After Effects CS5 is Adobe’s powerful motion graphics software for designers and visual effects artists. The program is one of three in the new version of Adobe’s Creative Suite to go 64-bit native, taking full advantage of the multi-core processors and expanded RAM capacity of the newest Macs.
The new version introduces some high-end features: The Roto Brush tool lets you easily isolate foreground elements in complex scenes. It also features native support for the new AVC-Intra 50 and AVC-Intra 100 codecs, as well as expanded native support for RED camera footage.
It also offers an auto-keyframe mode, supports custom color look-up tables, includes an updated version of Synthetic Aperture’s Color Finesse 3 LE color correction tool, and now includes the Digieffects FreeForm plug-in.
64-bit performance boost
The most significant feature of this update is the 64-bit native performance boost Adobe has given After Effects CS5. Adobe engineers have touted 20 to 40 percent shorter render times on single-core machines and 30 to 50 percent shorter render times on multi-core processors.
My personal comparisons for RAM previews on similar projects, on the same MacBook Pro (a 2.6GHz Intel Core Duo with 4GB of RAM) gave me an average of about 35 percent faster RAM previews and project rendering time. RAM usage is optimized to give you longer RAM Previews too. This is huge news for post-production and motion graphics pros, especially if you have a loaded multi-core workstation.
One caveat: you must be running OS X 10.5.7 or higher for After Effects CS5 to install. And you will need to upgrade all of your third-party plug-ins to 64-bit versions, which will most assuredly cost you extra—and that’s assuming the plug-in manufacturer has a 64-bit version available.
After Effects is not backward compatible with older versions, so it’s a good idea to keep your copy of After Effects CS4 installed so you can work on your existing projects and access your 32-bit plug-ins.
AVC-Intra and RED compatibility
As the popularity of tapeless HD digital video workflows increases, so do the demands for post-production to accommodate these new formats with a minimal amount of pre-processing and data wrangling. After Effects CS5 can now read native AVC-Intra files from Panasonic’s P2 cards, and raw R3D (RED Cam) footage. With improved color management and the included plug-ins like Synthetic Aperture’s Color Finesse 3 and Apply Color LUT, it’s easy to add these native formats to your production directly from the source.
The most publicized new feature in After Effects CS5 is the Roto Brush tool. At first glance, it appears similar in function to the old Photoshop Extract plug-in, but it works much differently, since it spans several frames of footage at a time. You start by selecting the foreground object with broad strokes of the green brush, and then reduce the brush size to pick up stray elements such as edge highlights, hair, ears, and so forth. Then use the red brush to identify the background.
When you first apply the Roto Brush tool to a footage sequence, it creates a keyframe point and then looks for edges and changes across several frames forward and backward from the point at which you apply it. You can make adjustments on each frame as needed, but mastering this workflow takes time and practice. I was able to use the Roto Brush tool on about 20 shots for a commercial in which I needed to do color grading on the background. After working on the first few shots, I was continuing to perfect my process.
The new Refine Matte effect, which is also applied when you use the Roto Brush tool, can be used with any matte layer as a standalone effect. It affects edge smoothness, feathering, chatter, and even motion blur–which is critical when matting people and objects when they’re moving. The only downside is that the Roto Brush is looking at pixels in a sequence, instead of drawing vectors that can easily be edited along the timeline. A simple change on one frame may affect 10 to 15 frames after it, so it’s best to create short sections of about 15 frames instead of a full footage sequence from the beginning. Also, don’t expect the same quality matte results that you would get from shooting your subject against a green screen.
Depending on your footage, if you have a busy background or the lighting is uneven and dark, the Roto Brush tool has a hard time distinguishing between foreground and background. Locked-off shots with a still background and contrasting colors and lighting seem to work best. This tool is great for separating your foreground elements from the background to apply affects and do simple composites and color grading, but it won’t work miracles and it is still quite time-consuming to achieve a good extraction.
Updated Mocha with Mocha Shape
A special version of Mocha for After Effects CS5 v2 ships as a standalone application along with Mocha Shape for creating roto-mattes. Mocha provides 2.5D planar tracking of your footage and creates tracking and corner-pin data that can easily be imported back into your After Effects project. The Mocha Shape plug-in is now included, which allows you to create roto-mattes in Mocha 2 and import the rotoscope data, with variable, per-point edge feathering.
There has been some confusion regarding Mocha for After Effects CS5 v2 and the full version of Mocha 2 from Imagineer Systems. The full version of Mocha 2 that does not ship with After Effects CS5 has a newly designed interface, motion blur mattes and an image stabilization module.
Digieffects Freeform AE
Using displacement maps and meshes that you can distort and animate, the Digieffects Freeform effect (formerly known as Forge Freeform by Mettle.com) plug-in allows you to add simulated depth and distortion to flat 3D planes in After Effects CS5. You can apply either a displacement map to the 3D layer or sub-comp, or manipulate the distortion mesh to create interesting effects in 3D space. It still doesn’t create true volumetric 3D modeling or extrusions, but the distortions do react to the After Effects’ 3D lighting and shadows appropriately, and interact with other 3D layers in your composition, unlike imported Live 3D layers from Photoshop.
Import Repoussé 3D from Photoshop CS5
Starting with After Effects CS4, you’ve been able to import 3D layers from Photoshop through the Live 3D feature. Photoshop CS5 ( ) has a new feature called Repoussé, which creates volumetric extrusions from text and any layer with an alpha channel. These 3D layers can be imported into After Effects CS5 like any other Live 3D layer.
However, as with all imported 3D objects from Photoshop, there is no real 3D interaction with After Effects lights or other 3D layers. All of the lights on the objects must be applied in Photoshop and remain static on the surface of the object, regardless of how you place this 3D layer in your After Effects scene. You can still animate the position of the 3D object in After Effects, but there will be no interaction or shadows on or from other 3D layers. This is an area in After Effects that I feel Adobe needs to focus on in future versions.
Macworld’s buying advice
After Effects CS5 is a much-needed and critical upgrade for speed and productivity in a 64-bit workflow. The Roto Brush is handy once you get the hang of it, and the added plug-ins offer advanced capability right within the program. Make sure you keep your CS4 version installed, though, for updating your old projects and to use with all of your older 32-bit plug-ins.
[Jeff Foster has written and contributed to several books and magazines, and has been producing award-winning motion graphics, photography and creative design for major corporations, television and film for more than 20 years.]