|The Reluctant Learner And His Task
I was comfy with AE 3.1. I knew its workings fairly well, although I never had occasion to use such exotica as Motion Tracking. I was still on my 3.1 learning curve when I received AE 4, then 4.1
and I wondered if I would ever completely get my head around After Effects. I still don't get the Offset or Arithmetic Filters, and don't understand the need for Smear. But when After Effects upgraded to version 5.0, I wanted it. Never mind that I was still (and still am) learning AE 4.1.
Well, now I have AE 5.5 Production Bundle, no less. Who could ask for more? I know some help learning it, but that was not to be. I had nothing more than the manual for my learning tool, and it's like being an AE rookie again. The manual is a marvelous reference, but have you ever tried to grasp a subtle concept from its pages? Good luck!
In order to start learning a mission not unlike climbing Mt. Everest, in my mind I gave myself an assignment. A fictional client arrives with a starfield and two animations, both movies of a planet and a moon rotating on their axes. My task: the moon must revolve around the planet, and it must look CONVINCING, as if it were a time lapse from the Hubble Space Telescope.
My first step: make an inventory of the things that would make it look real.
- Since both planet and moon are lit from the same light source, they both have the same sides, or limbs in astronomy talk, in shadow.
- As the moon orbits the planet, it will pass through the planets shadow, and it will also cast its own shadow on the planets surface.
- When the moon passes through the planets shadow, it will be very dark, but it will still block, or occult, the stars behind it.
I created a schematic illustrating what I was to do, as if I were looking down on the scene from the Top Camera in AE:
How could I use AE 5.5 to its best advantage in creating this animation? I had to go from my rather sketchy knowledge:
- This looks like a job for those nifty 3D layers!
- I also reckon I can use those new-fangled Expression gizmos for something
I don't rightly know just what yet.
- Yeah, and I bet those lights and shadows now in AE will come in very handy, too!
Ever try to read a manual so that you understand it
not totally, but enough to get by? THAT took me forever and a day! It's a good thing my client had unlimited time
hey, it's a fictional client. As I poured over the manual again and again, the fog ever-so-gradually lifted. I came to three conclusions:
- 3D layers: that part of the job should be a piece of cake.
- Expressions: they look extremely cool, but I'll be darned if I understand them
better do some experimenting. Can I have some extra time, Mr. Fictional Client? Thanks.
- Lights and shadows: The easy answer to my shadow dilemma was to create a light, turn it on, then fool with Casts Shadows and Accepts Shadows switches. But it wouldn't work. Hey, wait a minute what do you mean, it wouldn't work?
Well, think about the real 3D world versus AEs version of 3D. A planet and moon in the real world are spheres. They have depth. They're round all around. However, in AEs 3D world, they're two-dimensional circles that hurtle through 3D space. It's like moving paper cutouts on an invisible stick. To illustrate my suspicion, I made an illustration.
Let's go back to that Top Camera view of the task at hand. This time, let's say that circles represent our real 3D planet and moon, while AEs 2D planet and moon take the form of their customary lines:
See how our light source creates two different shadows? The depth inherent in a 3D sphere casts a broader shadow than AEs 2D counterpart. The position of the moon reveals this difference in the shadows. Our 2D moon is only half covered by the 2D planets shadow, yet both 2D and 3D moons are still in the shadow of the 3D planet.
There's more: based on our diagram, both our 2D planet and moon would need shadows on their right sides, or limbs. Those shadows would follow a spherical contour
which our 2-D movies don't even have. Lighting them in AEs 3D world won't even get close.
The conclusion is this: AEs 3D is great, and I have seen how it can be used to stunning effect. However, it cannot mimic real 3D in all instances, and this is one of those instances. In this case, depth makes a big difference. AEs lights and shadows simply will not suffice, because your eyes and your brain would smell a rat.
What to do? We will adopt the traditional strategy of clever AE practitioners the world over
Fortunately, AE practitioners the world over are used to Faking It. Even more fortunately, AE 5.5 makes faking it easier than ever before. To create a convincing illusion in this exercise, we will use both the old and the new: Masks, Transfer Modes, Track Mattes, Time Remapping for a little bit of fun, and as it turns out
Expressions! Who says you can't teach an old dog like me new tricks?
Let's begin by looking at the hand we have been dealt. We have two Quicktime movies and a background. Here are some stills:
The starfield background is fine, but look at the planet and moon. Not only do they look suspiciously like Jupiter and the Earth, they're on a black background no alpha channel. They also lack visual character they're not very convincing spheres, are they? Fixing them will be our first job. So let's grab that footage and get going! Download it from the green bar at the beginning of this article, if you haven't already. It's a lot of fun to build this project from scratch. But if you just want to watch, the project file is there too.
Create a new project, putting the Project Settings at 30 Frames Per Second, Drop Frame. Now import our three elements. Drag the planet and moon movies to the Composition Icon at the bottom of the Project Window. Poof! A window appears: New Composition From Selection. We'll select Multiple Compositions and click OK. Bam! Two new comps appear for each of our movies.
When we examine the composition settings, we see that the comps take on the size, duration and frame rate of our source footage. That's pretty darn cool. We'll name them Planet Comp and Moon Comp.
As our project progresses, we'll be glad that our movies are in separate comps.
Now drag the Starfield onto the Composition Icon. Again, it creates a comp with the same dimensions as the source footage. Since it's a still, with no frame rate or duration, AE gets that information from the last movie footage items used, our planet and moon. Again, very cool. We will give this comp a new name: Orbit. In this comp, the moon will orbit the planet
and that's about all. Our shadows will be created in the Planet and Moon comps.
So let's add the Planet and Moon comps to the Orbit comp. A couple of mouse clicks reveals two pieces of information. First, our heavenly bodies are precisely the same size
isn't that handy? Second, our heavenly bodies are indeed on black backgrounds. They need to be circles rather than squares, so we'll create a circular mask for just one of them.
Here's an easy way to do it: Call up the Tools Palette, and using the modifier key (Option Mac, Alt Win) click on the Rectangle/Oval Mask tool until it shows the Oval mask. Double click on the Oval mask, and it makes an oval mask with its edges on the edge of the layer; since we have a 320x320 square, this oval just happens to be a circle. Cool! It might be a bit big, so double click on the circle mask. This calls up the Free Transform Points box. Hold down the shift key while you move the corner to scale the mask uniformly, then click on the mask itself to move it to the center. When the mask is right, we will then copy that circle mask and paste it onto the other layer.
We now have all the comps we will need to pull this off. Start making these heavenly bodies a little more heavenly, beginning with the Planet comp.
|Let's Fake Some Shadows, Kids
Open up the Planet comp and create a new solid that is twice as big as the comp, or 640x640, labeling it as Shadow. Make this solid a medium gray. Now make a circular mask as we did above. Double click on the mask, then use the Free Transform Points box to scale it down until it's a bit larger than the Planet.mov layer, and center it on the layer. Change the mask mode to Subtract so it punches a circular hole in your big, square layer. Give it about an 80 pixel horizontal and vertical feather. Turn on the Multiply Transfer Mode and start moving this layer horizontally to the left.
Look at that! It makes a shadow on the right limb of the planet that doesn't go completely black, as it would if you used a black solid and no Transfer Mode. Why is this good? It gives you a shadow, but it gives the illusion of a little ambient light, which is a nice thing. To adjust the intensity of the shadow, modify the layers horizontal position and level of gray (darker gray makes a darker shadow) until you like it, and check it in the Orbit comp you'll see it against the starfield background, and that helps. Admire your handiwork for a moment. It ought to look something like this:
|Before Applying Shadow After Applying Shadow
Happy with it? Good! Now copy this shadow layer and paste it into the Moon Comp 1. Boom done! Your moon now has a nice shadow on its right limb, too. It's important to get this shadow layer the way you want it, and then copy and paste it to the other comp. Why? These heavenly bodies are supposed to be the same distance and at the same angle to the light from their sun, so their shadows would be the same. The easiest way to do that is to cut and paste.
Now that these heavenly bodies actually look like spheres, it's time to set up our moons orbit around the planet.
Open the Orbit comp. This orbit is about as basic a 3D move as you can get, friends. To begin with, put the moon layer on top if it isn't there already, and let's scale it to 20% -- a fifth the size of the planet. That ought to make a convincing moon, don't you think? Now turn off the visibility of the moon layer. Activate the Cube Icon in the Planet layer; it's now 3D. We won't do much to it we're just going to move it back on its Z-axis. Let's make the Z-value 120. A quick check of the Top Camera reveals its position in Z-Space
looks good. Now make your moon visible again.
Before we animate the moons orbit, let's look at this comp. It's 10 seconds long; our motion path will have five keyframes at 0, 2.5, 5, 7.5 and 10 seconds. The last keyframe will be identical to the first. Just so we're singing off the same page in the hymnal, we'll begin our animation BEHIND the planet
but we'll start with the SECOND keyframe. If you look from the Top Camera, this planet will orbit clockwise. Finally, the center point of this comp is 320, 240, 0. Everybody understand? Good.
Move the Current Time Indicator to 2:15 to make the second keyframe. Remember we're making that one first. Activate the 3D cube for the moon layer, and set the Z-Value for 120, the same as the planet. Now move the layer to the right until it looks good. Just eyeball it. For me, that's a position of 600, 240, 120. Set a position keyframe. Now go to 7:15 and we'll set the fourth keyframe; we'll change the x value by the same amount as we did at 2:15, only in the opposite direction. That makes its position
40, 240, 120. We've established an offset of 280 pixels for our orbit, so at the midpoint at 5:00 the values will be 320, 240, -160. At each end at :00 and 10:00 the position value will then be 230, 240, 400. When you set the keyframe at 10:00, the comp window will be blank. You will be at the extreme end of the comp, beyond the Work Area. By setting the keyframe there, it will allow our animation to loop seamlessly.
We almost have the orbit done. Switch to the Top Camera, highlight all the Position keyframes, then control-click (right click in Windows) on any keyframe to reveal the context-sensitive menu, and highlight Keyframe Interpolation. We'll change Spatial Interpolation to Bezier. Gosh, look at all those handles! Tweak em until your motion path is a circle; when you've got it, you're done.
If you preview the Orbit comp at this point, it looks okay, but something about the moon insults my tender sensibilities. I'd like to see some land rather than water when the moon is closest to the viewer at 5:00. So let's fix it.
Open Moon Comp 1. There's a big chunk of land clearly visible at 9:07 in the moon movie. The movie starts at 0:00 and ends at 9:29. We have all the information we need to fix this.
There are a couple of ways to do this, and we'll take the road less traveled: time remapping. Everybody I know thinks time remapping is sooooo tough, but it's really pretty easy. Once you get used to it, you'll want to use it a lot because it's so handy. Here we go:
Highlight the Moon movie layer, and select Layer>Enable Time Remapping; hit the u key to reveal the Time Remapping keyframes. Go to 5:00 in the comp this is where we want to see the footage at 9:07. So we make a keyframe, and give it a value of 9:07. The keyframe at the beginning of the layer still reads 0:00, so we'll change it
but to what? Easy. Because we set a 9:07 keyframe at 5:00 into the comp, we need to subtract 5 seconds, which is 4:07. Change the value of the beginning keyframe to 4:07. Three more keyframes to go
We need to tell Time Remapping when the movie ends
and when it begins again. We know that at 5:00 in the comp, we set a 9:07 keyframe, and we know that the movie ends at 9:29... a difference of 22 frames. So go to 5:22 in the comp (5:00 + 22 = 5:22), set a keyframe and give it a value of 9:29 (9:07 + 22 = 9:29). Time Remapping now knows where the movie ends. Go one frame to 5:23 and set a Time Remapping value of 0:00. Time Remapping now knows where the movie begins again.
Now comes the tricky part. When you go to the last Time Remapping keyframe, you see that it is past the end of the footage; the Comp window is blank. AE does this to allow looping. So we simply copy the beginning keyframes value into this final keyframe. If you preview this comp, it will never get to this last keyframe because it is one frame beyond the end of the comp. Thus, the footage plays to 4:06 in the movie
then loops seamlessly to 4:07, at the first frame of the comp.
Now let's preview the Orbit comp again. That's better, we see some land now. But it still lacks something, and that something is more shadows! Remember? We said the moon should pass into the planets shadow, and it should also cast its own shadow on the planet. So let's get busy.
How do we mimic the moon passing through the planets shadow? Well, we DONT do it in the Orbit comp. Instead, we use the Moon comp. We pass a solid in front of the moon movie, coordinating its passage with the moons orbit in the Orbit comp. We have already used solids and transfer modes to mimic shadows and we'll do it again. The new twist is that this shadow will be animated with an expression.
First, let's think about that planets shadow: it will be lots bigger than the moon, and it's going to be fuzzy on the edges, right? So we will make a big solid in our Moon comp, and give it a circular mask with a feather.
How big a solid? Oh, let's not skimp
say, 960x960, and name it Planet Shadow. We'll use the same Circle Mask trick again: select the oval mask tool, double-click on it to make a circle mask, then double-click on the mask itself, scale it down and reposition it in the center of the solid. I gave my planet shadow a 200 pixel feather to begin with.
This shadow needs to pass across the moon. If we're going to use an expression to animate this shadow, it would be prudent to note the beginning and ending position points of this passage. Move the shadow to the right, off the moon, and write down the x-y coordinates. Move the shadow similarly to the left and write down the x-y coordinates. Don't worry if it's not precise
we easily can fix it later.
Now let's move back to the Orbit comp, and look at the moons movement. When do you think the moon ought to start passing into the planets shadow? Write that time down! When do you think the moon will have completely emerged from the planets shadow? Write that time down!
|But First, A Note On Time In Expressions
If you ever deal with time in an expression, know this: an expression does not understand frames per second. It only knows how to tell time in seconds and decimal fractions of seconds. Thus, :03:06 (PAL) is 3.25 seconds, :03:06 (NTSC) is 3.2 seconds and 00:02:28:00 is 148 seconds. Simple, huh?
|The Basics Of An Expression
Have you ever known that you could accomplish a certain effect in AE, but you didn't know how? Hands, please? Wow! Everyone except those three wise guys in the corner who write code for a living. Working in AE with the manual in your lap is a lot more common than you think, and this tutorial is for you folks.
Here's a simple definition of an expression: a statement that generates a value for a given parameter. As I kept (and still keep) reading about expressions, that's some understatement! If you saw the movie, Animal House, you may recall the motto on the statue of Eberhard Faber, the colleges founder: Knowledge Is Good. Theres another understatement.
Thus began the most painful part of my odyssey. I didn't have a clue how to use expressions. I simply pored over the manual until I had a undeveloped notion of how an expression worked. I estimate I read the chapter on expressions at least a dozen times before it began to sink in, then I collected what I knew. It was only then that the beauty of expressions started to reveal itself.
Let's review what I knew about how I wanted to animate this shadow:
- I knew the time when I wanted my shadow to start moving. (I wrote it down)
- I knew the time when I wanted my shadow to stop moving. (I wrote it down)
- I knew the position of my shadow when it starts moving. (I wrote it down)
- I knew the position of my shadow when it stops moving. (I wrote it down)
After many, many minutes of searching, I found just the answer: we will animate the shadows position using an Interpolation Method called Linear.
|Let's Write An Expression
Open up the moon comp and solo the Planet Shadow layers position property by hitting the p key.
Option-click (Alt-click in Windows) on the stopwatch. Hello, you've just entered Expressionland! You'll see the word position highlighted just below the layer. This highlighted area is called the Expression Field. Leave it highlighted.
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Click on the triangle button next to the highlighted word position. This brings up a menu of handy expression stuff, called the Language Elements Menu. Navigate to Interpolation, and click on the phrase, linear(t, t_min, t_max, val1, val2).
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Look! It replaces the word Position. If you click outside of the highlighting, you see that it returns an error message. Dont worry; well fix it in a moment. Because we got an error message, this rudimentary expression won't do a thing yet, but it still means something. Here's a rough translation into English:
Animate this layers position. Use linear interpolation. Refer to time in a manner yet to be specified. Begin animating at a specified time, and stop animating at a specified time. Begin animating with a specified value, and stop animating with a specified value. That's not so bad, is it? So why doesn't it work? We haven't specified our times and values yet.
Before we plug in all that specified stuff, move your cursor around this rudimentary expression until you see a double-headed arrow. This little gizmo will adjust the size of the Expression Field. Pull it down and make the window bigger. The Expression Field works just like a text editor. In it, you can replace text, cut, copy and paste text
you know the drill.
Now let's plug values in! For the moment, we'll use MY initial values, but you can put yours in later. Put your cursor BEFORE that rudimentary expression begins and type (or copy and paste) the following:
You have just assigned values to all your variables in the expression. Now, the contents of your Expression Field should look like this:
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See how each statement we've entered relates to the rudimentary expression? See how each line ends in a semicolon? Since we are moving our shadow in 2D space, we need x-y coordinates; they are in the square brackets. Those brackets indicate that a value is an array. An array is a value that needs two or more numbers to be complete, such as x-y coordinates. In the statement t=time; time refers to the time in the composition where the expression is located.
We have just entered all the times and values we need, and if you preview this comp, the shadow will move. Perhaps it won't move the way you want, but now you can change things. Plug in YOUR beginning time for t_min, YOUR ending time for t_max, YOUR starting position for val1, and YOUR ending position for val2.
Congratulations! You've just written an expression! And by golly, it works!
|Couldn't We Use Keyframes?
Are you asking yourself, Why did we just jump through all these hoops when we could have used keyframes to do this? Here's why: An expression is devilishly easy to tweak. You want to make your shadow start a little earlier? Just change the starting time! Click, type, done! Your shadow doesn't move far enough? Change one parameter! Best of all, you don't have to fool with moving the time indicator or messing with keyframes to do it, and everything you need to tweak is in one place! Making changes is as easy as pie. That's why you do it.
Open the Orbit comp and preview it. Now that the moon passes into the planets shadow, it looks a lot more convincing. But do you know what will really sell the illusion? That's right, the moon needs to cast its shadow on the planet.
Let's look another illustration:
If you look from the position of the light source, the shadows cast on the planet are precisely the same width regardless of the position of the moon. However, from the observers point of view, the moons shadow in Position 1 is much longer than the shadow in Position 2. And the position of the moon is something that will change over time. We'll use the same trick we used before: we'll pass a solid in front of the planet movie, coordinating its passage with the moons orbit in the Orbit comp. But when you think about it, this means three things:
- The moons shadow will start long and thin, and end short and squat.
- The shadow will appear to move slowly at first, and gain speed as it moves toward the planets left limb.
- We have to find some way to block the moons shadow on the right side of the planet, or our illusion doesnt work. Look at the diagram above again and you'll see that the moons shadow can't possibly fall on the right side of the planet because of the way the light falls.
Well, guess what, kids? I have three answers! Here they are, in order of the problems:
- We will scale the moons shadow so that it's long and thin at the start, and short and squat at the end. We'll use an expression to do it.
- We will make the moons shadow move slowly at first, and it will gain speed at the end. We'll use an expression to do it.
- A track matte is a dandy way to block unwanted portions of images!
Open the Planet Comp. We'll start by making a solid named Moon Shadow, and we'll make it the same size as the comp. Again, it will be gray. Again, you will open the Layer Window by double-clicking on the layer. Again, you will make a circle mask by double-clicking Oval Mask icon, then double-clicking on the mask to scale it to your preference. As you scale the mask you'll want it to be the size you think a moons shadow ought to be. Then give the mask a feather of, say, 30 pixels for starters and apply the Multiply transfer mode.
You now have a dark spot in the middle of your planet. Open the Orbit comp, move in the timeline to where you think the moon would cast a shadow, and compare your shadow to what you think the real thing should be. Adjust as necessary. To adjust the darkness of the shadow, adjust the gray level of the solid. Satisfied? Great! We can continue.
People who work in AE in my area don't use Track Mattes much. Well, it's an old technique, and well worth knowing, so let's go! We'll make our Track Matte out of a solid, big enough to block half our planet plus accommodate a feather on the mask. So let's make this solid, say, 960x480
plenty big. We'll call it Moon Shadow Track Matte, and it can be any color you wish.
We'll make a circle mask, but we can't double-click on the Oval Mask icon because the layer isn't square if we do, we'll get an oval. We'll make it the regular way by constraining the Oval Mask to a circle with the Shift key. Make it about as big as the planet, give it about a 80-pixel feather, and position it in the center of the layer.
Switch from the Layer Window to the Comp Window. You can now check the size of your mask and the amount of feather. If the feathered mask just barely hides the planet, fine. If it's too big or too small, remember: this is AE 5.5: you can double click on the layer mask right in the comp window, then scale and reposition as necessary. Satisfied? Good.
Reposition the mask not the layer to the LEFT. This will give you a lot of layer on the right to block things. Now reposition the layer (not the mask) a bit to the RIGHT, so that it reveals a small portion of the right side the planet; we may have to tweak that position later. Move down one layer to the Moon Shadow layer, and click the Switches/Modes legend at the bottom so the little Shy Guy icons disappear. You've revealed the Modes Panel.
Want to see something cool? Go to the TOP of the panel and Control-click on it (right click in Windows), revealing a new window. Navigate to Panels>Switches and click. Poof! Now both the switches AND the Modes panels are open. Very neat, and new in AE 5.
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Now back to the Modes Panel. In the Moon Shadow Layer, click on the Track Matte box and select Alpha Matte Planet Shadow Track Matte.
Whoa! That track matte solid we made just disappeared! Well, not really. The transparency information we created in the track matte layer by making a mask is now being used to block the layer below it and ONLY the layer below it. And because that mask is feathered, the blocking is a gradual thing. That's right: we're using transparency to block pictures. It can work the other way around, too opaque portions of a track matte can block things, too, but you won't see them, either. Confused? Just work with it you'll get it.
First thing, we need to play with the Moon Shadows scale to make it long and skinny. I'm going to start with 300% horizontal scale, and leave the vertical scale alone. Write down your scales. Now, position your shadow off to the right until the shadow disappears. Because you're dealing with feathering, it can be tough to tell when the shadow is gone. Write down the position.
To simulate the moons passage across the planet from our observers point of view, we need to make our shadow short and squat. I'm going to start with 25% horizontal scale and leave the vertical scale alone. Write down your scales. Now, position your shadow off to the left until it clears the planet. Write down the position.
We're going to animate both the scale and the position using expressions, basically the same expression for each. But instead of Linear interpolation, we're going to Ease Out of the starting position. That way, our animation will start out slowly and pick up speed as it goes along.
We'll start with position, the first property we encounter. Option-Click (Alt-Click in Windows) on the Position stopwatch. Click on the triangle, Navigate to Interpolation, and choose the bottommost expression, ease_out(t, t_min, t_max, val1, val2. Look familiar? It should, its virtually the same thing as the Linear expression we used earlier. Again, we'll use the double-headed arrow to make the Expression Field larger, and we'll assign some values to our variables. What about those time variables? Look at your orbit comp, and guess at when that shadow ought to hit. Here's the whole thing as I initially put it in:
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Now on to the scale expression. Activate expressions in the scale property (Option-Click / Alt-Click). Click on the triangle, Navigate to Interpolation, and choose ease_out(t, t_min, t_max, val1, val2 again. Use your double-headed arrow to make the expressions window bigger, and plug in your variables. Here's what I came up with:
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To save a few keystrokes, I just coped the first 3 lines from my Position expression. I'll tweak those time variables later if I need to. Since I wrote down my beginning and ending scales, val_1 and val_2 were a piece of cake to plug in.
Okay campers, it's the moment of truth! Go to the Orbit comp and preview that animation! Son of a gun, it doesn't look too bad, yknow? Oh, sure, there are some things you may want to tweak, but all in all, not bad. I'm off to do my own tweaking to get things the way I want.
Important Keyboard Shortcut: To reveal all the properties containing expressions in any layer, hit ee. That's the e key twice in quick succession. You can also use the u key if you wish, but you will also reveal any keyframed properties, too.
I found myself tweaking pretty much everything: gray scales on shadows, the position of the moon shadow track matte, the expression variables, you name it. But the thing was, it was really easy to do
thanks to expressions. Believe me, I didn't ever think I'd say THAT!
NEVER AGAIN will I attempt to do a major bit of learning out of the AE manual. That's what I did on this project, and it was painful to the last. I will sing the praises of the AE manual as a reference work, but not as a learning tool. However, I must admit I learned some pretty cool and very useful techniques.
Now here's the worst part: just as I was concluding the work on this tutorial, my company invested in Total Trainings tapes and DVDs for AE 4.1 and AE 5.0. I guess they got tired of hearing me whine about my After Effects ignorance. But for this tutorial, I had already vowed to learn AE 5.5 basics using just Adobes manuals. Do you know how much of a temptation it was NOT to look at them?
Well, at least now I can see how my first foray into AE 5.5 stacks up against the guys who really know their stuff. Now that the tutorial is over, I can start learning more.
Want to discuss this technique? Go to Creative COW's After Effects forum.