For many editors, compositing tools such as After Effects are a largely unknown area – too complicated to create all but the most basic motion graphics under the tight deadlines that all of us work under.
But with more required from creative professionals with each passing year, and with falling kit prices for production equipment for techniques such as greenscreen compositing and indie filmmaking, compositing should be an important part of most video creatives’ arsenal.
At first glance, version 6 looks like a collection of minor changes. There are no seismic developments that match the impact of version 5’s support for 3D layers and animations. But a closer look reveals that some of the new features are more powerful than they might appear, and one or two take AE into new areas.
Installation is easy, although one point to watch for is the fact that the plug-ins folder has now moved inside
a new folder called ‘Support files’.
As before, the basic version of Zaxwerks Invigorator is included, but a new keying tool – Keylight – is now part
of the package, and goes some way to improving on the functional but useable keying tools that AE includes as standard. Keylight uses the same technology as
the eponymous plug-in from The Foundry for high-end systems such as Avid|DS. This was created by post house Framestore|CFC – an impressive pedigree.
A major selling point, according to Adobe, is better integration with other Adobe products. AE can now import nested sequences from Premiere Pro; handle bounding boxes (to speed up render times) around layers created in Illustrator and Photoshop; and import formatted text from Photoshop.
Adobe is trying to pitch AE as part of its video production bundle, and this improved ease-of-use is a welcome enhancement. But it’s worth asking whether it goes far enough. Workflow still isn’t seamless and transparent, and there are areas of compatibility that could do with further work. For example, if you’ve a favourite Photoshop plug-in that you’d like to use on video footage, moving a video sequence between Photoshop and AE remains something of a performance. In an ideal world, everything would work seamlessly. Adobe gives us a subset of that world, where certain features offer hooks for import and export, but more would be good here.
Text support has been improved with the addition of Adobe’s Character and Paragraph palettes, which will be familiar to anyone who uses other Adobe products. Curiously, there’s no simple type-on text tool, but you can animate almost all of the other properties associated with individual letters and text layers with ease. Text remains virtual throughout, so you don’t need to commit to a design until your project is ready for its final render.
Paint engine and effects
Rotoscoping has been enhanced with a new vector paint engine. This tablet-sensitive extra includes features for both creative work, in the form of animated strokes, with keyframed colours and other attributes, and menial jobs such as wire removal. Unlike high-end tools that can automate this kind of work, for the most part AE still expects you to work through a project frame-by-frame.
There’s support for mask automation up to a point, but you can’t throw a Matrix-style wire harness sequence at
AE and expect it to remove the wires automatically. Still, it now includes a decent clone tool that makes wire removal and correction of soundstage disasters such as wandering boom mikes much easier.
There’s a small selection of new effects. Liquify, warp, and turbulence and twirl will be familiar to anyone
with Photoshop experience. These can be keyframed up to a point, although if you want to make a scene ripple as if it’s underwater, it’s best to use the existing caustics plug-in – available as a free download on registration.
A scribble tool makes fill lines and strokes look less mechanical by giving them a hand-drawn look. And a dust-&-scratches filter removes… dust and scratches. There’s no ageing-film-look filter, however.
Some of the new features are designed to improve workflow. OpenGL support is now included. This offloads some of the processing to a suitably equipped graphics card (today, that means most of them), and should make previews of certain scenes much quicker. Given the complexity of what AE can do, only the most basic comping benefits significantly from this. Everything else still needs a preview render. Even so,
this is a welcome addition.
A couple of minor changes in the output and compatibility department make AE slightly easier to work with. Printing (onto paper – no PDF or HTML) has been simplified and enhanced. So you can print lists of your render queue and project flow chart with ease.
A new DV-output module means you no longer have to reload output into Premiere before rendering to DV. But there’s no MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 support, which means you’ll still need to transcode AE’s output before creating a DVD.
Curiously, the Mac version of AE lacks RealMedia output. Adobe has included support for its own AMX format, which means you can import AE output into LiveMotion.
The Professional Bundle includes an improved motion tracker, some interesting new scripting possibilities, support for 16-bit colour channels for output that’s banding-free, and network rendering.
Weapons of Math seduction
While this won’t appeal to everyone, anyone who has programming skills good enough for basic Flash work will find a fascinating and open-ended universe of possibilities here. The fact that you can now script the render queue will interest studio owners who are trying to organize their workflow efficiently.
The motion tracker is more of a mixture. It’s considerably better than the version seen in previous versions of AE, but it isn’t perfect. If you’re trying to stabilize a sequence, it asks you to ‘find the frame with the largest offset in the sequence’ so you can manually resize the layer so you don’t get a wandering dark border around the image. This is an interesting challenge at 25fps; automating the cropping and resizing would have been a small extra feature here, but a welcome one.
While these changes are significant, they aren’t astounding, and overall there’s a feeling that Adobe may be treading lightly with AE6. Anyone familiar with the rest of Adobe’s range will appreciate that many of the new features seem to have been brought-in wholesale from other products. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it means you don’t need
to waste time exporting footage across applications.
But it’s also true that the most annoying things about the package remain unchanged. Is it really necessary to use the render queue to output a single frame – and why is only Photoshop format supported? TIFFs or JPEGs would be more useful. Why do some of the dialogs still speak only 30fps, even though a fair proportion of the world uses PAL? Why does AE still make that bloody annoying noise when it finishes rendering? Why can’t AE preview video at full speed, except on exceptionally fast machines?
These might seem like small points, but for a product that’s apparently aiming for a truly professional user experience, it’s tempting to wonder if perhaps Adobe is overlooking the basics in exchange for a sprinkling of fairy dust.
The last word
So what’s the picture overall? There are two ways of looking at After Effects 6.0. On the one hand, it’s one of the industry’s favourite compositors made even better. The new features don’t change the world, but they’re significant enough that any long-term AE user will want them. AE remains as productive as ever, and if you’re used to the AE way of working then you’ll find that it offers some impressive, if perhaps also slightly fiddly, creative enhancements.
After Effects 6 remains a significant, but not astonishing chapter in the AE story. If you use AE for a living and are happy with the story so far, you’ll definitely want it. If you’re new to post and want a powerful tool for in-depth video manipulation, you’ll want it too.
But if you’re looking for something that will add some gloss and pizzazz to your video, it’s a good idea to compare it with some of the alternatives to see if perhaps they suit your needs more closely.