School of Motion

How to Set Keyframes in After Effects

  • By Johnathan Paul
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Let’s take a quick look at how to set Keyframes in After Effects.

Short of the timeline itself, a keyframe is the most important animation tool in After Effects. So with this is mind we’re going to take a basic look at how to set keyframes in After Effects.

However, it's not good to put the cart before the horse. First, let’s learn a little bit more about these mysterious keyframes.

What is a Keyframe in After Effects?

Keyframes are markers in time that allow you to tell After Effects where you want to change the value for a layer or effect property such as position, opacity, scale, rotation, amount, particle count, color, etc. By setting these 'markers' and changing the values you create animation.

Keyframes_Timeline Panel_1.jpg
Little Diamond Keyframes in the Timeline Panel.

Every MoGraph (Motion Graphic) application has a timeline, and it's inside this timeline that you add keyframes to create movement. For After Effects, keyframes are set in the Timeline Panel. When we set these keyframes in the timeline we are telling After Effects where we want our animation to begin and where we want it to end.

Keyframes_Timeline Panel_2.jpg
Two keyframes, one begins the animation, the other ends it.

Why do we need Keyframes in After Effects?

Keyframes are the most crucial component for animation, and because of this they are used on all sorts of properties and effects. As we learned above, keyframes tell After Effects where we want an animation to begin and where we want it to end.

Keyframes_Scale_1.gif
Setting keyframes in the timeline panel to the scale transform option. Checkout the result below.

Keyframes do more than just move a layer from one side of the composition to the other. You can use keyframes to change the opacity of an element from 100% visibility to 0% visibility over time. Or could you change the scale of an element from 0% to 100% over time. You can even add keyframes to effects, which gives your effects greater flexibility, and this essentially unlocks a infinite world of Motion Design possibilities. 

Keyframes_Scale_2.gif
The end result of setting keyframes to the scale transform option.

How to set Keyframes in After Effects

Now that we know the basics of what keyframes are, and why they are important, let’s walk through how to set keyframes in After Effects. This short and basic exercise will break things down in their simplest form, with the hope that you gain a firm foundation on how keyframes work and how you should utilize them on your future projects. Here's a quick outline on how to set a keyframe in After Effects:

  • Step 1: Set a starting value & select the stopwatch icon next to the property.
  • Step 2: Move your playhead to a new spot in the timeline.
  • Step 3: Adjust the second value.

Hot Air Balloon Animation Keyframe Example

For this first example we’re going to use an image we found from Adobe Stock, the elements we’re going to animate are the clouds in the background and the hot air balloon in the foreground. We’ll be using two simple keyframes to change the position value for each element. Let’s get going!

Step 1: Set Your First Keyframe with the Stopwatch Icon

Let’s determine our starting point for the balloon and set our first keyframe by clicking the stopwatch next to the position property. Remember, this technique can work for any effect or transformation property in After Effects. Neat!

Keyframes_Balloon_1.gif
Set where the balloon is coming from and click that stopwatch icon.

Step 2: Move the Playhead to the Second Location.

Next, let’s move our time indicator to the end of the timeline. For your project you can move your playhead anywhere you want. 

Step 3: Adjust the Second Value Property

Now move out balloon to the other side of the comp. You’ll see once we release the mouse button a new keyframe is created. You can hit the spacebar to preview your new animation, but let's take this a littler further...

Keyframes_Balloon_2.gif
Tell After Effects where the balloon is going.

Okay, let’s get the clouds moving the in opposite direction. First we’ll set a keyframe clicking the stopwatch, this tells After Effects where we want the position of our clouds to start.

Keyframes_Balloon_3.gif
Now, tell After Effects where the clouds are coming from.

Now, we’ll move the time indicator to the end of the timeline ruler and then move our clouds slightly in the opposite direction that we moved the balloon.

Keyframes_Balloon_4.gif
Then tell After Effects where they are going.

Just like that we’ve created a simple parallaxing animation using just two keyframes for each element. Now, you can get more complex than this if you want, so let’s take a look at how to do that.

Animating Text with Keyframes

For this example we’re going to adjust the values for the position and opacity of our logo and two text layers that will appear over our balloon and clouds.

However, with this animation we need to tell After Effects where we want our elements to come from, then where we want it to stop for a duration of 3 secs, and finally where we want it to go to. With this said we’ll be using 4 keyframes instead of 2. Let’s get going!

*Note: Since I’m working with three elements that I want to all move together I’m going to select all three layers and hit the “P” key on the keyboard. This pulls up the position transform option. As long as I keep all layers selected keyframes I add will be added to all three. If you want to learn more about After Effects keyboard shortcuts check out this tutorial. 

Step 1: Set the Ending Value

First what I like to do is set the logo and text exactly where I want them to end up in the composition. Then I create my first keyframe by clicking the stopwatch. This may feel awkward, but animating in reverse is a great design-centric way of creating an animation.

Keyframes_Text_1.gif
This time we start by telling After Effects where the elements need to end up.

Step 2: Set the Starting Value

Next I tell After Effects where I want the elements to come from by moving my time indicator back 1 full second. Then I move the elements, you’ll notice again that when I move them AE creates a new set of keyframes.

Keyframes_Text_2.gif
Then we tell it where it came from.

Step 3: Set the Second Static Keyframe

Now, I move the time indicator 3 seconds past the keyframe I created in step 1. Then without moving my elements I click the “add keyframe” icon to the left of the stopwatch. By doing this I’ve told After Effects that for 3 seconds I don’t want my elements to move. 

Keyframes_Text_3.gif
Then we tell After Effects how long it needs to be visible without moving.

Step 4: Set the Animate-Out Keyframe

Finally, I move the time indicator ahead 1 second past the keyframe created in step 3. From here I can move the elements down and outside of the composition frame.

Keyframes_Text_4.gif
We wrap things up by telling After Effects where its going.

In just a few steps we've created a simple and easy animation that didn’t require a lot of work, plus we learned the fundamentals of how to set keyframes. Let’s take a look at the final result.

Overall Sample.gif
Final Animation. Seems Staff-Pick worthy, right?

Is setting keyframes really that easy?

Yes, setting keyframes isn’t going to be the hardest thing you do in After Effects. Believe me, there are plenty of other confusing things to learn. But now that you know the basics, the best thing I can tell you is to get working and repeat the process over and over. The more you work with keyframes, the more comfortable you’ll be with working with them. You’ll even get to the point where setting keyframes becomes second nature.

If you want to learn about some advanced-level keyframe techniques go check out our intro to the graph editor tutorial. It's one of the most helpful tutorial's you'll ever see. Motion Mondays (our weekly newsletter) is also a great way to stay up-to-date on the latest Motion Design trends and sharpen your skills. Just signup by clicking that register button at the top of the page. Now go create!!

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Get out there and create something cool!