LIBRARY: Tutorials Reviews Interviews Editorials Features Business Authors RSS Feed

Secrets of High-impact Graphics

From The Creative COW Magazine

Creative COW Magazine presents - Secrets of High-impact Graphics

Sean CussonSean Cusson
Ottawa Ontario, Canada

©2007 Sean Cusson and All rights reserved.

Article Focus:

In this reprint from Creative COW Magazine, Creative COW Contributing Editor and graphics expert Sean Cusson shares the secrets to success that he's learned the hard way. They include the power of music for graphic design, compositing techniques logo animation, and invaluable workflow tips that will save you hours. Sean also shows you how to keep your graphics clients coming back for more -- not only because they enjoy your work, but because they enjoy working with you. Interested? Read on!

I've been doing this kind of work for 10 years now, whether on my own or by working in other companies. I knew absolutely nothing when I started, except that I knew nothing - which was a good place to start.

For the first few years, I let my ego get in the way all too often. I was more worried about people finding out what I didn't know, than I was about trying to make my work better by learning new skills.

Here are some things I wish I knew then, and some things that I'm still learning today.


I like to start building every project with audio, whether it's the music for a 30-second intro or a 5-second logo sting. I don't know how many times I've created a piece I thought was great, only to be utterly astonished at how far off the mark I was when I heard the soundtrack.

After this happened enough times, I make it a point to have the music in hand, or at least a sample of the style of the music, before starting the job.

If the client has the music already, it helps me stay on the right track, matching the pace and style of what they have in mind for the animation from the very first frame.

Obviously a storyboard helps, but sometimes the deadline is the next day. The job has to be finished before a storyboard can be composed. In those cases I really need to get to work right away. If I can have the client agree that "Track 04 from CD 263" is the "feel" that we're going for, then many other choices are already figured out for me.

If the client doesn't have a clear idea for what they want me to do, I find that they buy into my suggestions more willingly if I can play a piece of music for them while describing the visuals I intend to deliver.

That's why it's always a good idea to build a small sound library or find a couple of good online stock music suppliers.

Sometimes the client is already working with a composer. By the time they get to me, the music is already well under way. In that case, I call the composer and ask if they have anything at all to give me an idea of the feel of their piece. Even a 10 second sample is helpful.

It can be just as frustrating for a composer to write music for something they haven't seen yet, so I make sure to at least provide some stills for them.

Aside from the obvious benefits this can have to your workflow, it shows the client that you actually care about the final piece, and are looking at a bigger picture than your individual task, or how the piece will look on your reel.


The logo is often the best place to begin if the client hands you a pile of photos and a deadline two days away. If it's something obvious like a tree or light bulb, then you've already got some interesting possibilities.

But don't be afraid to ask the client what it means if the logo seems more obscure to you. Maybe the swirl running through the letters in the logo represents the flow of ideas, or that the small circles in behind the text actually represent the number of founders that started the company.

Whatever impact this knowledge has on the final result, it will affect how your clients feel about your work.

Graphic 1


I do a lot of government and corporate work. I would love to say that I work exclusively in broadcast and film, but that's just not the case. Because of this, I've learned some valuable lessons about what it means to "finish" a job.

You can work for weeks interacting with your client contact, get great approvals, constructive suggestions and an overall sense that everything is going great. You'll be sending out that final render in no time!

Until you find out just before delivery that they now need to show it to their boss - a boss just entering the picture who'll have the final say.

You can bet that The Boss is going to come back with a "small tweak," oblivious to the fact that it's a major change, and that you have a deadline that can't slip.

The first thing to realize on any job is that anything can change. Preparing your AE project with this in mind can be a little slow at first, but will pay off in the end,

Start using pre-comps whenever you can. They make it very easy to update the element that's "the wrong one/ the old one/where did you get that one??"

For example, if you have a logo to animate, precomp first. If you need to replace the logo, you can swap it out in your pre-comp without worrying about the new Anchor point being offset and messing up all of your keyframes.

I understand that sometimes it's more complicated than that. Maybe you have to break the logo into separate elements to reveal individually. The pre-comp method still works. Duplicate the pre-comp containing the artwork in your timeline (not the project window) as many times as there are elements you need.

Then just draw a mask around the individual parts and make sure to move each pre-comp's anchor point to its new center.

If the artwork only needs swapping out, just update the master pre-comp and all the elements which you've animated will also get updated, in every place you've used them -- as long as they're in pre-comps.

Graphic 2


This doesn't always apply, but most of the government projects I work on are assumed to be bilingual, even if nobody thought to mention it to me.

Now I always ask about languages upfront. It's surprising how many clients are caught off guard by the question. Especially when they realize that they actually DO need a second language version!

The client will of course provide the text. But depending on how the title changes across languages, your animation could look quite different when the new text is pasted in. But if you ask first, you'll save yourself some aggravation later.

You'll also show the client once again that you're looking at the bigger picture.

Graphic 3


Use expressions to link similar item properties together that could change.

For example, if you know that you're going to have a lot of floating text that will also be glowing, create a null layer that has a few expression sliders applied to it.

Add a glow to your first text item and start pickwhipping the glow properties to the sliders in the null. After that, changing a value on the null's effect slider will update the glow.

Once that's done, copy-paste the glow effect from the first text layer to the next one, and so on. Now you can change the glow value of all your text layers in one shot.

Graphic 4


One way that I respond quickly to changes is pre-rendering my comp to an image sequence, which I then bring back into my comp as the top layer.

That way, if there's a change at some point in my timeline, I can turn off the image sequence layer, and set my in and out points to the area that's changed. Then I set the comp to render, keeping the exact settings I used for the image sequence.

Once the render is finished, I just turn the image sequence layer back on and it's updated. When I do the final render, I'm just processing the image sequence, which is much faster than rendering out all the layers.

Even if I don't expect any changes, I still render out an image sequence first, and create my final movie from that. I mostly deliver NTSC, 2 fields, lower field first. Rendering out an image sequence is usually much faster because I'm only processing 1 image per frame instead of 2.

Also, if it's an hours-long render and my system crashes, I don't lose everything. I still have my original image sequence, and only need to re-render the changes.


If I have a job with a really tight deadline, I almost always look at past jobs to see what I can re-purpose.

Some people feel that this is "ripping off" the client, or that you aren't pushing yourself as a designer.

My answer to the first is that your new client may actually be getting a better deal. What you're re-using may very well be from a job that had a much larger budget, and will therefore be of a higher caliber than what the new client could otherwise have afforded. They'll thank you for the results

For the second, that's really up to you. I prefer getting the job done on schedule, and expanding my skills when I have the time to really focus on something new - which I can then apply to future jobs.


Get feedback early on! I can't count the times I've gotten caught up in what I was doing and completely left the client out of it until the work was all done. Or at least I THOUGHT it was done, only to find a new set of changes that I could have avoided, if I'd only sent them the work in progress.

Now, sometimes that works against you as well. Some clients have a hard time seeing the finished product in their minds. They need to see the whole piece, or they'll panic thinking that you've forgotten a very large/ important/obvious part of the conversation you had just a few days ago about "what should be happening here."

If I show them a work in progress, I always include placeholder text that says something like "red logo floats in here" or "title text will go here." That way they know I haven't forgotten anything, and they can still get a sense of how the timing will work.

For many government or corporate clients, this is the fun part of their jobs. In my experience, they love being involved, and get a thrill seeing how the stuff is made.

Also, they usually love coming to the shop. It makes them feel much more comfortable with you as the "veil has been lifted." What you do has become much more tangible.

It's also surprising how much stronger they'll dig in their heels and fight for your ideas once they have a more personal stake. They push harder on the boss to protect what now feels like THEIR work as well as yours, simply for having sat in a chair next to you and watched you work.

Don't get me wrong. Having the client sit and watch can also be your worst nightmare. Be careful who you invite over.

Another quick tip: if you want fast approval, invite the client over to your place to review the final piece on a sunny Friday afternoon.

Here are a few things I like to do if I'm going for immediate impact on how the graphics look.


A subtle gradient applied to a background layer tends to give the piece a bit of depth or at least a more "polished" look.

Subtle gradients also work great to add a bit more punch to text. It's one of those things that doesn't seem like a big deal until you add it and then turn it off. The text seems to look flatter without it.


I usually turn my layers into 3D layers, even if the project doesn't have any obviously 3D aspects. I like playing with the Z depth of background items. I also find that adding a bit of a 3D movement/rotation to your layers can mean the difference between the client saying "Yup, that's pretty good" to "Wow, that's cool!"


Sometimes it can be hard to build a full 20 second piece. Going from point A to point B can be trickier than you thought due to the fact that point B suddenly looks nothing like point A. You then get stuck trying to "bridge" the 2 sections of the piece.

Instead, try using a transition like a fast cut or a "glow wipe" between smaller pieces. It's often a lot easier to go back and rebuild the whole thing.

This can really help free you up creatively. Now you can focus more on making something that looks nice, and less on reconciling every piece as you go.


Motion blur, motion blur, motion blur. When I started out, I completely ignored this little switch.

And to be honest, I had no idea what prevented my pieces from looking like the pieces I was seeing on TV until the day I tried turning on Motion Blur.

That was an eye opener. Not only did it greatly improve the look of my layers moving across the screen, it also reminded me that there's a lot inside After Effects that can make a big difference to my work if I only look around and try things out.


These are just some things I've learned over the years. I wish I knew them when I was starting out…but I probably wouldn't have listened if you'd told them to me then anyway.

If anything, learning these tips the hard way has taught me that there's always more to every job than what's on my monitor. There's always something I can learn to make my animations better. And there's always something I can learn to make my client's experience working with me better too.

Sean CussonSean Cusson
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Sean Cusson has been in the motion graphics industry for over 10 years and as the owner and creative director of Q Media Inc. Sean has played the role of graphic designer, animator, 3D modeler and client wrangler. He is active accross a wide range of Creative COW forums, especially Adobe After Effects.

Download the PDF...

Find more great Creative COW Magazine articles by signing up for the complimentary Creative COW Magazine.

Re: Secrets of High-impact Graphics
by Sean Cusson
I just got the notification regarding your post. To be honest I haven't thought of this article in quite a while. I'm glad it helped.

Sean Cusson
Q media design
Re: Secrets of High-impact Graphics
by Teresa Arcusin
Love it! I didn't know how to use the "slider control" effect, now I understand it's use to modify an effect that has been applied to many layers... TIME SAVER! :D
Good insight
by Paul Dymon
Nice summary of the workflow. I can never get enough insight from great thinkers like you! Steal from the best. Thank you.
by Matthew Brushinski
Great article! Wish I would have known quite a few of those when I was first started using AE.
Great tips!
by Michael Chen
useful tip and i totally agree.

Related Articles / Tutorials:
Adobe After Effects Techniques
After Effects: Animated Guitar Strings with Plexus

After Effects: Animated Guitar Strings with Plexus
  Play Video
Using Rowbyte Plexus (the 3D particle system plugin for Adobe After Effects) and Trapcode SoundKeys in After Effects, Gardy Raymond demonstrates how to create animated guitar strings that distort in time with the music.

Tutorial, Video Tutorial
Gardner Raymond
Adobe After Effects Techniques
IK Character Animation: Walk to the Beat 2: The Walk Cycle

IK Character Animation: Walk to the Beat 2: The Walk Cycle
  Play Video
In this second tutorial on animating an IK character Andrew Devis shows us how to create and refine a walk cycle with our IK controlled character such that it walks in time with the music we had set up in the previous tutorial.

Tutorial, Video Tutorial
Andrew Devis
Adobe After Effects Techniques
Character Design and Animation in AE: Part Two

Character Design and Animation in AE: Part Two
  Play Video
In part 2, Rob Mize presents the After Effects work flow he uses to bring to life the character created in part 1. By keyframing shape paths, Rob demonstrates how we can not only animate the character's features, but her speech as well.

Tutorial, Video Tutorial
Rob Mize
Adobe After Effects Techniques
The Beauty of AE Shapes: Top 10 Features Countdown

The Beauty of AE Shapes: Top 10 Features Countdown
  Play Video
Rob Mize offers his Top 10 Countdown of the features that make AE shapes such a versatile compositing tool. Rob highlights the functionality of these features and demonstrates just how practical shapes can be in your production efforts.

Tutorial, Video Tutorial
Rob Mize
Motion Graphics
Neat Video: Removing Noise and Grain from your Footage

Neat Video: Removing Noise and Grain from your Footage
  Play Video
In this video tutorial you will learn how to use the Neat Video plug-in for multiple applications. Although demonstrated in After Effects, the work-flow is essentially the same for all these applications: After Effects, Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro, Motion, Nuke, Fusion, Vegas Pro, etc. This powerful but simple to use plug-in can clean up noisy footage by applying a sophisticated and advanced algorithm to work out what's noise and what's details in your footage and then remove just the noise. This is done by profiling the noise properties in an area of a video frame without visible features. Once the noise has been profiled, Neat Video is guided by this profile to reduce and eliminate noise while not touching the video details. Although mostly automatic, Neat Video still leaves you with total control over the amount of filtering you apply and even offers optional sharpening (without sharpening the noise) should you wish it.

Tutorial, Video Tutorial
Andrew Devis
Motion Graphics
The Modern Guide to Nonlinear Editing and Living

The Modern Guide to Nonlinear Editing and Living

In this article from the Creative COW Magazine, Tim Wilson discusses nonlinear editing and our ability to create meaning from our experiences that changes everything.

Tim Wilson
Motion Graphics
A Non-Linear Career

A Non-Linear Career

An FX veteran's unexpected, non-linear career path, from puppetry to painting, to ILM and beyond, offers insights into the art and business of film creativity - and a killer reel.

Feature, People / Interview
Tony Hudson
Adobe After Effects Techniques
Creating Interactive Games - Cine Bingo

Creating Interactive Games - Cine Bingo

The team at Psychic Bunny worked on whatever interested them - perfect preparation for a job that even the client couldn't describe. In this Creative COW Magazine article Rick Castañeda gives you a behind the scenes tour of how they made cine bingo and teaches a few tips on interactive game making.

Editorial, Feature
Rick CastaƱeda
Adobe After Effects Techniques
Media Management Nightmares? Game On!

Media Management Nightmares? Game On!

Here's how one team turns 14 hours of raw footage on the latest games into a 30-minute TV show every week, 40 times a season. In this Creative COW Magazine article Dustin Lau discusses some tricks for high end digital media management.

Dustin Lau
Adobe After Effects Techniques
Improvising Visual Effects

Improvising Visual Effects

On-set circumstances changing fast? Improvise! In this Creative COW Magazine article Mark Allen discusses how he overcame the complications in a recent short film production by improvising the visual effects.

Feature, People / Interview
Mark Allen
© 2019 All Rights Reserved