My dad is a CPA. My uncle is a Creative Director for an ad agency. Somewhere along the way, I picked up my uncle's creativity with my dad's love of organization and detail. That's why I love using pre-comps in my After Effects work.
When I first started using After Effects, I used it mainly as a color correction tool and as a tool for creating lower-thirds. As I started moving from the shallow end of the After Effects swimming pool into deeper waters, I started adding in more layers, more animations, more effects, more everything. As I tried more things, the larger my individual compositions became - layers upon layers upon layers. Soon it was difficult to make sense of everything.
This finally came to a head when I had to create a 2 minute video all within After Effects. The video consisted of several different video clips, layered in 3D space within several different comps. Those comps were then layered into a master comp and a single camera moved throughout each composition.
Once the project was complete, I immediately felt sorry for any future editor who might have to revisit the project. I wasn't sure he/she could make heads or tails out of what I put together. That's when I knew I needed to better organize my After Effects projects by pre-composing as much as possible.
Creating a Pre-Composition, or Pre-Comp, within After Effects is a great way for organizing a project. It helps to break down large projects into more manageable, bite-sized chunks. Rather than having one composition with hundreds of layers - each with its own effect - you can take a few layers at a time, send them to their own pre-composition, and create a particular effect or animation within that self-contained pre-composition. Then, when that pre-comp is ready, you can move it into your main render composition, and it shows up as one single layer, even if your pre-comp consists of a dozen (or more) layers.
Using pre-comps also make it easy to make changes to your video during the approval process. Rather than having to shuffle through dozens and dozens of layers in one convoluted composition, you can quickly open up the pre-comp containing a particular effect or animation, make your change, and then the Master comp will reflect that change.
Here's a brief example of how using pre-comps can be useful in your workflow:
If you need to create a lower third that contains a few lines of text, a ribbon background with feathered gradients, an optical flare, and an animation during fade in and fade out, you don't need to clutter up your main composition with all of those extra layers, masks, effects, and animations. Take all of those layers and pre-compose them. Give it a specific name, like Lower Third 01. Create the title within the pre-comp. Then, when ready, take Lower Third 01 and place it in to your Master.
Utilizing pre-comps has really helped me to better organize my After Effects projects and to speed up my work flow. It's a great habit to get into, especially if you work on a team where different editors are each sharing the same project.
If you have any After Effects tips, or workflow suggestions, leave them in the comments field.