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A Guide to After Effects Menus: Composition

By Matt Nelson
After Effects

After Effects is the foundation of any motion design career, but how well do you really know it?

How often do you use the top menu tabs in After Effects? Chances are, you probably have a handful of tools you use, but what about those random features you haven’t tried yet? We're taking a look at the hidden gems in the top menus, and we're just getting started.
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In this tutorial, we’ll be doing a deep dive on the Composition tab. Chances are, you probably use this tab to access the render queue, but there’s a whole plethora of other amazing tools in here that you should be trying. We’ll learn how to fine-tune the details of a composition, trim a timeline, save out hi-res images, and a whole bunch more. 

The Incomparable Composition Tab

Here are the 3 main things you should use in the After Effects Composition menu:
  • Composition Settings 
  • Trim Comp To Work Area 
  • Save Frame As 

Composition > Composition Settings

What if you’re in the middle of a project and realize your frame rate is off? Or what if a client requests a change in the dimensions or length of a project? 
To quickly change any of these attributes, go to Composition > Composition Settings, or press:
Command+K (Mac OS) 
Ctrl+K (Windows)
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In this panel, you can change any core aspect of your composition. Beginning at the top, you can change the name of the composition.

Lock Aspect Ratio

This is also where you can change the aspect ratio or dimensions of your project. If you need to maintain a specific dimension (such as 16:9), just check the Lock Aspect Ratio box. When you change the size, it will automatically keep the ratio of the dimensions intact. No math or calculating needed on your part! 
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Frame Rate

Maintaining the correct frame rate is especially important. If you’re working with video footage, it’s best to ensure that the frame rate of the video and the composition match. Otherwise, you may run into problems with animation or compositing. 
If you want to get extra creative with your project, try dropping the frame rate to 15 or 12 FPS. It will give your animation an extra “crunchy” effect that feels like stop motion. 
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Start Timecode

The start timecode and duration are important to keep an eye on as well. If you need a project to begin playing sooner in the timeline, adjust the start timecode, and it will update in the comp. 
For example, if a client wants to cut out the first 5 seconds, you can punch in :05 for start timecode, and it will begin playing from that frame. 
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Background Color

The default background color in a comp can be changed as well. If I’m working with assets that are dark, I can change the background color to a light grey or white, so I can easily view everything. Much better than the alpha checkered pattern! 
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Composition > Trim Comp to Work Area

Let’s face it: the length of your project is likely to change. New content will get added, cut, or adjusted. With all of these changes, you need to have complete control over the length of your timeline. To get started, adjust the length of your work area by dragging the blue markers on your comp. You can also use keyboard shortcuts:
B to define the start of your work area
N to define the end of your work area
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Then go to Composition > Trim Composition to Work Area.
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You can also hit Control and click on the work area to bring up this option as well.
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Once you do this, your entire timeline will be cut to exactly that length. This is perfect for trimming up timelines and getting rid of excess space that you may not need. Nothing makes me happier than a clean timeline. 

Composition > Save Frame As

This is one of my most used commands. Sometimes, a client just needs a still image for approval. Other times, I just need to export assets or artwork from After Effects and edit it in Photoshop. If you need to kick out any frame from your timeline into a still image, don’t use a screenshot! Do this instead.
Head up to Composition > Save Frame As
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You can also use keyboard shortcut:
Option+Command+S (Mac OS)
Control+Alt+S (Windows)
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Once you enter the render queue, you can choose which file format you want to export to. 

Check you out with all this new knowledge!

As you can see, there is more to the Composition tab than just the render queue. You can use the Composition tab to fine-tune dimensions, frame rate, and the default background color. You can use it to trim your timeline to exact specifications and quickly export high resolution images for use elsewhere. Be sure to experiment and test these tools out on future projects—I know that I use all of these features all the time!
Now you know...
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If you're looking to get the most out of After Effects, maybe it's time to take a more proactive step in your professional development. That's why we put together After Effects Kickstart, a course designed to give you a strong foundation in this core program.
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