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July 8, 2023

After Effects Plugins vs. Scripts vs. Extensions

After Effects has tons of third party plugins to make the tool even more powerful and speed up your workflow.

Often people use the term “plugin” to talk about all third party After Effects tools. This is somewhat of a misnomer, since a “plug-in” is a specific type of third party tool, separate from scripts and extensions.

In this post, I’ll cover the unique attributes between After Effects plug-ins, scripts, and extensions.

What is an After Effects plug-in?

An After Effects plug-in is typically written in C++, uses the After Effects SDK, and has the power to do more things than are natively possible within After Effects. This usually involves manipulating the actual pixels of a given layer.

Plug-in files are either .aex (Windows) or .plugin (Mac).

Once a plug-in is installed, it can be applied via the Effect menu.

While plug-ins are extremely powerful, the effects generated by plugins typically cannot be shared between users unless they both have the plug-in installed. This is why many After Effects templates will list “no plug-ins” as a feature.

Examples of After Effects plug-ins:

Lockdown from Chris Vranos

Element 3D from Video Copilot

What is an After Effects script?

An After Effects script is written with ExtendScript (aka JavaScript ES3). This is used to communicate with the After Effects API in order to automate existing functions within After Effects. That means almost everything done with a script is technically possible to do natively in After Effects without the script, but scripts will help you do those things faster and more precisely.

A script can either be a single standalone function or have its own panel (usually with multiple functions), these are called ScriptUI Panels.

Script files are either .jsx or .jsxbin.

You can run a standalone script from the File > Scripts menu.

You can open a ScriptUI panel from the Window menu. Most After Effects ScriptUI Panels can be docked to fit within your workspace.

Since scripts typically perform native After Effects functions, you can usually use a script on an After Effects project then share it with another user even if they don’t have the script themselves.

Examples of After Effects scripts:

Type from AE Screens

Explode Shape Layers from Zack Lovatt

What is an After Effects extension?

The frontend of an After Effects extension is written with modern HTML/CSS/JavaScript, but the backend still uses ExtendScript (aka JavaScript ES3) to communicate with After Effects. This means the UI of an extension can be as complex (or as simple) as any webpage, while the functionality itself is mostly limited to the After Effects API.

Extensions can also be used in other Adobe applications like Premiere Pro, Illustrator, and Photoshop. However most extensions will be designed for a single application.

Just like After Effects scripts, work done with extensions can typically be share between users even if they don’t have the extension themselves.

Extension files are .zxp.

Once an extension is installed it can be opened from the Window > Extensions menu. Just like ScriptUI Panels, extensions can be docked to fit within your workspace.

Examples of After Effects extensions

Overlord from BattleAxe. This is an After Effects and an Illustrator extension.

Skew from Good Boy Ninja

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