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I've seen this done in many programs. For example in the 3D world you can create a branch out of a single leaf, and a tree out of a single branch, automatically, by randomizing position and start of animation.

Can After Effects do anything like that? I have a simple animation I want to repeat hundreds of times, like tiles, and in a pseudo random pattern, sort of like noise. Naturally, since it's hundreds of copies of the same animation, I want to avoid placing them manually one by one, for obvious reasons!

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If the animation is going to be relatively small in size on screen, but repeated a lot, I would look at using a Particle engine to repeat the pattern. You could use the built in ones in After Effects, or something like Red Giant’s Trapcode Particular or Form. It is possible to randomise the position of the repeats, and also to randomise the time within each animation as it repeats.

Example of using a leaf to create many leaves using Trapcode Particular:

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