Give It Some Zip: How to Make After Effects Perform Faster

Ever heard the saying “slow and steady wins the race?” While it’s great advice for those who are running marathons, it is just the opposite of the ideal experience for a motion graphic designer. When an artist is in that long sought creative “zone” of graphic design having to wait 5 or more seconds for an image to refresh can make the magic wear off in a hurry. I mean, would Picasso be a happy customer if every paint stroke took 5 seconds to show up on his canvas? I doubt it. For this very reason, it can be of utmost importance to know some tips on how to keep your program running smoothly during the entirety of your production.

After spending several years working with Adobe After Effects, I feel pretty confident in saying that the basic reasons for why the program can sometimes slow to a crawl will inevitably fall into one of three categories: hardware, software, and work flow. That being said, the best way to speed up After Effects is of course, a hardware upgrade. However, hardware upgrades can be incredibly expensive – not to mention time consuming. Instead, it can be a good idea to just upgrade the most important parts of your computer that give After Effects its speed. Let me be clear: a faster processor is always going to give you the biggest bump in speed but there are other pieces of hardware that can do a lot for your computer as well. Also, it is always best to have the newest version of Adobe’s software as each new update tends to give faster render times due to increased support of GPUs and more efficient coding. That being said, if you want longer previews in After Effects, you will want to buy more RAM. After Effects versions from CS4 and below can only recognize 4 gigabytes of RAM unless multiple copies of After Effects’ renderer are open using multiprocessing, so try and get at least 6 to 8 gigabytes of RAM in order to max out your RAM in After Effects and have a little left over for other applications that need to be open. Thankfully RAM prices are as good as they’ve ever been making it possible to buy 8 gigabytes of DDR3 1600 megahertz RAM package for only $175.00. Another piece of hardware that can really help you speed up After Effects is a couple of fast hard drives. By putting your footage to one fast HDD that your computer can read from while writing rendered files to another fast hard drive you will notice a faster playback and render time. If you have some money to burn, your best option will be to buy two solid state drives that attach to your computer’s PCI-e slots giving you potential read times of 80-260 megabytes per second and write times of 60-160 megabytes per second. If you don’t have cash like that to burn, them some high end 7,200 RPM hard disk drives should still speed up your After Effects compositing. With the introduction of After Effects CS5 and its Mercury Playback engine, it’s now possible to get significantly faster render times by upgrading the GPU of your computer. It accelerates rendering, encoding, and opening of large projects. One of the best graphics cards you can get at this time is the NVIDIA Quadro 6000 or an ATI Sapphire Radeon HD 5970.

Of course, the hardware and software aren’t the only things that can help you speed up your rendering in After Effects. Sometimes some good ol’ fashioned workflow efficiencies can help as well. One of the easiest examples is just to lower the quality of the previews in After Effects from full to half or even quarter depending on the dimensions of the image to start with. While in this lower resolution, you could animate and preview your camera movements and then switch back to a full quality preview to render out quick, single frames for design purposes. Also, if you are designing a project that will be using more than 10-15 layers of video or graphics at a time, you may want to think about working in proxies or pre-rendering a section of your project first. If your project is has a 3D bouncing ball set inside of a highly stylized background with dust particles rendered in Particular all around it, your best bet for speeding up your workflow is to render your bouncing ball element, your complex background, and your dust separately. Then once these pre-renders are made, you can combine them back into your main timeline and do your color corrections and tweaking from there. In this way, After Effects only has to render three video layers rather than 15 or more. Also, you can make a proxy of the video and graphic files that you are using and design your project in a smaller window, allowing After Effects to process the information faster. Then once you are finished animating and designing your layers, you can simply reconnect the higher resolution versions and then render the project. If all else fails (or if you have an aversion to proxies and pre-renders like I do), you can always use some fancy scripting to make your project faster. For instance, has a free script called Throttle that can speed up After Effects CS4 by allowing you to set the quality of the Toggle Pixel Aspect Correction button in the Comp View. They also have another script called the BG Renderer which allows you to render your Render Queue items in the background while continuing to work in After Effects.

I’m sure there are many other efficiencies that will make After Effects faster, so feel free to comment below if you have any good tips for our readers. Either way, it can be a huge relief to know that there are solutions to a slow as molasses After Effects project and I hope that I’ve helped you find some here!

Daniel Bruns
Daniel Bruns
Dan Bruns is an award winning cinematographer and editor.

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