Are you missing these 10 shortcuts on After Effects?

If you’re a beginner, do yourself a favour and starting using these ASAP.

If you have ever tried to learn motion design, motion graphics (earlier called MoGraph) or animation, it’s likely you have come across the name Adobe After Effects. It’s one of the 20+ softwares on the Adobe Creative Suite, and is primarily used for motion design and animations.

If you have nothing to do with After Effects, you can stop reading right now. Also, this post is for beginners. So if you are already well-versed with After Effects, you can ignore this post.

Tools like After Effects have a lot of functionalities and features catering to a huge variety of use-cases. And the interface can get cluttered and intimidating pretty fast.

Screenshot of my After Effects interface during a simple project, showing multiple elements, layers, effects and keyframes. Imagine the number of elements in a more complex project.
Screenshot of my After Effects interface during a simple project, showing multiple elements, layers, effects and keyframes. Imagine the number of elements in a more complex project.

Fortunately for designers, most features are easily accessible through keyboard shortcuts.

Of course, you cannot have all the shortcuts registered in your memory, especially when you’re just getting started. How frequently you use a particular feature will depend a lot on what problems you’re trying to solve. But there are some features that are so frequently used that not having their shortcuts at the tip of your fingers can slow down your work like crazy!

As with most tools, the more shortcuts you know, the faster and more efficient you will be. In this post, I will talk about the 10 keyboard shortcuts that I frequently use as a beginner in After Effects.

NOTE: I use an external Windows-style keyboard with a Mac and use the Ctrl key on the keyboard to serve the same as Cmd key on a Mac. So if you use a Mac, you can replace the Ctrl in all the below shortcuts with Cmd.

Okay, let’s begin.

#1. F9 : Easy Ease

There is hardly any animation work that wouldn’t use some sort of easing effect. Easy Ease reduces the jerky starts and ends to your motion, easing them out so that the movement feels more natural, just like it happens in the real world.

To quickly apply easy ease, just select all the relevant keyframes and press F9. You can also select Shift + F9 (for Ease In) and Ctrl + F9 (for Ease Out).

#2: U : View all keyframes for selected layers

It’s surprising how soon your Timeline panel fills up once you start adding elements in your composition. Each layer might have multiple keyframes on different properties, such as scale, rotation or opacity. At times, you won’t be able to see all the layers in the panel due to the limited screen size.

It’s a good idea to get a condensed view of all layers, so that you only see the relevant keyframes where animations are applied and ignore all unnecessary information. How do you do this?

Simply select the layer, and hit U. If you want to condense all, hit Ctrl + A to select all the layers and then hit U. Pressing U again collapses the layers.

The left image shows the expanded view of layers. The right one shows a condensed view, with only those properties visible where animations have been applied.
The left image shows the expanded view of layers. The right one shows a condensed view, with only those properties visible where animations have been applied.

#3: B / N : Limit the Beginning / End of workspace to a specific time instant

Generally, you would specify the composition duration when you’re beginning your project. More often than not, this will be a standard number, depending on the duration of animations you work on. For me, this is usually 10 seconds.

But let’s say I have animated only till 3 seconds, and want to preview my animation. If I don’t constrain the working area, the preview will continue to play till 10 seconds, even though everything I have done till this point is within the first 3 seconds on the timeline. This unnecessarily wastes 7 seconds.

To avoid this, I just need to place the Timeline Indicator at the 3-second mark and hit N. This will limit the preview to 3 seconds only, and I can progressively change the working area as I add more elements.

Similarly, to set the beginning of the working area, use B.

#4: Space : Quick Hand Tool

Often we work with large-sized compositions, which cannot be fully accommodated on the composition panel. This is particularly so if one is using a small screen like that on a laptop.

Simply press and hold the Space key and then you can drag around your composition in the composition panel. This will help you see any part of the composition that you want to see.

Note that this shortcut needs you to work with the mouse while you’re holding down the Space key. Simply pressing Space while previewing your animation has the effect of pausing and playing the preview — which is another very handy and probably the most common shortcut.

#5: Page Up / Down : Move Left / Right one frame at a time

This is extremely useful when setting keyframes at very specific time instants, or when we need to preview a specific time in the composition. It requires very small, precise movements on the timeline. Doing this with a mouse will take ages and will give you limited precision!

To make it quicker, simply use Page Up for moving by one frame to the left, and similarly Page Down to move to the right. To jump by 10 frames back or forward, hold down the Shift key while pressing Page Up or Page Down. If you are using a Mac, you need to use Cmd + Left / Right Arrow. If

#6: J / K : Go to the Previous / Next Keyframe in a Layer

Once you create keyframes within a layer, you might want to come back and tweak the properties later for specific keyframes. Let’s say you have 5 keyframes, and you want to change the properties for the last two. It is difficult to move to keyframes using the mouse, as you need to place the Timeline Indicator right over the instant where the keyframe stands.

To save yourself the hassle, use the shortcuts J and K. With the layer selected, simply press K to move to the next keyframe in that layer, and J to move to the previous keyframe.

#7: Ctrl + Y : Create a new Solid Layer

Any time you start a new composition in After Effects, you might want to put a solid layer as the background. This is probably the most common layer that we use in the initial stages of an animation. When you hit Ctrl + Y, it shows you a dialog box — often designers keep everything except colour, dimension and name unchanged.

#8: Ctrl + D : Duplicate a Layer

We duplicate shapes and elements more often than we realize. Simply select the layer you want to duplicate and press Ctrl + D. It’s a good practice to rename the duplicate layer (by default it would be named as ‘layer_name Copy’).

#9: Ctrl + Shift + C : Create a new Pre-Composition

Pre-compositions (or pre-comps, as they are widely called) are used to package a group of related layers together in After Effects, as an intermediate composition within the main composition. Think of them as mini compositions.

Once a pre-comp is created, you can apply animations, effects, or masks to it, effectively applying the same to all the layers within that pre-comp. When you’re moving beyond the most basic animations, you would definitely need to use pre-comps in your project.

To pre-compose a group of layers, simply select the layers and hit Ctrl + Shift + C, which would open the pre-comp dialog box. Again, it’s a good practice to name your pre-comp the moment you create it.

#10: Alt + [ or Alt + ] : Trim the Start/End of a Layer at a specific time instant

In any project, not all layers will be as long as the composition itself. In fact, most would be much shorter. Layers will start and end at different time instants, depending on when they need to appear in the animation.

Let’s say the composition is 10-second long, and I have a 2-second element that needs to start at 3 seconds and end at 5 seconds. How do I do this? All I need to do is select the specific layer, move the timeline indicator to 3 seconds, and hit Alt + [ . This trims the layer so that it starts at 3 seconds. Next, I can move to 5 seconds and hit Alt + ] to end the layer.

Another related shortcut is using [ or ] (same as above but without the Alt). This starts/ends a layer at a specific time instant. Note that this doesn’t trim the layer, it merely repositions or shifts the layer along the timeline so that it begins or ends at the desired time instant. Reconsider the above example. If I want the 2-second element to start at 7 seconds (instead of 3) and end at 9 seconds (instead of 5), I can simply move the timeline indicator to 7 seconds, and press [ .

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