Adobe After Effects CS5 review

  • Expert Rating: We rate this 9 out of 10We rate this 9 out of 10We rate this 9 out of 10We rate this 9 out of 10We rate this 9 out of 10 Best Buy We rate this 9 out of 10

  • Price When Reviewed: £873 plus VAT . upgrade £238 plus VAT

  • Pros: Native 64-bit support improves performance; features AVC-Intra (P2) and RED (R3D) support; new Roto Brush tool with Refine Matte effect; auto-keyframing; improved color handling; includes Imagineer Systems Mocha for AE v2 (with Mocha Shape); includes Digieffects Freeform; includes Synthetic Aperture's Color Finesse 3.

  • Cons: Mastering the Roto Brush takes time and practice; true 3D options are still lacking; no backward compatibility; only 64-bit plug-ins can be used; Mocha for After Effects is not the full v2 version of the application.

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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 more RAM.

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 per cent 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 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 colour 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.

Roto Brush tool and Refine Matte effect

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.

After Effects CS5’s new Roto Brush tool makes short work of usually complex roto-matting tasks. The green represents the foreground selection, while the red identifies the background selection. The pink outline defines the matte edges on each frame.

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.

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