How to Use Adobe Premiere Pro Masks

Premiere Pro October 19, 2020 9 min read

Masking in Adobe Premiere Pro is a great skill that can not only help with creating cinematic looks, but can fix a variety of issues with your shots. The most common use for a mask is to create a vignette or to crop the footage into a specific shape, but once you have mastered the tools, you will find a host of other ways to use the effect.

What is Masking in Premiere Pro?

Masking is the process of adding a shaped boundary to an asset, for which the effect applied will only affect the portions of the clip in or outside of the border. Premiere Pro’s masking tools allow you to add the mask directly to the clip, or an adjustment layer above the clips. The masking icons will only appear in the effects which will enable masking, and these are numerous so we can’t cover them all. First, let’s look at cropping your footage into a specific shape using a mask.

How to Create a Mask with Shape Tools

Premiere has two set shape masks: a circle and a square. Both of these can easily be added to your clip with a single click. With your clips edited in your sequence, locate the Crop effect in the Effects Panel, and add to the clip you wish to mask.

Crop Effect

In the Effects Controls, you will see the crop effect added. Click on the Crop drop-down to reveal the controls. We’ll start by diving into the rectangle and circle tool before moving on to the pen tool.

Click on either of the shapes and the mask will be added to your clip in the Media Viewer.

Mask shapes

You can now amend your mask size and shape within the media viewer until you are happy with the form. To create the cropping effect, return to the Effects Control panel, and using the Crop percentages, remove the areas of the shot. Use the Inverted checkbox to designate whether the effect is applied to the inside or outside of the mask.

See, not as difficult as you thought! Now let’s try something a little more advanced.

Creating a Custom Form Using the Pen

If you want to mask your footage into a shape other than a circle or square you can use the pen tool.

Once you have selected the pen tool, you can draw directly on to your footage in the Media Viewer. Each time you click on the footage, you will create a point in the shape, continue adding points until you are happy with your form, then click on the first point to complete the loop. A single click will create a corner point, which will give you a sharp angle to your shape. If you click and drag, the point will be given handles, which will allow you to create curved edges.

Using the pen tool takes practice, especially if you are trying to create specific shapes that need to be symmetrical. Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it.

How to Modify and Move Your Masks

Once your mask is a complete shape, you can play around with the points on your mask until it is perfect.

Add a Point

You can add another point to your shape by clicking on any part of the mask line.

Add and Remove Handles to a Point

You can add and remove handles on a mask by holding ALT and clicking on the point in question.

Move the Mask

You can move the mask around the screen over your footage by clicking in the center of the shape and dragging it.

Feathering and Adjusting Mask Edges 

In the Mask Effect Controls, you will see three other settings: Feather, Opacity, and Expansion. These can each help to define your mask and help create amazing stylistic looks to your pieces. 

Expansion

The Expansion control allows you to increase or decrease how close to your shape line the footage is masked. If you are creating complex shapes, changing your mask explanation can help smooth out some of the rougher edges, meaning you don’t need to spend hours getting each angle perfect. 

Feathering

Feathering allows the effect to slowly fade in or out from the mask edge. You can designate how much feathering there is both from the Effects Control panel and within the media viewer.

Opacity

Opacity works in much the same way across all Adobe software. When applied to a mask it will change the Opacity of the footage you have cropped out. 

Copying and Pasting Masks

Copying a mask to another clip is super simple. Click on the clip with the mask you want to copy, select the effect in the Effects Control panel and go to Edit > Copy (Command C for Mac / Control C of PC) Select the clip you wish to paste to in the sequence, and go to Edit > Paste (Command V for Mac / Control V for PC) 

Copying and pasting individual masks is perfect if you wish to copy a mask to specific clips, but if you want to affect your entire sequence, it is much easier to add an adjustment layer.

In the Project Browser go to New Item > Adjustment Layer. A new Layer will be automatically added to the Project Browser. Drag this to the sequence and position it above the clips you wish to effect. Add a mask to the adjustment layer using the process described above. The effect will now be applied to all clips that fall below the layer in the sequence. You can copy and paste masks between Adjustment layers, or between Clips and Adjustment layers in the same way. 

Using an adjustment layer can save you huge amounts of time if you later need to edit your mask. You’re already becoming a more efficient editor!

Bonus Tips

We’ve shown you how to use masks for cropping, but masks can be added to nearly any effect that changes the look of your clips. 

Here are a few of our favorites:

Color 

Masks can be added with all color effects, allowing you to create stunning visuals in your films beyond the standard fade to black vignette. Here, for example, we have used a Tint effect to remove all of the color from outside of the mask. Using masks with color effects can also help to fix shots where there is a considerable amount of contrast, as you can selectively lighten or darken parts of a scene. 

Blur 

Blurs are great for creating a focal point on your footage. Once a blur effect is added, the same masking controls appear in the Effects Control Panel, allowing you to blur specific parts of your shot. If you want to add a title to a clip, then you’ll find this helpful. 

Color Mattes

While Premiere has a heap of built-in text boxes for you to use, sometimes only a custom effect will do. Masking Color Mattes are a great way of creating colorful shapes for your videos without needing to go to Illustrator, Photoshop, or After Effects. 

How to Use Masks

Make Objects Disappear

If you’re working with existing footage and you don’t have the opportunity to go back and re-shoot, you want to make sure you can get the most out of what you’ve got. Let’s say you have a great shot of a beach, but what if there was a change of plans and instead of someone walking through the frame, you actually wanted it to be just the ocean? Well, you can make this person disappear thanks to the masking tool:

  1. Select the footage to which you want to apply the mask. 
  2. Under Opacity in the Effects Controls panel, click on the oval to create an Ellipse Mask
  3. Draw the mask around the subject you want to mask out.
  4. Click on the keyframe next to Mask Path
  5. Set the keyframes at the beginning and the end of the shot to make the mask follow your subject.

You should now see the oval mask tracking the subject across the frame against a black background. But how do we combine the mask and the background shot?

  1. Feather the mask by sliding Mask Feather underneath the Mask controls. You’ll want to do this a lot to effectively blend it with the background.
  2. If the feathering starts to cut into the subject, expand the mask using Mask Expansion.
  3. Invert the mask. This should appear as a black oval moving against the background.
  4. Duplicate the footage and place one clip above the other.
  5. Select the bottom clip and delete the mask.

You should be left with the original scene, looking like you didn’t do anything to it. Now you need to move the bottom clip to a different time, so it doesn’t show the subject within the mask.

  1. Select the Slip tool (Y)
  2. Then move the bottom clip forward or backward in time. Note: You may need to cut some of either end of the clip to make this work, but this should remove the character from the scene.

Bear in mind this may not work for every scene—it works best with tripod shots against a fairly simple background—but play around with it, and you’ll quickly see how useful the mask tool can be in this situation.

Make Isolated Lighting and Color Changes

If you’ve got a small part of your scene that feels a little overexposed, underexposed, or you just want to manipulate some colors, you can actually create your own makeshift power windows to tame certain areas.

  1. Right-click in the Project Manager and create a new Adjustment Layer.
  2. Drag the adjustment layer over your clip.
  3. Highlight the adjustment layer.
  4. Under Opacity in the Effect Controls panel, select the Pen tool.
  5. Draw around the area you want to control.
  6. Feather the mask to blend the edges into the rest of the frame.

Finally, apply your chosen lighting controls to the adjustment layer—change the brightness, contrast, color—whatever you want to alter. This should now just affect the area you have selected with the pen tool.

Alternatively, if you don’t want to use adjustment layers, you can actually mask directly from the Lumetri Color effect in your Effect Controls panel.  

Masking Your Text To Make It 3D

By masking your text, you can quickly give depth to your titles and create the impression that your text is within the world of your footage. Imagine somebody walking past a title, wiping the text as they go. This kind of immersion is easily created with Premiere Pro masking. To do this:

  1. Create a Mask around the title you want to appear 3D.
  2. Keyframe the Mask Path in the mask controls.
  3. Move the clip forward frame by frame. As the object crosses the text, simply readjust the edges of the mask to align with the edge of the subject. Do this until the text is completely covered up.
  4. Reduce any harsh edges by Feathering the mask.

Spend as long as you like making the edges of the mask and the object line up perfectly. The more time you take, the more precise you can line up the edges and the more effective the end result will be.

Track a Subject’s Face To Give it More Life

As well as isolating stationary objects to amend lighting, you can also apply this to moving objects such as people’s faces. This lets us brighten up a face to give it more life and make a portrait really stand out.

  1. Create an Oval Mask and position it over the subject’s face.
  2. Within Mask Path, click the Play button to track the selected mask forward. Let Premiere Pro analyze the footage. Note: The longer the footage, the longer this will take. This will result in an isolated face tracked against a black background.
  3. Duplicate the layer and place it on top of the first layer.
  4. Delete the mask from the bottom layer.
  5. Feather the mask in the top layer to blend it into the rest of the footage.
  6. Apply your chosen color effect to the top layer to create the desired result, whether that is brightening the image or changing the color completely.

Once you’ve mastered that, go one step further by applying the same effect to specific parts of the face such as the eyes. You may not notice the difference at first but toggle the effect on and off to see how the image comes to life.

Troubleshooting

Masks can be tricky things, and sometimes no matter what you do it doesn’t look right. Let’s have a look at how to fix some of the most common errors.

Twisted Handles 

Sometimes you may have created a perfect shape and can see all the handles, but it does not look how you are expecting, with a small sharp loop where one point is. Usually, this is because the handles have been turned in the wrong direction. Select the point and spin the handles until the edge is smoothed out. 

Point Clusters 

If you move a point and it appears only partially to change the shape, it could be because you have several points clustered around it. Unless you are working on a huge screen, the media viewer will be quite small, and you can’t always see every single point on the mask. Zoom in to check that there are no additional points, and delete the ones you don’t need by holding Command/Control and selecting the point you wish to remove. 

Playback 

Occasionally you might experience playback issues when using masks. Don’t panic, this is usually to do with the effect you are using rather than the mask, but it’s always a good idea to make sure your sequence is rendered – check out this helpful article for tips on rendering. 

Being able to use masks in your editing is a valuable skill that can help you create some stunning visuals as well as fixing certain filming errors. The ability to be able to selectively place your color corrections give you the tools you need to treat specific problems such as white spots in your footage. 


While you can rely on plugins and effects like the standard Premiere Vignette, learning how to use Adobe Premiere masks without other tools will allow you a greater ability to both experiment and problem solve.