Joe Clay | Mar 13, 2020

The most common question I receive is, "how did you learn After Effects?" It's usually asked by people who wonder how I got to be so good—their words not mine, trust me. They're usually at the beginning of their journey into motion and they're looking for a plan to follow or are just struggling with some aspect of progression—often expressions. The simple answer is time.

As we live our virtual lives, we only see the highlights other people show us. For example, you usually only see the end result of my tutorials, not the hours of research and development I put into them. You weren't sitting there with me over the years I've poured into my craft. You only see the net result of that time.

The reason I'm ok with expressions is that I started "coding" in middle school around 1996. My first website was on Geocities. I started with HTML, and as CSS developed I learned that. I've had a website in some form or another since then. I've hand-coded websites for 24 years. I learned what JavaScript I had to learn to cobble stuff together, and as I got into college I started to learn PHP, MySQL, jQuery, and then I actually learned proper JavaScript. I run my testing server on Apache locally, and I've spent tons of time staring at Notepad, then TextEdit, then TextWrangler, and now Atom. And I still hand code everything. I was working part time as a backend PHP developer on accounting software around my sophomore year in college. When FaceBook came out initially, I could've written it.

I thought the colors in this were off, but Adobe seems to have switched to the current color in the next version.

I started using Photoshop around 1998. I used it constantly. In high school, I bought nearly every copy of Photoshop User that came out for about a year or two. At $10 each for a student that was a good bit of money, especially at that time—but it was worth the knowledge. When other kids did homework, I did Photoshop. I put in the time. It took me years to make anything I'd consider even remotely presentable today.

In college, my BFA required me to take a ton of studio classes. I read the description for a class called Electronic Media. It mentioned film and animation. I've always loved those topics, but didn't know much about them as I was mainly a traditional artist, so I took the class.

Everyone knows AE 6.0's splash was the best.

Our professor demoed After Effects for just one lecture. But what he said stuck with me—After Effects is basically Photoshop with layers that can move. That sounded amazing, so I started messing around with AE 5.5. And I had no idea what I was doing. There wasn't much on the internet to learn from at the time. Everything I knew about AE then, I learned from Aharon Rabinowitz on Creative Cow. At first I used AE just to roto photos of myself and others to make stop motion projects.

As I learned, I found reasons to use After Effects for all sorts of Electronic Media projects and my next professor took notice. He hooked me up with an opportunity to get an internship where I could put those skills to use. So I put together a reel, and I submitted it. During that internship, I experimented and learned when I could. We had Brian Maffit's Total Training DVDs for AE and AI. I watched them both to supplement what I had already learned from Aharon.

From those early days all the way to now, I've spent almost every day doing something in After Effects. Some days I never even got out of my chair. Hell, once I even animated for about 36 hours straight. I fell asleep mid-click, woke up a minute or two later, and kept going like nothing had happened.

I'm estimating that, other than about 2 weeks of vacation a year, I've averaged about 60 hours a week working in After Effects—some weeks less, some weeks way more. So what does that work out to?

16.5 years * 50 weeks * 60 hours (avg) =
49,500 hours
2062.5 days
Or roughly 5.65 years

I don't say this to discourage you—rather the opposite actually. I am not what I am because of some ability. Do I have talents that you might not have? Sure, of course! But the same is true for you. I know that if you put in the time to experiment and practice, you can excel in motion graphics—just like with any other skill. It may take you longer than me, and it might not. Some of the student work these days I see is better than what I made after a year or two of working at a studio!

So when you're a year in and you're looking at mentors on the internet, don't be discouraged. When you see some old guy like me—at least old in this industry—remember that we've spent more time sitting in the software than you have likely even known the program exists. It doesn't come overnight. Keep at it, and make it happen.

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