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Five After Effects Tools You Never Use...But You Should

By Sara Wade
After Effects

Check Out Five Great Lesser-Known After Effects Tools

There are so many tools, plugins, and scripts out there for After Effects, it can be hard to decide what to focus on first. Overwhelmed with choices? You are not alone!
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If you find yourself paralyzed with indecision about which tool, technique, or trick to try next, fear not! School of Motion is here to help! In this article, I’ll share with you five tools that you probably never use, but should. The best part is that these are all part of After Effects, no plugins required.
Time to learn some new tricks!
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5 After Effects Tools You Never Use...But You Should

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thisLayer.name

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Not an expressions guru? Don’t worry, this one is super easy and will save you time! It’s as enlightening and life changing as the Wiggler, and just as easy to use.
  • Expand the layer in the timeline
  • Expand the Text category
  • ALT + CLICK (OPTION + CLICK on a Mac) the stopwatch next to Source Text to create an expression
  • Paste or type “thisLayer.name” in to the expression editor to the right.
Now, whatever you name that layer will be the source text for the type. The font, size, and other properties from the Character panel will be retained and applied to whatever you name the layer.
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This little trick eliminates the need to rename your layers separately from editing text every time your client or creative director comes to you with new copy. Once you start using this trick, you will find the time you save adds up quickly. To learn more ways expressions can save you tons of time, check out our Expression Session.

Motion Sketch & the Smoother

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Want to make a complex motion path without setting a bunch of keyframes?
Motion Sketch to the rescue! Motion sketch records your movements as you draw a path on the screen using your mouse or Wacom. This two-step process is going to change the way you make motion paths forever:
  • Open up the Motion Sketch Panel with Window --> Motion Sketch
  • Select the layer you want to animate
  • In the Motion Sketch Panel, hit the Start Capture button
  • Press and hold the left mouse button while you draw the animation path (or use your Wacom pen)
  • Voila! You have an animation path!
  • Now to make it supa-smooth, go to Window Smoother to open up the Smoother Panel
  • Increase the tolerance level. Higher tolerance is smoother but less detailed. Lower tolerance is more detailed but less smooth.
  • With the animated layer still selected, hit the Apply button
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BOOM! You just drew a perfectly smooth awesome path. This smoother trick is especially for drawing nice smooth lines after that 11th cup of coffee.
To make this process even faster, increase the tolerance setting in the Motion Sketch Panel before you draw your path and skip the Smoother steps.

Paths as Motion Keyframes

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Do you love drawing nice smooth flowy curves with the pen tool and rotobezier? I do. Why not use that fun process to animate something?
  • Draw your path either in a shape layer or as a mask.
  • Drill down to the path in the layer contents.
  • Select the path and copy it with CTRL + C (CMD + C on a Mac)
  • Go to the object’s Transform Position property and CTRL + V that pretty path to the position
Voila, you have instant path animation! You can also continue to adjust the path animation by moving the keys and adjusting the points and bezier handles.
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Compositing Options for Effects

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This one is a real hidden gem. For those of you who mostly use the Effects Panel when working with effects, this one may be a nice surprise. In the timeline panel, you can use masks to control where an effect works on a layer as well as animate the opacity of the effect.
  • Add any effect to your layer
  • Select the layer and draw or create a mask
  • Expand the effect until you see Compositing Options
  • Click the + symbol next to Compositing Options
  • Select your mask in the Mask Reference dropdown
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BOOM! You can now control your effect with a mask. You can also control the opacity of the effect using the Effect Opacity setting in the Compositing Options.
  • This works with all of the effects. A few things to note:
  • You can only choose masks that are on the same layer as the effect.
  • You can add as many mask references as you like.
This one is so powerful, we wondered why it was hidden away. You’re welcome!

Converting to Paragraph Text

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This is another hidden but super useful tool. AE doesn’t seem to have any paragraph text tool which is a huge bummer, until you know where to find it.
  • With some text written, keep the text tool active but don’t select any text.
  • Right click (CTRL + click for Mac lovin’ peeps)
  • Select “Convert to Paragraph Text”
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BOOM! Now you have a text box and all the fancy paragraph text capabilities that come with it like making that box the perfect shape, auto-wrap, and the paragraph justification tools.
Want to go back to the way things were? I get it. Sometimes you just want straight up text. Follow the same steps but select “Convert to Point Text” and you are right back to where you started.
If you really love paragraph text and want to create it right off the bat, select the text tool and drag in the comp window to define a box from the corner. To define a box around a center point, you can use ALT + DRAG (OPTION + DRAG on a Mac).
Those are some of our favorite After Effects Tools, no plugins required. Enjoy your new super powers!
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Want to Learn More?

We have some amazing courses for every experience level from the complete newbie to the advanced motion artist.
That's not all we have to offer. If you want to learn even more cool motion design processes, tips, and tricks; check out our courses page for the full curriculum.
Tag us on social media (#schoolofmotion) with your fun new experiments using these tricks. Now go make something awesome!