Mastering the Basics: Common 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 of the different terms you'll likely encounter on your journey to becoming a great motion designer. This article will teach you some of the most common motion graphics terminology so you can have a better understanding of each one and what they mean.


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.


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 most common frame rate is 24 frames-per-second, meaning 24 individual images are displayed over one second. However, depending on the output the frames-per-second may vary.


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.

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.


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.


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 will most likely be working in After Effects, and After Effects 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.

Adjustment Layers


An adjustment layer is a type of layer that is 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.

3D Layers

3D_Layer When creating motion graphics in a program like After Effects the basic graphics you manipulate are flat two-dimensional layers. With a 3D layer the layer itself remains flat, but it gains additional properties like position, anchor point, scale, and rotation. Any layer can be a 3D layer, creating the illusion something is 3D when it's actually 2D.  


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.


Timeline The timeline is an interactive interface found in a program like After Effects that displays all 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.


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.

Ease In and Ease Out

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. In After Effects this can be quickly achieved with an Easy Ease keyframe. 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.


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. Now that you have a basic understanding of the key terms you will likely come into contact with you will 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.