When learning how to use After effects should you learn how to use expressions? Well, I think the main question should be: Why would you even want to?

Ae - Can Learning Expressions Kill Your Creativity?

When learning how to use After effects should you learn how to use expressions? Well, I think the main question should be: Why would you even want to?

When learning how to use After effects should you learn how to use expressions? Well, I think the main question should be: Why would you even want to?

What’s a Rich Text element?

What’s a Rich Text element?

What’s a Rich Text element?

What’s a Rich Text element?

The rich text element allows you to create and format headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, images, and video all in one place instead of having to add and format them individually. Just double-click and easily create content.

Static and dynamic content editing

A rich text element can be used with static or dynamic content. For static content, just drop it into any page and begin editing. For dynamic content, add a rich text field to any collection and then connect a rich text element to that field in the settings panel. Voila!

How to customize formatting for each rich text

Headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, figures, images, and figure captions can all be styled after a class is added to the rich text element using the "When inside of" nested selector system.

In this article, I’m going to pose an unpopular opinion perhaps, although, in my opinion, it is an important take on the subject of expanding your horizons, and how the case of gaining knowledge may become a pitfall and damage the way you approach making art as a motion designer.

Expressions in After Effects are a way to write code that returns a value for a property to use. That’s about it. The code can be as simple as “50” or as complex as literally thousands of lines, but they all must end up giving After Effects an end value which is passed to the property the expression belongs to.

As users and as artists, having the ability to write code to eventually end up manipulating static and moving images on the screen is wonderful as it opens up another layer of possibilities and creates more room for creativity, and while this is super exciting it can damage the way you approach creation, motion graphics in particular.

Here’s a question for you:

What kind of sorcery is this? 🧙

Follow the Good Boy Ninja on Twitter for After-Effects tips and tricks

What makes a great operating system? Is it a shiny dock full of vibrant icons? Perhaps smooth animations throughout the OS? Those things are great to have to make us feel more comfortable using our aluminum electricity boxes, but in the end, the most important feature that helped popularize computers and make them approachable by basically anyone is the fact that users don’t have to understand programming to use them. Essentially, we expect the software on our computers to enable us to do the stuff we want to do logically in the simplest of ways. We trust the brains of the engineers who built those systems to not only give us a functional machine, but an easy to use one. A machine that communicates ideas back to us in simple and easy to understand ways, for us, apes, to be able to perform powerful tasks easily.

After Effects in particular is designed to be used by the lowest common denominator, meaning trying to be as simple as possible in order to become a popular software. Arguably, this is one of the reasons After-Effects is one of the only software in its competitive landscape to not adopt more complex concepts like nodes, sticking to its layer-based approach which is easier to understand, especially if you are migrating from other adobe software like Photoshop.

While It’s quite clear that After Effects has its very obvious downsides, for years it managed to strike a balance between being a powerful creative tool and a simple to understand one. It can be described as some sort of a middleman between you, a creative person, and programming. Programming? OH YEAH BOY! Here are some examples of concepts you are probably familiar with from After Effects like various types of noisesstylize effectsmasks and paths (bezier curves) created using code. Obviously, everything we use in After Effects is code, but my point is that this software we use to create stuff can be thought of a bunch of little packages and niches of programming, wrapped up in pretty and easy to understand concepts (like sliders, buttons, dials, and layers) to allow us to create naturally without knowing how to code behind it works. Learning how to code is a magnificent thing in itself and it really develops your problem-solving skills. But hmmmm.. Your problem-solving skills, that sounds familiar. Oh yes, we practice problem-solving all the time when we use After Effects. That’s exactly why I see after-effects as some sort of visual programming tool. After you learn how to use the software and break the technical barrier you slowly start developing your problem-solving skills.

Some examples you can relate to:

More tools for Adobe After-Effects
Paths from Nulls

You don’t have to understand the math behind “Fractal Noise”, but you can call it from our pool of pre-coded stuff, then easily add a chunk of code called “Tint”. We don’t have to understand the bare bones of how Tint is remapping the colors on each pixel on your screen, but we use the color picker dialog to quickly do it. Then we use a “Displacement Map” to create unique distortion using another image, and while we don’t have to write the code that remaps pixels to vectors and using those vectors to push pixels around, we do understand the idea behind it. This is why I like to think of After Effects as a middleman, it’s like having a friend that’s really good at programming and asking them to do perform tasks for us.

So that’s where coding and After Effects are pretty similar, neither one if a black sheet of paper but a collection of tools. Even when you write code you are reliant and basic features on the language and pre-written libraries. In After Effects you are a creative person reliant on the people who brought you “Fast Blur” and the “Puppet” tool.

Here’s the tricky part though: if you want to get better doing what you do, there is no single way to go forward. Learning how to use expressions is a great thing. However, it is a very technical thing. During my time in the motion design industry, meeting many different people who work in many different ways, there was this typecast showing at least for some, people who are really really, REALLY good on the technical side of stuff, understanding how to code and knowing the barebones of the software yet creating really shitty products. On the other side, you would see people who are technophobic, freaking out, doing breathing exercises every time an error jumps on the screen, yet creating amazing art, being able to push through their creative ideas and allowing themselves to not do things the right way. This is a spectrum of course, and you don’t have to be either here or there. With my big love for coding and software development, I do find much more passion and creativity on the side that is less fanatic about how things work behind the scenes and see the tools we have as an opportunity, knowing that the most important thing is trying hard to express your brainwaves onto the canvas, and that’s the beauty of the software we use, it enables us to build upon the incredible knowledge of programmers and the incredible power of computers and create something wonderful without much friction.

So should you learn how to use expressions? Well, I think the main question should be why would you even want to? While After Effects is a limited piece software we still haven't run out of things to create, and probably never will. It’s a big enough set of tools to allow for endless creativity and endless options. Therefore, I would argue that sometimes this idea of “I’m going to learn how to use expressions, this is what I am missing to become a better artist” is perhaps self-harming. You already have a super versatile set of tools, it is literally diverse enough that if you work on this piece of software 24/7 for the rest of your life you will never run out of things to create. Learning how to code is great, but also a slow process. The entire purpose of After Effects is to give you access to all this code that’s running in the background and took years to write and develop.

Let's look at it from a different perspective. I wrote before how the “bounce” expression can limit your creativity, despite being a fast effortless solution to creating a realistic flow of motion.

The mindstate of actually being on the development side of those expressions is interesting and I would highly recommend it for anyone who would want to get into it to do it. However, sometimes breaking down and solving problems with code can limit your creative choices. As much as defying rules, systems, and relations between data is fun and interesting, it might also give you less room to be playful, and less immediate visual feedback and what you are doing. That’s why we easily recognize the feel of a footage with a wiggle expression applied trying to simulate handshake, real handshakes are much more complex and detailed than what wiggle does on its own, being less predictable and more prone to unexpected movements. In that case, it would be much smarter to use the incredible set of tools After Effects gives us to come up with a different creative solution, maybe track a real shaky footage and apply the tracking data to our own. Solving this problem with code by itself would be fascinating, but also way more time demanding. If you are just trying to convert an idea from your brain into a tangible thing you can share with the world, you might as well just use the tools you are familiar with.

On the other hand (a double-edged sword also has a positive side), expressions can be really powerful. The process of writing code in my personal opinion is super fascinating, challenging, and fun! If anything, expressions are a relatively non-intimidating way of writing code, especially when you start. They also help you understand how After Effects as a system is working. Have you ever tried parenting using the pick whip icon next to your expression panel? If you parent to another value, you will actually get a written list going from top to bottom on where After-Effects should look for that value, usually including the names of the comps and layers to look for. It’s like a map for your computer. Using tools like the pick whip makes coding inside After Effects a little less intimidating, especially at first.

Once you go even more in-depth, you can start building complex structures and rigs, automating dependencies properties, and overall fill some gaps in the software you didn't know you were missing. Wiggle for example could’ve (and should have, yes Adobe I am looking at you) been an integrated feature. It became so popular I think because it's a really short command you can just throw at values, and also has a fun name. Nobody remembers the majestic “linear” expression, which is one of the most powerful features in After Effects in my opinion.

My point is, at the end of all of this, is that code is magnificent, but also too perfect. If you are going to get heavy into coding, try to remember that the fun part in After Effects is to use liquify and accidentally create an uncompelling bulb on the face of your 13-year-old cousin on their birthday footage, or trying to figure out the perfect easing for that rotation of a layer while accidentally making the first keyframe last too long, and thinking to yourself: Woah, that’s kinda cool. If you have the luxury of animating the character without using a proper rig, you might bump into poses that may be considered off from a technical perspective, but convey emotions you didn’t know your character could convey. All those happy little accidents distinguish using a piece of software that’s meant to combine all different kinds of possibilities in expected and unexpected ways, different from writing instructions for a machine.

I believe a balance between being creative and technical can be achieved, but you might have to actively work towards it. I wish you luck, and don’t forget to have fun!

Good Boy Ninja
Motion Designer since 2008.
Maker of tools for Adobe After-Effects
Quick jump:
July 30, 2020
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