I have been deeply involved in creating motion graphics for the past 7 years, and I lay claim to the oddity of somewhat bucking the norm for most of that time in my choice of tools. After Effects is (at present) essentially the Photoshop of motion graphics creation, but I have only begun to really develop my skills in AE over the past year, somewhat out of necessity.
Instead, most of my pieces have been made in Apple’s Motion. Now, most colleagues and acquaintances who have any familiarity with motion graphics are often taken aback, partially because After Effects is so ubiquitous and partially because Motion has not exactly been a very well known application. I have usually been delighted to find that most people assume I was using After Effects since the (hopefully!) high quality of my work usually offers no meaningful discrepancy.
In other words, a lot of what you can do in After Effects you can do in Motion.
And I will admit that I still really like Motion. Even though I have moved over completely to After Effects (partially out of necessity), and even though AE is certainly more powerful, Motion nevertheless has its own charm and advantages. And while there are definitely reasons for After Effect’s supremacy, I’ve always thought that Motion brings a lot to the table and that there are some areas in which After Effects could definitely improve by being more like Motion.
After immersing myself in After Effects for the last year, I had nearly written Motion off completely. There are, after all, few forums or places where you can connect with other Motion users, and the derision Motion often receives from its detractors can take its toll after awhile.
Imagine my surprise, then, to find many who have previously written off Motion as a ‘toy’ to all of a sudden give it a second look. Adobe’s recent move over to the subscription-only Creative Cloud has produced a lot of furor on the inter webs, and many are looking for alternatives to the software they presently use from Adobe. (See this thread for an example) If After Effects falls under the Creative Cloud curse, to whom will one turn?
While I don’t share the same fear and loathing that comprises much of the internet’s collective groan over Adobe’s business decisions, my experience in After Effects often leaves me longing for Motion, or if not for Motion, at least some of Motion’s ways of doing things. After Effects has its moments of stupid like any other software, as well as its rough edges (even after all these years).
So without further ado, here are some things I think After Effects could learn from Motion.
One of Motion’s most touted features is its real-time playback. Basically, instead of having to render, you can simply hit Play and watch the animation you have created in real-time with no render. Of course, the ‘real-time’ nature of the playback is heavily affected by the size of your projects, the types of media you are using, what sort of effects are being employed, etc. If you get enough stuff in a project it will basically grind to a halt, even on a beast of a machine.
After Effects has a real-time playback of sorts, for you don’t have to do a RAM preview to playback but can use a cached render as a sort of pseduo-real-time playback. (Motion probably does something similar in the background.) But inexplicably, while Motion will let you preview video and audio in real-time (at the same time), After Effects limits you to the cached video render it is performing in the background.
This is one area where Motion is (at least for me) definitely superior in that it makes animating things to a soundtrack much faster. In After Effects you can do an audio preview scrub and set down markers, or preview the audio from a certain point. But if you want video and audio playing at the same time you have to do a RAM preview. I may just be inefficient, but setting down markers is not terribly conducive to quickly creating animations, especially as I have a tendency to finesse over and over.
The thing is this- even though Motion’s real-time playback doesn’t work flawlessly and stutters quite a bit as the project size increases, just being able to see and hear things at the same time without rendering is a great time-saver. In AE I have to try and figure out way part of the track I am hearing while scrubbing (not always easy!), whereas in Motion I get immediate feedback of the relation between the video and the audio. It can even be at something like 5 fps and the connection is still apparent and valuable.
After Effects could greatly benefit by having simultaneous video and audio playback without a RAM preview, and I’m hoping to see it soon, although I won’t hold my breath.
After Effects’ lack of Groups is one of the most inexplicable aspects of the program. Whereas Photoshop- with which it has fairly tight integration- has groups, After Effects does not.
When you have a project with hundreds or thousands of layers organization becomes critical, but After Effects simply does not have a good way of managing lots of layers.
One of the ways of managing a cluttered timeline is the Shy action, which essentially hides any layer with Shy enabled. This has limited utility within pre-comps, but it does not give you the sort of visual feedback that a large project requires, mostly because this function removes that visual feedback.
Another more common work-around is to use pre-comps as groups. I generally use this out of necessity, but it has some major disadvantages and- dare I say it- penalties.
Let’s say you have a bunch of little circles that kind of pop in, get bigger, and then fade out. For the sake of argument let’s say you had a bunch of these, all different sizes and coming in at slightly different times. If each one of these was its own layer, even 20 is going to start making your timeline into an absolute mess. Now you pre-comp it so you can organize the timeline a little better. The first downside is that your pre-comp is suddenly going to be the length of the comp it
is nested in. Immediately any visual cue as to the timing of the circles is going to be lost. Granted, you could open up the comp, resize the work area and then trim to the work area, but you have now been put through a couple additional steps when it could have been completed by the simple act of grouping.
Another disadvantage is that you now have to go into the pre-comp to make any animation changes. In some situations this can be advantageous, but definitely not when using the pre-comp merely as an organizational tool. The penalty of the pre-comp is that you can no longer see the timing of any animation (or any other parameter, for that matter) in relation to the rest of the composition in which it is nested. This can lead to a process of animating, going back and watching, going back to tweak, switching back to preview, etc. Granted, you could put down markers, but for very intricate animations this simply is not efficient.
Groups, on the other hand, offer a nice solution to this type of dilemma. Motion has no pre-comps but it does have groups, and this is one of the hardest parts of moving from Motion to After Effects.
Motion’s groups sort of act like pre-comps in some respect. In AE the pre-comp essentially becomes a flattened layer whose parameters you can universally control, which is helpful for anything that should function as a self-contained whole, among other uses. A Group in Motion functions similarly. The nice thing about Motion’s groups, however, is that it automatically trims the group length to the in and out points of the furthest piece of media in the timeline of that group. It is essentially like trimming to a work area on creation, which is a far more efficient and sane approach.
More importantly, that group exists with all its layers within the composition it is ‘nested’ in, so that you not only have immediate visual feedback as to its relation to the timeline, but any animations within the group (analogously within a pre-comp) can be seen in relation to any animations, assets, etc., in the main composition. This nearly removes the need for setting down a bunch of markers, since there is no need to cycle back and forth between composition windows.
To be sure, After Effects pre-comps have definite uses, especially when you want to use the same animation in multiple instances. One difficulty, however, is that any animation change affects all other instances of that pre-comp. In many situations this is great, but in others it can be disastrous.
For example, if you had a pre-comp with a character that you wanted to change the head on, keeping every other asset and parameter. Changing the head in the comp would change it for any other instance of that comp. But let’s say the head is nested in a pre-comp with that comp. Duplicating the comp in the project window makes a separate instance of the original comp, but it does not do this for any nested pre-comps. Enough nested pre-comps and you may end up making a mistake by accidentally replacing an asset in a pre-comp that hasn’t been duplicated, and it simply can get confusing. There are some work-arounds, but they somewhat defeat the purpose of pre-comps.
Motion’s Groups are independent of each other, and so duplicating one means you can swap out assists without worrying about making universal changes to a pre-comp. I would love to see After Effects be able to use groups and pre-comps, so that each can be used according to its strengths and purpose.
HUD and Inspector
After Effects is very powerful, but that power can begin to work against you when it comes to the way your project is visually represented. Often I have a bunch of shapes that I have drawn whose paths I need to modify. If I wanted to animate the path, I would have to twirl down at least four times (Shape>Contents>Shape>Path>Path) to get to the property I want to animate. This is, I suppose, fine here and there, but with enough layers it can become quite tedious. And while selecting multiple shapes will let you twirl down the first step down, beyond that you seem to have to do each one individually. This becomes incredibly inefficient, for just getting to an animatable parameter should not take so long.
Motion does not have the twirl down function in the timeline like After Effects, but rather makes use of the Inspector window and the HUD (Heads-Up Display) The Inspector window sits over on the left (where AE’s Project and Effects controls traditionally reside) while the HUD hovers over the project windows and can be repositioned as needed.
The HUD is interesting in that it only gives a limited amount of parameters, and does not have key framing control. However, once a keyframe is set it allow you to adjust parameters as needed. Most of the parameters in the HUD are high-level like Opacity and Blend Mode for most objects, whereas the main parameters of behaviors and effects will be displayed. The HUD is of limited utility but seems meant to give you a quick overview of high-level parameters and the ability to quickly change them.
The Inspector, on the other, functions like After Effects’ twirl down in the timeline. Every time an object is selected every animatable parameter is displayed in the Inspector window, complete with keyframe control. And while you still have to do some twirling down (since some parameters- e.g., position- are nested by axis), it becomes much easier to quickly view and modify individual parameters. And as with AE, if you select more than one at a time you can animate both (or more) simultaneously.
After Effects has something similar to the Inspector when it comes to Effects, but inexplicably not for regular animation. This can become quite the hassle when you have a large project and need to get into a parameter (say, as earlier, for a shape) and need to twirl down through multiple levels. The problem is compounded when you have multiple layers selected that you want to animate in short succession, while seeing the relation of keyframes.
Motion goes about this in an interesting way, in that, like After Effects, it displays the timing of keyframes underneath the layer. Unlike After Effects, however, it does not display all of the keyframes or even tell you what they are. Rather, if a keyframe has been set for any parameter, it will show you that in relation to the timeline on one single, thin layer beneath the animated layer.
I wouldn’t necessarily say Motion’s is superior, but it does help to more quickly identify the timing of keyframes of any layer in relation to another layer’s keyframes. While I like AE’s ability to see them all, if you have a bunch of parameters animated it quickly becomes self-defeating in that you have rows and rows of twirled-down keyframes that take up space on the timeline, forcing you to scroll down, resize the timeline window, etc. Another difficulty is that unless you remember exactly which parameter is animated, After Effects can make it difficult to see and get to. Unless that parameter is twirled down you are presented with a greyed-out keyframe indication that cannot simply be grabbed and modified. Granted, this can prevent accidents, but it also forces you to do a LOT of twirling down, especially if you want to make modifications to most of the parameters in short succession, change their interpolation, etc.
To be sure, using shortcuts you can select only the parameters you want, but the sheer amount of editable parameters requires you to either set up a lot of shortcuts or keep a cheat-sheet handy. An Inspector window- such as already exists and is immensely useful for Effects- would make animating layers much more efficient.
Masking in After Effects is, well, just kind of stupid. It is marginally better in Photoshop, but After Effects seems to want to make it into the most painful process it can possibly be.
Track Mattes, which function similarly to Photoshop’s Layer Masks, are an excellent example. The track matte is presented (by virtue of being one of the main options in the timeline) as a way to mask an underlying layer, but it is fraught with limitations. Firstly, it must be directly over the layer you wish to mask. And by directly I mean ‘the layer right above or else it will not work.’ The second more asinine limitation is that it seems incapable of imagining that, hey, someone might possibly want to use the same layer as a mask for multiple layers. But can you do this with a track matte? Sure, if you ‘group’ all the layers you want into a pre-comp and track matte the pre-comp. But then you will run into all the problems pre-comps as groups present.
The actual way to layer mask (which is hardly straightforward for such a seemingly common task) is to use- wait for it- an EFFECT. Of course, a layer mask is an effect, didn’t you know? Effect>Channel>Set Channel will allow you to use a matte as you would actually expect it to work, especially if After Effects is supposed to have such tight integration with Photoshop. However, it comes with a catch. While a track matte still gives you the bounding boxes even if the layer is not visible, for some inexplicable reason using Set Channel will make your disabled matte invisible even in regards to the bounding box. Oh, did you want to modify the animation on your matte? So sorry. Try a track matte.
There is a cheat in that you can keep the matte layer visible but set the opacity to 0%. This will retain the bounding boxes and allow you to animate to your heart’s content. But the question is raised- should such a ridiculous work-around be necessary for such a common task?
Enter Motion, which acts more like an Adobe product in regards to Masks than the actual Adobe product in question. Motion does a lot of things right with masks, and it would be a joy if After Effects would, cough, borrow some of them.
Firstly, Motion handles the object masks far more intelligently than After Effects. In AE you may have 8 masks on an object, but you really have no idea where they start, where they end, etc., save for the keyframes you may have set, for the simple reason that object masks in AE don’t have timing per se. They extend for the entirety of the layer, and if you want to turn one off you have to manually keyframe the opacity.
Motion’s object masks actually have timing, and you can easily adjust the timing of each mask just like you would the timing of the layer itself. The tradeoff in real-estate from mask bars is, IMO, worth the control that you are given and the immediate visual feedback of an object mask’s timing. Additionally, masks can be made into shapes if you so desire. I’m sure AE can do this too, but I am usually so frustrated with masks but the time I get to the end of a project that I simply don’t care.
Layer masks are also a dream, and anyone familiar with Photoshop will be quite at home. Unlike track mattes, Motion layer masks are layer order agnostic. This becomes incredibly more efficient in that you can either drag any layer into the layer mask well or select it from a list without having to position it directly above the layer. Granted, in many situations you would want to to determine position and timing and such, but the trick is that you have the option.
AE’s Set Channels is likewise layer order agnostic, but still comes with the penalty previously described. Once a layer mask is set in Motion, it is disabled as in AE but you are still given the bounding boxes if it is selected so that you can modify its properties, animation, timing, etc. In my opinion Motion’s masks simply make so much more sense and work far more efficiently than After Effects’ that it is extremely difficult to go from Motion masking to AE masking.
Hopefully After Effects can take a page out of Motion’s book here.
Both After Effects and Motion handles vector shapes in similar ways, with a few differences. Motion doesn’t have Shape Layers like After Effects, and so you essentially have a 1:1 correspondence between shape and layer, whereas in AE you can draw several shapes within one shape layer. This can be advantageous in many situations, but it can also be far more trouble than it is worth in that you have to twirl down into oblivion to reach the shape controls for each individual shape. It gets pretty old, pretty fast.
Perhaps one of the most aggravating aspects of After Effects’ use of shapes is in the initial drawing of them. Let’s imagine you are drawing a circle, and pretty much just wants a perfect circle. Holding Shift is the way to make this perfect circle, but once the shape is drawn there is a problem- it’s anchor point is set to the center of the comp, rather than to the center of the circle. Actually, it’s both. The shape layer’s anchor point is set to the center of the comp, whereas the shape itself has its anchor point set to its center. Of course, you have to click a few times or twirl down to get to this, which makes for a lot of inefficiency if you just want a simple circle.
The problem develops further if you want to animate that shape, especially if you have forgotten that the shape layer’s anchor point is set to the center. Trying to scale the shape will quickly remind you that this is the case, forcing you to either manually set the anchor point of the shape layer or twirl down to get to the layer every time you want to modify it relative to its center anchor point.
Motion, however, dispenses with multiple shapes per shape layer and thus avoids this problem by setting the anchor point in the relative center of the shape from the beginning. Granted, there are certainly reasons that you might wish to have an offset anchor point, but it seems far more reasonable to have that choice be the one in which you have to change the anchor point, since in After Effects you are forced to make that choice either way.
Audio on Export
In Motion a project that is exported will default to exporting any video or audio within the composition. Which, you know, makes sense, since you bothered to time out the animation to a soundtrack. I am convinced that After Effects just doesn’t like audio (as already demonstrated), and on export it inexplicably defaults to NOT exporting any audio in the project. You actually have to go into the settings and manually tell it to export audio.
There have been many times I have simply forgotten, expecting that something so self-evident might be performed by the industry standard application in motion graphics creation. Imagine my surprise to realize that, no, After Effects didn’t export any audio because it hates people and wants to make you suffer. Sometimes it’s an easy fix to go into Premiere and sync up the soundtrack, but sometimes there are intricate timings for multiple sound effects and such that cannot be easily recreated, forcing you to perform, if not another full render, at least some sort of audio render. For me it’s usually not a big deal, but it becomes rather aggravating to be reminded that I have to tell this program to do what it’s supposed to do.
As should be evident, I am big fan of Motion, and even despite my hang-ups with After Effects I am still likewise a big fan. But simply because it is on the top of the pile doesn’t mean it can’t learn from the little guys. Here’s hoping that the next version takes some inspiration from its ugly cousin and becomes something that is truly a joy to use.