By George Maestri
Targeted at motion graphics designers and visual effects artists working in film, video, multimedia, and Web environments, Adobe's After Effects has long been viewed as a terrific package for this group, with tons of features that produce high-quality images at a reasonable price. The latest version, After Effects 4.1, brings a host of enhancements, including an improved user interface, new tools for improved work flow, and support for enhanced media exchange.
The package comes in two flavors. The standard version includes most of the features you need to produce motion graphics and perform basic compositing. The production bundle adds tools for advanced work such as motion tracking, particle effects, and scripting. The new version of the bundle also features 3D effects capability and a network renderer.
|After Effects sports a number of interface improvements, including a flowchart window (at right) for viewing complex projects.|
After Effects follows a basic timeline analogy. The interface is centered on a composition window, which enables you to sequence and overlay such elements as still and motion images. Surrounding this window are floaters for playback controls and palettes. In Version 4.1, Adobe has added a flowchart view, a welcome addition for those working on large projects. This view displays individual elements in a composition as rectangles, which are connected using lines to show their relationships.
The flowchart view is a good start, but it is only a window for viewing. To make it truly useful, Adobe must enable users to edit their projects from within this window, much as they can in packages such as Chalice, Maya Fusion, and Houdini. This would enable users to rewire the connections between elements to change how a scene is composited, for instance.
For motion graphics professionals, Adobe added separate controls for manipulating the fill and stroke of text, enabling text outlines and the animation of stroke widths for additional effects.
Resolution is improved in Version 4.1; After Effects now supports images with resolutions up to 30,000 pixels across. This will come in handy for creating large panning backgrounds for feature film applications. Adobe still must work on color depth, however, as many feature film projects use 16-bit color instead of After Effects' 8-bit color.
After Effects integrates nicely with other Adobe products. It supports native import of Photoshop, Illustrator, and Premiere files, maintaining the integrity of data. It also maintains layers in Photoshop, masks in Illustrator, and transitions and titles in Premiere. Also, Adobe expanded the After Effects API in Version 4.1, giving third parties access to more After Effects project data so that they can create new After Effects plug-ins.
For integration with 3D, the production bundle's 3D Channel Pack enables you to import and manipulate 3D rendered images through Discreet's RLA, Softimage's PIC, and ElectricImage's EIZ file formats. In addition to rendered pixels, these formats also carry information such as Z depth, surface normals, object and material IDs, and texture coordinates. After Effects uses this data to intelligently composite objects into a scene.
The software also can use the information to create depth of field and fog effects. I tested Version 4.1 using a 3D Studio Max scene, and it performed a decent depth of field, something the base version of Max still can't do. Because After Effects relies on Z-buffer information, however, you can still get some artifacts around the edges of objects.
Adobe has finally released a network renderer for After Effects, and it is included in the production bundle of Version 4.1. The renderer has an unlimited license, so you can install it on as many machines as you want. This network renderer speeds the rendering process, as you now can use multiple machines to render a single project. It also frees a user's workstation from the chore of rendering, drastically reducing production time.
It must be noted that, with any package, networked compositing puts a huge demand on a network. If you plan to use the network renderer, invest in a fast server and fast network hardware to get the most out of your software.
In short, After Effects Version 4.1 adds several nice features. Like its cousin, Photoshop, After Effects has become a standard package you cannot do without. It is a useful and productive tool for anyone who works with moving images.
George Maestri is a writer and animator living in Los Angeles.
Price: Standard version, $699; Production bundle, $1499
Minimum system requirements: Mac OS 8.1: PowerPC processor; 32MB of RAM; 80MB of hard-disk space.
Windows 98/NT: Pentium processor; 32MB of RAM (64MB for NT); 80MB of hard-disk space.
San Jose, CA