After Effects Wishlist

In After Effects, Design
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Ever since I first jumped headfirst into After Effects back in 2010, the application has gotten better and better. However, as with any piece of software that one works with on a day-to-day basis, there are always those “I really wish I could do this!” moments or “Wouldn’t it be great if Ae had this!” functionality privations.

What follows is an entirely-subjective-and-likely-applicable-only-to-my-workflow wishlist for future After Effects updates, ordered only by how and when it popped into my head.

1. More Robust Library Functionality

Having Libraries rolled into After Effects was great, not only because of how powerful Libraries are in respect to inter-application operability, but also because it’s a way of actually getting a color palette into After Effects.

It does have its limitations, however. Foremost, unlike Photoshop and Illustrator, there is no way to actually add anything to Libraries from within After Effects. I know that the standard workflow is to create everything in Photoshop and Illustrator and then bring it all into Illustrator, but things never seem to work that perfectly for me. It often isn’t until I start to animate something that new colors and such come to mind or get worked out within the project. Unfortunately, there is no way to bring that new material to bear upon other work in the same project, which means that if I need to iterate my After Effects work into Photoshop or Illustrator, even something as simple as a color requires screenshots, copying/pasting hex colors, or any number of other workarounds. Being able to add even colors to Libraries would be a nice first step.

Another limitation is that unlike Ps or Ai, where you can select an object and then just click the color in the Library to change the color, in After Effects you have to select the object’s Fill to pull up the Color Picker, then select the eyedropper, and then go sample the color from the Library. Bleh. all those extra clicks add up over the course of a big project. The color picking needs to be implemented like in Ps and Ai (and I have submitted this feature request a number roof times!)

Ray Dynamic Color offers a glimpse of how this might work, although it’d be great to implement without attaching expressions.

2. Better Brushes and Painting

I actually don’t use brushes and painting in Ae very much, largely because the implementation of it is just bad and effectively unusable. It honestly feels like a holdover from the last millennium. More brush options, the ability to import and use custom brushes, etc., would be a great addition to Ae’s toolset. There are lots of things I’d love to do with brushes in After Effects, if only it were more robust.

Paint and Stick aims to fill in this gaping hole, and is essential if painting is a major part of your workflow.

3. Separate and Controllable Mask and Shapes Vertices

Masks and Shapes in Ae are very powerful tools, but they can be a bit unwieldy and difficult to control. One prominent example is when animating them. At present, a shape or mask- regardless of how many vertices it has- can only be animated as a whole on one path. This means that each vertex is effectively linked to the others, in that you cannot animate them separately. To be sure, you can animate them individually in that they don’t follow other vertices as if they are parented (although sometimes that would be nice!). However, every keyframe on the path animation represents every movement of every vertex, even if it hasn’t been animated.

The practical reality of this is that it is extremely challenging to make changes to more complicated mask or shape paths, especially if time is of the essence. On a similar note, retiming these animations can also be quite challenging, especially if you want the vertices offset in time.

Having discrete animation properties for each vertex of a mask or shape path would enable more complex animations at a fraction of the time or effort, and would make subsequent changes and revisions more realistic. It would also presumably allow vertices to be parented to nulls, to other objects, or even to intra-shape or mask vertices, which would allow more precision and flexibility.

BAO Mask Avenger is a great example of how this functionality could work.

4. Simultaneous Multi-Project

At present After Effects is limited to having only one project open at once. This can be a challenging workflow in that one often wants to reuse assets, effects, etc., from other projects which might be more easily accomplished by means of copy/paste. To be sure, there are certainly ways of affecting this (reducing a project to certain assets or comps, saving effect presets, etc.) but they are not always the best use of time.

As an example, you can bring the entirety of a project into another project, with everything intact. However, this can very quickly clutter up the original project, and when you go to hand it off, archive it, etc., it requires figuring out what to keep or ballooning project sizes.

Having multiple projects open at once would allow for sharing assets and such between projects more easily, much like how one might duplicate a layer from one Ps document to another. This would create IMO a more efficient workflow. Another option might be to take a page out of Premiere’s playbook, where you can open another project in a media browser and grab assets from that read-only project.

5. Gradient Maps

This is a little feature update, but it seems to be one that is far overdue. Almost every Adjustment Layer from Photoshop will translate directly into After Effects, but Gradient Map will not. This makes handing off a Photoshop project to someone to animate it is potentially fraught with difficulty and frustration.

And yes, Colorama is more powerful than Photoshop’s Gradient Map, but it’s also a major pain to use, as its implementation is just not very intuitive or user-friendly, even if you know what you are doing. A more Photoshop-like Gradient Map would be nice not only for inter-app operability, but simply to be able to make good gradient maps quickly.

In the meantime, check out my free Delectable Gradient Maps with Photoshop/After Effects interoperability.

6. Shape Control Panel

Shapes are powerful tools in Ae, especially if you create a lot of vector-based animations. However, they can be notoriously difficult to use and modify.

A shape layer basically functions as a little mini-comp, in that a Shape layer can have multiple shapes and groups of shapes within it. This is great for decluttering a project, but it can a serious pain to access the properties of shapes/groups/paths with one shape layer, especially if there are lots of shapes within that shape layer. It quickly can overtake your workspace and cost valuable time trying to track down specific properties.

In Ae there is already an Effect Controls panel that is contextually activated when you select a layer that has an effect or effects applied. The panel reveals all the properties of the effect or effects, and allows you to make changes without having to twirl down the layer in the Timeline.

Something similar to this except for Shapes would be a welcome addition. It could display properties for all shapes, or could perhaps have twirl downs for each shape so that only desired shape properties can be revealed.

Shape Layer Navigator can help to plug some of these holes.

7. A Render Queue That Works With You, Not Against You

The Render Queue has always been a mess, and unfortunately it hasn’t gotten much better. The newest version allows you to send it to Media Encoder, but in my experience half of the time the whole process fails, and the other half it doesn’t carry over the render settings I set up. Because that obviously wouldn’t make sense…. I tend to export quite a few different sequences at the same time, and often I have to have specific settings for those sequences. Unfortunately, there’s not really a way to make batch changes to important things like the actual settings or the destination. Sure, you can use presets, but why not allow me to make batch changes if I select them all? Especially if I need to make specific changes in a specific project that don’t need to be saved as presets? Seriously, in a lot of Adobe programs I end up having these huge lists of presets to scroll through every time I want to make simple one-off changes.

What I’d like to see is the Ae render queue work quite a bit more like Media Encoder, except without necessarily having to send to ME. Let me make batch changes to multiple outputs in the queue, pretty please? 🙂

8. Smart Shy

Organization in After Effects has never been easy, and the application itself doesn’t always help out. One of the few tools available for condensing a cluttered timeline is the Shy tool, which lets you select certain layers to “shy,” which then hides them from the Timeline as long as the Shy switch is enabled. This is fine as far as it goes, but unfortunately it doesn’t go far enough. The Shy switch is an all-or-nothing approach; every layer with the Shy switch enabled is hidden. There is not really a way to target certain layers for Shying.

It would be amazing to be able to have multiple Shy switches, that either targeted certain types of layers (e.g., all Nulls) or that targeted color labels (e.g., all Red layers). Even better would be the ability to assign any layer to a particular Shy switch. This would help immensely with hiding specific layers at certain times. In my workflow, I often want to hide a lot of layers at one time, but then only hide certain ones at other times, and since the Shy switch is all-or-nothing, many times I simply forego shying anything and dealing with it, which is not ideal.

Zorro the Layer Tagger is a good alternative solution.

9. Smart Parenting

Parenting is a really useful feature in After Effects that allows you to attach one layer to another and match positional and rotational changes. It’s a quick and powerful way to save lots of time. Unfortunately, it’s not terribly robust. Parenting a layer to another will allow you to match position and rotation and scale… and that’s about it. Not Opacity, not timing… for anything else you have to start the tedious task of setting up expressions.

IMO, Ae is due for an overhaul and expansion of the Parenting system. First and foremost would be a way to keyframe it on and off, which has actually been solved by the script Good Parents from However, this basically just carries the same functionality over, without adding anything beyond turning it on and off. I would like to see Parenting be able to adjust more than just Position and Rotation and Scale; timing, opacity, and a host of other properties are just begging to be able to be parented.

I envision a Parenting system that would likely default to the current functionality, but that would also allow the option to quickly parent other properties, say within an Effect Controls-esque panel. Choosing to parent the color of two shape layer fills, for example, would be handy. It’s not a difficult expression to set up, to be sure, but Smart Parenting could do this with a toggle, rather than twirling down properties and typing in expression of pick-whipping properties.

Another nice feature would work in conjunction with Smart Shy, in that if a layer is parented to another, by default when the Parent layer is copied and pasted, the child layer is as well, irrespective of whether it is shed or not. One difficulty I run into with Shy layers is that I often want to shy things that are integral to the layer that is not shy. For example, I often use Track Mattes and parent them to the the layer they are masking, but the Track Matte layer often takes up Timeline real-estate, so I will shy it. However, a lot of times I will want to duplicate that layer (and by extension, its Track Matte), but it’s extremely easy to forget that something is shyed. Thus, I will end up duplicating the layer, but forgetting about the Track Matte, which means either undoing or losing time by having to go back and analyze what went wrong.

However, if the default behavior were for the Parent layer to bring its children with it when being duplicated or copied and pasted, this could avoid this common situation as well as save time. After all, there are lots of situations where I have lots of different layers parented to another layer, but they don’t always sit right next to each other in the layer stack, and aren’t always the same color. This means that if I want to duplicate this Parent chain, I have to go through and make sure I select every layer that is in that Parent chain, which can get especially complicated when rigging characters that have multiple levels of parenting. With Smart Parenting, the chain is copied according to highest level of that Parent chain, with the option to not duplicate (say by holding Alt when copying). This would allow complicated Parent chains to be duplicated with potentially only one layer selection (say, a Master Null that controls the whole character rig), rather than multiple selections.

And, of course, you could keyframe the parenting of not just the parenting as a whole, but for enabled properties. Pure awesome? Why yes, it would be.

Be sure to check out Good Parents.

10. Independent Masks and Sub Mattes

Masks are kind of the bread and butter of After Effects, on the same level as keyframes and timing adjustments. They are powerful in that they can help you sculpt your artwork exactly how you want it, and can do so over time. However, they can also be a real pain to work with, especially when attempting to animate the vertices (see #3).

Another mixed blessing is that they are always directly attached to a layer. While they can be animated independently, they are effectively parented to a layer and will move with it unless otherwise animated. This is both good and bad, since there are lots of times you want a mask to do this, but in the other times you either have to do unnecessary animation or use a Track Matte.

Track Mattes are fine as far as they go, functioning as an independent mask that reveals or hides the layer below it. There are many disadvantages, however. Firstly, a Track Matte is always a separate layer, and must always sit directly on top of the layer it is masking. The difficulty with this is that your timeline quickly becomes cluttered with these layers that aren’t showing up (as by default they are disabled), but are still taking up space. One can of course Shy them, but that can also quickly run into other issues (see #9). It also means that you have to have a separate Track Matte layer for every layer that you want to Matte, even if you are using the exact same Matte for all of them. Organization will often suffer because of this, as you might have like artwork clustered together, but broken up by all these Track Mattes.

Another disadvantage is that Masks have some additional and useful properties that can be employed and animated: Feather, Expansion and Opacity. Feather is quite useful in blending layers together, as it quickly creates a feather on the edge of the mask. You can do this with a Track Matte, but it requires either drawing a Mask on that Matte, or using some kind of Blur to feather the edges, and I don’t find either of these situations ideal.

I would like to see two scenarios. Firstly, it would be great to have the option to make a Mask drawn on a Layer to be independent, in that it doesn’t share the layer’s properties. Thus, it would essentially function as if you used a Track Matte: if you moved the layer, the Mask would retain its position. Along the same lines of the Smart Parenting, this function could be keyframeable, so that at one point in time it is independent, and at another attached to the layer.

Secondly, the action of attaching a Track Matte to a layer might result in it becoming a sort of sub-layer to that layer, in that you would twirl down on the matted layer to reveal the Track Matte (similar to how Apple Motion handles Layer Masks). You would be presented with a sub-layer that could be used as it would be were it a Track Matte above the layer, but with the advantage of not taking up Timeline real estate.

A latent advantage of this would be that splitting layers with Track Mattes would be made much simpler. How it currently works is that if I have a layer and a track matte and want to split them, I can either split the Layer by itself or select both and split them together, If I split only the layer, it is placed directly above the Track Matte. However, since it has the Matte setting toggled, it will by default use the layer above it as a Track Matte, which means having to turn it off. Do this enough times and mistakes are eventually made, and time is wasted.

However, if you split both at the same time, both layers are placed directly above, and the layers work as if you had duplicated them.

With the Smart Matte, you wouldn’t have to have any concerns about duplicating, because by default the Matte is included as a sub-layer within the duplicated layer. Of course, there would be an option (perhaps by holding Alt while duplicating) to ignore the Matte and only duplicate the layer. There would be no annoying taking the layer above it as a Matte, since the layer stack order isn’t how the Matte is calculated.

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