After Effects 5
at a Glance

Maker: Adobe
Price: $1,499 Production Bundle/$649 standard edition
Platforms: Macintosh and Windows

Overall Impression: Adobe After Effects is an absolutely essential component in any effects and compositing workflow. After Effects 5 takes this essential suite to the next level with incredibly powerful new tools. It's 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.

Key Benefits: AE 5 is a dramatic improvement over AE 4.1, which wasn't at all bad to start with. The new 3D compositing, parenting and expressions features make it a truly valuable tool for the most complex work. For the Production Bundle, the new effects alone justify the $800 difference in price from the standard edition, but you get a whole host of other advanced features included in the deal: keying tools, time displacement, rendering and particle simulation tools, motion tools and, of course, 16-bit per channel color.

Disappointments: Render times can be excruciatingly long, but we hope this will be rectified with the next release of the ICE accelerator board for AE. The Advanced Renderer is still in beta. And the Render Engine (for network rendering) supports only image sequences.

Recommendation: Must Buy


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REVIEW JULY 11, 2001
Adobe After Effects 5 Production Bundle
2D/3D compositing and effects suite

by David Nagel
Executive Producer
[email protected]

Adobe After Effects 5 Production BundleWe 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 announcement—even 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 range—viz. Discreet Combustion and Pinnacle Commotion—and 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 get—the 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.

New features in 5
In both versions, Adobe has brought a host of new features that make this a worthy upgrade. Unless you've been living in a deep crevice on Mars in an alternate dimension, you're probably aware of some of them. Of course, 3D compositing tops most people's lists of drool-inducing features. New motion controls, such as parenting, also make the list. There's also better integration with Photoshop, Illustrator and Premiere. And, of course, there's the ability to output Flash sequences for the Web. Let's take a look at some of the new features and how they compare between the standard edition and the Production Bundle.

Speed and workflow
Both the standard and Production versions offer some critical improvements to the way you work, in terms of both speed and ease of use. The first thing you'll notice and love is AE's new ability to resolve the comp window on the fly for faster scrubbing and manipulation of individual elements. In many cases, this means you get to manipulate in real time, even if you have a number of effects working on the layer you're moving. Essentially, After Effects dumbs down the comp window's resolution while you're working, then brings back the resolution to your desired setting when you've completed your transformations. So no more waiting for a full window render just to move a layer around.

Adobe After Effects 5 Production Bundle
AE 5's dynamic preview automatically "dumbs down" the
resolution of the Comp window to speed up calculations
as you work. On mouseup, resolution returns to normal.

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.

Adobe After Effects 5 Production Bundle
In AE 5, values can be adjusted in the timeline
by dragging the mouse left or right.

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.

Integration: vector text from Photoshop?
When it comes to integration with other Adobe products, it's a wash between the standard edition and the Production Bundle. Both get vast improvements over 4.1, particularly with respect to Photoshop. You can import Photoshop files as comps, as in 4.1, and you can preserve layers, layer effects, adjustment layers, alpha channels, transfer modes and masks, with support for up to 127 masks per layer. I've also mentioned in a separate tutorial that AE 5 can import Photoshop 6 PDF files, which means you can bring resolution-independent text (and other vector objects) into After Effects from Photoshop while preserving transparency, which has never before been the case, even when exporting Photoshop files in Illustrator format. In other words, you can bring text out of Photoshop (This might be a marketing oversight on Adobe's part, so take advantage of it while you can.)

Adobe After Effects 5 Production Bundle
As seen here, text brought in from Photoshop in PDF format
can be continuously rasterized in After Effects 5.

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.

Video effects
The standard edition of AE 5 doesn't get a whole lot of new effects, but the Production Bundle does. In the standard edition, new effects include:

  • Image Control: Colorama.
  • Render: Fractal, Radio Waves and Vegas.
  • Simulation: Card Dance, Caustics, Foam, Shatter and Wave World.
  • Transition: Card Wipe.

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.

Adobe After Effects 5 Vector Paint
Vector Paint in AE 5 allows you to draw strokes directly
in the Comp window, animate them over time and create
"wiggle" effects for a "frame by frame" look.

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.

Adobe After Effects 5 Distort
Distortions in AE 5 work in 2D and 3D.

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.

Adobe After Effects 5 Lightning
The lightning effect from the Production Bundle's Effects Pack.
The effect can be anything from a single bolt to a tangle mess
like the one pictured here.

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 particles—images, text and even video—to 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.

Adobe After Effects 5 Particle Playground
Particle Playground lets you map images and movies
to a particle generator for a variety of effects, from
explosions to foam to a flood of Steve Jobs heads.

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.

Audio in After Effects?
It's difficult for me to conceptualize After Effects as a program that supports anything more than the barest audio functions. Audio is quite important for compositing, of course, though I doubt anybody would use AE for audio editing or effects. Why? There are too many professional tools on the market that are cheap or free and that are specifically geared for audio production (Pro Tools Free, for example). And, for higher-end work, I'd be surprised to find any studio out there that would be willing to settle for AE's audio capabilities.

Adobe After Effects 5 Parametric EQ
The Parametric EQ from AE 5's Production Bundle.

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
Some of the other big draws for the After Effects 5 Production Bundle are its keying and matte tools. For keying, the package includes Color Difference Key, Color Range, Difference Matte, Extract, Inner Outer Key, Linear Color Key and Spill Suppressor. Matte tools include Simple Choker and Matte Choker. The Keying Pack included in the Production Bundle offers precise control over keying.
The Linear Color Key creates a key from RGB, hue or chroma values you specify. The Color Difference key creates combination mattes for difficult areas, such as smoke and glass. The Spill Suppressor helps remove key color traces from light reflecting onto a subject. The Simple Choker cleans up dirty mattes, while the Matte Choker chokes and spreads the matte to create clean edges.

Other new goodies that don't quite fit into any other category include:

  • After Effects 5 breaks the 2 GB file size limit.
  • It can output directly to the Flash format (SWF). However, you better not be thinking of AE 5 as a replacement for a Flash authoring program. The output capabilities are limited to animation and just the most basic interactive elements. Plus, the output isn't always very good. Images can look bad, and playback can be buggy.
  • Specify a different starting timecode for each composition. Frequently
    used composition settings can be saved as custom presets.
  • Ability to specify Motion Blur shutter angles up to 720 degrees for each composition and phase controls that determine when the shutter opens relative to the start of each frame.
  • Preview a single layer.
  • Create and save custom Workspaces.
  • Change the sequence in which effects are applied to a layer by dragging to reorder them directly in the Timeline window.
  • For keyframes, you can drag up or down over more than one stopwatch to animate multiple properties.
  • The Effect Controls window now includes stopwatches for setting keyframes.
  • Markers can now be locked, and Transfer Modes now appear in a panel that can be hidden or displayed independently.
  • You can preview footage and comps that use a non-square pixel aspect ratio without distortion by choosing Pixel Aspect Correction.
  • QuickTime footage playback is also improved.

The compositing core
So we've looked at a lot of the new features in AE 5 that are sort of at the periphery of the core suite. This is because, at the core, the standard edition and the Production Bundle are essentially the same, so it's hard to compare the two. When I speak of "the core," I mean all of the new basic compositing features that come with version 5.0—3D capabilities, parenting and scripting (Expressions), as well as some new output features.

3D compositing
Chief among the new core features in AE 5 is 3D compositing—the ability to manipulate layers and layer data in 3D, including layer intersections, for adding shadows and other Effects. The
3D compositing features are activated on a layer by layer basis by clicking a box in the timeline. Leaving the 3D features deactivated on 2D layers will speed up rendering, while also leaving these layers unaffected by camera or lighting animation.

Adobe After Effects 5 Production Bundle
The original 2D layer

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.

Adobe After Effects 5 Layer Intersection
The layer turned into a 3D layer and intersecting
with a text layer (also 3D).

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.

Adobe After Effects 5 Depth of Field
The layer with depth of field turned on

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.

Adobe After Effects 5 Focal Length
Depth of field affects all of the layers in a camera's view so
that any content outside the primary focus area is blurred.

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.

Enhanced masking
Also new in After Effects 5 is the ability to create and edit masks directly in the Comp window. You can also make and edit masks in the Layer window, as in version 4.1.

After Effects 5 allows you to create and edit Bezier masks
directly in the Comp window. (As in version 4.1, you can
also handle this in the Layer window, if you prefer.)

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.

Improved previews
There are several new features in After Effects 5 that improve upon RAM previewing. In the past, any change would cause AE to recache the entire preview. In the new version, everything is kept in RAM except the changed frames, which allows for faster caching.

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:

  • Full-screen preview mode;
  • New playback options, such as continuous loop, a single segment and a palindrome mode that runs forward then backward.
  • Preset preview styles, which includes two different sets of RAM preview options for specifying frame rates and the number of frames to be skipped.

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.

In After Effects 5, there's a new feature called parenting, which should be familiar to 3D animators. The concept in AE is that you can link layers to one another in parent-child relationships so that transformations on one layer can affect another in a manner similar to an IK chain.

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 timeline—or you can use scripting (called "Expressions"), which we'll address below.

Another major new feature in After Effects 5 is a scripting function called Expressions. Expressions are JavaScripts that allow you to create arbitrary relationships between parameters for things like procedural-type animations without using keyframes. With expressions, you can create a live relationship between the behavior of one property in a composition and the behavior of almost any other property on any other layer.

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.

For those familiar with JavaScript, you can also write your own scripts by defining variables and using other basic JavaScript programming concepts. There's also a popup list of common After Effects functions to speed the process and to eliminate errors.

The bottom line
Adobe After Effects is an absolutely essential component in any effects and compositing workflow. After Effects 5 takes this essential suite to the next level with incredibly powerful new tools. After Effects 5 is only the second application we've reviewed that receives our "Must Buy" recommendation. Actually, it's the second and third, since we're giving this recommendation to both the standard edition and the Production Bundle. The question is simply what your studio needs more: the standard edition, with all of the compositing power and most of the effects, or the Production Bundle, with its more varied effects, its keying capabilities, its audio tools, its expanded 3D functions, its 16-bit per channel color and its network rendering.

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.

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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.
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