Adobe has raised the bar for motion-graphics and animation production software with its release of After Effects CS3 Professional. Incorporating an interface that will be familiar to users of After Effects 7 Professional ( ), Adobe has added impressive new animation features and improved functionality to this version. It runs natively on Intel Macs and works seamlessly with other members of Adobe’s new Production Premium video suite.
Adobe has obviously been listening to its users. This version adds many items that After Effects 7 lacked, such as the new timeline tools and true 3-D animation of individual text characters. More importantly though—at least for production professionals—is its tight integration with Adobe Photoshop CS3 Extended ( ) and Flash CS3 Professional ( ). This version streamlines the workflow of many projects by incorporating a better import/export path, and retains more layer and effects information between After Effects and each of the other two programs.
After Effects’ new Brainstorm feature, which allows users to select key elements of a layer and experiment with a variety of alternative modifications and effects to it, greatly enhances the creative process. In addition, new animation features such as the vector-based Shape Layers and the Puppet tool will likely head off creative blocks for a long time.
The new Shape Layers feature comes to After Effects CS3 in a big way—and not just in the form of basic rectangles and ellipses—but actual scalable vector shape polygons and multipoint stars that you can modify and keyframe to create animations like never before. Not only can you edit and animate the shapes themselves, but also the components of the shapes, including strokes, fills, roundness, dashes, gradients, and more. Shape layers can contain a compound shape—a group with any number of shapes—so that animations or settings for a particular layer affect the entire group of shapes on that layer. You can also create your own shapes using the Pen tool, which is similar to Illustrator’s tool. And now, you can convert text to a Shape Layer, which means you can apply vector warping to its shape in addition to rasterized effects.
And speaking of text, you can finally move individual text characters in 3-D (also called Z-space) through the animators. When Adobe released its powerful text animators in After Effects 7, users were ecstatic at the possibility of creating mind-blowing titles and animated text sequences—until they discovered that they could manipulate only the x and y coordinates within a text layer. That’s all changed: designers now have endless new text animation possibilities.
The new Puppet tool is intuitive and powerful, giving you the ability to take a rasterized image layer and animate it by stretching and bending character parts and limbs. This isn’t just another Liquify tool on steroids, but a truly remarkable independent warp mesh that can overlap other areas of the layer, such as a hand moving in front of the body. By using the Pin tool to mark out joints and overlays, and the Starch tool to stiffen areas of the mesh, you can animate and warp a character with either exaggerated or natural movements. Previously, the only way to do this was to create several layers and try to distort them individually. The organic motion that the Puppet tool creates with a graphic layer is truly phenomenal.
The new Brainstorm feature in After Effects CS3 helps you avoid creative ruts. If you select various layer and effects properties and then click on the Brainstorm button, the program gives you a number of possible size, shape, color, or motion options that you can refine and change as you select new criteria. It provides more than just a random selection of colorization or layout options—you get a previsualization grid of animated variations utilizing all the elements of the selected layers. From that grid, you choose the option that you want to apply.
Photoshop Extended integration
Never before have Adobe After Effects and Photoshop been as closely integrated as they are in this new video production suite. With its Photoshop-like Layer Styles, editable PSD Video Layers, and Vanishing Point 3-D scenes, working between the two applications is swift and efficient. Many of the features in Photoshop’s effects can be animated on the After Effects timeline—a huge time-saver. Previously, you had to animate layer style effects in ImageReady and export a QuickTime movie into After Effects. Now you can apply and animate individual effects such as light angle, bevel, and strokes on layers and text with ease, while retaining all of the layer’s transparency and 3-D properties.
One element of the feature remains slightly disappointing, however. Transferring layer style effects from your PSD layers into After Effects’ layer styles is not as intuitive as I’d like. Photoshop layer style effects can be imported and modified or animated, but they don’t appear as editable layer styles as you see them in Photoshop; nor do they show up automatically as layer styles applied directly on a layer inside After Effects. Upon importing a PSD file, you can either merge the effects onto the layer or ignore them. If you merge them upon importing, they will appear only as part of the layer image until you select the Convert to Editable Styles command from the Layers menu. After that, the effects can be modified or animated in the Timeline Editor. This isn’t the seamless automated operation between Photoshop and After Effects Layer Styles that I would want, but it is much improved over previous versions.
Rotoscoping is also much easier with the new integration of PSD Video Layers. You can seamlessly import Photoshop Extended Video Layers, allowing you to go back and forth between the two applications to fine-tune your rotoscope editing or layer animations. The cloning and paint tools are much improved as well.
Photoshop Extended’s Vanishing Point feature now exports 3-D scene data, which you can now import into After Effects to create realistic 3-D scenes from 2-D still images. For instance, if you take an image of the corner of a building and apply two Vanishing Point grids on either side, and then export the data and import it into After Effects, you get a scene with a camera built in and ready to pan around the corner of the 3-D building. This opens the door to even more creative fun.
Adobe Bridge CS3 can now play image-sequence stacks as animations, allowing Photoshop image sequences to play in large preview windows before being imported into After Effects. If you have a series of sequentially numbered frame files in a folder, selecting the folder will preview the contents as a movie.
Flash CS3 integration
The new version of After Effects is highly interoperable with Flash CS3. Import Flash (SWF format) files as scalable vectors with alpha channel transparency, and use them to easily create 3-D layer animations. The rasterized vector shapes—along with the alpha channels from Flash—are preserved in the same manner as Photoshop or Illustrator layers. This is great for motion graphics producers who do most of their animation work in Flash. After Effects also lets you render videos out to Flash movies, along with exported cue points. You can use any of the keyframes in the After Effects timeline to generate cue points in the Flash movie.
PDF Clip Notes
The addition of Clip Notes in this version of After Effects makes client approvals and project team reviews much easier. You can now render your movie into an Adobe PDF format file, and select whether or not to embed the movie data (which creates a larger file) or stream it from a server. This allows you to send a client or colleague a PDF for review via Acrobat Reader. The video opens up as a player in Adobe Reader, and reviewers can comment in timecode-accurate positions along the movie’s timeline. They can stop the movie at any point to type a comment in the provided comment box and then continue on. When they send the reviewed notes file back to you for your editing notations, their comments will appear as tagged markers in your Timeline editor, allowing you to read the tag or text on the marker directly in the timeline.
Mobile video to go
Adobe Device Central CS3 allows you to create and save movies for cell phones, PDAs, and other portable devices, such as Apple’s Video iPod. This new feature lets you preview Web and Flash Lite movie content on a simulated image of the device and make changes to a movie’s scale, aspect ratio, or rotation to best fit a particular device’s screen. And the program supports the rendering of 3GPP (mobile device) codecs along with the existing MP4 and H.264 codecs.
Adobe couldn’t release a new version of After Effects without addressing the need for greater speed. I experienced noticeably faster preview and render times compared with the previous version, when testing on my Power Mac G5. There is no longer a delay in rendering audio in previews, and performance with HDV and MPEG clips is much improved.
While previews can now take advantage of multiprocessor and multicore machines that render more than one frame at a time—a step in the right direction—you must still render the preview out before viewing your changes. Having the real-time previews available would be a great help in making live tweaks and animation moves more intuitively.
This new version of After Effects provides more accurate color management. Taking its cue from Photoshop, After Effects uses ICC profiles that allow you to embed color profiles into your projects. So not only can you preview your project on a calibrated display and with a workspace setting that emulates a variety of broadcast monitors and film stocks, but you can also make sure that when you open your project on another computer or hand it off to a colleague, the color profiles will not change. Color management gets its performance gains through the graphics processor hardware; so 32-bit high-dynamic-range projects will composite accurately if you have the appropriate graphics card.
Macworld’s buying advice
After Effects CS3 Professional is not just another update, but a major advancement, and unquestionably worth the price of the upgrade. Motion-graphic artists will quickly find the new features and tools indispensable in their daily creative production, and the workflow between After Effects and the rest of the suite has been refined and more thoroughly integrated. This program’s many innovative and creative new tools will keep you coming back for more.
[ EDITOR’S NOTE: Changes were made to this sentence to clarify that layer style effects in Photoshop layers can be imported and modified or animated in the After Effects Timeline Editor. ]
[ Jeff Foster is an Adobe Certified Expert, and has appeared regularly as a member of the Instructor Dream Team at Photoshop World and as a featured speaker at Macworld Expo and the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) Convention. He is the author of After Effects & Photoshop CS2: Animation and Production Effects for DV and Film, second edition (Sybex, 2006). ]After Effects CS3 Professional offers a new vector-based Shape Layers feature that lets you animate shapes as well as their components, including strokes, fills, dashes, and gradients.The new Puppet tool is a powerful warp mesh animator that brings rasterized still figures to life.Experiment with creative new variations on layers and effects using the new Brainstorm feature.Render your movies out to mobile devices using Adobe Device Central.