How Templates Can Actually Enhance Your Creativity

Let’s talk about templates. Templates can make an editor or a designer’s afternoon simple. They can make a session with a client time-efficient. Templates can make a production smooth sailing. Motion graphics templates can be an easy plug-and-play solution to a lot of the problems that editors and designers just don’t have the time or skillset to do on their own. Templates are great.

But there are downsides to using templates:

  • Flexibility: That lower third you downloaded is one-size-fits-all.
  • Personalization: Those wipes probably don’t perfectly match your color scheme.
  • Originality: That end logo animation you’re using has probably been downloaded and used in hundreds of other productions.

Many artistic “purists” look at templates with disdain. They see them as cheesy, corny, and/or rudimentary endeavors of design that lack substance or creativity. But I would like to make the argument that templates can actually help boost your creativity. It just takes a new perspective.

Nothing is New Under the Sun

“Everything is a Remix” was a widely popular documentary series created by filmmaker Kirby Ferguson. It looked at remix culture in both films and music, showing how some of the most iconic songs and films scenes were “borrowed” from previous creations. The series was viewed millions of times and led to Ferguson giving this TED talk in 2012 where he makes the claim that the foundation for creativity is copying, transforming, and combining previous works, transforming them in some way, then combining other elements to create something new. It’s a fascinating watch.

If we take this mindset and apply it to templates, we open up a whole new world of creativity, birthed from a new perspective—a perspective that will not only let us take advantage of the benefits of templates, but will also improve our own creativity in the long run.

Reverse Engineering the Template

Almost all creativity requires purposeful play.

Abraham Maslow

There are a plethora of companies like Rocketstock, Pond5, Videohive, and MotionVFX that will happily sell you a package of slick transitions for $29.99, or a logo animation for $49.99. They will also all look very similar from site to site. But, here’s the thing. It’s really not all that hard to turn those wipes, animations, and lower thirds into something functional and personalized for the project you’re working on. It just takes a little bit of know-how. You know what’s a great way to learn that know-how? Take those templates and pull them apart.

Using what was already built and continuously stepping in and tweaking things can help you create something that is much more suited to your project, your ideas, and your creativity.

The first thing to do is to get a template. For the purposes of this tutorial, I’ll be using the 4k Lower Thirds Pack template for After Effects which I downloaded for free from Rocketstock (you can sign up for Rocketstocks’ newsletter and get access to freebies that are released once a month). Most stock companies offer freebies as well. Even though I’ll be working with this specific template, you can apply these techniques across the board.

Once you’ve got the template you want, make a copy of the original project files before you start messing around. It’s always good to have the original. You never want to totally mess up the only version you have.

The template that you’ve downloaded is not a terribly complicated set of compositions. But there is a bit of a learning curve to wrap your head around exactly what the building blocks are. It’s that learning curve that is keeping this market alive and well-funded.

Once you’ve got the template open, you’re probably only going to see about two to three layers in the composition.

This is a good thing and a bad thing. This is good because it makes it very easy for the end user to change only what needs to be changed (e.g. the text). On the other hand, this is bad because there is so much that is hiding down below that is prime for digging into and tweaking.

Unclick the shy button at the top of the composition and all of a sudden we’ve got quite a number of new layers in our composition. From here we can start to familiarize ourselves with all of the options that are ripe for changing.

Start with turning some layers on and off to see what they do and how they alter the timeline. Highlight a layer and hit ‘U’ to expand all of the keyframes that were used for that layer. Take a look at what kind of interpolation the keyframes have. Do they ease in and ease out, or are they linear?

Typically these compositions are made up of a number of other compositions nested inside, called pre-compositions (pre-comps for short). These are indicated by the filmstrip looking icon next to the layer name. Double-clicking one of these will open up a new composition with more layers. These pre-comps are where the magic happens and these are where you would want to start playing with fonts and colors and sizes.

Rule #1 with pre-comps though, is that there is a butterfly effect that can happen. By changing the size of a layer in a pre-comp, you can unknowingly affect the composition that that pre-comp resides in. It’s a good idea when making changes to jump back to the previous composition to see what sort of changes occurred there as well. By taking it slowly with one little change at a time, you can get a handle on how that slick template was built and you’ll be able to start adjusting the sizes, positions, colors, and fonts.

The more you get comfortable playing around and changing templates, the more you can make them your own and the more of an arsenal you’ve got to work with on your next production. By stripping these templates down to their most basic parts, you can stockpile a bunch of templates that you can easily use as starting points for any project you have going forward.

Re-creating Templates in Your NLE

There are going to be times when a lower third or a wipe template was built strictly for After Effects or Premiere. But what if you work in Avid or Final Cut? Avid, for example, doesn’t natively work with the blending options that can create the transparencies in After Effects. Re-creating simple lower thirds or wipes in other NLE’s is actually not that hard. Use the template as an inspirational resource for creating keyframes in your native NLE if the template does not translate. While every program is different, most of the concepts do translate from one to another, allowing you to rebuild a template in the software of choice.

Cropping and keyframing color layers and adding some moving text on top of it is a great way to start flexing your creative muscles and take advantage of the tool that you regularly work in, or a newer NLE that you’re trying to get comfortable in. This is all part of the process of using templates to boost your own creativity.

After Effects Resources

Learning After Effects is not an overnight endeavor. It takes time, it takes practice, and it takes guidance. Templates are put together by professionals. The more you start to pull apart these professionally created templates, the more there is to learn. Masks, parented layers, alpha channels, camera moves, and lighting can all be incorporated in one fashion or another into these templates.

Sometimes we all need a helping hand and thankfully there are TONS of tutorials to help us wrap our heads around how these templates are built. One of the best I’ve come across is by Andrew Kramer. He has literally hundreds of great templates with accompanying tutorials and breakdowns to really help in understanding the ins and outs of After Effects.

Eventually, you’ll be able to see a template you like and be able to build it from scratch, allowing you full customization and creative control. But even if you don’t want to build from scratch, downloading some freebies and personalizing them is a great way to build a library for yourself.

Great Artists Steal

Good artists copy, great artists steal.


You are undoubtedly familiar with this famous quote from Picasso. Kirby Ferguson even uses it in the aforementioned TED Talk when Steve Jobs was famously quoted as using it as a basis for Apple “stealing” so many of its creative ideas (e.g. Graphical User Interfaces). If you have any qualms about using templates as a basis for boosting your creativity, rest easy knowing that hundreds, if not thousands of great artists before you have “copied” their way to fame and fortune.

The difference between the amateur and the professional is that the amateur copies blindly, without bothering to understand the material. The professional treats the original with curiosity and care, adapting it to fit a new project with a new voice.

There is a myriad of ways to really start to learn how to get creative with After Effects and templates. In a pinch, they are a great resource to be able to fall back on. But being able to understand how the templates that we’re all using are constructed and how they operate can free us all from the corporate creations being sold for $29.99. And with a little bit of elbow grease and know-how, you can take your production to a whole new level, boost your creativity, and impress the producer sitting behind you with more than just your editing skills.

Kris Ramsey

Kris Ramsey is a NY based editor with nearly two decades of television and film experience. Well versed in Avid and the Adobe packages there isn't much he hasn't edited, nor much he hasn't edited on.