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How Blending Modes Work in After Effects

How Blending Modes Work in After Effects

Take an in-depth look into the world of blending modes, and decide which selection is best for your VFX project!

From creating cool double exposures to compositing VFX smoothly, blending modes are a great tool when working with multiple layers. Of course, different blending mode selections work better than others at accomplishing certain tasks.  

While you might have a couple of go-to blending modes, we’re going to take an in-depth look at some of the most popular ones out there. You can then decide which one is right for you in any given circumstance, without having to haphazardly scroll through them all every time.

Stick around until the end of this article for a really helpful (and little-known) tip to help you work faster with blending modes in After Effects!  

Blending Mode Categories

It’s good to know what’s actually taking place when blending modes are applied to your layers. Blending modes are broken up into several different categories, hence the dividing lines you may or may not have noticed before in the menu. Each category specializes in accomplishing a specific task, and here’s how that breaks down.
Normal: No blending occurs
Darken (Subtractive): Darkens the image and removes white
Lighten (Additive): Lightens the image and removes black
Contrast (Complex): Enhances contrast, -50% gray, uses multiple blending modes
Comparative (Difference): Highlights differences between layers
Color (HSL): Performs various color shifts based on hue, saturation, and luminosity
Matte: Converts Layer 2 into a matte for Layer 1, based on various parameters
Utility Category: Special use modes

Before you select a blending mode, think about which category your desired result would fall under. This saves you time from trying out various blending modes that may not even be in the right category for what you want to achieve.

Blending Modes in Action

When you twirl down the blending modes menu in most Creative Cloud apps, you’ll see several modes that will probably be obsolete for 99% of the projects you’ll be working on. The ones you especially don’t need to worry about are the “classic” modes, which are intended for use with products from version 5.0 of Adobe’s Creative Suite and below.  

Before we list a description of some of the most popular blending modes, check out this video first to see some of them in action within After Effects.
Now for a brief outline of some of the most useful blending modes for VFX work. Let’s assume that “Layer 1” is on the bottom, and “Layer 2” is above it.  

Darken: Darker portions of Layer 1 replace the brighter sections of Layer 2, culminating in an overall darker look.
Multiply: All color except white on Layer 2 is blended with darker sections of Layer 1.
Color Burn: Blends Layers 1 & 2 with harsher contrast, white is ignored on Layer 2.
Linear Burn: Layer 1 becomes darker as it blends with Layer 2, which remains dominant.
Darker Color: Only shows the darkest sections of the darkest layer.
Lighten: Only shows the brightest sections of the brightest layer.
Screen: Blends more evenly between both layers.
Color Dodge: An inversion of Color Burn.
Add: Layer 2 gets brighter, as it blends with Layer 1.
Lighter Color: Only shows the lightest sections of the brightest layer.
Overlay: If Layer 2 is lighter than Layer 1, the colors produce a screen effect. If Layer 2 is darker than Layer 1, the colors yield a multiply effect.
Soft Light: Same as Overlay, but with a more subtle result.
Hard Light: Dramatically more contrast between the blends of Overlay or Soft Light.
Vivid Light: Utilizes both Color Burn and Color Dodge to yield an even harsher result than Hard Light.
Color: Layer 2 takes on luminosity of Layer 1, while maintaining the hue and saturation of Layer 2.
Luminosity: Color on Layer 2 takes on hue and saturation attributes of Layer 1, while maintaining the luminosity of Layer 2 (inverse of Color effect).
Stencil Alpha: Produces a stencil matte above Layer 1 from Layer 2’s alpha channel.
Stencil Luma: Produces a stencil matte above Layer 1 using Layer 2’s luminance values.
Silhouette Alpha: Generates a silhouette using Layer 2’s alpha channel.
Silhouette Luma: Generates a silhouette using Layer 2’s luminance values.

Remember the “special” category in the blending modes menu? There you’ll find Alpha Add, and Luminescent Premul. These two modes perform the following non-artistic, yet beneficial housekeeping functions:

Alpha Add: This mode is useful primarily in cases where you’re joining multiple 3D layers, and anti-aliasing is occurring. Alpha Add allows you to remove visible edges if Layers 1 & 2 both have inverted alpha channels, or if the alpha channel edges touch during an animation. This mode simply adds complementary alpha channels to Layers 1 & 2 to remove those pesky edges and leave you with seamless transparency.

Luminescent Premul: When using a premultiplied alpha channel in your layers, you may run into some clipping when color values extend beyond the alpha channel value after compositing Layers 1 & 2. Luminescent Premul remedies the color clipping issue. 

Below is a cool cheat sheet you may want to print off that showcases how blending modes operate within their respective categories:
Ed Sarkissian, Behance
Of course, this wasn’t an exhaustive list on every blending mode in After Effects. If you’re interested to learn more behind the magic of blending modes, check out Adobe’s deep dive in their official After Effects User Guide.

If you’ve ever wanted to know how to animate blending modes, there isn’t a simple keyframing option in After Effects or Premiere Pro. However, Adobe gives a simple workaround to achieving this effect in their “Help” section:
“You can’t directly animate blending modes by using keyframes. To change a blending mode at a specific time, split the layer at that time and apply the new blending mode to the part of the layer that continues. You can also use the Compound Arithmetic effect, the results of which are similar to the results of blending modes but can change over time.
As promised, here’s the neat trick that will help you speed up your use of blending modes in After Effects. You can use the shortcut in the video below to rapidly cycle through blending modes. 

It sure beats clicking through each blending mode layer individually, and gives you a great way to see all your options if you’re ever unsure of what blending mode you need to use.
We hope you found this explanation of how blending modes work to be helpful! When it comes to using ActionVFX products, blending modes are especially important if you want to achieve believable results in your shots.

Below is a great tutorial from our very own Rodolphe Pierre-Louis, CEO of ActionVFX, on how to use blending modes to composite our VFX assets. Make sure you check it out!
First time here? ActionVFX creates action stock footage for VFX and filmmaking. (We also have some great free stuff!) 

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