The story of After Effects – the compositing and animation software that has beaten the competition for 25 years

As After Effects turns 25, one of its original developers – who is still at Adobe – tells us how how they nearly went bust before it took off, and how it’s survived when so many rivals haven’t.

Adobe has launched its latest version of After Effects to coincide with this week's NAB trade show in Las Vegas, an update to the CC 2018 version of the ‘motion design’ software that’s used for everything from 2D animation to 3D motion graphics to feature-film visual effects.

The latest release approximately coincides with the 25th anniversary of the application artists and animators call just ‘AE’, so we caught up with one of the tool’s original developers, Dave Simons, to find out how it’s remained innovative and successful over two-and-a-half decades – when rivals such as Autodesk’s Combustion and Apple Shake have come and gone.

Dave is currently an Adobe Fellow, working on the live-animation-capture software Character Animator. But in 1992 he was working at an independent developer, The Company of Science and Art (CoSA), based in Providence, Rhode Island. Things weren’t going well. The company’s focus was on what Dave calls ‘hyper-media publishing’ – producing encyclopaedia- or magazine-style CD-ROMs for a world that didn’t have the internet yet.

"But no one was interested and we weren't gonna survive," Dave admits. "But we had developed a tool called PACo Producer, which did streaming digital video when there really was no digital video [in the modern sense]."

A pivot to video

PACo Producer streamed animation off CD-ROMs created in Macromedia Director, the first truly visual interactive design software, which was also eventually acquired by Adobe. It was successful, and CoSA pivoted from being a publishing company into a software development studio. But then the worst happened.

"We were starting to get successful and bringing in enough money to pay people," says Dave. "Then Apple came out with QuickTime. It pretty much did exactly what we were already doing – and was better designed and could do deeper colour.

"We had that advantage of being for Mac and Windows – but we knew we couldn't compete with Apple. We figured we had six months of cash left to pay people – [though] all of the founders weren't getting paid. I don't think we ever got paid the whole time."

The only way to survive was to pivot again. But which direction was best?

"We had a big meeting and came up with lots of different ideas – and one of them was After Effects," says Dave. "Rather than distribute this new medium [of digital video and animation], we would help you create it.

"Based on its name you could tell we thought it was about adding effects [to video and animation]. But what we created was a compositor, which was sort of a class of software we didn't even realise existed."

The After Effects 1.0 splash screen

The Mac-only After Effects 1.0 debuted at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco in January 1993 (while the Expo hasn't run since 2014, our sister publication that it grew from is still very much alive).

After Effects wasn’t the first compositing application, but at the time these were confined to broadcasters and what we’d now call high-end visual effects houses – which at the time were just called visual effects or post-production houses, as there were no non-high-end houses. They ran on very expensive, specialised computers with even-more-specialised additional hardware from the likes of SGI, Quantel and Discreet Logic.

Systems cost millions of pounds and were hired out for hundreds of pounds an hour – not including the cost of an artist to use it, who were treated like rock stars by the industry.

Costing a lot less and running on relatively inexpensive PCs and Macs, After Effects broadened who could use such tools. It was the beginning of the end for the specialist hardware makers. (Since then SGI has been sold twice, and is now part of Hewlett Packard Enterprise; Discreet is now the non-engineering part of Autodesk; and Quantel has all-but-disappeared.)

After Effects wasn’t just much cheaper than the heavyweight systems, because of its architecture, it could do things they couldn’t. A Discreet Logic Flame could work in real-time, with the director or client watching and suggesting changes that they could see the results of instantly – as long as you didn’t add anything that was beyond the capabilities of the hardware. If you did, you’d have to wait until it rendered before moving on.

A new way of creating

AE couldn’t work in real-time – it still can’t, really – but you could apply as many effects as you wanted. Rendering projects at full-size would take many hours, so instead you’d create lower-resolution ‘proxy’ versions that would give you a sense of how the final effect would appear, and then tweak from there – rendering the final version overnight.

Dave was familiar with this approach, having some background in 3D where create-then-render was the standard workflow from its earliest days. But for VFX, this was groundbreaking. And it’s a workflow that After Effects has kept to this day.

"If you’re familiar with After Effects, you know about nesting compositions," says Dave. "Even the very first version [of AE] had that notion of comp nesting – where you can set up a composition and then drag it to another composition and keep going without having to render anything out.

"That was our special sauce that no one else had – not even the million dollar machines."

So while Flame artists sat with clients and expensive hardware, in backrooms, After Effects did a lot of effects work. It was used on summer 1993’s biggest blockbuster – Jurassic Park – and its success grew from there.

At the same time, CoSA was acquired by Aldus, owner of the popular graphic design software PageMaker. Version 2.0 followed in January 1994, adding support for image sequences and motion blur, among other things. Later that year, Aldus merged with it, and After Effects became an Adobe product.

For many years, it didn’t have the cachet of Discreet Logic’s systems – in the late 90s, some clients would demand that their projects were only ever worked on using Flame, when really a substantial amount of the work could be done using AE (though that may have been more to do with those clients assuming that their projects would be completely created by their favourite high-profile Flame artist).

Flame is still available, now owned by Autodesk, but most high-end visual effects work for film and TV is created in The Foundry’s Nuke. After Effects – now at version 15.1 – has grown in breadth, becoming as adept at motion graphics and narrative animation as it is at visual effects. As a component of Adobe’s Creative Suite and, later, Creative Cloud, it’s available to a very wide and diverse set of users.

Along the way, it’s seen off competitors such as Discreet-then-Autodesk Combustion, a reasonably priced desktop tool that paired a Flame-style interface with a timeline similar to AE’s. I asked Dave why After Effects has managed to survive – and still has a very big community of people using it – when other tools have come and gone.

Dave says that being part of Adobe – and having access to not only the R&D resources assigned to AE but to everything being developed for all of the other apps – has kept AE ahead of its rivals, even from the earliest days.

"One of the really important elements to our longterm survival was rafting up with Photoshop and making sure the interaction there worked really well," he says. "For example, the blending modes in Photoshop – [before the Adobe acquisition] we had reverse-engineered them to try to make the blending mode in After Effects look similar, but they weren't exactly the same.

"Once we were part of Adobe, we could make sure the blending modes were exactly the same. Setting something up in Photoshop and bringing it into After Effects would look the exact same."

An training video for After Effects 3.0

Being accessible to creatives used to other tools is also one of After Effects’ strengths. Nuke’s primary creative process involves connecting a series of nodes to build flows, which is a great visual way to manage and navigate very complex effects. After Effects’ timeline is central, which makes it easy to pickup if you’re used to editing tools from Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro to iMovie or even Windows Movie Maker.

"We were lucky there that we happened to pick the prime UI that appeals to the largest set of people," says Dave. "We have had the Flowchart view in there for a long time, but it's never been a main way of working with the app."

Since 2013, Dave has been focussed on the creation of Character Animator, a standalone tool where you animate rigged puppets using live motion capture of your face and a series of trigger buttons. It was used to animate characters from The Simpsons in 2016 for live broadcast sequences (below), as well as a live demo on stage at the Adobe Max conference.

Many of Adobe’s latest tools, including Character Animator and UX-design application Adobe XD are focussed on particular tasks or roles – in contrast to the ‘Swiss Army Knife’ approach of After Effects or Photoshop. With that in mind, I asked Dave to speculate whether, if he was developing After Effects from scratch in 2018, would he create such a broad tool or, perhaps, a series of more specialised apps.

Dave describes the "design tension" between wanting a tool to very well designed for the specific task you do – but to be capable to doing related things so you don't have to leave the tool to do them. This naturally leads to applications growing in breadth and focus over time.

"After Effects is broad – as is Photoshop – just because it has survived for so long," he says. "It's natural for these things to grow.

"[If I was] re-doing AE from scratch, I'm sure the UI would be better. You could design a UI that incorporates all of the things it does – as opposed to it just growing organically as we kept adding things.

"We do occasionally take something and consolidate it and simplify, but you have to be careful as the software has become part of people's brains. You can't just say ‘oh well, we've got a better way of doing this now and so we're gonna change it’. People get upset because this is the way they think."

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