Adobe After Effects Tutorial: Media Management—Working with Images, Audio, and Video in After Effects

What you’ll learn in this After Effects Tutorial:

  • Creating and Organizing Projects
  • Importing Images and Video Files

This tutorial provides you with a foundation for working with Adobe After Effects media management. It is the third lesson in the Adobe After Effects CS6 Digital Classroom book. For more Adobe After Effects training options, visit AGI’s After Effects Classes.

Adobe After Effects Tutorial: Media Management—Working with Images,
Audio, and Video in After Effects

To be a successful After Effects artist, you need to understand the different types of media you will work with, and know how to keep them organized. You also need to know how to work with and manipulate a variety of media types. After Effect provides you with tools to import, organize, edit and preview almost any type of digital media.

Starting up

You will work with several files from the ae03lessons folder in this lesson. Make sure that you have loaded the aelessons folder onto your hard drive from the supplied DVD. See “Loading lesson files” in the Starting up section of this book.

Use the accompanying video to gain a better understanding of how to use some of the features shown in this lesson. The video tutorial for this lesson can be found on the included DVD.

What is Media Management?

A very important aspect of the motion design process, one that is also often overlooked is the concept of Media Management. Simply put, Media Management is how you organize or manage the media that you are working with in a project. There are two equally important aspects of Media Management. The first is how you manage the media that you are working with on your hard drive, and the second is how you organize the different media references that you import into After Effects.

You will look at how and where you need to store your original media files first. For the sake of portability, performance, and safety, it is usually best to store your media on an external hard drive. The two standard connection types for external hard drives are FireWire (400 and 800) and USB 2.0. Most video editors (especially those who work on the Mac OS) will probably recommend a FireWire drive due to its higher sustained bus speed, but because After Effects doesn’t reference media in the same way as video editing applications, either connection type should work for you. What is more important than the type of connection that your disk drive uses is that you always keep it organized. There has long been a truism in the design and animation industries that the most important things to remember about working with files are where they are and what they’re called.

Projects, compositions, and layers: An overview

The project file is at the heart of all the work you do in Adobe After Effects. The project file contains links to all the media that you are using in your compositions as well as the compositions themselves. While a project can contain many different media elements and compositions, only one project can be open at a time in After Effects. You can think of the project file as a container, a briefcase for carrying around the content of your animations. Project files in After Effects are kept very small because media are not embedded or added to the project file. Instead, the project file contains links or references to any piece of media (audio, video, or stills) that you import. This creates a situation where the project is dependent on the media files remaining unchanged and in the same relative location on your hard drive. So if you have a situation that requires you to move your projects from one computer to another, you must move not only the project file but also the original media that are stored on your hard drive. Not every element you will use is external, though; compositions, shapes, lights, cameras, and other content that you create in After Effects are stored as part of the project file.

Compositions, often called comps for short, are a unique feature of After Effects, though they are similar to sequences, which can be found in video editing and animation programs such as Adobe Premiere or Apple Final Cut Pro. They are one of the key program features that you will become used to working with as you begin to master After Effects. Each composition—you can have multiple compositions in each project—represents an independent Timeline and can contain any combination of video, audio, still images, shape layers, and other elements. Compositions can even contain other compositions (this is called nesting compositions), and this feature is the key to creating more complex animations and composites. When creating compositions, you want to set their properties for the format that you plan to output to.

If you have a video editing background, this is probably going to be completely contrary to what you have been taught, but it is actually the standard way of working in After Effects. So if you are creating graphics for standard-definition broadcast television, you will want to create your comps to the NTSC standard, and if you are creating graphics for display on a computer screen, you will want to build comps that match your expected screen resolution.

If you have used other graphics applications such as Photoshop, Illustrator, or Flash, layers may be a familiar concept to you. If you are new to the concept of layers, then, like compositions, they are a feature of After Effects that you will become more familiar with as you work your way through the lessons in this book. You cannot edit media in a composition directly; instead, each piece of media that is placed into a composition exists on its own track, called a layer. Each layer has properties such as position, opacity, and duration that you can adjust individually or in tandem with other layers. In addition to a layer’s built-in editable properties, you have the ability to add a wide variety of effects from the Effect menu to any layer, and it is by manipulating the properties of layers and their effects that you can create your animations.


Creating a new project

Technically, every time you open After Effects, the program creates a new blank project for you. A project isn’t a very impressive thing on its own; it’s really just a container that stores the references to the media files you are working with, along with the compositions you create and any original content, such as cameras, lights, and shapes. A single project may contains links to dozens, perhaps hundreds of different files that reside on your hard drive.

Flowchart representation of a typical After Effects project.

A new, untitled project is automatically created whenever you start After Effects and when you close the active project. You will need to create a new project if you have closed the default one or if you want to completely start from scratch.

Importing media files

One of the great strengths of After Effects is the wide variety of media that you are able to use with it. After Effects supports standard-format still images, audio, and video files. In this part of the lesson, you will create a new After Effects project and learn to import two very common media types: audio and video. In addition to common formats such as .tiff, .jpg, .aif, and .mp3, the program offers enhanced support for certain native file formats such as Photoshop (.psd) and Illustrator (.ai).

1 Create a new, empty After Effects project by choosing File > New > New Project, and reset your workspace to the standard layout by choosing Window > Workspace > Standard, then choosing Window > Workspace > Reset “Standard.” Click Yes in the dialog box that prompts you to confirm that you want to reset the workspace.

2 Choose File > Import > File to open the Import File dialog box.


There are many ways to open the Import File dialog box. You can use a keyboard shortcut, Ctrl+I (Windows) or Command+I (Mac OS); you can right-click in any empty area of the Project panel and select Import > File from the context menu that pops up; and you can double-click any empty area of the Project panel to immediately open the dialog box.

3 In the Import dialog box, navigate to the ae03lessons folder that you copied from the DVD included with this book. In the ae03lessons folder, continue to navigate to the video folder and click on the Double Single file. You can either double-click on the file or click the Open button to import it. Depending upon the speed of your computer, there may be a brief pause where a loading bar appears, and then the reference to the video file appears in the Project panel.


By default, After Effects uses the file names of your original footage items in the Project panel. You can change this by right-clicking the item and choosing Rename from the menu.

4 The Project panel is one of many panels that must share space on the screen, so after the video file has been imported into your project, it may be very difficult to see if the Project panel is small. To fix this problem, After Effects offers a toggle function that allows you to fit any panel to the full size of the screen. Click on the Project panel to make it active. The panel displays an orange highlight around it when it is active. Press the tilde (~) key on your keyboard to enlarge the panel to full-screen size.

Press the tilde (~) key to enlarge the currently active panel to full-screen.
Press it again to return to the normal panel layout.


Press the tilde (~) key again when you want to return to the standard workspace.

5 Again choose File > Import > File. In the Import dialog box, navigate to the audio folder located inside the ae03lessons folder and double-click house beat.aif.

6 Open the Import dialog box one last time, navigate to the images folder inside the ae03lessons folder, and click the file named distressedBG.tif. This time you will import more than one file, so press and hold the Ctrl (Windows) or Command (Mac OS) key on your keyboard and click the Mini Cooper at Night.jpg and Washington City Street.jpg files to select them as well, then click Open.

7 Choose File > Save As. Name your file Lesson3-Working.aep and save it in the ae03lessons folder on your hard drive.

Do not close this file; you will need it in the next part of the lesson.


The keyboard command for the Save As function is Ctrl+Shift+S (Windows) or Command+Shift+S (Mac OS).

Continue to the next After Effects Tutorial: Organizing the Project panel in After Effects >