Post-Production
July 29, 2021

Motion Graphics for Beginners: How to Use After Effects Keyframing

By Chris Suffield 7 min read

Highlights

  • New to motion graphics? We'll cover the basics of keyframing
  • Quickly Learn how to add keyframes in After Effects with a step-by-step tutorial
  • Get some pro tips that will help you avoid mistakes beginners make with keyframing

Keyframing is one of the essential skills an animator can have, and you can pick up the basics in just a few minutes.

Animation can take many forms and use many different tools; one thing that unifies all animation, however, is the use of Keyframes. Keyframe animation is used in everything, from flashing photo montages on Instagram to the latest animated movie. While we can’t teach you to animate the next Toy Story, basic Key Animation in After Effects is super easy to pick up, and we’re going to show you how.

Part 1: What are Keyframes?

The first thing you'll need to understand is what a Keyframe is; once you know the theory of Keyframe animation, you can more easily troubleshoot your projects.  

A Keyframe is a command the animator creates to tell After Effects what to do with a particular graphic, title, or shape in your Project. Keyframes work in pairs and will appear on your Timeline as 2 small diamond shapes.

after effects keyframing

When you create the Keyframes, you do so for the setting you want to change; if you want to increase the size of an element, you'll Keyframe the Scale settings. The first Keyframe will indicate the start of the animation, and the second the end of it. Whatsmore, the placement of the Keyframes will dictate the speed of your animation; the closer together the Keyframes are, the faster the animation. 

It might sound a little complicated, but follow the steps below, and we’ll have you creating stunning animations using After Effects Keyframes in no time.

Part 2: How to add keyframes in After Effects

One of the most extraordinary things about Keyframes is they can be used on virtually any effect native to After Effects. For this tutorial, however, we will teach you the fundamentals of the Transform settings; Scale, Position and Rotation.

Step 1: Creating your Shape Layer

You can Keyframe any Layer in After Effects, including video clips and photos, titles and graphics, but we’re going to start by creating a shape.

  1. Open a new After Effects Project, right-click on the Timeline and select New > Shape Layer.
  2. Grab the Shape Tool and draw your chosen shape in the media viewer.
  3. Select your Shape on the screen and look for the Anchor Point - a small circle in the center of the Shape Layer.  
  4. Press the Y key, then drag the Anchor Point to the position on the layer you want to animate from; this is especially important if you're going to rotate your element, as the Anchor Point indicates the CenterPoint of the layer.

Top Tip: You can automatically center your Anchor Point by double-clicking the Pan Behind tool on the top menu.

Step 2: Adding your Keyframes

The first Keyframe you add is usually the last in your animation; this is because you will likely have designed the composition how you want it to look when the animation is complete.

  1. Place your Playhead on the Timeline at the point you want your animation to end.
  2. In the Effects control panel, open the Motion settings.
  3. To create your first Keyframe, click the Stopwatch Icon alongside any of the settings.
  4. Move the Playhead to where you want the animation to start, and change the setting you want to animate; a new Keyframe is created automatically. You can also copy and paste your Keyframes by selecting them in the Timeline and pressing Command/Control C, the V.
  5. Play your animation back to see how it looks.  
  6. If you want to add more Keyframes, simply move your playhead to the position you want the animation to change and adjust your settings accordingly; this can be before, during, or after your existing Keyframes.

Step 3: Editing your Keyframes

If you’re lucky, you got your Keyframe animation correct the first try, but more often than not, you’ll need to do a little bit of tidying up.

  1. Select your Layer in the Timeline and press U to view all the Keyframes on that element.
  2. To increase or decrease the speed, select your last Keyframes in the Timeline and drag them toward or further away from the first Keyframes.
  3. To move between Keyframes, go to the Effects Controls Panel and hit the small arrows alongside the Keyframed setting.
  4. To remove Keyframes, select them and hit Delete/Backspace. Remember, deleting a Keyframe will remove that setting for that Keyframe only. If a setting has 3 or more Keyframes, and you remove one from the middle, the animation will revert to the next Keyframe.

Part 3: Top Tips for using Keyframing for your Animations

While Keyframing might be straightforward to understand, there is a lot that can go wrong when using them. More often than not, Keyframe mistakes result from a poorly organized project, so here are our top tips to avoid Keyframe pitfalls.

Double-check your selected layer

When you add Keyframes from the Effect Control Panel, it can be easy to forget to check which layer you have selected in the Timeline. If you have Multiple Layers selected, you can add Keyframes to all of them simultaneously, but this can become problematic if you’re not paying attention.

Don’t press the Stopwatch again

Of course, you have to click on the Stopwatch to set the first Keyframe, but be careful not to click it again once you’ve started creating your animations. Clicking the Stopwatch after you’ve Keyframed will remove them all.

Check your anchor point

If you’re experiencing some unexpected movement in your Keyframed Animation, the first thing to check is the anchor point. The anchor point is usually at the center of your graphic or image and tells AE where the movement starts within the layer. A poorly placed anchor point won’t affect much with the Position settings, but Scale and Rotation need precise positioning.

Bezier handles bend your path

As you begin more advanced Keyframing Animations, you’ll want to use the Bezier Handles for your position animation to create curves in your animation Paths. Sometimes these otherwise helpful handles can get twisted around, creating a jerky motion at the start or end of your Path; you might need to zoom in a lot to check them.

Wrap up

Keyframing is a vital skill for any After Effect animator, and once you understand the basics, you’ll be using them in just about every project. The main thing to remember when using Keyframes is to pay attention; if you lose focus, it is much more likely something will go wrong. Now you know how to use Keyframes, play around with various effects to see what you can create. And check out our article about the essential After Effects shortcuts to help save you time when keyframing.

 

About Chris

Chris Suffield is a London-based writer, editor, and voice-over artist at Jellyfielder Studios; he also writes entertainment news for Box Office Buz and enjoys making things from stock footage.  
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