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After Effects Automation – Build one template, render infinite videos – Full guide on how to do it & What tools can you use

Table of Contents

After Effects is an amazing tool, and it can do a lot of things. From special effects all the way to cartoony motion graphics. But when you have a video that needs to be iterated in a hundred little variations, it fails. After Effects is simply not built for automation.

Well, this will show you how to make automation possible in After Effects – and how you can create one video template and render an infinite amount of videos in a few clicks.

Generally, there are few use cases where you will want to combine After Effects and automation:

  1. You need a big batch of videos rendered with a few small changes inside of the video. This could be a product image, a town name, the date, and such.
  2. Videos need to contain live data. This data is usually pulled from a data point like an external API or your database. This gets inserted into the video that gets shared immediately.
  3. You want to enable your design team to create video templates, and let non-technical staff (or partners) create videos personalized to them.



Whatever your use case might be, there are generally 4 options for After Effects automation. We’ll start with the most complex, and finish with the easiest one.

1. Build your own After Effects automation system

This is the option for the ones who know how to code, and have time to waste. Given the other options, it will take the most time while still giving the same output. This said, people still like building cool stuff and playing around – so here’s how you would build your own AE automation system.

Although After Effects is not built for automation, Adobe actually did think of it a bit…kinda…and that’s why they made aerender.exe available.

This little executable is the cornerstone of your system if you were to build one. It’s practically a headless version of AE. It gives you the option to run a project that you made and render it without opening AE. This is important because you don’t need an AE license this way, and you can run this system on a cloud.

after effects aerender location
This is where you’ll find aerender.exe

Where aerender fails, is dynamically changing elements of the video. It doesn’t have any customization options, so it’s practically worthless without this amazing open-source project.

The project I’m talking about is Nexrender. What these guys made is practically gold for anybody who wants to automate After Effects. It’s a project that allows you to dynamically change layers of an After Effects composition.

You can easily change text layers by referencing the new text values, or change audio/video layers by referencing a new source. It’s super flexible, and you can implement it however you wish.

after effects nexrender github page
Nexrender GitHub

Aerender and Nexrender are enough for you to build whatever system you wish. Both of these have extensive documentation that will help you build your system. Unfortunately, this is where my knowledge (as a non-technical person) ends.

Let’s move on to something with less code.
 

2. Use automation scripts

If you are more like me, and can’t code…the next three options will be for you. If you are still playing around and exploring automation, scripts will be a very easy way to get started.

One of the most famous After Effects automation scripts is compsFromSpreadsheets. It allows you to create different variants of the initial video simply by creating a spreadsheet and mapping the data for each variant.

compsfromspreadsheets on aescripts
You can find CompsFromSpreadsheet on aescripts.com

The pros of compsFromSpreadsheets: it’s easy to set up, and it’s pretty straightforward when it comes to using it.

Because of its straightforwardness, there are a lot of things that it lacks. It’s pretty rigid because you can’t use other data sources except for a spreadsheet. This means you can’t link assets from the cloud and all of the rendering is done on your machine.

3. Use a plugin

A difference between a script and a plugin is that a script is manually run by the user, while the plugin can update stuff automatically, without the user.

With this out of the way, the most popular automation plugin for After Effects is Templater by DataClay. This plugin is one level above comsFromSpreadsheets in terms of power and flexibility.

Templater gives you the ability to create a dynamic After Effects project. All you need to do is select a text or footage layer inside of a composition, and dynamically change it by referencing the new values.

after effects templater interface
Templater plugin inside After Effects

Where Templater differentiates itself from compsFromSpreadsheets is the ability to reference cloud storage when mapping data. This is simply not possible with compsFromSpreadsheets, where you can only reference local storage (the files that are on your machine).

This, with the ability for time sculpting, makes Templater a good solution for someone who is professionally using automation in Ae. Time sculpting features in Templater give you the ability to dynamically shrink, or extend the final video depending on the referenced files.

One more feature that greatly separates Templater from compsFromSpreadsheets is the ability to render in the cloud. This is a must if you will be using Ae automation in any serious manner. Dataclay recognized that rendering in the cloud is something that only the pro users will be interested in. That’s why they made cloud rendering available only in the highest-priced package – which only makes sense if you are actually making money from Ae automation.

Templater is good if you want to render a big batch of renders using spreadsheets, or if you have a spreadsheet that’s periodically updated with new data.

If you, however, want to build fully automated video workflows that use other data sources than spreadsheets (like external APIs or databases), then using a Web App is the right way to go.

4. Video Automation Software

Using a video automation software like Plainly is basically the same as having all of the options above – in a single product.

Plainly gives you the ability to turn any project you create into a dynamic video. All you have to do is:

  1. Upload your project file to the Plainly Web App
  2. Choose what elements of the video will be changed in each video (text, images, videos, audio)
  3. Render the videos

You don’t have to add any effects to the layers, or create special “automation” ready templates. Of course, this depends on the complexity of your project, but if you aren’t changing the colors in your project, or doing anything crazy…this applies.

plainly video generation api interface
Easily manage projects & set up automations inside of Plainly

Because it’s built with API first approach, Plainly has as much flexibility as you’ll possibly ever need. You can integrate any data source you wish, including other APIs or databases (like an RSS feed to video automation) and all of the rendering is done in the cloud – so you don’t have to worry about the load.

After the rendering is done, you have the ability to download the video from the Web App, manually… or you can set up an integration (either a custom one, or using Zapier/Integromat) that will send those videos wherever you wish. This could be a spreadsheet, your cloud storage, or something else.

Plainly API gives you the ability to integrate automated video in whatever workflow you wish.

Create fully automated video creation workflows in Plainly

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You can do anything from video creation forms that enable your non-tech employees to create stunning videos, or letting your partners create videos personalized to them….to fully automated videos that are created without humans.

If you only need to batch render a hundred videos once a year, Plainly not might be the solution for you. It’s built for large-scale projects and for creating continuous automated workflows. In this case, you might find it easier to use any of the options above.

Before you go automating, pay attention to this

Whatever the option you’ll go with, you should make sure that your template is fully optimized so it renders fast, and the referenced assets look nice in the final render. The two main things you should pay attention to are:

Optimizing render speeds

If you want to fully optimize render speeds you want to pre-render any layers that won’t be dynamic. This means if you have any layers that are using plugins like Particular, Plexus…etc you should pre-render them.

Pre-rendering is a process that converts any heavy layers into a .jpg/.png sequence or a video file. The video/image file is played a lot faster because After Effects doesn’t have to calculate every frame for that layer as it was already rendered beforehand.

after effects interface picture
Pre-render these bad boys (Jacob Miller on Unsplash)

Pre rendering doesn’t end with plugin layers. If you have a video inside of your project that’s 4k prores, and your final output is a 1080p social media video it doesn’t make sense to leave that 4k video layer as is. Pre rendering it will make it 1080p, and it will improve your rendering speeds greatly.

Optimizing render speeds is a process that should be done at the end.

After you’re 100% done with the animation, and you are ready to go into automation, go through all of the layers inside your rendering composition, pre-render anything that needs to be pre-rendered….and delete anything that’s unnecessary.

Making images/text scale nicely

When you create dynamic videos, chances are that some of the text you want to input is too large, or that some of the images are too big (or small). This is especially true when you’re creating fully automated workflows referencing cloud storage, or when you are enabling anybody to create videos.

In order for the final result to look nice, you should add a few expressions to layers that will be dynamic. You can search the internet for these expressions, or you can take a look at Plainly documentation, and simply copy-paste them.

After Effects Automation – Closing Words

Although After Effects is not built for automation BUT the technology enables you to use the power of After Effects combined with automation. If we go down to the individual use cases for Ae automation, there are probably hundreds. The good thing is, that you can execute any of these use cases with the options above.

If you are creating an After Effects automation workflow, and you want to render in the cloud, reference cloud assets, and have full flexibility to create THE workflow that you need – you should check out Plainly. Book a 15 min demo here, and we’ll show you how it works.

In case you are in the middle of creating this kind of workflow, and you have any questions…feel free to contact us at contact@plainlyvideos.com and we’ll be happy to help.


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