Fast Forwarding Through Reverse Engineering

July 24, 2018

This weekend I spent a good portion of my Saturday attempting to creatively wrestle the overly muscled bull that is Adobe After Effects.

Before I get into the nitty gritty details of what that looked like, here’s a quick behind-the-scenes look at how I approached the process. Let me start by saying that learning new creative programs is hard. Not like “Sisyphus and the boulder” hard, but a challenge. For me, accruing this sort of knowledge usually looks something like:

  1. Watch three to five scattered minutes of a 12-minute tutorial.
  2. Decide (wrongly) that I’ve learned enough to go on and I’ll learn more in practice than by watching videos (truthfully).
  3. Open a new document and spend 15 to 20 minutes figuring out what words mean.
  4. Toggle various effects and layers ad nauseam trying to figure out what they do.
  5. Get frustrated with the program.
  6. Get frustrated with myself.
  7. Watch more tutorials.

The process outlined above usually lasts anywhere between six to 10 hours, depending on the day and complexity of the program.

Now, in the world of programs that are inherently challenging to familiarize oneself with, the Adobe Creative suite of applications is particularly cumbersome to wrap one’s head around. Moving between the primary three programs that comprise my everyday experience (Illustrator, InDesign and Photoshop), there are enough structural and linguistic similarities that even someone largely unfamiliar with their capabilities could navigate the gently undulating landscape. The primary reason for that heightened accessibility is that the creative byproduct of using these programs usually follow a similar structure (warning: wild oversimplification ahead). By and large, the materials that I produce in those three programs involve mostly static, two-dimensional images complemented by a heaping portion of typesetting with a little interactivity sprinkled throughout for good measure.

After Effects is a horse of an (almost) entirely different color. It takes the qualities of the previous programs and applies not only dimension to them, but also time and motion. There are still quite a few crossover terms that help when I’m in bearing-setting mode, but the introduction of these new temporal and kinetic concerns necessitates the existence of quite a few new words and icons. That being said, learning a new program like this doesn’t mean relying exclusively on skill or pre-existing familiarity with the suite at large, but requires a simple (but intensive) investment of time and energy.

Having dabbled a little bit in After Effects previously, I knew something of what I was getting myself into. That is to say: I knew I didn’t know much. So, in favor of working smarter rather than harder, I figured I would set myself up for success by starting with a relatively simple project and use (if I could find one that I liked) an existing template or rendering to help fill in some of the many gaps that existed in my knowledge base.

Easy enough, right? Well, sort of.

Deciding on the project was easy enough. We’re currently working on a Medicare event series with our friends at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota with the goal of encouraging seniors to get out with their friends or partners and experience the opportunities that our fine state affords to make a healthy difference in their next chapter. I had the opportunity to create the logo for this series and I figured this might be a good chance to add a bit of motion to it and (hopefully) elevate it to new creative heights in the process.

Finding the proper logo animation proved challenging. There are plenty available so quantity wasn’t an issue. But whenever you’re hoping to find the perfect solution on the creative grocery store shelf, you’ll likely run into issues of quality. After 30 to 40 minutes of searching, I found a logo sting animation that I thought would fit the bill.

Let the hours of toil begin.

Having the preexisting template to work off of proved immediately invaluable. It instantly compensated for my lack of knowledge with the program and gave me the perfect platform to reverse engineer what the initial development process might have looked like. Additionally, it gave me significant context to the obtuse and unfamiliar terminology and allowed me to toggle to my heart’s content without fear of undoing all of my progress or pushing something too far in any direction.

The video at the top of this post is the final product of Saturday’s efforts. It’s not the most elegant logo animation ever created, but it accomplishes what I had hoped and I now feel more confident as I continue to approach the dubious task of unraveling the mysteries of Adobe After Effects.