Price: £499 (based price)
The two major criticisms levelled at After Effects 5.0 were that the ‘3D-ifying’ of the workspace seemed unfinished, and that there were not enough new features specific to the higher-end Production Bundle. Version 5.5 piles on new 3D features and gives two extra effects to users who have splashed out the extra £700 for the Production Bundle. There are better masking tools, access to 3D camera data and more 16-bit video formats, and even a version of Zaxwerk’s 3D Invigorator extrusion plug-in. 3D rendering The Advanced 3D Renderer, which has been in beta since shortly after AE 5.0 shipped, is something that really should have been finished in time for the 5.0 release. To be fair, the old 3D system delivered impressive results and was easy to use – but was often scuppered by the inability to let layers intersect properly. This didn’t just apply to things that visually touched, but could stop you placing objects with alpha channels too close to each other if their layers overlapped. All of your favourite effects also work with this renderer – including motion blur, anti-aliasing, and transfer modes. Surprisingly, the advanced engine doesn’t add too much to rendering times, and has the added bonus of flipping back to the standard renderer if your scene doesn’t include intersecting elements. Although Adobe claims that optimizations to AE’s code provide speed boosts, you’re likely to see rendering times going up with AE 5.5. This is because you’re bound to find yourself using the new 3D tools more often than you’d think. Projection layers make adding glows and other lighting effects much easier, and the Metal material lets you control the colour of specular highlights between the layer colour (for a metallic look) and the light colour (for a more plasticky look). You can also use lights as adjustment layers, only working on layers below them in the timeline hierarchy. The last major 3D-focused addition available to all is the ability to work on multiple views of a composition in different windows. You can have as many windows open as you want, though most will be happy with a four-window view. However, this is not just limited to 3D work, traditionally-layered 2D compositions are easier to work on close-up if you’ve another window showing how the full image is affected. Purchasers of the Production Bundle also get to import 3D camera data from Maya and 3DS Max. This makes the arrangement of purely animated materials much easier and allows matchmoving and other complex footage-&-animation compositing processes to be performed. AE 5.5 can work with one node, two node and targeted camera types directly from Maya projects – 3DS Max users will have to export their files to RPF though AE can pull z-depth, alpha channel and coverage from these files. The higher-end option also gains Zaxwerks’ 3D Invigorator Classic plug-in – a cut-down version of the tool that lets users extrude any vector shape into a full 3D model, but it’s not as well integrated into AE as Boris Red, for example. Production Bundle users who felt short-changed by version 5.0 will be much happier with version 5.5. On top of the two impressive 3D features detailed above, you also get two PB-specific effects and the snappily titled Smart Mask Interpolation Keyframe Assistant. You can also work with QuickTime, RLA, RPF, SGI and Maya IFF files with 16-bit colour spaces. The two high-end effects are Advanced Lightning and Colour Stabilizer. The former is a more powerful version of the old Lightning effect from the PB. Now it can interact with other layers and wrap around alpha channels for everything from background sky effects to plasma spheres. There’s a flexible set of other controls including conductivity, glow, forking, and turbulence. Colour Stabilizer is less flashy, but most users will find themselves using it more often. It lets you fix exposure problems by adjusting the exposure of a bad frame to match good ones. The level of adjustment can be based on brightness or B&W levels, or using a three-point track. This works excellently if you’ve the time to work through it – and general problems such as moving or noisy footage can be compensated for with animated reference points and different sampling sizes. The Smart Mask Interpolation Keyframe Assistant works out the movement of a mask over time by intelligently interpolating between keyframes. Though not perfect, it gives users a rough outline that will need minimal tweaking to make perfect, which is bound to save a lot of time. The new features aren’t confined to 3D functionality and the Production Bundle. Standard version users working on conventional layered compositions will also find new features to their liking. The six new effects are basic additive filters for adding four-colour gradients, cell patterns, grids and rough edges, but levels give access to each RGBA channel, while Time Difference lets users create complex colour corrections and mattes using colour differences over time between layers. Throw in a polished expressions system, a Premiere-style effects palette, better output controls, SWF and MPEG-1 import, RealMedia export, and support for XP and Mac OS X, and you’ve an impressive update that’ll keep AE users away from its newer competitors.