AE fundamentals


In this After Effects Fundamentals lesson, you'll learn all about parenting.

Parenting is a way to connect layers so a child layer inherits the animation of a parent layer. This can also be done with properties (as opposed to entire layers).

In this lesson, you'll learn how and why to use parenting and how to utilize invisible layers (nulls) as controllers.

Jump to topic on this page:

Find in video:

Parent Layers


Parent Properties


Nulls as Controllers


Parent Layers

To parent layers, drag the pick whip (spiral icon) of the layer you want to be the child onto the layer you want to be the parent. Remember the child layer will inherit animations that are on the parent layer.

How to parent layers in After Effects

Where your playhead is on the timeline matters when parenting layers. Wherever your playhead is will determine how the animations on the parent are inherited on the child layer.

Parent Multiple Layers at Once

First select multiple layers that you want to be children (click the first layer, hold shift, click the last layer, OR hold ⌘/Ctrl while selecting layers). Then drag the pick whip of any one of the children-to-be layers to the layer you want to be the parent.

Un-Parent Layers

Use the drop down menu on the child layer to select "None". Or ⌘/Ctrl click on the pick whip of the child layer. Both these methods also work with multiple child layers selected.

Where your playhead is also matters if you decide to unparent layers. Wherever your playhead is when you unparent is where the child layer will be "dropped off" (i.e. it will stay where you left it).

Parenting Rules

  • Child layers can have their own animations. These won't affect the parent layer.
  • Once parented, any new animations created on the parent layer will be inherited by the child layer/s.
  • A child layer can only have one parent (there are workarounds though).
  • Family trees are a thing. In other words, a parent layer can have a parent and that layer can have a parent, and so on. You can make chains of parents and children as long as all the other rules are followed. (A parent's parent should obiously be called a grandparent, but I don't know if Adobe has technically assigned it that name).
Note: The opacity property doesn't participate in parenting. You have to parent the child's opacity property to the parent's opacity property (see below for how to parent properties).

Parent Properties

If you want a layer to have one of its properties animated in the exact same way as another layer, you can parent their properties. To set this up:

  • Make sure you can see property you want to parent on both the child-to-be and parent-to-be.
  • Drag the pick whip (spiral icon) next to the property on the child layer to the property on the parent layer.
How to parent properties of a layer in After Effects

Where your playhead is when you parent properties doesn't matter because the child will copy the parent's animation exactly. In other words, its not a relative connection like parented layers.

Compare the animation below, where the child's rotation is parented to the parent's rotation, to the animation above where the whole child layer was parented. Note that the parent layer has the same keyframes in both animations.

Parented properties

It's easy to parent the same property, like how in the example above, the rotation property of the triangle was parented to the rotation property of the square. It's possible to connect different properties but this can get into expressions, which is outside the scope of this lesson.

Nulls as Controllers

A Null Object (let's go with "Null" for short) is an invisible layer that you can use to control other layers. Usually the Null acts as the parent for multiple layers. There are tons of uses of Nulls, but there's a simple example below.

To create a Null:

  • Go up to the top menu bar: Layer > New > Null Object
How to create a null object in After Effects

Here's what a Null looks like:

Null objects

Nulls make excellent parents because you can use them to control multiple children layers at once. In the example above, by parenting the triangles to the null and animating the rotation of the null, the triangles will move in a circle.

Nulls aren't visible when you export (render) your final animation. Also, if you put the composition with the null in it into another composition it won't be visible there.

All the keyboard shortcuts you need, in one place:

Up Next

In the next lesson, you'll learn about working with artwork from Adobe Illustrator in your After Effects animations.