Optimizing After Effects for Large Projects

Working with Adobe After Effects makes it easy to work with complex video projects. With large projects, however, it can sometimes be difficult to organize your assets and the application itself in a way that will be most productive.  Here are a few organizational and hardware tips to follow that will help you get the most out of After Effects when working with large projects.

Plan Ahead

Organization

Organizing your assets and source footage into clear categories in both your After Effects project folders and the project-window before you begin editing is key.  This can greatly improve project flow and save a lot of time when tracking down assets.  It is a good habit to separate your assets into categorized folders and sub-folders. Some examples are:

  • Video
  • Graphics
  • Still Images
  • Image Sequences
  • PSD
  • Audio – Music
  • Audio – Voice
  • Audio – Sound FX

Naming Conventions

Using naming conventions for your project assets can help you quickly understand how a particular element in a composition fits, whether or not that source footage is original or manipulated, and if the asset needs to be replaced with an updated version.  For example, when I import an image sequence, I append “SEQ” to the end of the file name so I know wherever that sequence appears in a composition that it is a sequence and that I need to pre-render it when I’m ready for final render.

Work With a Copy

Even though After Effects is a non-destructive editor (the original footage is not changed) it is always a good idea to work with a copy of the original.  Unfortunately I have had instances where After Effects crashes and somehow corrupts the original asset.  You can make any changes to a copy of the asset knowing that you can always revert to the original if needed.

Compose Yourself

Sometimes what slows a large project down is the time it takes to preview-render your compositions.  Effects like blurs and particle dynamics can be very CPU intensive and slow down preview renders to a crawl.  Two processes that can greatly reduce this time are proxies and nested pre-comps (pre-compositions).

Proxies

Proxies allow you to temporarily use a stand-in or lower-res version of the original asset in a composition in order to speed up your preview render.  When you are ready for the final render, you can toggle the original footage back on.  There are two types of proxies After Effects can create, still-proxies and movie-proxies.

Still-proxies

Still-proxies can be particularly helpful when you need to preview an asset in the timeline with lots of effects quickly.  For example, If a video in the timeline has several noise filters applied to it, but you really only need to preview the noise effects on the first frame of that video, you could use a still-proxy to speed up the preview-render. When you preview-render your timeline with the still proxy it will only calculate the noise effect filter for the first frame of the original video instead of every frame, speeding up the rest of the preview-render.

Movie-proxies

Movie-proxies work the same way as still-proxies only instead of replacing the original-footage with a PSD, it replaces it with a low-res video file at the position in the timeline.  Using movie-proxies will render the effects on the whole video so they are not as fast as still-proxies, but can still improve render times, especially when using raw footage.

Using Proxies in a Composition

  1. Right click the asset in the project window and choose Create Proxy > Still or Movie.  This will create a .PSD or .MOV file of the asset within your project folder and place it on the original’s location in the timeline.
  2. When you are ready for the final render, use the proxie-toggle button (next to the asset in the project window) to toggle its proxy status on or off.

Nesting Pre-Comps

In After Effects, compositions can be inserted into other compositions; this is called nesting.  But you can also use a special type of pre-rendered composition known as pre-comps.  Pre-comps allow you to replace a nested composition with a video file that has all the effects and transitions of the original composition rendered into it.  This allows for really fast preview-renders, as After Effects will not have to do any calculations for the effects and transitions because they have already been rendered into the pre-comp. You can even nest the pre-comp within another pre-comp.

Using Pre-Comps in a Composition

  1. Select the layers that contain nested-comps in a composition and from the top menu select Layers > Pre-compose.  This will replace the selected items with a single composition containing all the selected layers or compositions.
  2. Select the newly created composition and then from the top menu select Composition > Pre-render.  This will render the nested compositions and insert it into the timeline as a single movie file.

Once you are ready for final render, you can keep using the pre-comps because their quality settings can be controlled from the render queue.  Just make sure to use an uncompressed format to keep quality high for final compression.

Tune it up

If you have a multi-core CPU in your computer, and you are trying to squeeze more performance out of After Effects, one of the most important things you can do is adjust the multiprocessing settings.  Before you adjust these settings, it is a good measure to make sure that After Effects is updated.  Choose Help > Updates from the top menu to automatically check if you have the latest software patches from Adobe.

To open the Memory and Multiprocessing settings, from the Adobe menu choose Preferences > Memory and Multiprocessing (on a Windows machine choose Edit > Preferences > Memory and Multiprocessing).  I recommend the following settings:

  •  Make sure that Render Multiple Frames Simultaneously is enabled.

This setting will allow After Effects to render multiple frames simultaneously, usually one per core unless you have a hyperthreaded CPU, which may allow more depending on your system.  What’s nice is that this performance increase will be seen in the preview and final-render engine.

  • Select the amount of RAM allocation per background CPU size.

You will have to play with the RAM settings to find what works best for your configuration.  I would not set the RAM allocation any lower than .75 GB’s for SD projects as After Effects may not render any extra frames at all at this setting.  For HD projects choose 1-2 GB’s or more if you have plenty of ram.

One last final tool to look at is the Memory & Multiprocessing Details dialog box (you can find the button for it in at the bottom of the Memory & Multiprocessing settings window.

The Memory & Multiprocessing Details dialog box displays additional information regarding the amount or RAM and RAM usage settings.  It also displays a listing of all the processes related to After Effects, Adobe Media Encoder and other Adobe products.  This is a great way to assess where your computer resources are being used and can also help you troubleshoot render problems.