After Effects 5.5
At a Glance
After Effects 5.0 (4.0 mice. ; Reviews, August 2001 ) took Adobe's high-end motion graphics program to a new level by adding 3-D animation capabilities. Additionally, version 5.0 added lighting and camera controls usually found only in 3-D animation programs. So it's surprising to see how much Adobe managed to fix, tweak, and add to the program, producing After Effects 5.5--an important upgrade that also adds OS X compatibility and a slew of workflow improvements.
Transmissions and Intersections
After Effects' interface and workflow remain largely unchanged: you import media into the Project window and then place those media elements into a Composition window where they can be animated and manipulated. After Effects' great strengths have always been its ability to animate every characteristic and property of a piece of media, as well as its excellent timeline controls. In addition to animating the camera (your viewpoint) and lights, you can also animate your composition's layers to create elements that move and spin in 3-D space.
Version 5.5 augments After Effects' 3-D capabilities with a number of important improvements. Version 5.0 had a well-known inability to correctly render the intersections of different 3-D objects. This problem has been fixed in After Effects 5.5, and objects now intersect properly without incorrectly obscuring each other. For some time, Adobe has made this advanced 3-D renderer available in beta form to users of After Effects 5.0, and version 5.5 includes the finalized version.
The most impressive 3-D feature is the new Light Transmission property, which lets layers cast colored shadows onto other layers. Light transmission means that when light passes through a semitransparent object, it takes on the color of that object. So lights can now cast colored shadows, allowing you to create more-realistic renderings, as well as effects such as stained-glass windows.
Any layer can now be designated as a shadow caster, meaning the layer itself is not visible in your scene, but its shadow is. Combining shadow casters with light transmission means you can create complex virtual lighting gels for building more sophisticated lighting setups. High-end 3-D users will be pleased to learn that After Effects 5.5 can import Maya camera data, meaning that you can match After Effects' 3-D camera to a camera move scripted in Maya. This facility means you can accurately rotoscope and render scenes that contain complex camera moves into Maya.
In After Effects 5.5, you can open separate windows with different views of the same composition, which makes positioning objects in 3-D space and navigating your scene much easier than in previous iterations. You can also save your view configurations, and Adobe has added a number of presets, including a four-view setup that will feel familiar to users of 3-D programs.
The new Effects palette makes it easier to find and apply effects. Effects can be listed and sorted in a number of ways and can even replicate the organization of your After Effects plug-ins folder. A lightning-fast search facility lets you quickly find your desired effect by typing the first few letters of its name. To apply effects, you just drag them into your composition from the Effects palette.
The program's new Post Render options provide a lot of handy new workflow shortcuts. For example, you can drag media elements from the Project window directly into the Render Queue window. After Effects will automatically create a separate composition for each element, add it to the render queue, and, after rendering, add the results to your project.
Post Render options also provide a way to create low-resolution proxy media--a lower-resolution rendering of your current footage or composition. Because it's smaller than your original media, it renders and displays faster, making After Effects' environment much snappier and easier to work with. When you're ready to render your final output, After Effects can replace your low-resolution proxies with full-resolution renderings. Though the interface is a little cumbersome, the ability to easily create and manage proxy rendering is a boon to users who create large, complex projects that require high-definition media.
As always, there are two editions of After Effects 5.5: the $649 Standard, and the $1,499 Production Bundle, which includes an additional set of high-end plug-ins. A number of powerful new effects filters are included with both versions of After Effects 5.5, though the Production Bundle offers the most. After Effects 5.5 would be a valuable upgrade even without the addition of any effects filters, so Adobe's inclusion of such cool ones feels like a bonus.
The new Color Stabilizer filter provides a simple way to correct color changes in a clip that suffers from variations in exposure. After applying the filter, you simply click on a white point and a black point in the image, and the filter takes care of the rest, doing a very good job of equalizing and stabilizing color from one frame to the next.
Other new plug-ins include automatic, animatable grid generation, a four-color gradient generator, and a powerful new lightning plug-in.
But the addition of cool new effects doesn't mask After Effects' weaknesses. Though it's a top-of-the-line compositing tool, After Effects still lacks state-of-the-art rotoscoping tools. Though version 5.0 added some great vector painting tools, they're no substitute for the real brushes, paints, and rubber stamp tools that you can find in a more powerful rotoscoping app. After Effects' motion-tracking features--another rotoscoping mainstay--are also showing their age and pale in comparison to those of competing products such as Pinnacle's Commotion 4.
After Effects 5.5 is OS X native, and the CD installs After Effects for either OS 9 or OS X. In our tests, After Effects ran equally well in both OS 9 and OS X, although in one or two tests the program ran faster in OS X.
OS X provides some other advantages as well. Screen redraw is sometimes faster under OS X, and OS X's more-advanced memory management means that After Effects' RAM previews will automatically use all the memory that it can find.
On the downside, all After Effects plug-ins must be rewritten to work in OS X. So if you have a large plug-in collection, you'll have to reboot into OS 9 to apply and render your filter effects there using the OS 9 version of After Effects. Hopefully, vendors will update their plug-ins for use with OS X, but for currently unsupported packages, the OS X future looks grim.
Macworld's Buying Advice
Adobe has done well with After Effects 5.5. The new 3-D effects and huge assortment of interface changes make this an obvious upgrade for regular After Effects users. OS X users should also be pleased with the program's introduction to this OS, if a little leery at the program's lack of plug-in compatibility. After Effects is still weak in the rotoscoping department, but if you design motion graphics for film, video, or the Web, the program remains an excellent choice for compositing and special effects.