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.

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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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