After Effects 5 – available as Standard Edition and Production Bundle – is the biggest overhaul to date of Adobe’s popular video-effects application. The most obvious new feature in both versions is the move from 2D to 3D. While you can continue to work with layers as you did in AE 4.1, you can now switch any layer into 3D space. Stick a few lights and cameras in the relevant locations and you’re laughing. OK, so it’s not quite that easy, but you’ll find learning it here as easy as within any of the compositing tools with an Office-style interface.
The 3D tools are better and easier to use than anything else at this level. There are more lighting options than IKEA: there are four light types (basic spot, ambient, point, and spot), as well as animatable light properties and control over shadow and material properties for each layer. The layers exist in true 3D space – so can they intersect as they pass if necessary. As with the rest of AE, Adobe has made the 3D part of AE 5.0 into an open API, so expect to see 3D versions of all your favourite plug-ins in the near future.
Next up is parenting. In the broadest sense, parenting is where the transformations of one layer directly affect another. For example, if your layers represent a top-down view of a turntable with a record on it, you’ll want the record to spin as the mat does. Using parenting you can set the mat as the parent and the record as the child – so the record automatically spins at the same speed as the mat. You can apply parent/child relationships to lights and cameras in 3D scenes, making it a great timesaving tool.
There are also four extra effects. Shatter does exactly what it says on the box. Radio Waves creates ripples and wave-based distortions. Vegas adds gaudy lighting effects to any object (including text). And Colorama adds custom colour palettes to any layer. These are useful and fill a few gaps in AE’s repertoire, but are hardly stunning – especially when compared to the other new additions on show.
The last major feature available to Standard Edition users is export compositions to vector-based Flash format (SWF) files. This works well, and there are many options – but AE can’t match LiveMotion or Flash as a Web-development tool and, without the ability to stream the video, you can’t even use it to show your work in progress to clients. Even so, the Standard Edition offers an impressive feature set for under £500.
As well as the major add-ons, there’s also a whole host of minor updates. These include upgrades to effects such as Scatter, Stroke and Drop Shadow, and a huge number of productivity upgrades. AE is now faster to use through additions, like the ability to draw masks directly onto compositions, much improved RAM preview, intelligent caching, better integration with other Adobe apps, and new editing tools (Ripple Insert, Overlay, Lift Work Area and Extract Work Area).
Unfortunately, the additions to the Production Bundle are less impressive. The colour space has been upgraded from 8-bit to 16-bit, allowing AE to work with HD and film-grade materials. While this sounds great, it’s likely to only appeal to post houses that want to pre-visualize materials before taking it onto much higher-end solutions. If you care enough about quality to use HD or film, and have the budget for it, then you’re not going to trust the compositing to AE.
The Production Bundle also adds vector paint tools. These are very good, but not a patch on Commotion’s tools, which have more options through the FX brush as well as great purpose-specific brushes, such as Wire Removal and SuperClone.
Also new is the optics compensation that allows the addition or removal of lens distortions; fractal noise that creates organic patterns; and Inner/Outer key which offers yet another way of creating keys.
The Production Bundle is still an excellent solution all told – but it’s just a shame that more of the emphasis for this update was on the Standard Edition. And, with Boris Red 2.0 just round the corner, it may have a fight on its hands.