Insider Tips: How to Use Essential Properties in After Effects

Every week, Insider asks one of our expert contributors to share a tip, tool, or technique that they use all the time and couldn’t live without. This week, Laurence Grayson shows how to use the After Effects Essential Properties panel to stay focused on your creativity.

It doesn’t matter if you’re an expert in After Effects or just starting out, you need to know about the Essential Properties panel. It’s a game-changer for anyone working with multiple After Effects compositions.

What is the Essential Properties tool for?

As Adobe’s help page describes it, “Essential Properties work as primary controls allowing you to access layer and effect properties of a composition when nested in another composition.”

In other words, Essential Properties give you access to the primary properties of a nested composition without having to leave the composition you’re currently in. This saves digging through a stack of comps to find the thing you want to change, and lets you focus on the creative work.

By default, the Essential Properties panel already includes Anchor Point, Rotation, Scale, Opacity, and Position—all of which are incredibly useful to have to hand. You might even call them essential. But you don’t have to limit yourself to just these, as After Effects lets you add custom parameters to this panel, too.

You can either add properties to the Essential Properties panel ahead of time, or drop them in later when things become clearer. The process is a lot like building a Motion Graphics Template, and it couldn’t be easier.

How to add a layer property to the Essential Properties panel

  1. Open a composition that’s already been nested (placed inside another comp),
  2. Make sure the Essential Graphics panel is visible (Window->Essential Graphics),
  3. Find the layer property you want to add and simply drag it from the timeline to the Essential Graphics panel,
  4. Repeat this process for all the properties you want to include,
  5. When you return to the main composition and select the nested comp, the properties will now be visible and adjustable in the Properties panel.

Wait, there’s more

The custom properties you added are also now visible in the Essential Properties twirldown of your nested composition. So you can adjust them there, if preferred. This location also allows you to employ the pickwhip, if needed, and provides a Pull and Push buttons that can pull data from, or push data to the source comp. Which can be a handy way to get your original settings back if your adjustments don’t work out.

Just bear in mind that the Essential Properties panel only goes one layer deep—you can’t view the values of a layer that’s been nested in a nested comp, and so on. Things could get a bit Inception-y if that were the case.

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Laurence Grayson

After a career spanning [mumble] years and roles that include creative lead, video producer, tech journalist, designer, and envelope stuffer, Laurence is now the managing editor for Insider. This has made him enormously happy, but he's British, so it's very hard to tell.