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To name a few:
Masking out/removing parts of a piece of footage, such as cutting off edges to place footage in a frame.
Creating shaped edges, or frames, for a piece of footage (like simulating the point of view of someone looking through binoculars)
"Cutting out" an object or person from a piece of footage - see "rotoscoping" or "travelling matte"
Masks are also used to define vectors/edges/lines for other effects, to create strokes/outlines etc.
Thank you Andrew for your reply, I need to do more study on this subject.
Masks also double as guides/ paths for a number of effects such as Stroke or Vegas.
Thank you Mylenium I thought they could be used to isolate a subject from it's background in a moving image.
There's many uses for them. They can isolate areas. Remember that you need to enable animation on mask shape in order to keyframe it. I think all of us have forgotten that at one point or another: draw a mask, move forward in time, adjust the mask, oh damn forgot to enable animation, now i gotta redo my other mask...
If you wanted to use it as a path for an effect, but not "cut out" the image, set mask to "none".
Once you are used to masks, you might feel adventurous and start using paths in Photoshop ("p" pen tool). You can also copy/paste paths from PS->AE.