The Adobe After Effects Export Guide (Part One): Codecs

This guide explores the export capabilities of Adobe After Effects.

It is written for the beginner, so you can understand what is possible with Adobe After Effects and what isn’t. Hopefully by the end, you should be able to decide whether After Effects is the right tool for your workflow or not. I highly recommend you read the Adobe After Effects manual (click here to see how to get it) for a more detailed overview once you’re done with this guide.

In this part we’ll look at the basics of exporting, and which codecs are supported.

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free guide (with examples) on how to find the best camera angles for dialogue scenes when your mind goes blank.

How to export a movie from Adobe After Effects

To start, go to File > Export  and you’ll get this:

AE Export Options

You have four major options:

  • You can export media
  • You can export a Premiere Pro project
  • You can export a Cinema 4D project
  • You can export the project to a third-party application via XML (Only FCP 7 XMEML. There is no FCPXML support).

In this part, we’ll look at what options you have under exporting media or masters. Adobe After Effects gives you three options:

  • Add to Adobe Media Encoder Queue… (AME)
  • Add to Render Queue
  • Adobe Flash Player (SWF)…

I’m not going to cover Flash, as it is a special case not common in most video projects.

The AME vs direct export choice is sort of a grey area. I have made detailed tests of Adobe After Effects CC and CS6 with and without AME (direct), and my results can be found in Comparison of Rendering Speeds in Adobe CC vs CS6 (Adobe Media Encoder, Adobe Premiere Pro and Adobe After Effects). In short:

Adobe After Effects renders faster with direct export over AME. I recommend you use the direct export option unless you are forced to use AME.

Select the composition you want to export. There are two ways to directly export:

  • Go to File > Export > Add to Render Queue
  • Go to Composition > Add to Render Queue

Codecs supported by Adobe After Effects for export

In AME, you have the following choices:

AE AME Codec Options

On the other hand, direct export gives you the following options:

AE AME Codec Options

Notice the ‘More Formats in AME’ in the end? If you compare the two you’ll find that’s not entirely accurate:

  • Direct export has PSD, OpenEXR and SGI image sequences support. Under Quicktime it has access to almost every codec installed under Quicktime in your system. If you’re on Macs, that includes Prores.
  • AME on the other hand has DNxHD MXF, legacy camera codecs, and support for web and mobile devices.

I recommend you first export a high-quality master from After Effects directly, and then import it into AME for web or device export. When the speed of AME improves, then Adobe will probably phase out direct exports – who knows?

There is no AVI uncompressed video option. You can export uncompressed video via Quicktime.

After Effects supports the following audio codecs (though I would strongly advise against using AE for audio):

  • AAC
  • AIFF
  • MP3
  • WAV

The maximum size of a composition in After Effects is 30,000 x 30,000 (900 MP). For frame rates you can choose any number from 1 fps to 99 fps. However, don’t go crazy because export codecs don’t support uncommon frame rates.

The Render Queue

This is my favorite export method, in any software. This is what it looks like:

AE Render Queue Options

You can stack as many renders as you want, from different compositions or settings. Hit render and go home. Something like that.

The Render Queue is divided into three parts:

  • Render Settings
  • Output Module
  • Output To

Render Settings

Click on Best Settings:

AE Render Settings Box

If you’ve setup your project correctly from the start, you most likely will not need to make any changes to the Render Settings. When you’re exporting a master or high-quality video, Quality will be ‘Best’.

You should control your resolution from the composition settings menu. Two important things to be aware of are:

  • Color Depth: Even if your project is in 32-bit float you might be rendering to 16-bit (good enough for the best work) or even 8-bit. Don’t forget to read Should you raise Bit Depth and Color Space before color grading?
  • Time Span: Sometimes you only want to render a specific area, in which case you select the ‘Work Area Only’ option. For the whole composition, you select ‘Length of Comp’. You can also select a custom area.

Output Module

This is the most important area of the Render Queue. Click on Lossless:
AE Output Module Settings

The Output Module has two tabs:

  • Main Options, and
  • Color Management

Under Main Options, you select the Format (which means wrapper most of the time). For the actual codec, click the Format Options… button.

Under Video Output, you can select the Channels (RGB, Alpha and RGB+Alpha). Color Depth has the following options:

  • 256 colors – avoid
  • Millions of Colors – 8-bit
  • Millions of Colors +
  • Trillions of Colors – 16-bit
  • Trillions of Colors +
  • Floating Point – 32-bit
  • Floating Point +
  • 256 Gray – avoid
  • Floating Point Gray

I have explained the meanings of these terms in How does Adobe After Effects handle bit depth?

If you’re going to preserve your camera or editing metadata (from Prelude  for example), then check Include Source XMP Metadata. When exporting a final master, uncheck Include Project Link.

The Color Management tab looks like this:

AE Color Management Output

This is probably the most confusing aspect of the Adobe After Effects rendering process. It’s not confusing because of the software, but because of peoples’ misunderstanding of color management. You must select the Output profile of your delivery color space (99 times out of 100 it’s Rec. 709). Adobe After Effects takes care of gamma if you set up the working space and the output profile correctly, even in Linear mode.

Output To

This is easy. Just select the destination on your drive and hit Save.

When you’re satisfied with your settings, check them again. After that, hit Render. On large projects, the estimated time will always be way off base, so don’t rely on it completely. On short projects (minutes) it is somewhat accurate, so you can time your coffee, meal or sleep break.

Creating a master from Adobe After Effects

I prefer these settings in general for your master:

  • Cinema, Shorts, Documentaries and Broadcast: Uncompressed DPX sequence (10-bit log) or uncompressed TIFF (16-bit linear). 32-bit is only if you’re sending files further down for heavy VFX. No exceptions!
  • Blu-ray and DVD: Standards are fixed to H.264 and MPEG-2. Use the maximum data rate possible, and I recommend using Encore after having created a master in Adobe Media Encoder. Unfortunately, Adobe has killed Encore.
  • 1080p Internet and Mobile Device: 8-10 Mbps H.264
  • 720p Internet and Mobile Device: 5 Mbps H.264
  • SD Internet and Mobile Device: 1 or 2 Mbps H.264

To know why I’ve selected these data rates, read How to compress video for the Internet.

You can use the above values as a starting point and then go as low as possible until the quality is no longer acceptable. The only time I draw the line is with the uncompressed option. Even a ‘measly’ 5-minute 4K corporate video is only 400 GB uncompressed. A 4 TB drive costs about $150, and you can dump 10 of these videos in one drive.

Remember, I’m talking about the master, not the deliverables. Deliverables are created from the master. I can’t begin to imagine why anyone would want to spend thousands (if not millions) on an important watershed project and then master it in a compressed codec.

In Part Two we’ll look at how to export projects to Premiere Pro, Cinema 4D and other third-party applications.

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free guide (with examples) on how to find the best camera angles for dialogue scenes when your mind goes blank.