By Audrey Doyle
Of all the effects and motion graphics software on the market today, After Effects is arguably the most popular. Developed by CoSA, purchased by Aldus, and acquired by Adobe Systems in 1994, After Effects boasts an installed user base of more than 100,000. Most visual-effects fa cilities both large and small rely on the software's compositing, animation, and effects features on a daily basis.
One of the reasons that After Effects has enjoyed such widespread adoption is its comprehensive suite of core tools that meets the needs of most Mac- and Win dows-based 2D and 3D visual-effects artists designing for film, video, multimedia, and the Web. Another reason is that over the years, a large and varied selection of third-party plug-ins has been developed for use with the program.
"We've been using After Effects plug-ins since they first became available," says Mike Goedecke, lead creative and partner at Belief (Santa Monica, CA), a creative content studio specializing in broadcast design and live action. "We use plug-ins every day, in all our projects, because they help us give a distinctive visual style to our work. There's such a variety of them available that there's almost no limit to what you can do inside After Effects."
According to After Effects senior product manager Steve Kilisky, more than 20 vendors are shipping close to four dozen After Effects plug-in packages; most comprise numerous individual plug-ins (also called filters), making the total number of plug-ins difficult to count. All of them en able users to automate or customize their workflow, add professional effects to their projects, or simply work more efficiently.
According to Kilisky, so many plug-ins are available for After Effects because the software-like Adobe's other products, including Premiere, Photoshop, and Illustrator-is designed to be extensible. "Our philosophy is to think of After Effects as a compositing environment that we've opened up to third-party developers who can add on to that environment as customers' needs change," he says. "In some cases, we don't have the expertise in-house to incorporate into After Effects all the features that our customers tell us they want. So instead, with each release of After Effects, we open that environment even further to allow third parties to write plug-ins that add the functionality our customers are asking for."
Early versions of After Effects featured an Effects API (application programming interface) that enabled third-party developers to write plug-ins designed to extend the software's compositing, animation, and effects capabilities. These early versions of After Effects also featured Ado be's Bottle neck API, which developers could employ to write plug-ins that allowed a user's hardware to accelerate basic geometrics and layer management.
Third-party packages that made use of these APIs began shipping in 1996. The first was designed for use with After Effects 3.0. Called KPT Final Effects and developed by UDAC Multimedia, the plug-ins in this package enabled users to create animated simulations of shattered glass, smoke, fire, and explosions as well as particle systems, directly from within After Effects.
Throughout the After Effects 3.X time frame, several additional popular third-party packages began shipping. Ali en Skin released Eye Candy, a set of 20 special-effects plug-ins. Boris Effects started shipping Boris AE, a set of production-oriented plug-ins designed to provide faster blurs and true optical color correction, among other capabilities. And DigiEffects began offering a series of plug-in packages including Aurorix, which provides users with the AgedFilm plug-in, along with more than two dozen natural and organic effects.
With After Effects 4.0, which began shipping in January 1998, Adobe added an External Monitor Preview API with which developers could write plug-ins that allowed a user's hardware to send the contents of the After Effects Composition window to their video output(s).
With Release 4.1 of After Effects in 1999, Adobe further extended the software's API architecture. That extension came primarily in the form of the After Effects General Plug-In (AEGP), which gave third parties access to more After Effects project data, including keyframes and layer sequences. This enabled software developers and nonlinear and other video-editing manufacturers to write new plug-ins that would enable video-editing users to import their projects directly into After Effects. The AEGP API also provided more extensive support for hardware acceleration, and it exposed new 3D channel information for third-party development.
One of the first video-editing vendors to make use of these additions and enhancements was Media 100, which developed a plug-in that enables users to import their Media 100 projects into After Effects, rather than having to jump back and forth between the two systems.
In addition, Integrated Computing Engines (ICE) developed a hardware/software solution to accelerate both After Effects 4.1 and systems from Avid. Now available through Media 100, the basic ICE hardware consists of four processors that accelerate preview and rendering of Media 100's iceFX After Effects plug-ins, as well as the performance of core After Effects functions such as motion blur.
Other notable plug-in packages that take advantage of the API additions and enhancements made during the After Effects 4.X timeframe include The Foundry's Tinderbox image processing plug-ins, Atomic Power's Psunami water plug-in, Zaxwerks' 3D Invigorator for producing broadcast- and film-quality 3D graphics, and Maya Paint Effects, which brings Alias|Wavefront's 3D paint technology to After Effects users.
With After Effects 5.0, which shipped this spring, "We have enhanced the AEGP API to allow third parties to develop plug-ins that control every project element, from footage to individual keyframes, for applications such as motion tracking," says Kilisky. "And we've added the Artisans API, which is based on the AEGP API and allows third parties to, for instance, write raytracing or radiosity renderers for After Effects."
The AEGP API has also been augmented to allow enhanced support for video-editing systems. Already, Automatic Duck has developed a plug-in based on these enhancements. Called Automatic Composi tion Import, the plug-in uses new extensions in the AEGP API to streamline the process of importing projects into After Effects from Avid nonlinear editing systems.
Another company taking advantage of the AEGP API is Synthetic Aperture. "With our Echo Fire plug-in, we've been offering users real-time video previews in After Effects," says the company's owner, Bob Currier. "But with the new AEGP API in After Effects 5.0, we can add real-time audio capability. This gives users a great way to check sync between audio and video."
In addition to the AEGP API, Adobe has enhanced the software's Effects API to support 16-bit-per-channel color. Both RE: Vis ion Effects and The Foundry have rewritten their offerings, which originally supported 8-bit color, to take advantage of Version 5.0's support for 16-bit color.
The combination of After Effects' extensible architecture and Adobe's pro-developer attitude has contributed to the program's popularity among plug-in developers. "Of all the similar packages out there, After Effects has the richest API, and Adobe gives you access to virtually all of it," says Synthetic Aperture's Currier.
Pete Litwinowicz, president of RE:Vis ion Effects, agrees. "If you want to develop a plug-in, you can get what you need from an SDK [software development kit] that you can download right from the Adobe Web site. You don't need permission from Adobe to write a plug-in."
According to Adobe's Kilisky, third-party plug-ins have been an integral part of the success of After Effects. "We're very fortunate to have passionate third-party developers who create lots of added functionality for After Effects," he says. "Yes, After Effects does what it's supposed to do, and does it really well, but there's still a lot more that can be done on top of that."
Audrey Doyle is a freelance writer and editor based in Boston. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A list of After Effects plug-ins follows on pages 44 and 45.
The following is a representative sample of some of the most popular plug-ins for After Effects. Check with vendors to see which version of After Effects their plug-ins work with. Also, not all third-party products that advertise support for After Effects plug-ins work with all of them. Check to be sure.
Maya Paint Effects; $499
Gives access to Alias|Wavefront's paint technology for creating natural detail.
Alien Skin Software
Eye Candy for After Effects; $499
Includes 20 plug-ins for creating organic effects such as fire, smoke, and fur. Also has production, distortion, and texture effects.
Psunami 1.0; $399
Generates precise 3D geometry of an ocean surface, then produces realistic raytraced output.
Automatic Composition Import
Streamlines the process of importing projects into After Effects from Avid nonlinear editing systems.
Creates intersect layers in 3D space with soft shadows, 3D spotlights, and motion blur. Also includes natural effects such as snow, rain, and fire.
Diaquest DDR plug-in; $495
Controls the Accom Digital Disk Recorder from within After Effects 5.0. (Accom, www.accom.com, also makes a DDR After Effects plug-in for controlling the Accom DDR from within After Effects 4.0.)
CineLook Broadcast; $695
Creates the look of film for any video footage.
CineLook FilmRes; $1995
Works at resolutions above D1. Useful for managing grain and color correction for film production.
Contains 10 plug-ins for making video footage move like film.
Aurorix 2; $289
Includes 26 effects filters, including AgedFilm 2, VideoLook 2, Earthquake 2, and Turbulent Flow 2.
Has 20 effects plug-ins, including StarField, FogBank, VanGoughist, and Laser.
Creates organic particle effects, including Fire, Rain, Painterly Styles, Confetti, Gauze, Satin, Bubbles, and Displacement Maps.
Incorporates 40 plug-ins. Creates fire-engulfed logos, falling snow, rain, and smoke, and inserts 3D models directly into a composition without using a full-blown 3D application.
Digital Film Tools
Composite Suite; $495
Consists of 14 plug-ins, including Color Correct, Composite, Grain, Defocus, Matte Generator, Matte Repair, and Fast Blur.
Freeform 2; $499
Features intuitive 3D warping and 3D displacement mapping.
Contains 20 image processing plug-ins, including blurs, tools, generators, warpers, and effects.
Media 100 ICE for After Effects; $3749
Features hardware acceleration of core After Effects compositing, and 50 accelerated plug-in effects.
Media 100 ICE-Ultra for After Effects; $5995
Includes enhanced hardware acceleration of core After Effects compositing, plus 124 accelerated plug-in effects, including DE Cinelook, Media 100 Final Effects Complete, and Ultimatte.
Media 100 Final Effects
Software-only versions of Media 100 iceFX. Includes 110 effects compatible with hardware-accelerated versions.
Creates and animates cosmic recursive flame fractals.
AnimaText 1.1; $100
Creates complex effects with text by manipulating fonts, styles, etc.
Fire 2.5; $100
Creates realistic fire.
Lens Pro II; $80
Contains two sets of lenses and crystal effects.
Rich Typing 1.2; $100
Includes Rich Typing, for manipulating text; Digitalizer, which uses a matrix to represent an image, the elements of which form the shape of the initial image; and Morphing, for morphing text.
Tools 1.0; $40
Eight filters for creating interesting video effects.
Array 1.5; $100
Includes Array, for making multiple copies of layers from an After Effects project with progressive changing of geometric properties, as well as Digital Matrix; Digital Chaos; and Digital Galaxy.
Composite Wizard; $395
Includes 16 filters that allow artists to automate color correction effects, blur or feather edge borders, and clean up unwanted artifacts.
Image Lounge; $395
Has more than 20 filters for creating natural elements such as oceans, fog, steam, clouds, fire, and smoke using fractal particle systems.
Knoll Light Factory; $395
Creates an unlimited number of lighting effects and lens flares.
Primatte Keyer; $695
Extracts perfect keys from any color background.
Customizes and controls the company's "spice" effects, alpha wipes, and all 2D filters/effects.
ReelSmart Motion Blur; $90
Applies more natural-looking motion blur by automatically tracking every pixel.
ReelSmart Twixtor; $330
Intelligently slows down, speeds up, or changes the frame rate of image sequences.
ReelSmart Shade/Shape; $90
Turns 2D elements into 3D rendered images.
Video Gogh; $90
Turns video and images into painted works of art.
Sapphire Effects Volume I; approx. $85
Incorporates nine plug-ins for creating grayscale effects, posterisation, and solar, threshold, dotty, line, circular, and starburst effects.
Echo Fire 1.1; $295
Provides accurate, real-time video previews of designs via FireWire connection. Version 2.0 will add real-time audio preview capability.
ColorTheory DV 1.0; $249
Allows artists to work in RYB (red, yellow, blue) color model on an RGB computer monitor. Also offers ability to preview on NTSC/PAL monitors. Developed by Theory LLC of San Francisco.
Ultimatte AE; $1495
Contains a set of plug-ins for pulling keys from blue- or greenscreen footage.
3D Invigorator; $595
Produces broadcast- and film-quality 3D graphics. Also contains an instant 3D object modeler.
Zbig; $2000 to $3500
Chromakeyer uses an image's spill information to create a better composite.