Adobe After Effects is an all-in-one animation, compositing, and postprocessing tool kit that has long been deservedly popular with multimedia professionals, videographers, and filmmakers. And version 6.0 is the most important upgrade we’ve seen to After Effects in many years.
Despite its sophisticated masking techniques, versatile effects, and well-designed tool palettes, After Effects has been limited for some animation and compositing tasks, such as rotoscoping (painting on live-action frames), creating animated titles, and working with 3-D effects. And it worked with other Adobe programs only on a rudimentary level.
This version addresses some important limitations in earlier versions, introduces vector-based painting, works with other Adobe applications in a number of productivity-boosting ways, and implements OpenGL standards to greatly accelerate the display of 3-D effects (see www.adobe.com for a list of supported features for different graphics cards). And best of all, its new system for handling type finally gives After Effects titling and text-animation capabilities that rival those of and Photoshop.
Adobe has lowered the price of the top-end version of After Effects. The Professional edition, which we reviewed, has gone from $1,499 to $999, while the Standard edition’s price has gone up, from $649 to $699. As you’ll see, you get a lot more in the Professional edition.
Our Type of Upgrade
The new type engine alone makes After Effects 6.0 a successful upgrade. In previous versions, text creation and animation were appallingly poor, considering Adobe’s prowess in the typography world.
Type-creation tools in version 6.0 are like those in Illustrator; they even give you control over kerning and other spacing. You can click on a composition with the type tool and start typing directly into a new layer, or you can drag a box to define a text block’s boundaries. You can also place type on a path. As with all features in After Effects, almost every parameter can be animated.
Our favorite new type feature, the Animation Range tool, lets you control the range of characters or words influenced by an effect. By animating the range, you can have single letters fly onto the screen to form complete words, or make text appear on screen as if it were being typed. And you can layer multiple effects and ranges on a block of type, making different letters or words do different things simultaneously. You can even add wiggles, which randomize type elements such as character size or even the characters themselves, for Matrix-style cascades of random letters.
The type tools really prove themselves in the nondestructive nature of effects applied to type. Effects are calculated without rendering text to a bitmap, so you can go wild animating transformations and effects and then simply double-click on the animated type to edit the text. It makes for fast work when an art director or a copy editor calls for a small type change in a complicated finished sequence. Unfortunately, you have to convert type to outlines — breaking the link to the original text — before you can use type as a mask.
Other New Effects
After Effects also has a new feature that generates keyframes from the peaks and valleys in a soundtrack. For instance, you can create a scripted expression that links keyframe values to animated characters — great for generating type elements that move in sync with the soundtrack.
The software also now has versions of Photoshop’s distortion tools, which let you animate portions of an image as if the whole thing were painted on a sheet of stretchy latex.
Scoping Out Paint
After Effects 6 has completely revamped its painting and cloning tools. They look like the corresponding tools in Photoshop, but After Effects paints with vectors, to which color and other effects are applied. At any time, you can apply all sorts of transformations and effects to the paint layer, animate the individual paint stroke’s beginning and end points, and change the brush parameters. Unlike the Paint tool in previous versions, this one lets you freely edit and animate all paint effects, brush shapes, and opacity. The new Clone brush is great for wire or rig removal, and you can use the Paintbrush tool far more effectively to add color and detail to existing layers.
Also new is the ability to automatically trace objects on the basis of channel information, such as a blue background, to generate editable Bézier-path masks.
High-end production work often involves hundreds of composited layers. In this setting, After Effects’ interface, which puts all layers in one vertical stack, becomes unwieldy. (Apple’s Shake performs better on such behemoth projects, and like Discreet’s Combustion, it offers a tree-structure view of project elements that makes navigating huge projects easier.)
But this is one of the program’s few weaknesses. The good news for producers is that the Professional edition of After Effects is now scriptable. In particular, there are many advanced options for automating output and some types of batch compositing. However, scripting is primarily an output solution, and it falls short of letting you manipulate all of a file’s content, such as text in titles.
For users of Adobe’s other graphics tools, After Effects 6.0 offers welcome cross-application functionality. Imported Photoshop and Illustrator files with multiple layers now appear as multilayer subcompositions. You can import Photoshop and Illustrator layers as trimmed to their minimum dimensions or cropped to the size of the composition, and type is imported from both programs as active type layers, rather than rendered bitmaps. (However, vectors are not automatically imported as masks.)
Adobe has overhauled After Effects’ performance, and in the case of 3-D effects and some types of compositing effects, we found that the speed of operation, using recent OpenGL graphics cards, was vastly improved. You can now work with and preview 3-D effects in real time instead of relying on wire-frame previews, and moving and animating 3-D objects is now very smooth.
Tracking is as much as 10 times faster in version 6.0 than in version 5.5. The tracker (Professional edition only) now defaults to 1/256-of-a-pixel accuracy, and it runs about as fast as version 5.5 running at 1/2-of-a-pixel accuracy.
The Key to Happiness
After Effects has always offered a range of tools for key compositing, but they left room for improvement. The Professional edition now includes the Keylight keying tools previously available from The Foundry for $5,000. Keylight is about as good as it gets, and the plug-in handily dealt with difficult-to-solve problems such as compression artifacts in the edges of compressed DV video. The Professional edition also includes Zaxwerk’s $495 Invigorator Classic, a highly effective tool for generating an infinite variety of beveled 3-D objects from type and vector outlines.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
After Effects 6.0 is a terrific upgrade — especially considering the lower price — for its new type-handling features alone. We recommend it to anyone involved in dynamic media. Other improvements, including the Paint tool, OpenGL support, and scripting, dramatically improve it as a production-oriented compositing and animation tool. The Standard edition will appeal to users who need only the compositing, animation, and type effects, but the Keylight and Invigorator tools alone are easily worth the extra $300, and the new scripting and improved tracking are a bonus.