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Chapter 4. Optimizing the Pipeline > Navigating Multiple Compositions

Navigating Multiple Compositions

When working with a complicated project, you can easily lose track of how things are organized. This section will show you

  • The benefits of designing and perhaps standardizing a project template with your specific project in mind

  • Simple methods for keeping your comps laid out so that you can visually remember their order

  • Shortcuts that can help you when you've lost track of something

These tips have come in very handy when I've found myself working with artists who understood compositing quite well, but were nonetheless wrestling with tracking down and solving problems in After Effects.

Project Template Benefits

If you're working on your own, you're basically free to organize your projects however you like, just as if you live alone, you're free not to clean your apartment. Successful collaborative projects at studios, however, make use of project templates that specify where different types of items live in the Project window.

Figure 4.1 shows a typical project template containing multiple compositions. It's a simplified version of a comp template used at The Orphanage for feature film work. Considering the days or even weeks that can be involved doing multiple takes of a visual effects shot, a template like this can be a lifesaver. Here are some of the template's useful attributes:

Figure 4.1. Here's a top-level look at the organization of an unpopulated composition template that could be used on a feature film effects shot. There are two basic categories of folders (Source and Comps), and numbered, pre-configured compositions listed in correct render order.

  • The Master comps are numbered so that they show up in order at the top of a list (sorted by name) in the Project window.

  • The Final Output comp is preset to the exact format and length specified for it to be filmed out for the movie. No work whatsoever occurs in this comp; previews are not done here, so its work area does not change, and no effects, animations, or expressions are created here that might inadvertently be left off at render time.

  • There is a locked placeholder layer at the top of various comps reminding you how to use them.

  • Helpful guide layers, such as masks for different formats and preset adjustment layers with Levels set to high contrast (for checking black and white level matches), are placed in ahead of time (Figure 4.2).

    Figure 4.2. The default Assemble Master composition has preset layers specified by the supervisor. These include two nonrendering layers, one an eLin LUT, the other a Levels check. There is a color correction that is specified not to be edited, as well as pre-populated plate and background layers.

  • A Source folder is organized with preset compositions to hold elements, such as the background plate, as well as reference items. These comps, rather than the footage items themselves, are used thereafter in the project. Like the Final Output comp, this seems to prevent careless errors that can occur when footage is replaced.

  • Standardized organization means that anyone, a supervisor or someone coming in to help clean up, can much more quickly recognize where the elements of the project reside.

You can take this idea as far as you want. The basic concepts of a Master comp, source comps, and a render comp seems useful on just about any shot to which you will be devoting more than a couple of hours of work, but a template can include a lot more than that. The Orphanage designs a custom template AEP file for each film production, and the template alone can be 4 MB before any work has been added, including custom expressions, camera rigs, log/linear conversions, and recurring effects setups.

Working with Tabs

Because After Effects does not include a tree/node interface, it is incumbent upon you, the artist, to keep your windows organized in a way that makes sense to you. If you've ever found yourself hunting around for a particular comp's tab in the Timeline window, here are a couple of suggestions.

First of all, you may have too many tabs open. It can be helpful to close the entire Timeline window and start over: Reopen your master composition. Alt/Option-double-click on the subcomp you want to work on, and if the specific composition you want is three or four layers deep, keep going until you've reached that one. Now your reopened tabs follow, right to left, the basic render order.

To move from tab to tab quickly, hold down the Shift+period or Shift+comma (you can remember them as the > and < keys) to navigate you forward or backward through a set of open comp tabs.

If you need to see two timelines at once, it is possible to drag a tab out of the Timeline window, effectively creating a second Timeline window. If, alternatively, you want to see only the results of work you're doing in a subcomp of the Master comp, remember that Alt/Option-clicking the box to close a Timeline tab leaves the Composition window open (and vice versa). Or, if it's only at preview time that you want to see the Master comp, remember the Always Preview This View toggle at the lower left of the Composition window.

If you're adjusting properties in the Timeline window and nothing seems to be happening, it may be that you've closed the Composition window but left the timeline open. Far more likely, however, is that you have a Layer window open and have mistaken it for the Composition window.

Where Am I?

We all lose our bearings sometimes. For that reason, context menu shortcuts in the Timeline window enable you to select a layer and reveal it, either in the Project window or in Project Flowchart view. Unfortunately, there is no context menu item to reveal the current comp in the Project window. But you can reveal any of its component layers.

Although you can use the Project Flowchart view to map out an existing project, I find it more helpful to keep the Project window as clearly and hierarchically organized as is usefully possible, thereby continuing in the spirit of the templates. This might sound about as much fun as keepingyour room clean, but if you think in terms of helping someone new to your project to understand it, you may find that you help yourself as well. For example, if you want to refer back to that project in a few months' time, you effectively are that other artist arriving at the project completely cold.

Debugging a Shot

Compositing is not unlike computer programming in that a complicated shot is made up of a series of individual decisions, any one of which can affect the whole. If you ever find yourself needing to troubleshoot a complicated shot, in which some unidentified variable seems to have crept in uninvited, you can attack the problem beginning from the Master comp. Solo layers one by one until you find the culprit, and if it's a comp, Alt/Option-double-click to open it, and repeat the process, until you've isolated the culprit and nailed it.

Descriptive Names

It's rather obvious, but you can help yourself a lot by using descriptive names for your compositions. For example, if you want to keep track of composition order, you can number the master comp 00, the first nested comp 01, and so on, using descriptive names after the numbers, for example 00_master and so on. Some After Effects veterans joke that leaving the name of a composition at the default Comp 1 is a firing offense.

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