Mastering Motion Graphics Terminology

If you're new to the world of motion graphics one of the best ways to get up and running is to become familiar with some terminology you'll likely encounter on your journey to becoming a great motion designer. Use this list to jump-start your motion graphics vocabulary or as a reference guide for terms that need a quick refresh in your mind.

2D, 2.5D, & 3D

These 3 topics refer to the different types of space that an image or object can occupy. With 2D images, there 's simply a flat image with no visible depth. With 2.5D images, there is now a 3D space available that the image can be placed within. However, the image still appears flat, as if on a card. Think of a diorama styled image. With a 3D image the object has been created in 3D space with full three dimensional capabilities and the ability to orbit the object without seeing a paper-thin edge as with 2.5D images.

Adjustment Layers


An adjustment layer is a type of layer that's used to apply effects to multiple layers at once. Whenever you apply an effect to a layer the effect applies only to that particular layer. With an adjustment layer the effect created on the adjustment layer can exist independently of the other layers. So for instance, if you create an adjustment layer, the effect applied to the layer will affect any of the other layers below it. If the adjustment layer is at the bottom of the layer stack then it will have no effect on the composition.

Alpha Channel

A channel reserved for transparency data, Alpha channels are most familiarly represented as a black and white image. Gray areas will show a semi transparent area. The channel is used as the method for bringing two images together and specifying how the images will overlay each other. Learn more about about compositing from the first volume of our Mastering VFX Terminology series.

Animation & Transformation

In motion graphics, you'll mostly see transformation animations. This refers to changes in the position, rotation, scale, anchor point or axis and opacity properties. Traditional animation is executed in a very different manner, where the animation isn't achieved through editing these simplified properties above, but rather hand-drawing each frame of the sequence. Both of these can be considered methods of animation for motion graphics, but traditional animation requires more knowledge of real-world movements to be convincing.

Bevel or Fillet

BEVEL Bevels and Fillets are synonymous. They're a slanted edge between two faces on a 3D object. Bevels help to make an object have a softer appearance. When applied subtly, bevels can be the first step to making a 3D object appear more realistic, since objects in the real world don't truly exist with 90° angles. You can add bevels in After Effects when using the Ray-traced 3D renderer.


[caption id="attachment_26093" align="alignnone" width="800"]Christmas Lights Creating a Bokeh Effect "Bokeh lamp" Photo courtesy of Jorge Dalmau
licensed at Creative Commons
can be found at Flickr[/caption] In video and photography, bokeh is the effect produced by a lens upon out of focus parts of the picture. Bokeh most commonly appears as light areas of the image that show up in the shape of the aperture opening of the camera. Learn more about creating bokeh in Photorealistic Camera Lens Effects in After Effects.

Camera Pan or Orbit

Camera pan and camera orbit are synonymous. They both mean that the camera is set to a fixed position in space such as it would be on a tripod. The camera is then rotated but remains rotating from that fixed axis. Learn more about creating cameras in After Effects with our Introduction to 3D in After Effects course

Camera Track

CAMERATRACK This term can mean two things. It depends on if you're referring to the movement of the camera itself, or if you're referring to analyzing and recording the movements of the camera for a compositing purpose. When referring to the movement of the camera, tracking refers to actually moving the camera, whether that be in/out, side to side or up and down. The camera would be physically moving its position in space. Another definition of Camera Track, is when you use software to track the position of the camera. The track will be based on the input settings of the camera used to shoot the video, and the motion that is visible within the actual video. This is then used to input new imagery into the original footage. Learn to do this with our Integrating 3D Titles into Footage in NUKEX course.


The term cel is actually short for celluloid. It's a transparent plastic sheet upon which hand-drawn animations are created. The "cel" refers to a single drawing in the sequence of the animation. Learn more about drawing cels in Traditional Animation Techniques in Toon Boom Harmony.


Shows a composition created using CINEWARE, as well as the CINEWARE effect overlaid on the left side of the image. CINEWARE is an effect inside After Effects that acts as a bridge between CINEMA 4D and After Effects. It allows the compositing workflow to be sped up by allowing the artist to render only once out of After Effects. It can also be used to import and integrate assets between the two software. CINEWARE is a completely different entity from CINEMA 4D Lite. Learn the basics of CINEWARE with Getting Started with CINEWARE in After Effects.

Collapse Transformations

Collapse Transformations is a switch in After Effects that applies to composition layers. When it's checked on it has the ability to allow settings and properties within the composition layer to interact with the elements in the main composition. This will allow things like 3D depth to become visible, blending modes to blend with things outside of their comp and smoothing vector layers nested within the comp. Learn more about this switch in the article, One Switch to Rule Them All.


A composition is the basic building block of the video. A typical composition will contain multiple layers of things like video, images and audio. Think of a composition as a container for all the elements you want to edit together. You can also string multiple compositions together as well.


image5 Compositing is the process of combining two or more images to make one single image. Sometimes there are layer-based setups and sometimes there are node-based setups.

Continuously Rasterize

CR3v2 Vector graphics in After Effects will be treated as pixel graphics until the continuously rasterize switch is checked. This switch will make vector layers look clear, no matter how the layer has been scaled up or down, or moved one way or the other in 3D space. This switch is also the same switch as the Collapse Transformations switch. It will exercise different functionality based on if it's checked for a composition or a vector footage layer. To learn more about this switch check out One Switch to Rule them All.


Dependencies are the relationships which After Effects has with footage sources outside of the program. There is a Dependencies button which will allow you to perform different actions based on how much or little footage you want to keep referenced in your project. It will also allow you to collect all your files into one place for better organization.

Ease In, Ease Out & Easy Ease

Ease This refers to one of the 12 animation principles which are mentioned very often in the motion graphics world. Ease in refers to the gradual acceleration, and ease out refers to the gradual deceleration of a movement. Since nothing in the real world really gets up to full speed instantly or slows down instantly the same idea can be applied to your motion graphic’s animation. Easy Ease is an interpolation type that will allow ease in and ease out of the same keyframe. The object will both slow into the position defined by the keyframe and gradually ease out gaining speed over time. Check out Demystifying Keyframe Interpolation in After Effects for a comprehensive look into these keyframe types. To learn more about the animation principles you will likely encounter as a motion designer check out the 5 Animation Principles Every Motion Designer Needs to Know.

Effects & Presets

The Effects & Presets section of After Effects is where you'll find all sorts of configurations of different properties you can effect for your footage. If you want to change the color temperature of something, you can do that with an effect. A preset is a few effects added together usually with included keyframes that will cause a specific action to happen to your footage. Check out this course for using assets and effects together.


Expressions Expressions are a type of script that calculates a value for a single layer at a specific point in time. Expressions are widely used in the motion graphics world because expressions can be used to automate simple animation tasks that would otherwise take much too long with traditional keyframe animation. For instance, you could use an expression to make a circle rotating at a set rate, for a set number of frames without having to spend the time to hand animate the movement. You can also save an expression as a preset so you can use them on different layers and compositions. After Effects Expressions Made Easy is the perfect introduction to working with this powerful tool.

Flow Chart

flowchart The flowchart exists for each project or composition, individual boxes represent each composition, footage item, and layer. Directional arrows show the relationships between the boxes. These are a great way to see how your compositions are nested within each other.


After Effects footage refers to anything that has been imported to the project panel that is not a composition.


Frames-Full Frames are the individual images that make up a moving sequence. When these images are played back at a certain speed the movement is created. The speed at which these images are displayed is determined by the frame rate. The sequence can be something animated by hand, created on the computer or even a live action shot.

Frame Rate

Frame rate is the rate at which frames are played back per second. The smaller the amount of frames per second the choppier the animation will look. Some common frame rates are 23.976 frames per second, 24 fps, 25fps, 29.97fps, and 30fps

Graph Editor or F Curves Editor

The Graph editor is a two dimensional representation of the interpolation between keyframes. The points on the graph are represented by keyframes and the curves or lines on the graph show either the speed or change in value over time. Check out Mastering the Graph Editor in After Effects for an in-depth look at using this great tool.

Green Screen

A green screen is used to shoot live action footage that a compositor will later use as a tool to remove the green background from the live action foreground. It makes the compositing process much easier because it greatly reduces the need to rotoscope around moving objects that need a transparent background. Keying Greenscreens in After Effects is the perfect place to start learning how to use this compositing tool.


Interpolation is the process of calculating the values between two keyframes. There are different methods of interpolation that will change either the path an object will take to move from one keyed position to the next, or it will effect the speed at which the object travels. Different types of interpolation denote different types of real-world movement. Check out the course Demystifying Keyframe Interpolation in After Effects or the article Swift Moves and Slow Stops to learn more.

Interpret Footage

When a sequence is imported to a compositing or editing program it's nothing more than a series of frames. When it's brought into the software, its frame rate and alpha settings must be interpreted. There will be default settings applied automatically but they're not always the intended settings.


Keyframes Keyframes mark a specific point in time where a significant change happens. In motion graphics this can be a keyframe that marks the start and end of an effect or used to create animated movement, like text flying into the composition or different graphical elements being animated. Typically there will need to be two keyframes needed to create movement. The first keyframe will mark the point in time where you want the movement or effect to start, and a keyframe at the end which marks the moment in time when the effect or movement should end. Depending on the complexity of the effect or animation there can be just two keyframes or hundreds used on a single layer.


Layers You’re probably familiar with layers if you’ve ever used a program like Photoshop or Illustrator. When you’re creating motion graphics you'll most likely be working in After Effects, which handles layers basically the same way. A single layer can hold anything from graphics, text, effects, shapes, etc. Depending on the how the layers are stacked on one another will determine how they appear in the composition. For example, if you have a red background layer above a bicycle graphic layer then the bicycle graphic would not be visible. In order to create complex motion design you will often be working with numerous different layers to create the finished project.

Layer Styles

Layer styles are effects that can be applied to images to create simple changes like bevels, drop shadows, and glows.


Masking is the process of drawing a specific area that will cut away a part of the image making it transparent.

Mograph & Motion Graphics or Motion Graphic

Motion Graphics are animated graphics or video footage designed to be used for communication. Overtime they have evolved into not only being communication devices but also simply an avenue to create short animated works of art. Motion Graphics are usually shorter than an animated movie and less character focused. However, as time goes on the gray area between these two fields continues to broaden. Mograph is sometimes a shorthand term for motion graphics, however, it is also a tool set in CINEMA 4D that is used in the making of motion graphics.

Motion Blur

Light bulbs moving at a hight rate of speed causing heavy motion blur on the ones closest to the camera. Motion blur is the blurring that happens to an image when it is moving so quickly that the camera does not capture all of the information happening between frames, therefore resulting in a streaking effect. Motion blur can be a tool used to make quick animations more visually appealing by making them appear less choppy and more realistic. Check out our CG101: Compositing lesson to learn more.

Motion Graphics Artist vs. Motion Graphics Designer

A motion graphics artist and a motion graphics designer are both people who create motion graphics. In practice there's not a very big difference between an MGA and an MGD. You may find however that MGDs dislike being referred to as MGAs. The reason for this is that the word design has a more thoughtful and premeditated connotation than the word art. Therefore some MGDs, especially formally trained ones, may be offended when referred to as an artist rather than a designer.

Nested Composition

A nested composition is a composition that exists within another composition. However it's usually not referred to as a nested composition until it's at least 3 levels deep within the composition structure. Check out our article, Wrap Your Brain Around Nested Compositions in After Effects to learn more.


A Null is an invisible object that doesn't show up in the final render. It does however have all the same inherent properties and can be treated as other layers are in a workflow. It can be used as a control or a placeholder and is a very useful tool when creating a camera rig.

Onion Skinning

ONION SKINNING Onion skinning is a tool in 2D-traditional animation to create animated drawings in a sequence. This tool will allow you to see multiple frames at once which will make drawing the next pose easier to interpret. Learn more about the whole process and how onion skinning is a vital player in Traditional Animation Techniques in Toon Boom Harmony.

Pen Tool

The pen tool allows you to create points which have curves connecting them to make a shape. The shape created can then be used to do many different things like select certain areas, isolate areas or just draw a shape to be used as an animated object.


Parallax is the phenomenon which occurs when viewing a scene that has images close to the viewer and far from the viewer. Parallax will cause the images that are closer to the view to move more quickly than those that are far away. Even the most simple parallax is one of the first steps to creating depth in an animated scene.


Parenting is the action of linking one layer to another. Whichever layer is "parented" will become the child and copy the movements of the "parent".


Paths A path consists of segments and vertices. The segments refer to the linear curve, and the vertices refer to the individual points the curves connect to. These paths can be used to create different shapes, and can be animated. For instance, you can use an animated path to make the curve appear as if it’s being drawn directly onto the video.

Path of action

The path of action of an object is the path which an object travels along to get from one keyframed space to another.

Playhead or Current Time Indicator

The Playhead of Current Time Indicator is a line which represents which point in time on the timeline one is currently viewing. You can scrub the playhead to quickly see the animation without having to render or preview the scene.


Precomposing is the process of combining multiple layers to be placed into a new composition.

Puppet Tool

The puppet tool is used to create animations by a series of pins and keyframes. It's a simple way to create an easy rig for a 2D image.

Real-Time Preview

RAM-preview A real-time preview allows you to play back the entire composition, including all the effects directly in the program without having to render out the sequence. In After Effects this is called a RAM preview. While it’s definitely faster than rendering, depending on the length of the video, and the quality of the real-time preview it can take anywhere from a few seconds, to a few minutes.


Rendering is the process of getting an image out of the original software it was created in, so that the frames are processed and can be either edited or played back at any time. Check out the Quick Start to After Effects Volume 5 for more rendering information.


ROTOSCOPING Rotoscoping is the process of drawing over the frames of an image to follow along with a moving image. It's used in VFX to cut images away from their background to create a transparent background that can be filled in with the new composite.


A sequence is a series of images called frames that flow together to create an animation. When looking at a sequence it appears to be a long list of files, but when brought into an editing software and properly interpreted it will play back like video footage.


A sprite is frames of an animation all captured into one consolidated container. The sprite can then be used and reused in various areas of a whole composition.


Timecode The timecode is a type of display in After Effects showing the exact time in a composition in hours, minutes, seconds and frames. For example, the timecode in the screenshot above that says 0:00:26:13 is 0 hours, 00 minutes, 26 seconds, and 13 frames. This is great for being able to see the exact moment an effect occurs or where exactly a layer’s effect ends.

Timeline or Dope Sheet

Timeline The timeline is an interactive interface found in a program like After Effects that displays all of the important information like the frames in the sequence, the layers within the composition, as well as audio and video information, and where the layers can be trimmed, and effects can be added. This is also the area where you will create and edit the keyframes for an effect or animation on a specific layer. The dope sheet is now another name for the timeline (in other programs besides After Effects) but it was originally a way for animators to view where their animations were located in time before computers were used to manage this information. Trim Trim Trimming refers to the process of cutting out segments of a layer by removing frames from the beginning or end. This is a process which is used very often when a layer’s effect or animation is no longer important. For example, a layer may be needed for a few seconds of the sequence, but after those few seconds it doesn’t serve a purpose. So instead of having the layer be calculated the entire time, you can trim the frames back to the point where the layer’s effect ends.

Title/Action Safe

The title/action safe area can be most easily visualized by gridlines demarcating areas of a screen. They show that on certain types of televisions some areas may be cut off so to make sure that the text and graphics show up the readable parts need to be inside of the Title Safe Area. The Action Safe area is a larger area which acts as more of a margin for the television. Picture elements should be kept within this area.

Motion Tracking

Showing tracking as a way to do a screen replacement on a phone. Motion tracking is the process of recording the position, rotation, and/or scale data of a moving object in video. By tracking the motion of an object, new objects or effects can be added to the composite. Motion tracking can also be used to create a stabilization in footage that is shaky.


In Flash, the area between the two keyframes where the data is being interpolated is called a tween. It's derived from the word "between".


Typography is the technique for arranging type. Sometimes typography is well done and easy to read which is the goal, but sometimes typographers explore less perfect forms of arranging to communicate other ideas with the type.

Vector vs. Raster Graphics


Vector Graphics

A vector graphic is the most common graphic type found in motion graphics and typically come from Illustrator. A vector graphic is based on paths or stokes which lead to different control points which make up the graphic. Each one of these points has a definitive position on the work plane. Vector graphics are popular because you can scale it up or down and it never loses quality.


Raster Graphics

Pixel-based raster graphics will typically come from a program like Photoshop. These graphics are made up of individual colored squares (pixels) which are all assigned a specific location and color value. The amount of pixels that make up a graphic is determined by the resolution. So this means if a bitmap graphic is scaled up or down it can lose quality. With motion graphics vector based images are typically used more often, but there are still times when a bitmap graphic is very useful.

Work Area

The work area is the bar in the timeline area that allows one to focus on different parts of their video. This may be for rendering or previewing a specific part of the video or just wanting to focus on a particular area for editing without the distractions of other elements at other points on the timeline.

That's a Wrap

Now that you have a basic understanding of the terminology you'll likely come into contact with, you should have more confidence as you start creating your own motion graphics work. To learn more about motion design check out the After Effects motion graphics tutorials.