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After Effects 5.0

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For video producers, 2001 has been an upgrade odyssey. This year has seen new versions of Adobe Premiere, Apple's Final Cut Pro and QuickTime, Media 100's CineStream, and now Adobe After Effects, the desktop-video world's top effects and motion-graphics tool. Richly layered video collages, video clips that spin and explode, titles that glow like neon -- After Effects is the best place to whip up these and other flavors of eye candy, and version 5 is the most significant update yet. Adobe has added powerful new compositing and animation features, broadened After Effects' reach to encompass the Web, and enhanced the program's interface in ways that boost productivity and encourage experimentation.

Like previous versions, After Effects 5.0 is available in two forms: a $649 base version and a $1,499 Production Bundle, which provides more effects and capabilities (and is no longer encumbered by a hardware copy-protection key). I tested the Production Bundle, but everything in this review applies to both versions unless otherwise noted.

If you're running Mac OS X, you'll have to wait for the next major release of After Effects to get decent performance; version 5 isn't OS X native, and running it in Classic mode can crash your Mac.

Making a Good Thing Better

After Effects 5.0's interface is nearly identical to that of earlier versions. Most action takes place in the Composition window, where you position, resize, and manipulate imported movies and still images, and in the Timeline window, where you create keyframes that denote changes in an element's properties. But the program offers many interface and operational enhancements. For example, you can now change numeric values by scrubbing (dragging across them).

Previewing is also dramatically improved. After Effects now stores previewed frames in an internal cache, eliminating the need to rerender them unless you make a change that affects their appearance. You can speed previews by having After Effects render only a specific region of the Composition window. Unfortunately, on systems with a large amount of RAM allocated to After Effects, you may experience long delays while the program rearranges memory.

After Effects' Composition window now displays elements as you drag them, and you can now view your work in progress on an external FireWire or analog video device.

Entering Another Dimension

The star attractions of After Effects 5 are new 3-D features that let you create dramatic effects, such as a title with rotating text that casts moving shadows as the text appears to zoom toward the viewer.

To create a 3-D composition, you click on boxes in the Timeline window to designate layers as 3-D. You can then adjust and animate numerous 3-D properties, including position, shadows, lighting, and shininess.

Working with 3-D layers is similar to working with 2-D ones, although you'll need to master some additions to the Composition window. When you select a 3-D layer, a set of axes handles lets you move the layer left or right, up or down, or closer or farther away.

After Effects 5 sees your scene through a virtual camera whose position and characteristics you can animate. You can create multiple cameras and switch between them; when you create a camera, you specify its optical characteristics. For greater realism, you can have the camera exhibit depth of field so that distant and close objects appear out of focus.

Mapping out 3-D camera paths on a 2-D computer screen is tricky, but After Effects' Composition window helps by providing several views. Each shows your scene from a different angle, and you can switch among them to accurately arrange layers and camera positions. Alas, the program displays only one view at a time.

After Effects' 3-D-rendering engine has some limitations. For example, it can't correctly render layers that intersect each other. Adobe is developing an enhanced rendering plug-in that will address this issue; a beta version is available on the company's Web site.

The new 3-D features may be aimed at eye-candy producers, but documentary producers will also love them: they enable After Effects to mimic a rostrum camera -- a motorized camera-and-bench system often used for complex pans and zooms across still images and artwork. Although video-editing programs such as Final Cut Pro and Premiere have simple pan-and-scan features, they lack the versatility and control of a camera (even a virtual one) operating in 3-D space.

Parenting and Expressions

In earlier After Effects versions, making elements change or move in relation to each other required copying and pasting keyframes and duplicating motion paths. After Effects 5.0's new parenting features make short work of these tasks. You can now set up a relationship between layers simply by dragging an icon from one layer to another. You can also apply parenting to 3-D layers, lights, and cameras.

After Effects 5 lets you create relationships between properties as well. By creating snippets of code called expressions, you can have one property affect another, on the same layer or on a different layer. Expressions are written in JavaScript, but you don't have to be a programmer to use them. After Effects' new pick whip builds the expressions for you as you click and drag in the Timeline window. You can modify the expressions After Effects creates, or write your own from scratch.

More Effective

After Effects is all about effects, and version 5 introduces some slick new ones. A new Shatter filter annihilates a layer, exploding it into pieces in a variety of shapes, from glass shards to puzzle pieces. The Radio Waves effect simulates pond ripples, radio waves, Spirograph patterns, and other repeating shapes. The Vegas filter lets you outline elements with pulsing lights and theater-marquee effects. Colorama creates pulsing color effects, and Fractal makes animated fractal patterns.

The Production Bundle includes some additional effects. The superb Fractal Noise creates beautiful backgrounds and patterns, and Optics Compensation adds or removes lens distortion. The bundle also includes a vector-painting effect that lets you paint directly on video frames: After Effects will play back your paint strokes either in real time or all at once. Unfortunately, Vector Paint supports only one level of undo.

Broader Output, Better Color

Although After Effects is most commonly used for TV and film effects, its ability to export compositions as Macromedia Flash SWF files gives it a place on the Web, too. You can't add interactive buttons to compositions, but you can associate URLs with markers so that a user's Web browser goes to different pages or frames as a Flash file plays back.

When you export a project in Flash format, After Effects can rasterize any graphics that don't translate to Flash's vector format.

Effects with Depth: After Effects' custom views show a scene from different angles. The camera and its axes handles appear at the lower right.
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