Mike Jones was first out of the blocks to grab our copy of After Effects 7 as part of the new Adobe Production Bundle. Did he like it? Read on!
Whilst After Effects hasn?t quite achieved the complete and utter dominance that its Adobe stable-mate, Photoshop, has (whereby the name of the application itself has become a common verb) it has none the less been the system of comparison for all other motion graphics, animation and compositing applications.
The assault from rivals has never been so intense as that of the past couple of years. Autodesk (formerly Discreet) Combustion has gathered a great many devotees as a desktop solution leveraging its derivation from the very high-end (and very expensive) hardware-based Inferno systems used in feature film production.
From the other end, Apple?s latest shot across the bow of its former bedfellow came in the form of Motion, a motion graphics application that filled a much needed gap in the Apple production studio bundle and was designed to make motion graphics production more fluid and simplified.
Rounding out the competition is Boris, which straddles the fence offering both its own motion graphics system as well as a suite of FX plugins that can be used inside of host applications such as NLE?s and even After Effects.
Many long term AE users were expecting AE7 to play a bit of the ?anything you can do…? game but the truth is that AE7 follows a bit more of a keep on truckin? approach. There really isn?t all that much about AE7 that?s really ?new?. Certainly there doesn?t appear to really be an attempt on Adobe?s part to blatantly emulate elements from Apple?s cocky young upstart, Motion, that got everyone excited. Nor does AE7 move any great distance closer to entrenching itself in the node-based system of interconnecting FX modules used by Shake and Combustion.
That said, there is still plenty for AE users to get excited about and what has been delivered will certainly be many of those things AE users had been wanting and asking for. First among them is…
AE7 has expanded its array of export options, stretching beyond just TV and cinema screens, and into new media forms.
The User Interface (UI) of After Effects was in bad need of an overhaul and it most certainly has been given that! The old UI had not changed much at all through the past four versions using a floating palette window approach. After Effects 7 has at last conformed to the more widely accepted method of UI design using dockable windows with palettes locking together like a jigsaw puzzle whilst still retaining their rescale ability. Pallets can still be undocked and floated over other windows.
After Effects is still a screen-hog and dual-monitors are definitely recommended, but the ability to more effectively nest palettes behind each other as tabs to bring the window forward works very well as you can have virtually every palette open without having them all fully visible and without getting them lost behind other palettes.
For some, visually mapping out motion graphics projects in a tree diagram makes perfect sense.
HDV, keyframes and real time effects
One thing that was a noticeable gap in the previous version of AE was the lack of support for HDV. Whilst AE 6.5 had project templates for HD (1920×1080 square pixels) it didn?t have templates or adjustable settings for the HDV pixel aspect ratio of 1.333:1 and subsequent frame size of 1440×1080. The work around for this was actually make changes to a scripting file inside After Effects (not the sort of task for mere mortals). AE7 now thankfully has preset templates for HDV in the appropriate pixel aspect, and in testing the responsiveness of AE7 in working with HDV footage was excellent.
There were a number of things about using the new AE 7 that weren?t new but just seemed to work a lot better. For example the external preview function, allowing you to view your composition on an external monitor, seemed far more responsive than previous versions. It updated quickly and cleanly even via the somewhat convoluted chaining process of running Firewire to a DV camera and then passing through analogue signal to the TV. With HDV footage the preview automatically scaled to letterbox the image on an SD monitor and in doing so loss virtually none of its responsiveness.
Keyframe animation controls has been a strength of AE and these have been strengthened further with version 7 with the inclusion of the Graph Editor. The AE timeline always had velocity curves for controlling the movement between keyframes helping to create more realistic animations that move more organically rather than mechanically. The Graph Editor takes this a step further giving these Bezier curve based controls their own window and more complex parameters for manipulating velocity and movement as well as interpolation between effects that are being altered over time.
Over the past several years there has been a concerted movement among video-based applications towards bolstering performance of effects rendering and playback of composited images by employing the horsepower of the graphics processing unit (GPU). Several NLE systems employ the GPU to help with rendering and AE is no exception. This is not new to AE7 having been present in previous versions but has been improved and expanded.
The improvements stem from the adoption of OpenGL 2.0 support which results in faster renders and previews, particularly when using lights, shadows and motion blur effects. The catch is that you?ll need a GPU that supports OpenGL 2.0 and if your computer system is more than 6 months old it?s unlikely it will. Open GL 1.5 is workable for AE 7, but anyone with a card running OpenGL 1.3 won?t be able to take advantage of this assistance. Fear not however as the software only rendering is still rather speedy and effective.
Animation presets are an eclectic collection of keyframe animation parameters that can be simply dragged and dropped for instant gratification. Amateurs will find them much like a shake-and-bake instant Hollywood effect but for professionals they likewise prove very useful serving as a template or starting point for an animation that can be built upon and expanded.
When introduced in an earlier version, Adobe seemed to be looking to spark a take up of animation presets hoping the vast community of AE users would begin developing their own and exchanging them across the internet. To date however this doesn?t appear to have happened and a lengthy Google session will deliver almost nothing in the way of community built presets for download. The reasons for this seeming lack of interest are unknown, but nonetheless the presets provide a very effective way of kick starting a project or automating simple animations.
Do the time warp
One of the elements long complained of in AE was the lack of good controls for manipulating time and frame rate velocity – addressed in version 7 with the new Timewarp effects allowing for precise keyframe control, not only over the velocity of the clip or layer, but also the ability to control the way the velocity changes themselves are created and processed; the interpolation processes used. The difficulty with slow-motion effects in video is that the computer is essentially creating frames that don?t actually exist in the original file. With Timewarp, we were able to get beautifully smooth results, that are not usually possible with video velocity changes through AE?s careful options for frame blending, motion blur and pixel motion matching.
From a technical end, the big improvement from AE7 is the ability to work with media in a greatly expanded data/colour space known as 32bit floating point Hi Dynamic Range. Whilst for most users this won?t be a feature you?ll be jumping at in a hurry, it is useful for hi-end production such as when working in 2k or 4k film resolutions (bigger than HD). Put simply 32Bit HDR is a way of almost infinitely expanding the dynamic range (the amount of variation between the darkest tone in an image and the brightest) without massively increasing the file size.
By using floating values rather than fixed ones in calculating the dynamic range, a 32bit HDR image can create the most variation in the areas of the image where our eye is most sensitive. For example, the human eye is more prone to see fine detail in the shadow areas of an image than in the highlights, so a HDR image is able to focus its computations there rather than the areas where you?re less likely to notice. Studios regularly producing effects and composites, particularly integrating 3D images with film footage, will see the inclusion of 32bit floating point HDR as a major plus.
With all the new application versions in the production suite, Adobe has moved wholly over to the online activation system it introduced with the creative suite some time ago. Whilst it?s understandable that Adobe should wish to protect its product from illegal duplication it?s also true that online activation has a great potential to inconvenience and penalise legitimate users.
Activation involves not just online (or phone) registration on install but also a de-activation procedure if you wish to move your license to another computer; essentially an all software version of the old fashioned ?dongle? that you plugged into your computer to make the software work.
In testing After Effects we had issues with install and activation on our system being used – a standalone editing bay not online. Attempting to activate by phone proved problematic and led to more than 45 minutes on hold. This is not to say that this is the norm and undoubtedly the majority of installs go without a hitch. But the perhaps sad truth is that less than twenty minutes looking in the right dark corners of the internet might have produced an illegal subversion to the activation where as legitimate registration took the better part of an hour to tech support. I could be wrong but I would be very surprised if the instances of illegal use of Adobe software alter at all after the introduction of this activation system.
With the surprise and audacious move from Adobe late last year to take over Macromedia it was always likely that we?d soon see elements of integration with Macromedia?s well established applications and formats; most notably Flash. AE7 has expanded abilities to export Flash files (SWF) and Flash Video Files (FLV), vector and raster-based images.
Software developers know that for all their marketing spin and hype, there often isn?t that much separating them from the competition save for how well they can pitch their product and exploit a perceived ?point of difference?. This is possibly where Adobe may boast one area that no other developer can match them on ? Inter-operation between applications.
In the past five years we?ve seen all the major players in the post-production sector build their products towards being able to offer creative users a complete bundle of applications for end-to-end production. Avid have Pro-Tools under their belt, so bundle it and their NLE together with a 3D package as their answer to the complete system. Apple have pushed very hard in this direction – to the point of competing with their former partners – to have a more complete set with Final Cut Pro, Motion, DVD Studio Pro and Soundtrack. Likewise Sony have their suite of apps with an audio bias in Vegas, Sound Forge, DVD Architect and Acid.
But of course just having the applications in your stable does not make a complete and holistic package; the applications must be able to communicate. This is where Adobe has placed much of their focus of late and have, arguably, excelled at the task.
The interplay between these applications, in large part through the central media browser/coordinator known as Adobe Bridge, is superb. After Effects projects can be exported to Premiere, Premiere projects can be sent to After Effects, After Effects projects can be taken into Encore as DVD menus, PSD files with all layers and vectors can be exchanged between all applications, audio from Premiere can be dynamically exported to Audition, Illustrator vector images can be taken straight into After Effects, so on and so on.
This transparent portability between applications in an all-digital workflow is something many independent producers, small studios and even larger production houses will find very appealing and whilst arguments might be made that such-and-such an NLE is better than Premiere or such-and-such a motion graphics system is better than After Effects it will be very hard for anyone to argue that any other system can boast the same level of unity.
Documentation for Adobe software has always been very good (although frankly the competition isn?t very stiff with the general bar for software help manuals and files being pretty low) and this version of After Effects improves on this good record. Rather than just the usual PDF of the manual with rudimentary search functions, the Adobe help Centre, as it?s called, nicely blends both embedded electronic documentation as well as dynamically linking to broader resources for the application. Working much like an advanced hybrid of web browser and PDF, the Adobe Help Centre allows you to set bookmarks, run fairly complex and specific searches and also cross reference all the Adobe applications.
As for After Effects 7 itself, on its own there perhaps isn?t enough new elements here to inspire everyone to want to upgrade but as part of the bigger picture that is the Adobe Production Bundle, it might be too hard to resist.