Understand the core concepts of animation and apply them to your projects.

An animated illustration of a figure jumping, with a sunset and mountain backdrop

The essence of animation

We see animation all the time, but what is it really? At its core, animation is created when an object changes over time. With traditional frame-by-frame animation, that’s a drawing whose subject moves a little with each frame. When all the frames are played back, it creates the illusion of motion. In After Effects, you create animation by changing a layer’s settings over time. We’ll discuss the different properties you can animate within a layer later in the article. For now, it’s important just to think in terms of layers. 

Thinking in layers

Photoshop and Illustrator integrate seamlessly with After Effects. Start by making sure any graphic you want to animate lives on its own layer. 

An animated illustration of a figure jumping with an After Effects dialog overlaid, showing the Import As field with the Composition - Retain Layer Sizes option checked

Visual layers inside After Effects contain 5 properties that you can use to create keyframe animation: Anchor Point, Position, Scale, Rotation, and Opacity

Anchor Point

The Anchor Point serves multiple purposes in a composition. First, it is the anchor around which the layer will rotate. Secondly, the Anchor Point determines the exact position of a layer within the composition, down to the pixel. 


The position of a 2D layer is represented by two numbers (x,y), and the position of a 3D layer is represented as a set of 3 numbers (x,y,z). A position of (0,0) and (0,0,0) is the upper-left corner of the Composition panel. X represents the horizontal axis, y represents the vertical axis, and z represents depth in 3D layers, the axis perpendicular to both x and y.


Animating the Scale property of a 2D layer can create the illusion of zooming in and out on the layer. This is a great alternative to using a 3D layer for the same effect when you want to keep the animation simple.


It’s important to remember that Rotation is directly tied to the anchor point of a layer. When the Rotation setting is animated, the layer will rotate around the anchor point. 


Animating Opacity can make a layer look like it’s fading into or out of a scene. 

Animation is controlled in the timeline primarily by adding and adjusting keyframes. Here are some important things to know about keyframe animation in the timeline.

  • Add keyframes by selecting the stopwatch next to any property.
  • When you add a keyframe, it’s recorded at the location of the Current Time Indicator in the timeline.
  • In general, the closer keyframes are in the timeline, the faster the animation will appear to be. Keyframes that are farther apart will appear to animate more slowly. 
An animated illustration of a figure jumping, with the After Effects Timeline panel showing animation keyframes

Recording and adjusting keyframes in the timeline is just the start of animation. There are also multiple kinds of keyframes for creating different types of animation: Linear, Hold, and Easy Ease. In addition to changing the keyframes on the Timeline, you can also fine-tune adjustments to keyframes within the Graph Editor for even more control over your animation.

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