How Space Works in Adobe After Effects (for Beginners)


Working with the concept of space in After Effects is tricky. In this video tutorial, we break it down to terms a beginner can understand.

Just because you know how to drive a car doesn’t mean that you know how it works.

The same goes for Adobe After Effects. Indeed, you can get by just fine creating animations without knowing the ins and outs of how the program functions. At some point, however, you will hit a few roadblocks.

Throughout my first few years of using After Effects, I often encountered a problem and had no idea how to troubleshoot. Even after researching a fix on YouTube, I would still not fully understand why the fix worked.

This was mainly due to my lack of knowledge concerning one of the most fundamental aspects of AE—how space works.

The Composition Space

One of the key work areas in After Effects is the composition panel. This is where you view and manipulate your visuals spatially, and it’s called Composition Space.

Visual elements are mapped out across composition space via the Cartesian coordinate system. Named after 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes, Cartesian coordinates allow you to find objects on a plane by calculating their distances from various axes.

X-, Y-, and Z-axes illustrated in red, blue, and green lines against a starfield background

Adobe After Effects uses a three-dimensional coordinate system. The X-axis goes horizontally to the right, the Y moves vertically down, and the Z-axis moves away from the comp view. Where these axes meet is called the origin point, with a value of 0 for each axis. After Effects places the origin point in the top left-hand corner.

The best way to visualize this is to look at the Position parameter of a layer as you move it around the composition. A layer’s Position parameter shows the location (coordinates) of the layer in Composition space. The first number indicates the position on the X axis, and the second number the Y.

More specifically, the Position attribute shows where the layer’s Anchor Point is located in Comp space.

A rocketship against a gridded starfield illustrating the coordinates of an Anchor Point

An Anchor Point is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the point where the layer is anchored to a composition. Any scale or rotation changes you make to the layer will originate from the Anchor Point. It’s a critical parameter that you need to understand how to use

Layers Need Their Space Too!

While the Position parameter changes as you move a layer around, the Anchor Point coordinates stay the same. This is because the Anchor Point parameter shows its location relative to Layer space. 

A rocketship against a gridded starfield illustrating the coordinates of an Anchor Point

As with the Composition space, Layer space has an origin point located in the top left corner of the actual layer. The Anchor Point reflects its location relative to this layer space. A quick way to see this is to simply type in (0, 0) for the Anchor Point and watch the entire layer shift so that the Anchor Point is now in the top left.

Ideally, this isn’t how you want to move the anchor point around, as it completely changes the position of the layer. To manually move the Anchor Point, grab the Pan Behind tool. Hold the Control modifier key to snap the Anchor Point as you move it along in Layer Space.

So to recap, the coordinates of an Anchor Point parameter show where the Anchor Point is located in that particular Layer’s coordinate space. The Position parameter of the same layer will reflect where the Anchor Point is located in Composition space.

Objects in Motion

When an asset is animated through space, you can see the motion path in the composition panel by simply selecting the layer. If you can’t see the entire motion path, go to the Panel Menu and choose View Options. Here you can turn on Motion Paths as well as Motion Path Tangents.

If you still can’t see the full path in the comp panel, go to Edit > Preferences > Display, and select All Keyframes.

A rocketship following a dotted motion path

Use the selection tool to move keyframes through space, and add keyframes to the path with the Pen tool—the small dots on the path help visualize the animation’s actual speed. The more dots on the path, the more slowly the object will animate across the screen. And vice versa—the further the dots are spread apart, the faster the animation becomes.

As you add keyframes to a path, you’ll also see them show up in the timeline panel. Naturally, these are placed relative to where you added them in space on the motion path. You’ll notice that the animation isn’t quite as smooth as before. It will often jitter when hitting the new keyframes.

To keep things fluid, grab these middle keyframes in the timeline, right-click and select Rove Across Time. Now you can retime the animation by simply moving the start and end keyframes.

The Transform Effect

Yet another way to move a layer around in space is via a Transform effect. Go to Window > Effects & Presets and then select Distort > Transform. Once applied to my layer, I’ll see a new set of properties which include Position and Anchor Point parameters.

Take a close look, and you’ll see that these properties are relative to Layer Space.

Rocketship under a crosshair icon awaiting repositioning

You can manually reposition them using a cool crosshair feature next to the Position and Anchor Point parameters. Or, with the effect selected, you’ll be able to see and move the indicators around directly in the composition panel via control points.

If you want to get crazy with repositioning, add multiple Transformation effects to the same layer.

Raster vs. Vector Graphics

It’s important to understand that these effects with control points will act differently depending on the type of layer you’re applying them to. When working in After Effects, there are generally two categories or types of layers: raster and vector graphics

A raster graphic is essentially a collection of pixels. If you scale a raster up above 100%, you’ll start to see the edges of those pixels. So if the resolution of an image is low, you might not be able to scale it to the size you want without losing quality.

Vectors, however, don’t have the same scaling issue. This is because they are made up of vertices and segments. Raster graphics are generally image files, like PNG and JPEGs. Vectors include text and shape layers and assets created in Adobe Illustrator.

A raster image and vector image of the same rocketship showing distortion in the altered raster image

I have a raster and a vector version of my rocket layer in this example. The raster on the left is a PNG file, while the vector on the right is an Adobe Illustrator file. Scaling both up will reveal how the raster loses quality.

Again, effects with control points act differently between raster and vector graphics. For raster, these effects are applied in layer space. For vectors, they will read composition space.

Another easy way to visualize this is drop a Corner Pin effect and watch the control points snap in place.

Shape Layers

Shape layers play a large role in the After Effects world, and things can get confusing if you don’t understand how they’re set up. They are not only vector graphics, but also treated as groups that can nest within each other.

Shape layer against a gridded starfield

For example, using the shape tool to draw out a shape will create a new shape layer. The shape, however, is placed in a “group” with its own transformation properties separate from the actual shape layer’s transform properties. The Position of the shape group is measured from the location of the anchor point of the containing shape layer. 

As if this wasn’t confusing enough, the Anchor Point of a shape layer isn’t measured from an origin point in the top left of layer space. Instead, its origin point is the center of the comp. And THIS can even be changed if you dive into Preferences > General and select Center Anchor Point in New Shape Layers.

I know this is targeted at beginners, but you can’t really talk about space without touching on how to navigate 3D space. The trick to knowing how to stay oriented in space is to master the tools.

Rocketship against a gridded starfield showing markers that indicate location and angle

When switching a layer to 3D, you’ll see a colorful 3D gizmo appear. This handy tool gives you total control over the layer. Axes are color-coded, and shapes on the gizmo give you quick reference to common transformation properties. When manipulating a layer, tooltips provide dimensional information that allows you to get a layer exactly where you want it in space.

Flying a camera around the composition is another skill set to master. Once again, the camera control tools make it easy. Three different sets of tools allow you to orbit, dolly, and pan the camera. A drop-down menu for each tool allows you to specify how you want the camera to fly in space. Orbit around a scene, a point of interest, and even your cursor.

Alternate views of the rocketship

Once you start flying around your comp, things can quickly become confusing. Stay oriented with the various view angle of the comp panel. The dropdown menus at the bottom left of the comp panel allow you to even open up several view angles at the same time.

I usually open up two views and switch one of them to the default camera. This gives me a bird’s eye view of everything in my project, including other camera layers.

Parents Just Don’t Understand

Last but certainly not least is probably one of the most used features in Adobe After Effects—parenting.

When you want one layer to stick to another, it doesn’t make much sense to animate both layers. That would simply be a massive waste of time. Instead, you can parent layers together.

But what actually happens to a layer’s transformation properties when it is parented to another layer? It also keeps your project more organized and easy to work with.

Flames and rocketship shown on un-parented layers

In this example, I’ve created some animated flames and parented them to my rocket layer. This means that the rocket is the parent and the flames layer is the child. Now the flames will follow the rocket, and I simply need to get them in the correct position.

Once parented, the flames now show a Position parameter relative to the Origin Point of the parent layer instead of Comp space.

Glowing flame vector parented to rocketship

If I hold Shift while parenting the flames, the rocket’s transformation properties will override the flames’ parameters. It’s essentially like a copy-and-paste. The beauty of this is that the flames will perfectly scale and rotate to match the rocket. They’ll also snap straight over the rocket’s anchor point, and not the Origin Point of its layer space.

Okay, I hope these tips get you off on the right foot in your After Effects journey. If they do, please share them with other folks and spread the goodwill.

For more articles on After Effects and Motion Graphics check out the links below!


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