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Adobe has finally released After Effects 4.0 after a three-year wait, and longtime users will find this the most attractive upgrade in the product's history. Although it still doesn't achieve perfection, version 4.0 offers major new capabilities and a significantly improved interface, with enhancements that reflect the needs of real-world users.
Both flavors of After Effects, Standard and Production, let you combine still images with movie files, giving you a myriad of options and a fine degree of control. The Production bundlewhich targets professional tasks such as compositing 3-D elements onto a live-motion backgroundships with a considerably larger selection of visual and audio filters, better tools for advanced compositing tasks, and more-robust keyframe-manipulation options. The two versions are virtually identical otherwise, and users can share projects between them.
You'll first notice the improvements in version 4.0 when you import content from Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, or Premiere. After Effects fully supports Photoshop's Adjustment Layers, Layer Effects, and layer-transfer modes (including those new to Photoshop 4.X and 5.X) in imported Photoshop documents. The program also supports layered Illustrator documents and some of the features new to Illustrator 8, such as Gradient Meshes. Each layer can have up to 128 associated masks, sufficient for even the most maniacal masking adventures.
In a surprising move on Adobe's part, After Effects also lets you import Premiere projects directly, albeit with the expected limitation: because it doesn't support Premiere's special-effects filters and transitions, you must re-create them after you import the project. This improved support for native file formats, although far from sexy, is an important and practical addition for production professionals, and it greatly streamlines animation projects.
The program's interface, although largely unchanged from earlier versions, better accommodates serious work and brings After Effects in line with the interface standards Photoshop and Illustrator have set. You can now use color coding to distinguish layers and parameters in the Timeline window, and markers let you jump quickly to specific spots on the timeline. Tabbed, rearrangeable windows make it easy to customize control-screen configurations, a nicety we've grown accustomed to in Photoshop.
One of the biggest drawbacks of working with earlier versions of After Effects was the inability to evaluate a project's results without resorting to an external playback program such as Apple's MoviePlayer. Now, given enough RAM, After Effects can render a project directly into memory and play the movie with full-motion quality. A 320-by-240-pixel movie can play in near-real time on a lower-end Power Mac; G3 owners can play NTSC-resolution video at 30 fps (available RAM limits the length of clips). This is a boon to pro animators and novices alike; the sheer number of parameters you can control in After Effects means that you need to see a reasonable representation of a layered composition's actual rendered playback speed.
After Effects has always been a laboratory for special-effects experimentation, and version 4.0 takes the toys to a whole new level. The new distortion tools, for warping and reshaping, are smooth and organic; for example, you can use the Reshape filter to stuff someone's face into a soda bottle or use the Warp filter to make a movie look like it's playing on a sheet of pliable rubber. In fact, used creatively, these filters (along with animated opacity settings for layers) offer a somewhat labor-intensive but very workable approach to morphingan effect that typically requires a dedicated program.
Another addition is Adjustment Layers, which (unlike their Photoshop counterparts) let you apply any effect filter in After Effectsnot just color-correction toolsto multiple layers simultaneously. This astounding feature significantly streamlines the otherwise tedious process of applying filter effects to multiple layers. Instead of applying a blur filter to 20 separate layers by hand, you can simply create a new Adjustment Layer, apply the Blur filter to it, and position the Adjustment Layer directly over the desired layers; this automatically applies the blur filter to all underlying layers.
Another new feature (in the Production bundle only) is Particle Playground, which appears to be a basic particle-animation system until you start to explore it. Despite the constraints of After Effects' 2-D realm, a robust physics simulation is going on under the hood of this plug-in. For example, if you've brought a rendered 3-D logo with an alpha channel into After Effects, the particles you create with Particle Playground can interact with the logo in some surprising ways. When a particle stream hits the edge of the logo's alpha channel, particles can bounce off the logo, change color, slow down, and speed up. In addition, you can use any layer (including type) as a source for the particle shape, opening the door to slick animated-type effects that haven't been feasible on the Mac until now.
Other new drawing tools let you create basic shapes such as ellipses, but you still can't paint directly on video clips. You can generate animated titles and text with the Basic and Path Text tools, which offer fully animatable kerning, baseline spacing, tracking, and "jitter" functions.
In the realm of video production, editors don't live by pictures alone; audio is sometimes more than half the battle. Although After Effects 4.0 doesn't render external audio editors obsolete, it offers significantly enhanced audio processing overall, with new equalization and tone controls in both editions of the program. Experienced and new users alike will be delighted with the real-time audio scrubbing: to play audio tracks, simply hold down the 1 key while dragging the cursor in the timeline. That makes it easy to place keyframes so they synchronize precisely with sound, and it's perfect for music-video and postproduction jobs.
But After Effects' best audio-filter enhancements are in the Production bundle, with its new filters for adding echo, flanging, modulation, and equalization effects. You'll still want to do your industrial-strength editing in a separate audio-processing program, but these additions are welcome nonetheless.
The single most obvious omission in After Effects 4.0 is the lack of an integrated z space, a crucial feature for a wide array of multidimensional layering effects. For example, creating a commercial special effectsuch as a flock of video displays floating toward a distant horizon and casting shadows on one anotheris a tedious process, especially if you want to combine the video planes and the rendered 3-D elements with any degree of realism. The included Basic 3D plug-in is just thatbasicand although third-party alternatives help, they can't match true, integrated z-space functionality.
After Effects' render-management capabilities, although noticeably improved for single-project output, still don't allow you to render multiple projects as a batch. (The workaround is to put all your render projects into a single project file.) And many of the cool new special effects appear only in the Production version; the Standard version has no distortion tools, not even a Twirl filter. The special-effects plug-ins aren't even available as an option with the Standard version. Third-party developers offer a spectrum of special-effects plug-ins, but it would be nice if Adobe offered incremental upgrades to the Standard version.
Adobe After Effects 4.0 is a solid upgrade and a natural choice for anyone getting into the field of motion graphics. Become an expert in After Effects, and someday you just might see your name in the credits of some galactic space extravaganza on the big screen.
RATING: PROS: Extensive special-effects and animation tools; RAM-based preview; filter support in Adjustment Layers. CONS: Weak integrated 3-D effects; batch rendering needs improvement. COMPANY: Adobe Systems (408/536-6000, http://www.adobe.com ). LIST PRICE: Standard version, $995; Production bundle, $2,195.
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