Whether you work in feature-film production, industrial video, or Web animation, Adobe After Effects has long been the 300-pound gorilla of compositing and motion-graphics applications. While competing programs such as Apple Shake ( January 2006 ), Apple Motion ( ;
October 2005 ), and Autodesk Combustion ( ;
September 2004 ) have presented excellent alternatives to After Effects, no one has managed to completely unseat the program.
With version 7 of the professional edition , the competition will have an even more difficult time taking market share away from Adobe’s compositing workhorse. While the latest release offers major new features such as support for 32-bit color and excellent new retiming effects, much of the improvement results from what Adobe has undone in the form of interface fixes. No matter what type of work you use After Effects for, you’ll find something to like in the new release.
Although I reviewed the Professional edition, there’s also a Standard version, which costs $300 less. Geared toward users doing basic compositing for the Web or video, the Standard edition lacks advanced keying and matte tools, support for 16- and 32-bit color, 3-D features, motion-tracking tools, and advanced audio features. The Professional edition is aimed at video and filmmakers who are performing complex effects, and who need more-robust color control.
While Adobe has consistently added compelling new features to each update of After Effects, it has usually done so by cramming more palettes into the program’s interface. By version 6.5 ( November 2004 ), After Effects’ palette-heavy interface could make even a 30-inch monitor feel a little cramped. With version 7, though, Adobe has redesigned the entire interface, and in the process completely improved the program’s usability.
By default, the entire After Effects 7 interface resides in a single window that is divided into separate, resizable frames. In this regard, the After Effects 7 interface is closer to Apple’s DVD Studio Pro and Final Cut than to any of its predecessors. The overall configuration of the individual frames mirrors the placement of palettes from previous versions, so you won’t feel completely lost when you first enter the program.
Where the new interface shines is in its customizability. You can easily rearrange any of the panes, dock them to each other in many configurations, and save the different arrangements. The program ships with several layouts that are already optimized for particular purposes, such as animation and motion tracking. You can also assign keyboard shortcuts to layouts so you can quickly switch between them. By intelligently designing and using layouts, you can easily manage After Effects’ tremendous number of controls. And if you prefer the old-school After Effects interface, you can drag any of the panels out of the main window to re-create the multiple-floating-palettes interface of previous versions.
Adobe has made other important tweaks throughout the interface. For example, the Comp window now includes a Fit Up To 100% option that lets you resize the window while still being able to see the full image—something the program has lacked for years.
Graphing your changes
After Effects has always provided powerful tools for editing animation keyframes. This is one reason it has maintained its dominance for so long. However, the program’s Curves editor—which you can use to fine-tune keyframes—has long been underpowered and cumbersome. Version 7 finally adds an excellent Curves editor to the After Effects timeline.
The program’s Function-curve editor lets you graph the values of any parameter you want to animate against time. Using simple beziér controls, you can easily reshape a parameter’s curve to alter how its values change. In previous versions, After Effects displayed a long list of separate curves for each parameter. But in Version 7, a new single Graph view lets you see curves superimposed over each other. Not only is this a more-practical use of screen space, but it also requires much less navigation while editing. The Graph editor also includes powerful free-transform capabilities that let you reshape an entire set of keyframes at once.
After Effects 6.5 introduced presets for text-animation effects. In version 7, Adobe has extended the animation-preset capability to any effect that you can keyframe. This means you create presets for backgrounds, behaviors, shapes, sound effects, transformations, and more, then easily apply them to any layer. This is a huge time-saver when creating repeating elements or animated interfaces.
After Effects 7 includes not only a huge assortment of presets, but also a library of complete project templates for everything from DVD menus to bumpers and credit rolls. Even if you never use any of this pre-built material, taking apart the presets and templates is a great way to learn different After Effects techniques.
The ability to blend frames together is essential for creating time-remapping effects—slow and fast motion. After Effects 7 includes the same frame-blending options as previous versions, and adds a new Pixel Motion option, which tracks the motion of every pixel in a frame. The result is higher-quality time-remapping effects than what you get with the usual frame-blending options.
The Professional version of After Effects also includes a new Timewarp effect, which uses the Pixel Motion feature to create time remappings with more-sophisticated control. You can even use the Timewarp effect to add motion blur to non-blurry footage, with very convincing results.
Speed and color
Adobe has improved After Effects’ overall rendering performance. The amount of improvement you will see depends largely on the complexity of your project. In some cases you might see up to two times the performance improvement, and overall the program feels noticeably snappier. The biggest speed improvement comes from the addition of OpenGL 2.0 support, which means that if you have a powerful enough video card, you can preview antialiasing, motion blur, and blending-mode effects in real time.
After Effects 7 also provides excellent support for 32-bit image elements. While some effects aren’t yet functional in 32-bit mode, Adobe’s commitment to making After Effects work in the larger color space is obvious. Version 7 supports Open EXR format, along with HDR images, Cineon, 32-bit TIFF and Photoshop formats, and more.
Despite the massive improvements, some parts of the program are showing their age. Adobe has not upgraded the 3-D engine, and I’d like to see the addition of more text features from Photoshop, such as Layer Styles.
Macworld’s buying advice
Adobe deserves a lot of praise for the tremendous advances it’s made in the program’s usability. After Effects 7 Professional is an extremely complex program, and the new interface does an excellent job of organizing and presenting the overwhelming number of controls. Between the interface overhaul, improved performance, new Curves editor, and other features, After Effects 7 is a truly great upgrade that manages to stay ahead of the pack.
[ Ben Long is a freelance writer, photographer, and videographer based in San Francisco. ]
After Effects 7 packs a new interface that successfully addresses the overwhelming collection of palettes found in previous versions.