We live in a great time. The Internet has made learning much easier than it ever has been. Sites like Twitter & Facebook allow us to converse and share thoughts and links in real time. Tutorials are abundant. Just about everyone can open up a browser, head over to a few choice sites, and learn programs like After Effects and Cinema 4D.

Unfortunately, that’s becoming a problem. Not that just about everyone can do it—on the contrary, that’s a great thing! No, the problem is that just about everyone does it the same way. Having had the opportunity to look at reels for job applicants, it becomes quite apparent who’s been following along with Andrew Kramer or Nick Campbell. At times entire reels are built of nothing more than the end product of those tutorials.1

Now, tutorials are an important part of online learning. They are a great resource for picking up tips or tricks that you may not have otherwise known, learning techniques to make life easier as a designer, or even figuring out how to accomplish a certain aesthetic you’ve always wanted to learn. What they should not be, however, is a simple recipe to accomplish an end product. That turns it into stock footage… and stock footage is generic by nature. The last thing a reel should be is generic.

So how should you approach a tutorial? There’s no universally correct way, but there are a few things to try.

 

Learn Techniques, Not Effects

One of the best ways to get the most out of a tutorial is to focus on the techniques used. It’s the whole “teach a person to fish” philosophy. If you are picking up techniques, you can apply them to other projects very easily. Take one of the more recent tutorials on Video Copilot, Galactic Orb. Most people will walk away from that tutorial knowing how to zoom out of a shiny orb. That will have its uses, but if you instead realize you’re learning the importance of pre-composing, how to use the Turbulent Displace plugin, using simple expressions to drive animation over time, pre-rendering (even touching on “Set Proxy”), and other techniques, you can build so much more than a simple orb.

 

Build Something Different

This can be a bit more difficult if you’re just starting out, but the benefits are great. Put simply, from the start, set out to create a completely different result than what the tutorial ends up with, but utilizing the same (or similar) techniques. This is difficult because you can’t just follow a tutorial step by step; it forces you to think about what’s really being taught and applying it to something different. In the end, you’ll have a better handle on what you’ve learned and be able to apply that to other projects in the future with much less effort.

 

Work Backwards

Sometimes, you can learn more by looking at the result of a tutorial first, then trying to figure out how it was made. This is another way to force your brain into actively learning instead of just mirroring what the tutorial is doing. In many ways, this is really how motion design works in general. You have an end goal in mind and you must figure out how to get there. You might learn new ways of working, or better hone your current abilities. Either way, you’re getting more than just a new render.

 

Watch the Right Tutorials

There are so many tutorials out there which are just bad. While it’s not always easy to spot them right away, there are a few tells.

  • No audio. A good tutorial will have the instructor narrating along and describing what they’re doing.
  • Constant stalling, searching for files, and generally not knowing what they’re going to do next. If a tutorial instructor is unprepared, it will be much more difficult to learn from them. That said, there’s nothing wrong with an instructor making a mistake, then using it as a teachable moment to describe what went wrong and how they fixed it.
  • Blatant rip-offs of other tutorials. It seems like everyone is searching out Internet fame, especially by attempting to be a source for tutorials. Sometimes, they will just lift tutorials from major sources like Video Copilot, Motionworks, or Greyscale Gorilla.
  • It’s on YouTube. Now, not all tutorials on YouTube are bad, but many are. In general, it’s a good idea to go to sources you trust for instruction, or at least places like Vimeo where there is a more dedicated (and often more civil) community.2

 

This advice won’t necessarily apply to every tutorial out there, nor will it apply every time you are viewing a tutorial. Sometimes you just need a refresher on a certain look or technique. Sometimes the tutorial itself is very broad in its application, teaching techniques that can apply to many things. But if you are searching out tutorials for general learning and to improve your skill set, you need to approach them with a broader mind and learn more than just the end result.

If after completing a tutorial, you think back and realize all you have to show for it is a new render and nothing else, you should try something different. Remember that everyone else can watch, and is watching these same tutorials. In order to improve your reel, your craft, and your chances of landing that next job, you need to do more than passively follow step-by-step. In the end, you will learn more, have some new unique pieces for your reel, and perhaps most importantly, be proud of what you’ve accomplished.

  1. One time I caught a decent particular tutorial and people were posting their results in the comment thread. One user had a video which was identical to the tutorial with the exception of being longer and having different text. I approached him about that via a YouTube message, and indicated the importance of moving beyond the steps in the tutorial. He got very defensive and said he did change it… by changing the words in the type treatment. []
  2. I don’t mean to insult anyone on YouTube. I realize broad, general stereotyping can do that. But in general, the signal-noise ratio on YouTube seems to be quite low. There’s some gems in there, but there’s a lot to wade through in order to find them. []