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Adobe After Effects CS5 : The Timeline - Spatial Offsets

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3/30/2012 11:24:17 AM
3D animators are familiar with the idea that every object (or layer) has a pivot point. In After Effects, there are two fundamental ways to make a layer pivot around a different location: Change the layer’s own anchor point, or parent it to another layer.

After Effects is generally designed to preserve the appearance of the composition when you are merely setting up animation, toggling 3D on, and so forth. Therefore, editing an anchor point position with the Pan Behind tool triggers the inverse offset to the Position property. Parent a layer to another layer and the child layer maintains its relative position until you further animate either of them. If you set up your offsets and hierarchy before animating, you may find fewer difficulties as you work—although this section shows how to go about changing your mind once keyframes are in place.

To simply frame your layers, Layer > Transform (or context-click a layer > Transform) includes three methods to fill a frame with the selected layer:

  • Ctrl+Alt+F (Cmd+Opt+F) centers a layer and fits both horizontal and vertical dimensions of the layer, whether or not this is nonuniform scaling.

  • Ctrl+Alt+Shift+H (Cmd+Opt+Shift+H) centers but fits only the width.

  • Ctrl+Alt+Shift+G (Cmd+Opt+Shift+G) centers but fits only the height.

Those shortcuts are a handful; context-clicking the layer for the Transform menu is nearly as easy.

Anchor Point

The Pan Behind tool (Y) repositions an anchor point in the Composition or Layer viewer (and offsets the Position value to compensate). This prevents the layer from appearing in a different location on the frame in which you’re working.

The Position offset is for that frame only, however, so if there are Position keyframes, the layer may appear offset on other frames if you drag the anchor point this way. To reposition the anchor point without changing Position:

  • Change the anchor point value in the Timeline panel.

  • Use the Pan Behind tool in the Layer panel instead.

  • Hold the Alt (Opt) key as you drag with the Pan Behind tool.

Any of these options lets you reposition the anchor point without messing up an animation by changing one of the Position keyframes.

You can also animate the anchor point, of course; this allows you to rotate as you pan around an image while keeping the view centered. If you’re having trouble seeing the anchor point path as you work, open the source in the Layer panel and choose Anchor Point Path in the View pop-up menu (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Switch the default Masks to Anchor Point Path for easy viewing and manipulation of the layer anchor point. For the bouncing ball, you could move the anchor point to the base of the layer to add a little cartoonish squash and stretch, scaling Y down at the impact points.


Parent Hierarchy

Layer parenting, in which all of the Transform settings (except Opacity, which isn’t really a Transform setting) are passed from parent to child, can be set up by revealing the Parent column in the Timeline panel. There, you can choose a layer’s parent either by selecting it from the list or by dragging the pick whip to the parent layer and using the setup as follows:

  • Parenting remains valid even if the parent layer moves, is duplicated, or changes its name.

  • A parent and all of its children can be selected by context-clicking the parent layer and choosing Select Children.

  • Parenting can be removed by choosing None from the Parent menu.

  • Null Objects (Ctrl+Alt+Shift+Y/Cmd+Opt+Shift+Y) exist only to be parents; they are actually 100 x 100 pixel layers that do not render.

You probably knew all of that. You might not know what happens when you add the Alt (Opt) key to Parent settings:

  • Hold Alt (Opt) as you select the None option and the layer reverts to the Transform values it had before being parented (otherwise the offset at the time None is selected remains).

  • Hold Alt (Opt) as you select a Parent layer and its Transform data at the current frame is applied to the child layer prior to parenting.

This last point is a very cool and easily missed method for arraying layers automatically. You duplicate, offset, and parent to create the first layer in a pattern, then duplicate that layer and Alt+Parent (Opt+Parent) it to the previous duplicate. It behaves like the Duplicate and Offset option in Illustrator (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Until you know the trick, setting up a series of layers as an array seems like a big pain. The trick is to create the first layer, duplicate, and offset; now you have two. Duplicate the offset layer and—this is the key—Alt+Parent (Opt+Parent) the duplicate to the offset. Repeat this last step with as many layers as you need; each one repeats the offset.
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