Nodes vs. Layers

In most editing software, you use tracks. Tracks are different from layers in that tracks can hold numerous elements such as multiple video clips, and each video clip can have multiple effects layers attached to it. In some editing software, you can even attach effects layers to the tracks.


A layer is a singular level inside a layer based software. This singular level can be anything from a video layer to an image. Each effect is also represented individually as a layer. Layers can be combined into bins, directories and groups. In some layer based applications like After Effects (AE), you can nest entire compositions, consisting of layers and groups, into other compositions. Additionally, effects like blur and color correction can be applied to each individual layer. However, if you want blur and color correction on all layers, you will either have to duplicate the effect multiple times or nest it into a new composition. As a direct result of the need for nesting, projects can become quite large, difficult to navigate and unruly.

Layers in Adobe

It is no real secret that the reason layers are talked about in the visual effects world is the ubiquity of AE and Photoshop. In fact, most node based software companies assume you have used either Photoshop or AE before ever touching their software. The real question is, why switch from layers if it is so prevalent? The biggest point of contention is the lack of built-in 3D compositing in AE. AE is really a 2.5D environment. Additionally, as mentioned before, the bigger your project gets, the harder it is to deal with in AE.

The Value of AE

If you do motion graphics frequently, the ability to create simple, fast graphics quickly and easily is unparallelled in AE. Its integration with Photoshop makes it even more appealing. People who edit on Adobe Premiere will also find the interconnection to be highly convenient. Last but not least, people often find it very hard to switch from layers to nodes. If you are accustomed to using layers, there’s a steep learning curve for nodes; you’ll probably find that, initially, nodes are not very user-friendly.

A great rule of thumb is go big and go nodes or keep it small and stick with layers.  


A node is a singular level inside a node based software. This singular level can be anything from a video to an image to a solid. Nodes in groups are called networks. Nodes can contain their own networks. Effects like blur and color correction are their own nodes. All you have to do is connect the blur node to the node of whatever you want to blur. If you want something else to have the same blur, just connect the blur to that as well. One change to the blur will affect both nodes if they are both connected. Unlike layers, you don’t have to change the blur for each layer. This is important for big visual effects shots where you can have anywhere from ten to one hundred nodes or layers. If you decide you don’t like the blur on one node, just delete the connection to that node. The blur will still continue to affect all other nodes.

Nodes in Fusion

Currently, Fusion 7 is a free software download from Blackmagic Design, so it provides the perfect opportunity to learn about nodes. The grid in Fusion’s node layout makes it very easy to organize your nodes, even for beginners.

Take a look at our example. Does a node-based composite in Fusion look scary? It might, but once you understand how it works, it’s so simple, you will be shocked to find that creating graphics takes longer than actually compositing.

If you look at the images we’ve created, out of the 45 active nodes, only 16 of them are used for the composite. If you look at Image A, you will notice those sixteen nodes clearly displayed. In the upper left of Image A, you will notice the original green screen. The image to the right in Image A is the finished initial composite.

Fusion 7 screen grab showing sixteen nodes, original green screen and initial composite.
Fusion 7 screen grab showing sixteen nodes, original green screen and initial composite.

In Image B, we once again see the finished initial composite as well as the final shot. You will also notice that all 47 nodes are displayed to give an idea of the scope of the node network for the shot. The green nodes are files — an image, footage, or even an image sequence. The tan nodes are all roto or matte layers. The gray nodes are adjustments like transform, blur, color correction, etc. Blue are 3D nodes. Fusion, like most node based compositors is in a 3D environment. The pink nodes are particles. The gold nodes are light for the 3D. The nodes in a line at the bottom are all merge tools leading up to the saver node, which is pretty much an exporter or render node.

Fusion 7 screen grab showing finished initial composite and final shot.
Fusion 7 screen grab showing finished initial composite and final shot.

For those who are looking to do large scale projects with network rendering, Fusion 7 Studio is available for purchase from Blackmagic Design at an affordable price considering its size and scope.

Nodes in Nuke

Nuke is probably the most frequently used software for high-end visual effects for feature film, TV, commercials and music videos. It’s reliable, stable, and has the most plugins of any of the node based softwares. What sets Nuke further apart are its unparalleled keying tools. If you’ve ever purchased a plugin from the Foundry for AE such as Keylight, you will find it works the same way in Nuke. Of course, Nuke comes with a high price tag, which is why Nuke is used almost exclusively by visual effects professionals. The Foundry has a free 15-day unrestricted trial version of Nuke. They also offer a personal learning edition (PLE) of Nuke with limited features for free, if you want to try it out for an extended period of time.

The DaVinci Resolve Hybrid

DaVinci Resolve, in some ways, is a hybrid using the best of both layers and nodes. When using DaVinci, you have a normal editing track-type system, allowing you to cut and edit as if you were in a NLE. However, your color correction, compositing and effects are node based inside the clip. Think about any editing system; when you double click a clip and open effects, instead of having layers, you have node networks. This comes in handy if you are doing heavy amounts of color correction and compositing in clips. What makes Davinci Resolve so convenient is that you can do all your color correction, composites and effects without having to leave your editor. Last but not least, if you wanted to apply a tint node, you can apply it directly to the track itself, and it affects all the clips in the track. Currently, you can purchase DaVinci Resolve or get it free with most Blackmagic camera purchases. Davinci Resolve Lite can be downloaded for free at Blackmagic Design’s website. The Lite version is actually fairly comprehensive; the biggest difference between the two versions seems to be network rendering capabilities and work with 3D footage.

The Smoke Hybrid

Autodesk, known for the 3D industry software standard Maya, has their own hybrid, Smoke, for Mac OS only. Like DaVinci, it includes a normal track-type system for editing and a node system for compositing. If you’re working heavily in Maya or 3D Studio Max, you might prefer the easy integration with Smoke, but it does come with a hefty price tag that will probably relegate it to professional use only.

Nodes or Layers: Which is better?

To be honest, there is no right or wrong answer. They both can achieve the same effects. Software preference will factor greatly into your decision. The more that you use one software type, the more you will become accustomed to that system. Just remember that layers are not great for huge projects with many items and effects; likewise, projects with little footage and few effects are sometimes not the most efficient for nodes. What it really boils down to is personal preference. A great rule of thumb is go big and go nodes or keep it small and stick with layers.  

Nesting in After Effects

Nesting is a confusing feature in a layer-based system such as After Effects that many users don’t fully understand. The best way to illustrate the use of nesting is a simple square test. In layers, when you apply a blur, you apply it directly to the layer. This blur is unique to the layer it’s on. To apply this blur to a second layer, you would have to copy and paste the effect into another layer; however, any changes you make to one blur would not affect the other. When you do this, you are not bluing the whole image but rather the layers themselves. As you can see from Image 1, when you blur all the squares individually, you get bleed from the layer below. When you nest the comp and use blur, you blur the whole image. Image 2 demonstrates how the blur should look when done correctly. Proper nesting affects things from color correction to most layer effects. If you are having problems with an effect that you have tried to paste to multiple layers, chances are that you should be nesting instead.  

Simple square test in After Effects.
Simple square test in After Effects.

Wéland Bourne is an award-winning filmmaker as well as a VFX and motion graphic artist.

Susan Schmierer
Susan Schmierer
Susan is the Art Director at Videomaker and Creator Handbook Magazines.

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