After Effects CS3 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: 915 . 209 . 1409 . 599

  • Pros: Shape Layers make motion graphics creation faster. Innovative Puppet warp tool. Still the most fully featured software.

  • Cons: No Mac OpenGL support currently. Brainstorm tool is pointless. Colour system still poor.

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Finishing off Adobe’s massive Creative Suite 3 launch is the Production Premium collection of video-editing, effects and authoring tools. Headlined by this new version of After Effects, the suite includes CS3 upgrades of Premiere Pro, Encore, Flash, Illustrator and Bridge – plus new tools including Soundbooth, OnLocation, Ultra and the Extended version of Photoshop.

Our review of Premiere Pro CS3 will appear on Monday, alongside the bundled OnLocation and Encore. We’ll look at Soundbooth CS3 and Ultra CS3 soon too.

After Effects is the most popular of Adobe’s video tools, as its reach extends to motion-graphics artists, VFX professionals and 2D animators – and from simple Web cartoons to Hollywood blockbusters.

It used to be available in two versions: Standard and Professional, but Adobe has ditched the former as, apparently, most users went for the Pro version anyway. AE Professional is still the priciest of Adobe’s creative tools, but it’s a lot less expensive than some of its rivals – especially when bought as part of the Production Premium bundle.

AE CS3 is the first version to run natively on Intel Macs and support Windows Vista – and the first to offer full support for multi-processor and multi-core workstations. Unlike the other new CS3 video tools, AE will still run on a PowerPC Mac.

Running on an eight-core Mac Pro workstation, rendering a ten-second, four-layer HD comp with multiple effects took four minutes, 16 seconds. Rendering the same scene in AE 7.0 on the same Mac Pro took 23 minutes and six seconds – a speed boost of 441 per cent.

Strangely, we found the release version of AE CS3 to be slightly slower than the beta version we looked at in our June version, though that could have been because certain functions weren’t fully working then.

Taking advantage of multiple chips and cores requires a lot of RAM – 512MB per core on top of your 2GB base, so our eight-core machine required at least 6GB of RAM to take advantage of all cores (fortunately it packs 8GB).

After Effects CS3 isn’t fully working on the Mac yet though. On both Intel and PowerPC platforms, the Open GL-accelerated preview mode doesn’t work currently. Adobe says that it’s working with Apple on a fix, but it’s likely that we’ll have to wait for updates to both Mac OS X and AE before we see a solution.

The headline new creative feature for most users in After Effects CS3 is Shape Layers (above and top right). This is a new layer type found on the timeline that can contain rectangles, ellipses, stars and paths, plus controls for them including fills, gradient fills, strokes and gradient strokes.

Each Shape Layer has an Add button to create elements, or apply one of a selection of preset paths or animations. Once added, there’s a large range of keyframeable controls for each shape that allow you, for example, to turn a star into a triangle, or an intricate flower with curved petals.

The purpose behind Shape Layers is to save time by not switching into Illustrator to create vector shapes, though you may still prefer to do this for the latter’s colour tools. AE’s colour choosing system hasn’t progressed beyond the standard Color palette and the Eyedropper tool, which feels clunky next to Illustrator’s swatches and Live Color system. Even so, Shape Layers are a welcome addition that most motion-graphics designers are going to use every day.

You’re unlikely to use the new Puppet tool as regularly as Shape Layers, but it’s another worthy addition. It’s essentially an intelligent warp tool that uses an innovative control system of pins to create points that you pull around to manipulate an image (or a video layer if you wish). The intelligent part is that it automatically finds the edges of people, animals or objects – and uses these to work out how the image should warp. If you have a central subject against a plain-background, the end result can work very well indeed without the subject looking obviously stretched.

Using the Puppet tool, we’ve lengthened the snout of this deer using pins to turn the top image into the third one. The second and fourth images show how the mesh has changed in the process.

To fine tune your warp, you can control the complexity of the underlying mesh, and apply the Overlap tool to set which parts cross over others – for example to have a character fold their arms. You can use the Starch tool to ‘spray’ areas that remain unmoved when you pull pins.

While your first instinct is to use the Puppet system to make people or characters dance – or morph silly expressions on your colleagues’ faces as you did first with Photoshop’s Liquify tool – when used as a quick-&-dirty version of a Warp tool such as RE:Vision Effect’s RE:Flex is when it’s at its most useful. It takes a while to learn how to use well, but those working with VFX will find it well worth the effort.

The other key new feature, Brainstorm, is much less impressive. This creates variations on your work by randomly changing the values of a series of parameters that you select. Brainstorm’s workflow is easy: Ctrl/Apple-select your parameters, then press the Brainstorm button next to the Graph Editor toggle on the timeline.

A window with nine variations appears, from which you select one to use or save as a new comp, or to use as the basis of another set of variations. The feature’s main problem is that it doesn’t really achieve anything, as there are no principles driving it beyond pure luck. We loved Illustrator’s Live Color palette creation system as it used traditional art rules to power its colour suggestions, whereas this is totally random. If you want to brainstorm improvements to your work, check our Showcase section, read an art book or type relevant words into Flickr – but don’t waste your time with this.

Other new functions include Photoshop Layer Styles, which allows quick-&-dirty drop shadows, bevels and other client-impressing chaff to be added – though they do slow down AE quite dramatically when applied to HD footage. Colour management has been added, allowing you to simulate how your work will look on a number of different output devices and film stocks.

AE CS3 features the same Clip Notes system as Premiere Pro (below), allowing projects to be output as PDFs, so clients can review them over the Internet and reply with comments – which can be tied to points on the timeline to make understanding them easier.

For motion graphics, After Effects has encountered strong competition since version 7 was released in early 2006. Apple’s Motion has grown from an overblown titling tool to an effective 3D graphics application, which is faster to use than AE for some projects due its real-time 3D system.

Pro-level real-time 3D graphics was introduced by Boris FX’s Boris Blue, which introduced the ability to bring in full 3D models – a function we’d liked to have seen in AE CS3. Expect to see Boris Blue 2.0 reviewed in our next issue. We should also be reviewing Eyeon Vision, a high-end motion graphics suite based on the company’s Fusion visual-effects application.

Innovative though these products are, they don’t have the breadth of tools available to After Effects, nor the integration with design tools such as Illustrator and Photoshop.

With Shake suffering a slow death by a thousand cuts at the hands of Apple, and Combustion seemingly stuck in development hell, AE’s strongest competition for desktop VFX work comes from the solidly reliable Fusion, or Nuke, which should see significant development this year now it has been taken over the effects plug-in gurus at The Foundry.

Next to these, the lack of a full node-based compositing system means that AE is weak for complex VFX work. However, again its expansive toolset means that AE is ideal for day-to-day tasks.

Adobe’s failure to add AE’s grown-up timeline to Flash CS3 means that AE is still a much better tool for creating complex Web animations – though tailored tools such as Toon Boom Studio are much faster to use if this is the focus of your work.

It’s perhaps tempting to think of After Effects as a jack-of-all-trades, and master of none – as there’s usually a faster, more effective application available for precisely what you want to do with it. But with its huge arsenal of tools, there is always more than one way to produce an effect – and ways to produce a multiplicity of variations on an effect – so that AE offers the greatest range of creative output available.

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