After Effects 4 Expert Clinic

Adobe After Effects is arguably the most popular motion-graphics program in the personal computer world. Broadcasters use After Effects to create commercials and other TV graphics; film producers use it to create special effects, shooting actors against blue backgrounds and then compositing them into a scene. Multimedia producers use it when creating CD-ROM game titles, spicing up QuickTime video with special effects such as lens flare and lightning.

And now this favored eye-candy store has been remodeled. After Effects 4.0 brings improvements in performance, tighter ties to Photoshop and other Adobe programs, even more special effects, and interface enhancements both major and minor (see Reviews , May 1999). So where do you start?

Here's a guide to taking advantage of some of the best new features in After Effects. Unless I note otherwise, everything here applies to both the Mac OS and Windows versions of After Effects 4.0, and to both the $995 base version and the $2,195 Production bundle.


Effects are what this program is all about, and After Effects 4.0 ups the ante in several ways. Besides including numerous new effects?such as Beam, which renders laserlike light?After Effects now provides more control over how and where you can apply effects.

But browse the After Effects manual, and you'll find very little information on the specific settings of After Effects' built-in effects. Adobe yanked the gory details from the manual and put them in After Effects' new online help system. Also, check out the Read Me file that After Effects installs on your hard drive. It's different from the Read Me file on the After Effects CD-ROM, containing more last-minute details and some useful tips. Meanwhile, here's a look at some of the most compelling new effects features.

More Masking
Masks, which control what's visible or hidden in an image layer, have always been an essential part of After Effects. Want to have an image visible within a piece of text? Use masks. Need to put an image on a TV set that was shut off when the original footage was shot? Again, use masks.

In After Effects 4.0, masking is greatly improved. You can have up to a whopping 128 masks per layer instead of just one, you can scale and modify masks with far more accuracy than in earlier versions, and you can copy and paste masks from Photoshop and Illustrator.

Text Paths
With the new Text Path effect, you can attach text to a mask or to a path that you've drawn or imported. Use keyframes to change the text's margins over time, and you can have text race along the most complex of paths. You can also animate the text's spacing, color, and other characteristics.
See "Get Your Text on the Run" for a tour and some tips.

Adjustment Layers
In previous After Effects versions, if you wanted to apply the same set of effects or transformations to numerous layers, you had to laboriously copy and paste them into each layer. No more. Now, simply choose New Adjustment Layer from the Layer menu and apply the effects to the adjustment layer. After Effects applies your modifications to all the layers that appear below the adjustment layer in the Time Layout window.

Motion Sketching
After Effects' Motion Sketch feature is a huge time-saver that enables you to create a complex motion path by simply drawing it in real time. Motion Sketch used to be included only with the high-end Production bundle, but now it's included with the base version, too.

If you're an After Effects veteran, though, you may have trouble locating Motion Sketch: it no longer appears in the Layer menu's Keyframe Assistant submenu. Its new home is the Window menu's Plug-in Palettes submenu.

Audio Additions
Finally?audio is no longer a second-class citizen in After Effects. Version 4.0 includes several new audio effects for adjusting stereo panning, tweaking bass and treble, and creating echo-like delay effects. The Production bundle goes much further, providing an excellent reverb plug-in, a tone generator, a parametric equalizer, and more. Best of all, you can animate these effects over time?simulate a room expanding from closet-size to concert hall-size.

After Effects now supports audio scrubbing?the ability to hear audio in real time as you move the Time Layout window's current-time indicator. To scrub, press command (on Windows PCs, Ctrl) while dragging the current-time indicator.

Adobe also touts After Effects 4.0's ability to use Premiere-compatible audio plug-ins?of which there are many. But read the fine print: you'll see that After Effects demands plug-ins written specifically for Premiere 5?of which there are precious few.


Creating effects is a chore filled with enough calculations to choke Will Hunting. Here are five steps you can take to lighten the load on your computer.

1. Preview Smarter The new RAM preview feature displays speedy previews by loading content into memory and then playing it back in real time, complete with audio. But how much gets loaded into memory depends on the nature of your composition and on how much RAM you've allocated to After Effects.

Two factors that influence the RAM preview's duration are your composition's frame size and its render resolution. If you're working with a 640-by-480-pixel frame size, a full-resolution RAM preview will devour close to 1MB per frame. To get longer RAM preview times, lower the comp's resolution, using the Composition Settings dialog box. Dropping to 320 by 240 will enable you to preview four times as many frames.

Another way to get more out of RAM previews is to hold down the shift key while clicking on the RAM preview button (or pressing its shortcut key, 0 on the numeric keypad). Pressing shift tells After Effects to load only every other frame into RAM. The resulting preview's motion isn't as smooth, but the duration of the preview can be twice as long using the same amount of RAM.

Audio can also affect the maximum duration of RAM previews. Normally, After Effects processes audio at full resolution: 44kHz, 16-bit stereo. For RAM previews, that's usually overkill. The solution: choose Preferences from the File menu, and in the General Preferences dialog box choose a lower sample rate (such as 22kHz or 11kHz), 8-bit audio, and mono (if you don't need to preview stereo).

At the opposite end of the quality spectrum, say you do a RAM preview at full resolution and with all quality settings (motion blur, frame blending, and so forth) turned on. If you then use the Make Movie command to render a final movie, After Effects will take the RAM-based frames that it created for the preview and write them to disk. This will dramatically speed up the final render.

As for memory, the more you allocate to After Effects, the better?not just for RAM previews but for all your tasks. Use the Finder's Get Info command to boost After Effects' allocation. And turn off virtual memory?RAM preview works best with real RAM. (On Windows, these steps aren't applicable. To make as much RAM as possible available to After Effects, simply quit any other programs you're running.)

2. Render Right Video producers commonly render multiple versions of a final project: a full-screen version for videotape output, a quarter-screen version for a CD-ROM, and an animated GIF for a Web site. But too many After Effects users make the mistake of duplicating the composition in the Render Queue window and then changing the settings for each duplicate. This approach forces After Effects to recalculate each and every effect, dramatically increasing render times.

Here's the right way to do multiple versions. In the Render Queue window, select the comp and choose Add Output Module from the Composition menu. You'll see a second output module appear in the Render Queue window. Double-click on the new module, and a dialog box for changing its settings appears. This way, After Effects performs some of its hardest calculations just once and uses them as the basis for each version you create. And should you interrupt rendering to check your results, you'll have partial versions of each setting.

When rendering, you'll get faster results if you close all windows except for the Render Queue window. Or at the very least, close the Composition window so After Effects doesn't have to display a preview for each frame it's rendering.

3. Use Layout Aids After Effects 4.0 introduces new features that streamline layout. When you see rulers in the Composition window, you can create PageMaker-like alignment guides: click within a ruler and then drag down (for a horizontal guide) or to the right (for a vertical one).

To align elements quickly, use the new Align & Distribute palette in the Window menu's Plug-in Palettes submenu. This new palette works similarly to its counterpart in Adobe Illustrator.

4. Don't Neglect Caps Lock Normally, After Effects updates the Composition window every time you tweak an effect or other setting. If you're going to make several tweaks, press the caps lock key first?this defers updates and thus saves time. When you're ready to see your handiwork, press caps lock again. This shortcut existed in previous versions, but it's important enough to warrant repeated mention.

5. Master the Interface The preceding tips will make After Effects run faster. To make yourself run faster, master After Effects' keyboard and mouse shortcuts. Many of them, such as context-sensitive menus that appear when you control-click on something, are new to After Effects 4.0 (see "Timesaving Shortcuts").


After Effects 4.0 improves on the tighter Adobe family integration that began with version 3.0. This makes life even easier for you when you use multiple apps to create your final video product. Here are the highlights.

Working with Premiere
After Effects 4.0 can import Adobe Premiere projects as compositions. This enables you to use Premiere for the kinds of tasks it excels at?and for which After Effects can be cumbersome. Say you're creating a music video where rapid-fire cuts must be synchronized to a tune. Premiere's time-based design makes this a cinch, so create the cuts in Premiere and then bring the project into After Effects to apply the visual icing.

After Effects imports transitions you create in Premiere, but only as placeholders. However, it doesn't import transparency, motion, and filter settings, so resist the urge to apply effects in Premiere. After all, that's what After Effects is for.

Working with Photoshop
After Effects 4.0 not only imports Photoshop images and retains layers but also retains adjustment layers, transfer modes, layer effects, and paths. Say you've used the Outer Glow layer effect in a Photoshop file. Bring that file into After Effects, and you not only retain the glow but can also animate it so that its color, blur, and intensity change over time?very cool!

To retain effects, remember to import Photoshop images using the Photoshop As Comp command in the Import submenu. If you import using the Footage File command, you'll lose these goodies.

Working with Illustrator
Import Illustrator images using the Illustrator As Comp command, and After Effects preserves all of the image's layers, enabling you to animate them independently.


After Effects is a robust program laden with subtleties, and a great way to learn more about it is by swapping ideas with other users. Two online resources enable you to do just that: Postforum ( http://www.postforum.com/AfterEffects/ ) and Adobe's own user forum ( http://www.adobe.com ). After Effects is also a common discussion topic on several Usenet newsgroups, including rec.video.production and comp.graphics.animation.

And don't forget to just play. Set aside some time to experiment with the new After Effects, trying effects and features you wouldn't normally use. When all is said and done, that's the best way to realize the full potential of the world's most popular eye-candy store.

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July 1999 page: 103

Part I:

Create the Path in Photoshop

First you need to create the original path in Photoshop. Here I used a simple road-sign outline that I imported from Adobe Illustrator.

  • Create a selection whose shape matches that of the mask. For this example, I just selected the road-sign shape (A) with the magic-wand tool.
  • In the Paths palette, click on the Make Work Path button (B).
  • In Photoshop's Tools palette, activate the Direct Selection tool (C).
  • In the document window, option-click on the path you just created. Pressing option tells Photoshop to select the entire path, not just the point you click on.
  • Choose Copy from the Edit menu, and then switch to After Effects.
  • Part II:

    Paste the Path into After Effects

    Now you're ready to paste the path into After Effects, creating a mask. In these steps, you'll paste the path into a new layer, stroke it, and apply an effect to it?all capabilities new to After Effects 4.0.

  • Open the composition that will hold the mask.
  • From the Layer menu, choose New Solid.
  • Choose Paste from the Edit menu. After Effects then pastes the mask into the solid.
  • In the Effect menu, choose Stroke from the Render submenu.
  • Specify the stroke settings in the Effect Controls window, choosing the name of the mask to be stroked here (D).
  • Part III:

    Add the Text

    Now you're ready to add the path text.

  • In the Effect menu, choose Path Text from the Text submenu. Type the text in the dialog box that appears, and choose the desired font.
  • There are a variety of ways to make text race along a path, but the easiest is to change the text's margins over time. In the Time Layout window, expand the Path Text effect and add some new keyframes for the Left Margin attribute, using the Effect Controls window to change the left-margin setting for each as shown here (F). Animating the margin with keyframes moves the text along the path.
    Select the path to which the text should be attached here (E). Baseline shift (G) puts some space between the text and the stroked path. Check here (H) to display the path to which the text is attached.
  • When you're done, just render out the effect and watch the text race along the path!
  • See the QuickTime video ("Get your kicks with After Effects")

    After Effects is replete with keyboard and mouse shortcuts, and version 4.0 introduces new interface-customizing opportunities. Here's a quick roundup of some of the most useful ones.

    See the Animation

    You've opened a project created by a colleague?or that you created six months ago?and all of the settings in the Time Layout window are collapsed. How do you quickly find out which layers have animation keyframes assigned to them? Easy: in the Time Layout window, click on the layer and then press the U key. After Effects expands the layer to show animation values. To collapse the layer, press U again.

    Here are some other useful show/hide keyboard shortcuts for the Time Layout window.

    To Show/Hide
    This Property Press
    Anchor point A
    Audio levels L
    Opacity T
    Position P
    Rotation R
    Scale S

    Customize Window Labels and Columns

    After Effects enables you to customize its Time Layout and Project windows to show as much or as little information as you want to see. You can change the order of many columns by dragging their headers.

    To hide a column, point to it and press control. From the pop-up menu, choose Hide This. While the pop-up menu is visible, check out its other Panels options. You can now create a Comment column that enables you to annotate a tricky animation?handy for documenting a cool effect so you can re-create it.

    Get Your Kicks with After Effects

    Adobe After Effects 4.0's improved masking features pair up nicely with its new Path Text effect. In this example movie, the text Get your kicks on Route 66 attaches itself to the shape of a highway sign, and then takes a spin around the sign's contours. You can learn how to do this effect in After Effects 4 Expert Clinic in the July issue of Macworld.

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