle. Any spots brighter than 50% gray on the top layer will dodge the bottom layer. And anything darker will be burned. So it’s sort of a mix of dodging and burning which is why it’s more subtle than Overlay.

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Hard Light

This does the same thing as Overlay but it’s much more intense. The top layer will show through more than the bottom layer.

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The blue layer on top is showing through more than the red gradient below.

Linear Light

This is another step into the extreme, even more than Hard Light. The math for Linear Light is the same as Soft Light, but more intense. So it also does the dodging and burning based on the gray levels. The top layer for this will also show through more than the bottom one.

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You can see this is much more extreme because of the large blown out white area.

Vivid Light

Vivid Light is yet again more intense than Linear Light. This one actually adjusts the contrast of the bottom layer. It results in a very high contrast image.

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So bright, so vivid. What does it mean?

Pin Light

Pin Light will choose between either the top or the bottom pixel based on brightness. So it’s a mix of Darken and Lighten based on that 50% gray level for each pixel.

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Hard Mix

This is a very extreme and strange mode. It will only output one of the 8 basic colors: red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, yellow, black and white. This mode doesn’t really feel too useful on it’s own but you can use it to achieve some different compositing goals.

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Why would I wanna do that?

One example is to duplicate a layer and then apply Hard Mix to the top layer. Now by changing the opacity of that Hard Mix layer you can adjust the contrast of the bottom layer.

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Having a duplicate Hard Mix layer will push the contrast as you increase the opacity.

Difference Modes

These modes result in some seriously strange and seemingly useless results. But they can be used for utility and that’s probably why they exist.

Difference & Classic Difference

This subtracts the color values of the two layers and tends to create crazy trippy colors because a lot of colors become inverted.

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If you duplicate a layer and apply Difference it will just result in a black image. This can be useful for compositing if you have two shots that are very similar and you are trying to find the difference in them.

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Here is the bottom layer...
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And then we add this layer on top. It's hard to tell if anything is different about this one...
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Apply Difference. Aha! There you are you little rascal.

Classic Difference is only noticeably different when the layer is less than 100% opacity. Classic has more colors in the transition tones than Difference and therefore makes for more saturated colors in those transition areas.

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You can see less saturation in the transition tones making those areas more gray.

Exclusion

This is a lot like Difference except that it results in less contrast and a bit less saturated colors. When one of the layers is at 50% gray it will result in gray instead of creating huge color shifts. So essentially it’s a bit “less trippy” than Difference.

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You can see more gray coming out close to the 50% areas on the right side of the image.

Subtract

This will subtract the top layers color values from the bottom layer. This means that if the top layer is bright (larger numbers) it will make the result darker and visa versa. So it’s kind of backwards. If the layer you are applying it to is bright then it will make the result darker.

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Notice how the areas that line up with the white of the blue upper layer are pushed to black.

Divide

This one is a bit strange too. It will divide the color values and since the values for black and white are 0.0 and 1.0 respectively, the calculation will be dividing numbers that are less than 1. Ok, time for some math… when we divide by a fraction it results in a larger number. So 1 divided by .5 is the same as multiplying it by 2, aka doubling it. Long story short, the dark areas of Divide will make the image brighter.

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HSL Modes

WTF does HSL mean? Hue, Saturation and Luminance, That’s what!

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These are simple. The name of the mode determines what is kept by the top layer. So if you apply Hue to the top layer then it’ll lock that in and use the saturation and luminance from the bottom layer.

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This takes the blue hue from the top layer but then uses luminance and saturation from the red one.
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Since this just keeps the saturation of the blue layer we have some gray at the bottom of the image.
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Color is using both hue and saturation from the top layer and only luminance of the red one.
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Luminosity is using only luminance of the blue layer and both hue and saturation (color) of the red layer.

Matte Modes and Utility Modes

All of the modes discussed so far (with the exception of dissolve) have an affect on color values. The rest of the modes all have an effect on transparency instead. These all function quite differently and have a much different purpose than most of the other modes.

Matte Modes

The four Matte modes use the source layer as a matte, much like the Track Matte function. It takes either the Alpha (transparency) or the Luma (brightness) values to create the matte. This is useful because it can function as a matte for all layers below instead of just the one immediately below it as with track mattes.

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For this example I applied the modes to a 50% gray circle with the red gradient layer below.
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Stencil Luma and Silhouette Luma result in a 50% opacity based on the color of the circle.

Alpha Add

This is a very specific utility mode, and it’s much less about combining overlaying images as it is about fixing a problem. If you have ever used a mask to cut something in half and then reversed the matte on a second layer you may have noticed that you often get a seam along the edge where the layers meet. You probably want the object to appear solid and not have that semi transparent seam.

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there is a subtle line along the edge of the mask.

The solution to this is the Alpha Add mode. Long story short, it will change the way that After Effects does the math for the anti aliasing on the edge of the layers and it should result in a seamless edge.

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A nice solid object.

Luminescent Premul

This mode is also about solving a specific problem. Sometimes when you bring a source into After Effects that has premultiplied alpha channels the edges of the alpha channel can be too bright. If this is the case try bringing in the footage as Straight Alpha instead of Premultiplied and then composite it with this mode. If you want to read more about the difference between straight and premultiplied alpha channels there is some information on this page about it.

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OK. That was a lot...

Conclusion

I hope this was interesting and helpful for you. I sometimes like to stop and take a look under the hood to better understand what After Effects is doing.

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More Blending Mode Resources

The Adobe website is a perfect resource for all things After Effects.

Be sure to check out some of these great books. Particularly After Effects Apprentice and After Effects Visual Effects and Compositing.

This is a great video tutorial that walks through all of the blending modes in Photoshop. It’s not about After Effects, but most of the modes also apply.

That's all, best of luck on your Motion Design projects. I'm going to make like a white solid with a multiply blending mode and disappear.