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What is Adobe After Effects?

By Ryan Plummer
After EffectsCinema 4D

Let's learn all about Adobe After Effects in this in-depth article.

Have you ever heard of After Effects? If not, then I'm sure you've heard of animation. If you've stared at a screen in the last 25 years there's a really good chance that you've seen work created with Adobe After Effects. The tool is one of the most powerful creative tools in history and in this in-depth article I'm going to explain everything you need to know to get started with Adobe After Effects.
In this article we're going to cover a ton of helpful information about this tool with the hope of giving you a very clear explanation of why you should consider learning After Effects. Maybe you're a student who wants to figure out what you're getting into. Or maybe, you're new to After Effects and want to know what it this tool can do. Whichever category you find yourself in, this article has been written for you.

In this Article we'll take a look at:

  • What is After Effects?
  • Where is is After Effects Used?
  • The History of After Effects
  • Classic Animation vs Motion Graphics
  • Motion Graphics: Breaking Down the Term
  • After Effects Use Cases
  • How to Learn After Effects
  • How to Get After Effects
  • 3rd Party Tools for After Effects
  • How After Effects Works
  • After Effects vs. Premiere Pro
  • How Long it Takes to Learn
So, break out your reading glasses, grab a cup of coffee, or your favorite box of apple juice, and let's jump down the rabbit hole!
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BUCK animation for Apple

What is Adobe After Effects?

Adobe After Effects is a 2.5D animation software used for animation, visual effects, and motion picture compositing. After Effects is used in film, TV, and web video creation.
This software is used in the post-production phase, and has hundreds of effects that can be used to manipulate imagery. This allows you to combine layers of video and images into the same scene.
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After Effects Logo

Where Has Adobe After Effects Been Used?

After Effects is known for it's versatility, and work created using this program is everywhere. You may recognize some of the following examples, but didn't realize they were created using After Effects, or even how they were created.

Pretty Popular Content:

Enders Game.gif
Futuristic UI VFX for Enders Game
Freddie Wong VFX example-V2.gif
Super cool low budget visual effects
Aren't those just absolutely amazing? There are so many different ways you can use After Effects to create visual wizardry. Those are just a few examples that have stood out over time, and really showcase what you can make.

The History of Adobe After Effects

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Original CoSA and After Effects CC 2019 Splash Screen
After Effects was developed in 1993 and since then has been acquired a hand full of times. The original developers, Company of Science and Art (CoSA), created two versions with a few functions that allowed you to composite layers and transform various properties of a layer. Fact of the Article: The first version was actually only available on the Macintosh computer, built by Apple.
Acquired in 1994 by Aldus, just one year after launching the program, the program gained amazing new features like multi-machine rendering and motion blur. But, before the year of 1994 came to a close, Adobe came in and acquired the technology, and is still the owner of After Effects today.
Since the conception of After Effects, Adobe has released 50 different versions of its industry leading software, each time gaining new functionality. Some versions are bigger than others, but they all showcase that Adobe has created an extraordinary piece of software.
In fact, in 2019, the program won an Academy Award for scientific and technical achievement; a testament to how well integrated and powerful After Effects is.
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Classic Animation vs Motion Graphics

When it comes to animation, there can be some confusion about the difference between a motion designer and a traditional animator. Although these two industries blend and overlap in a few areas, they are different in their workflow.

Traditional Animation

Drawing frame by frame, using a physical medium, and/or creating cel animation inside of programs like Adobe Animate, is considered the traditional art form of animation.
Through a series of planning out key poses, and drawing in-between each of those, is a lengthy process that offers different advantages in creativity, and some disadvantages in the time it takes to create projects.
When you think of traditional animation you may be picturing some of the original Disney movies, like Aladdin and The Lion King. Those are actually great examples of the traditional animation practice.
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Disney hand-drawn animation example

Motion Graphics

Adobe After Effects takes a different approach for creating movement. Motion graphics animation works by manipulating vector and rasterized art to create and tell a story. You can integrate physical based media as well through photographs and videography.
After Effects uses a variety of tools, coding, and user input to manipulate the media being used in a project. You can move, twist, scale, rotate, and much more in order to transform your images and videos.
That may seem a little hard to wrap you head around, so let's walk through some cases and show examples of how you can use After Effects to create animated videos.
Stunning Animation created by Ordinary Folk
In addition to photos and vector artwork, you can manipulate words using text features in After Effects, and videos that can be imported, and much more.

What can Adobe After Effects do?

Let's get into what After Effects can do, and what it's not really that great at. This program is very deep and there are so many use cases that we may not capture them all. But, if you're new to After Effects this article will give you a great foundational understanding of what it's capable of.


By moving and transforming layers, you are able to bring artwork to life. After Effects offers digital tools that help you manipulate and edit various properties.
There are a lot of ways to create animations inside of After Effects! With integrations from third party software, and artists pushing the boundaries of everyday workflows, the use cases for creating animations in After Effects is astounding.
Here is a simple list of different types of animations you can create in After Effects:
  • 2D Vector Animation
  • Basic 3D Animation
  • Character Animation
  • Kinetic Typography
  • UI/UX mock-up animations
  • Visual Effects
This is just a small list, but it shows some of the core examples of what you can expect to animate when working in this program.

Visual Effects

Outside of animation, there are other use cases for Adobe After Effects.
Visual effects workflows have created a comfy home inside of this program. For years people have manipulated video and film to add in many post-production effects.
Smoke, fire, explosions, scene tracking, and background replacements using green screen technology represent many of the tasks After Effects is capable of performing.
For example, you can add lighting effects or create really cool smoke trails that look like objects are flying through a city. Here's a fun tutorial that we put together utilizing After Effects as an animation tool.
How to use green screen keying in After Effects
There are a lot of ways to use After Effects with other programs as well. After Effects can import 3D scene data, and help give you an extra level of finesse through compositing.
Check out this great video by EJ Hassenfratz demonstrating how you can make a 3D object look like it's actually in your shot.
Place a 3D object in your video with EJ

After Effects is Not a Good 3D Program Choice

There are a lot of workflows After Effects can tackle, but creating 3D environments and models is not what it's created for. To be clear, there are functionalities that allow you to use 3D objects and manipulate them native to After Effects. But, there are better and more efficient ways of creating art in 3D.
If you're looking to work with 3D art and animation, we highly suggest looking into Cinema 4D Basecamp here at School of Motion. The course was created for absolute 3D beginners with no prior knowledge.

After Effects is Not a Video Editor

When it comes to editing multiple video clips, splicing them together, and adding soundtracks with equalized music and sound effects, After Effects is not a great choice.
Applications like Premiere Pro, Avid, and Final Cut Pro are built to handle large amounts of video content. They focus on easy manipulation and efficient playback for high resolution videos, and process intensive media with high data bit-rates.
The timeline panel in After Effects is built to allow you to vertically stack content on top of each other, and interact with the layers above and below.
Video editing software allows you to stack content on top of each other, but the way video editing works, you typically aren't stacking videos on top of each other by the hundreds.
If you're looking to get into video editing and filmmaking, then think of After Effects as a supportive program; helping you build supportive overlaying graphics that can enhance your production quality.

How Do You Learn Adobe After Effects?

There are a multitude of ways to learn After Effects! Some are fast, some are slow, some are easy and others can be a challenge. Let's go over a few ways you can start learning After Effects.

1. Tutorials on YouTube

YouTube is an amazing resource for learning so many new things. There are hundreds of thousands of people looking to share their knowledge. This is great news for someone who is looking to dabble, or needs to find a very niche answer to a problem they are having.
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The School of Motion YouTube homepage
Here is a list of YouTube channels that we would recommend for learning After Effects:
Use YouTube, and other sites like it, for all it's worth. It's an amazing resource. Free videos typically don't dig very deep though, and it can be confusing trying to figure out what you need to learn. If you're new in After Effects, you may watch a tutorial that you'll never actually need to use professionally.
When you're looking to get a job as a professional motion designer that can be a roadblock.
Don't hear us say that YouTube is a waste of time! We definitely have learned a lot from free content. However, be mindful that the con to free content is that your learning pace can easily be slowed, stagnant, or heading in the wrong direction.

2. College and Art School

College has been known for centuries as the place to go for higher education. Most major colleges offer art classes and degrees that teach the vast amount of artistic mediums available, with animation being no exception.
You can attend college and get a motion design education, both on campus and sometimes online. There are many different colleges that now offer motion design as a degree, or as a portion of a video production degree. The biggest downside is that universities, and even community colleges, can be a quick way to rack up a lot of debt.
Some art universities will have you graduating with more that $200,000 dollars in debt. Still, some art schools and universities have courses that teach you how to use the software, and other applicable skills, that will transfer into the work force. But to be fully honest, we're not fans of brick-and-mortar animation schools.

3. Online Education

Modern approaches to education are evolving at a rapid pace. One amazing example of learning online is Master Class delivers opportunities like learning film from great directors such as Steven Spielberg, and cooking from world renowned chefs like Gordon Ramsay. Could you imagine having industry legends like those two teach at a college? Sadly, they aren't able to be in every college for every lesson.
Now, with the power of the internet you can learn directly from pioneers in the industry. This is a huge shift in how people can access the best of the best knowledge available. But, Gordon Ramsay isn't teaching motion design, so where can you learn your craft online?
When it comes to motion design, there are a handful of options available. School of Motion is an amazing place to start your motion design career. We offer a wide variety of courses that teach you the skills you need to help you land a job in motion design. And, much like Master Class, you'll be learning from the best in motion design.
From beginner to advanced animation, design and even 3D, we offer a wide range of courses that get you up and running in no time. Our courses run between 6-8 weeks and help build a solid foundation for your skills. We stay in touch with studios across the world, and have worked diligently to take the guessing game out of what you need to learn in order to get a job in motion design.
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How to Get Adobe After Effects

After Effects is a program offered by Adobe within their Creative Cloud subscription service. Pricing for the subscription can vary as there are various plans to be considered.

Here's a list of the different Creative Cloud Plans:

  • Individual
  • Business
  • Students and Teachers
  • Schools and Universities
When you're ready to make a choice, you can head over to Adobe and sign up for the pricing model that fits your needs!

3rd Party Tools for Adobe After Effects

There are multiple ways to enhance your workflow that play with abilities both inside and outside of what the base program offers. You can add additional tools to After Effects that can enhance, or compliment, the core functions available. Sometimes these tools help with a process that can be automated, making your workflow more efficient.

Scripts & Extensions

Scripts and Extensions take what's available within After Effects and automate them. However, they can only automate what's available inside of After Effects already, so they won't give you any more capabilities than what Adobe has given.
Where Scripts and Extensions mainly differ is in their user interface. Scripts tend to remain very basic and only use UI elements natively available within After Effects. Extensions however use HTML5, Javascript and CSS to create more sophisticated UI elements. In the end, though, they will execute a script within After Effects, but they can be made to be more user friendly and appealing.
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Script UI for Motion 2 by Mt. Mograph


Plug-ins are small software modules that add functionality to an application. Effects in After Effects are implemented as plug-ins from Adobe, as are some features for importing and working with certain file formats. However, plugins are almost universally developed by third-party developers, and not the developers of the original software itself.
Adobe has granted outside developers the ability to make tools that can be used inside of After Effects. There are a lot of plugins currently available for After Effects. The vast majority of the plugins available are simple scripts that can help speed up your workflow.
Red Giant and a showcase of their plug-ins for After Effects

Where can I get these tools?

First, we recommend learning the core functions of After Effects before downloading a bunch of tools and spending money on them. But, when you're ready to jump the gun and purchase them, you'll need to know where to go.
Here's a small list of sites you can download plugins:
Flow, a Popular Extension, available at

Adobe After Effects vs Premiere Pro

You may have heard of another program that Adobe offers, called Premiere Pro. It also handles video footage and you can export from it was well,. But how is it different than After Effects?
Well, if you're wanting to cut together a video, After Effects is not the place to do so. Premiere Pro is designed with specific tools that allow you to efficiently manipulate video clips. Along with video, it's equipped with some powerful audio editing capabilities that allow you to cut together and mix audio for your video.
After Effects is all about adding visual effects and animation through a process of key poses and layer stacking. With access to transformative properties, you can change just about anything you'd like about an image. Like color, size, rotation, and much more. Not only that, but you can have layers interact with each other for further creativity.

The After Effects Workflow

The workflow you'll be using in After Effects serves a very different purpose than Premiere. For Premiere Pro you'll be sorting through a lot of footage, adding it to a timeline, and cutting it into small bits to make long form content.
After Effects is typically used for short form animations that come out in small increments that will overlay on top of video. Think about those flashy car commercials that have text pop up stating the price of a vehicle. They fly into frame and then leave, adding impact using graphic design to display information.
After Effects is not that great at playing back video footage, and the tools are geared around manipulating the way a graphic moves and looks. The tools in Premiere Pro are suited for moving around the clips in a timeline, re-timing them, and cutting audio.

How Long Does it Take to Learn Adobe After Effects?

If you've made it this far in the article then it seems like you're really interested in motion design as a career. So, let's take a look at a few different learning paths, and how long each one can take.

Free Online Tutorials

This one is tricky to pin down due to how many ways you could tackle this learning process. There isn't a guide on YouTube telling you which tutorials you need to watch, and in which order, so that you can go from no skills to hirable.
For most people they take about 2-3 years of dabbling in After Effects and going through tutorials to really get a solid grip on this software. As you progress through this route, your big leaps in proficiency are going to come from odd ball jobs you may get. You don't really have proof at this point that you know what you're doing, so those gigs are also super hard to get. It's a real chicken-and-egg scenario.
The industry only recently started to transition from self-taught motion designers. We now have amazing resources online, and in colleges, that can teach you what you need to know to become a professional motion graphics designer. Being self-taught can be extremely empowering, and will really flex your problem-solver muscles. But, there is a huge cost in uncertainty, and potentially time.
If teaching yourself is an iffy route then maybe you should try looking at local colleges. Or, should you?

College and Art School

Attending a university, or community college, will take several years. For a bachelors degree in art or animation expect to spend about 4-6 years. Sometimes trade schools can graduate you at around 3 years worth of courses. In short, a significant amount of your life will be spent at art school.

Learn After Effects in 8 Weeks

School of Motion is a big fan of the rise of online motion design education.
With the growth of the internet's versatility, coupled with our passion for motion design, we've created courses that can take you from MoGraph (Motion Graphics) beginner to master in a fraction of the time it takes to learn anywhere else. Not only do we have extremely efficient courses, and seriously competitive prices compared to art school, we also have several alumni working in the industry using the skills learned from our courses.
If you're new to After Effects, we recently launched a course that's just for you. After Effects Kickstart is our beginner's course that takes you from absolutely no skills, and having never opened After Effects, to hire-worthy in just a few weeks. Make sure to swing by our courses page to learn more!

Get Ready to Become an After Effects Expert

Today's education is changing at a rapid pace! When looking at the web and its advantages over brick and mortar schools, we are seeing education become more affordable and accessible than ever. This is unprecedented, and only time will tell how traditional education plays out. But, for now you have some great affordable options that can seriously set you up for a career in motion design.
If you want to read up on the decaying world of traditional MoGraph education, check out this article from our founder. You'd be shocked at how little art school and a college degree will do for you in today's landscape.
Hear from those who have gone through School of Motion courses

Learn More

Are you super pumped about After Effects now? Want to learn more about the motion design industry and dig into this exciting art form? Let's send you off on a high note with some next steps.

School of Motion Tutorials

We've been at this for awhile, and we have resources that teach motion design outside of our courses. Check out our tutorials page where you can find a slew of After Effects tutorials. They can give you a great idea of what you can do inside of After Effects and get you up to speed with some fun techniques.

Path to MoGraph & After Effects Kickstart

On the courses page you can find Path to Mograph, our free 10-day course. In the course we give you an inside look at some of the best studios in motion design and how our custom-built education platform works! This class starts immediately after signing up, so you won't have to wait for one of our registration periods to explore.
If you're sold on After Effects, and want to get your career started, then you should definitely check out After Effects Kickstart. In the course we will build up your knowledge through a series of fun, real-world challenges that test each new skill you learn. You'll be making actual Motion Design work from day 1, and will have all the help you need to be successful.
I hope you've found this article to be a helpful introduction into my favorite animation tool. By learning After Effects you will unlock a world of creative possibilities and even the most ambitious artistic stories with the world.