You seem to understand the basics here but let me make a few points just to clarify what has to happen to make your workflow efficient and keep the animations working.
You can save any After Effects project file as a template by doing a save as command from the file menu. That will get you to step one. If you created your project by importing your master Illustrator file as a composition with either option selected you can automatically replace all of the layers in the project using a single right click browse and click if you follow a couple of rules.
- The AI file must have exactly the same layer names, number of layers, and layers must be exactly the same size
- The AI file must have exactly the same name
- The replacement file must be in a different folder
Follow those rules and you can just open the Illustrator template, select the folder with your replacement footage, and then select one of the layers in the you want to replace and choose replace footage.
A simpler option, the option you described as setting up a bunch of duplicates, would be to create a new folder for each of your versions. Create your master Illustrator file and AE project inside the Master older. Now Copy and paste the original AE file into each of the version folders. Now simply open each Illustrator file inside each version folder and edit the content making sure that you follow the rules above. Now when you open the AE file inside the Version folder you will not have to replace the footage.
Here are a few problems with this workflow. First, your animations may not work if you change the size of any layer in the AI file. Second, you end up with a bunch of duplicate file names on your system. Third, It's hard to keep things straight.
There are other approaches. The first would be to create an animation preset for each of the layers in your master file. Just press UU to reveal all changed properties in a selected layer, select everything that is animated. If there are expressions in the layer make sure the properties with the expressions are also selected then go to the menu and select Animate>Save Animation Preset. When you have all of the animated layers in your composition saved as animation presets you can then start a new AE project, import your AI file as a composition exactly as you did before, and then select the layers one at a time and apply the animation presets to the appropriate layers.
This avoids the duplicate file name issue and allows a different version for each Project.
Another option is to use scripting to create a script that replaces all layers in a composition with a new source file. Here again, you must design your animation to either work with layers of different sizes or all of the layers in the new footage must be exactly the same size as the original master AI file.
Probably the best option would be to design your project so that the majority of the layers would be the same and come from a master file, then add another file that contains only the elements that you want to change. Most of my template projects involve text changes only and the text does not come from Illustrator, it comes from text layers. I'm referring to lower thirds. In that case I use a script that creates comps from spreadsheets. I simply load up the master template file with the master artwork, have a spreadsheet created with the data I need to replace, then run the script and a project with a bunch of new comps is automatically created and sent to the render cue to create the digital intermediates or sent to the Adobe Media Encoder for rendering the deliverable files.
To tell you the absolute truth, most of the work that I do that seems to be kind of like the work you are describing just involves opening an Illustrator file as a comp and applying a few animation presets to the layers. I have about 300 custom animation presets in my library that can be used on any layer of any size to create motion. Here's one of my favorites. It causes any sized layer at any scale to fly in, bounce then drop out of the frame no matter what size the comp. The only thing you have to set is the in and out point of the layer.
Wow thanks Rick
Very definitive reply. Pretty much coming to the same conclusion/ thoughts as you. It's all a bit messy! But it's good to know that I'm on the right track and not heading down a crazy path. All my skills are self taught so it concerns me when something technical like this comes up, that I won't be going about it the right way.
I've just seen this script - Templater - aescripts + aeplugins - aescripts.com
Seems ideal really. May even be helpful to you? Editable text in After Effects does also seem the best way for changing stuff like that (or using this script). Great idea about creating animation presets too, I normally do it all by hand each time (with ease and wizz or graph editor etc) but creating a preset for a movement is a brilliant idea. Light bulb moment!
I'll check out your preset. Thanks so much for your help