JULY 11, 2001
by David Nagel
We were the first to bring you coverage of Adobe After Effects 5, with QuickTime demonstrations of the new software on the very first day of its announcementeven prior to its release. Since that time, we've given a lot of coverage to After Effects and related plugins, and now we'll take a look at the After Effects 5 Production Bundle.
No matter what platform you're on or which editing systems you use, it's difficult to dispute the fact that After Effects has become the standard in compositing. There are legitimate competitors to After Effects in its price rangeviz. Discreet Combustion and Pinnacle Commotionand there are much higher-end systems on the market for those who have a couple hundred thousand dollars in their equipment budget. But no matter the studio, no matter how expansive the studio's budget, chances are that After Effects is somewhere in the mix.
This said, After Effects 5 is really a whole new compositing suite. Sure, it's just like 4.1 in terms of how it looks and, for the most part, how it works. But there are just so many new features (not to mention a few critical workflow improvements) that it's really the first application I've seen in a long time worthy of a full version number upgrade. There is simply no question that those using AE 4.1 should upgrade to 5.0. The real question is which upgrade to getthe standard edition or the Production Bundle (now dongle-free).
In the end, the answer will depend on just which new features you really need, which we hope to help you determine presently.
features in 5
Another major workflow improvement available in both versions is the ability to drag a value setting with your mouse directly in the timeline, without having to call up a pop-up window. I know this doesn't sound very major, but once you've done it a couple times, you'll dread ever having to do it the old way. It's just a simple improvement that saves time and makes life easier for the compositor.
A single Import dialog box lets you import footage, Premiere and After Effects projects and layered Photoshop and Illustrator files, as well as subsets of a sequence.
The final major improvement to both versions of AE 5 is in the form of integration with Photoshop, Illustrator and Premiere, which we'll cover separately.
But for the Production Bundle alone, there's one giant improvement that hasn't received much coverage, and that is the ability to render over a network. As in render farm. As in multiple CPUs working together to crunch your project in a fraction of the time it would take even the highest-end workstation. With the Production Bundle, you get an unlimited license to install a render-only version of After Effects on any number of systems on your network. It's not perfect yet, but it does at least offer speed improvements for most users, especially on the Macintosh.
First, the drawbacks. The Render Engine only renders image sequences. This means you'll have to stitch the images back together yourself. Not a big deal, but it does mean you can't render projects with audio across a network; well, you can render them, but you lose the audio. The other drawback is that any third-party plugins have to be installed on every machine you plan to use in the network render, assuming the project at hand is using third-party effects. (If you're not using third-party plugins in a particular project, they don't have to be installed on each machine.) Aside from the time involved, the reason this is a drawback is that many software developers get a bit touchy when it comes to installing their plugins on more than one machine with a single license. You'll have to contact the manufacturers to see what their policies are on this subject.
I mentioned before that the network rendering option is especially beneficial to Mac users. Why? AppleTalk across the Internet. This means you're not limited to the systems available on your LAN but can use IP-based File Sharing with any Mac anywhere running the Render Engine. The only requirement for the Render Engine is that all machines have access to the Watch Folder, which is the folder the Render Engine watches for new projects to render. In other words, you have to be able to mount the volume containing the Watch Folder on every machine involved in the render. This is more difficult in Windows, where each machine has to map the volume identically, and where mounting volumes across the Internet requires ... uh ... can it even be done?
The Render Engine can get bogged down by slow networks, but every bit helps. We'll be bringing you tips on setting up an AE 5 render farm in the near future.
vector text from Photoshop?
With Illustrator files, After Effects can import layered files as comps, resize layers without losing resolution, apply Illustrator paths as masks or motion points and preserve transparency and transfer modes with Illustrator 9 files. You can continually rasterize in both 2D and 3D layer modes.
Finally, After Effects can import Premiere projects as comps, with each video, audio and still clip appearing on its own layer in the proper time sequence. After Effects filters included with Premiere 6 are also imported. In addition, you can embed a link in the After Effects movies you output so that you can use the Edit Original command in Premiere to open the original project.
All of the Simulation effects are new and quite good, but, on the whole, it's not a great, giant gain in the effects category over the standard edition of version 4.1. The story is radically different in the Production Bundle. While some of the effects were available in the previous Production Bundle, quite a few are new, including several tools that match up with AE 5's 3D capabilities and others acquired from the purchase of Cycore's Cult Effects package.
The one everybody seems most interested in is the Vector Paint effect, new to AE 5, but not new to users of Cult Effects. Vector Paint allows you literally to paint strokes onto your Comp window and animate these strokes over time. These strokes can also be used to create mattes for revealing portions of a layer beneath a stroke or other effects. The concept of the Vector Paint effect is a nice one, although it is somewhat limited. For example, you're not going to be able to create strokes that look like natural media; you just get to choose between an airbrush and a standard paintbrush, such as those found in Photoshop. Nevertheless, this is a versatile tool, offering real-time playback of strokes or keyframed playback. It also offers "wiggle control" for creating a jittery, frame by frame look. The effect is also supposed to accept input from pressure-sensitive tablets to control stroke radius and/or opacity, although, in my experience, this works only intermittently.
On the 3D front, there's a whole new category called 3D Channel. After Effects 5 allows you to import files that contain additional channels of information, including Z-depth, surface normals, object IDs, texture coordinates, background color, unclamped RGB and material ID. The effects in the 3D Channel category allow to to interpret and manipulate these data, including adding a matte along the Z axis, isolating elements and blurring individual ones, applying fog, inserting new objects and even extracting 3D channel information to use as parameters for other effects. Effects include 3D Channel Extract, Depth Matte, Depth of Field, 3D Fog and ID Matte. Supported formats include RLA, Softimage PIC/ZPIC and Electric Image EI/EIZ.
With the Production Bundle, you also get 10 additional distortion effects. Here's a great example of how 3D compositing can change the way even common distortions work. Say, for example, that you want to apply the new Bezier Warp effect. You grab a corner and pull it in your Comp window to stretch and distort your image. But if the layer you're working on is operating in 3D mode, you can actually spin your layer around and pull your Bezier paths out from the layer, giving you true 3D distortion. In addition to Bezier Warp, the Distort effects included in the Production Bundle are Bulge, Corner Pin, Displacement Map, Mesh Warp, Optics Compensation, Reshape, Ripple, Twirl and Wave Warp.
In the Render and Simulation categories, you get three new effects: Lightning, Fractal Noise and Particle Playground. Lightning does just what its name suggests, with control over origin and end points, detail, branching, etc. Fractal Noise (known previously as Noise Turbulent I and II in Cult Effects), provides incredible fractal effects that can resemble anything from undulating smoke to flexing cell structures. This was always my favorite plugin from the Cult Effects package, and Adobe has done a nice job of merging it into a single effect for easier access to all the controls available.
The last one, Particle Playground, is similar to many particle emitters out there (such as the one included in the Boris Continuum package). And, like other particle systems, you can use custom particlesimages, text and even videoto create particle-based explosions, floods or other effects that need to be controlled by limiters and emitters. The effect is actually pretty speedy, even when using QuickTime layers as particles. You run into problems when you try to explode a layer with particles, requiring vast amounts of time and memory. In fact, with my 512 MB system, I was never able to get it to do this effect. But, on the whole, the Particle Playground can create effective special effects and can also be a joy to play with.
Other video effects included in the Production Bundle package are Glow, Scatter, Alpha Levels and Time Displacement.
Overall, the effects included with the Production Bundle blow the standard edition away. The effects in the Production Bundle alone justify the $800 difference in price from the standard edition.
Nevertheless, the Production Bundle does include six exclusive effects for working with audio. These include Flange & Chorus, High-Low Pass, Modulator, Parametric EQ, Reverb and Tone. These are all pretty self-explanatory. The only one that might throw you is tone, which renders one of any number of tone effects, such as a siren, telephone or other device that uses a simple, repeating sound. The effects have to be set manually, with no presets provided for any particular sounds.
There are some RAM preview problems with audio in After Effects 5, which I'll detail later.
And the rest
Other new goodies
that don't quite fit into any other category include:
After Effects 5 introduces several animation features, including multiple cameras and lights for position, rotation and orientation. You can also automatically orient 3D layers toward a camera or animate lights and cameras along a path or toward a point of interest you define. You have the ability to create an unlimited number of lights and define each one's properties individually. You can also edit each light's shadow-casting properties.
You can also specify material properties that define how a light affects the surface of a layer, as well as how layers interact with lights. You can define and animate Ambient, Diffusion, Specular and Shininess values.
On the camera side, you can create multiple cameras, each with their own individual properties, such as a wide-angle 15 mm preset or a 200 mm lens. In addition to standard preset lenses, you can create and save custom camera presets. The cameras themselves can be animated, as well as their properties, and you can cut to different cameras at any time.
The rendering itself is handled by a plugin rendering engine with basic rendering capabilities. An advanced renderer is also available (in beta form as of press time) that allows for true layer intersections. In my review period, I used the basic renderer for about a half hour and have been using the Advanced Renderer ever since. Even in its beta form, it seems to have no problems.
So what about speed? Beta users of AE 5 had some major issues with the sluggishness of 3D. Not so with the full release. Even with several effects applied to a 3D layer, manipulations in the Comp window are quick and smooth. Mind you, I'm only on a 400 MHz G4. Those on newer systems should be very pleased with the performance.
Version 5.0's masking capabilities have also been expanded to include edge control, which allows you to assign negative or positive values to feathering. You can also apply motion blurs to masks and assign colors to individual masks for easier identification when multiple masks are used.
AE 5 also gives you the ability to select a region of interest for previewing, showing you just the portion of the composition you want to see. This allows for faster caching with less RAM usage.
Other RAM preview improvements include:
The only problem I've had with RAM previews in AE 5 has to do with audio. If you're not previewing at the composition's full frame rate, audio will not play back accurately. However, to overcome this, you can specify any number of frames to skip, just as long as the preview's frame rate is the same as the composition's.
Parent-child relationships aren't limited to footage layers. You can also define relationships between light and camera layers in 3D compositions. This allows a camera to track individual elements in a composition and lights to keep objects illuminated regardless of their movement.
Establishing parent-child relationships is just a matter of dragging a target icon from the source layer to another layer's parenting column in the timelineor you can use scripting (called "Expressions"), which we'll address below.
For example, you can link the opacity of one layer to the scale of another, while the tracking of path-based text can be linked to the rotation of another layer.
To create these types of expressions, you drag the expression picker from the property that is to be animated to the property that the animation will be based on. After Effects automatically creates the expression for you. You can also drag the picker between the Timeline and Effect Controls windows.
After Effects is a pleasure to work with, and, of course, its features make it one of the all-time great applications for video professionals, whether you're new to After Effects or thinking of upgrading from version 4.1, whether you use the standard edition or the Production Bundle. It belongs at the core of every video professional's suite of tools.
Adobe After Effects 5 is available for $1,499 for the Production Bundle and $649 for the standard version. Upgrades from the 3.x/4.x Production Bundle to the 5.0 Production Bundle Cost $299. Upgrades from the 3.x/4.x standard version to the 5.0 standard version cost $199.
For more information, visit http://www.adobe.com.
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Dave Nagel is the producer of Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; host of several World Wide User Groups, including Synthetik Studio Artist, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign, Adobe LiveMotion, Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; and executive producer of the Digital Media Net family of publications.