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In After Effects

By Tony LaTorre

My Favorite Mask Colors

On 16, Mar 2014 | One Comment | In After Effects, Software | By Tony LaTorre

Choos­ing the right mask col­ors in Adobe After Effects is really impor­tant if you do lots of roto­scop­ing, or stroking paths, or any­thing involv­ing a lot of mask work. A mask whose ver­tices and han­dles get lost among the com­plex­ity of an image causes mis-clicks which is a huge time waster. And masks that are all the same or of sim­i­lar col­ors make it hard to select the right one, espe­cially if you’re select­ing it in the time­line where a mask is divorced from its shape.

Hidden mask vertex

Can you spot which ver­tex is selected (rollover to see)? Choos­ing mask col­ors can be very impor­tant. Flower Image cour­tesy of Inadesign-Stock.

But what col­ors are best? Here are some handy guidelines:

  • The name of the game is con­trast with the orig­i­nal image, as well as con­trast from each other. There­fore, choose all fully sat­u­rated col­ors, which stand out more and look less “nat­ural” which means they’ll tend not to show up in pho­tos and video footage to com­pete with your mask. Also, the more you desat­u­rate col­ors the more they tend to look like each other.
  • Brighter is gen­er­ally bet­ter. That’s because darker col­ors also tend to look like each other. In addi­tion, masks which are keyframed are 25% darker when not on a keyframe, so you can tell, with­out even look­ing at your time­line, whether you’re on a keyframe or not. If you’re like me and you want to keep your keyframes to the min­i­mum pos­si­ble, this can be handy indeed. But it’s only really use­ful when using bright col­ors as its tougher to tell the dif­fer­ence the darker you get. And with a black mask, there would be zero dif­fer­ence in appear­ance between a keyframed and non-keyframed mask.
  • Give a wide berth between col­ors, for two rea­sons. First, because of the rel­a­tiv­ity of col­ors, a mask set against your image in the com­po­si­tion win­dow may look dif­fer­ent when set against the gray of the time­line win­dow. Sec­ond, the color may actu­ally be dif­fer­ent depend­ing on if it’s keyframed or not (see above). Pur­ple and fuch­sia (hot pink) may look dif­fer­ent enough side-by-side, but com­pare the un-keyframed fuch­sia to pur­ple and it gets a lot tougher to tell them apart.

In order of most to least pre­ferred col­ors, here’s what I use:


1. Red. Likely to work with almost any­thing, even light or dark images.


2. Green. Also works with light or dark images but not good for green screen footage.

3. Blue and Yel­low. Blue works great with a light image and yel­low works great with a dark one.

4. Aqua. Works well enough with light images and great with dark ones, just make sure its hue is far enough away from green and blue.

5. Orange. Works great with light and dark images, but don’t have it too close to red or yellow.

6. Fuch­sia. Nice and bright, just make sure it’s not too close to red.

7. Pur­ple. Good because it doesn’t occur in real world footage very often (some say not at all). But it can be tough to dif­fer­en­ti­ate from blue or an unkeyframed fuchsia.

8. White. Only works for dark images.

That’s it. After toss­ing out the col­ors not appro­pri­ate for a par­tic­u­lar shot/image (green for green screen, bright col­ors for bright images, etc.) I pretty much cycle through the remain­ing col­ors of the group above. By the way, if you don’t want to choose these col­ors man­u­ally in After Effects, use this page instead! Here’s how you do it:

  1. Have this page side-by-side with After Effects so you can see both at the same time.
  2. Click on the color chip of the mask whose color you want to change to bring up the Color Picker.
  3. Click on the eye­drop­per, then click and drag over to the color chip on my page, only releas­ing when over the color. Note: the drag is impor­tant, click­ing on the eye­drop­per, then click­ing on the color on my page only took me to the web browser with my web page, the color never got trans­ferred to AE. The drag must start over a win­dow in AE, then drag to the color you want. This was done on a Mac run­ning Lion using AE’s color picker, you don’t have to do the drag with the Mac OS sys­tem color picker but I don’t know if it’s any dif­fer­ent on other OSs.

Spe­cial Bonus: What Color Do I Like for the Background?

Well, it’s def­i­nitely not black gen­er­ally (the default), because many images have black strokes which makes it tough to tell where the image ends and the back­ground begins. So I use:

Magenta. Not often found in shot footage which is what I’m going for. The only down­side is if you’re doing color correction/grading,the blast of color may affect your ten­der color grad­ing eyes. In that case choose a non-black neu­tral color like dark gray.

There’s no rea­son doing work in After Effects should be any tougher than it needs to be. Choos­ing the right mask col­ors for your shot or image will def­i­nitely help with that.

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  1. Good info. I agree with you and use a lot of the col­ors rec­om­mended here— espe­cially about the con­trast. A mask that con­trasts enough with the back­ground really helps you see if your matte is prop­erly and tightly fram­ing an object — if it’s a pixel or two off and your mask color blends in or is too light, your eye might not notice while you’re work­ing. Thanks Tony!

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