Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 6 (June 2001)

After Effects 5

By George Maestri

Adobe Systems' After Effects has become the de facto standard for motion graphics and desktop compositing. Version 5 offers a significant number of advances that keep it ahead of the game and continue to make it an excellent package at any price.

The software is available for both the Mac and PC platforms. As with any compositing application, a fast hard disk and lots of memory are a plus. The software is also multithreaded, which means those with multiple processors will get an added boost in speed.

After Effects now supports full 16-bit images, which opens up the package to feature film production. In addition, it can import and export industry-standard Cineon and RLA files. On the PC, After Effects now offers full support for DV-based codecs, much like Adobe Premiere 6.

The biggest new feature, however, is that After Effects 5 has gone 3D. Having 3D in a compositor can be a real lifesaver, as it enables you to easily animate the layers of your composite forward and backward along the Z axis. This means that artists no longer have to "cheat" the third dimension. For instance, in a 2D package, if you want an object to move toward the camera, you need to scale it larger to give the audience the illusion that it's moving forward. In a 3D compositor, you simply move it forward along the Z axis, and the software takes care of the rest. For perspective effects, you rotate rather than skew the layer.
After Effects' new 3D options allow for realistic lighting. This image, for example, was created with two flat layers and a 3D light source.

When tweaking a composite in 3D, sometimes it helps to be able to look at the shot from a different angle. To facilitate this, After Effects has incorporated orthographic views into the interface. Only one view can be active at a time, however, which makes it hard to tweak your composite. It would be much more useful to be able to move a layer in the top viewport, for example, while seeing the results in a second camera viewport.

Another advantage to 3D is the ability to have multiple cameras and lights in a scene. Cameras allow you another way of moving through the composite. Lights give you the ability to highlight an area of the scene, and colored lights let you tint it. Lights also can cast shadows, which is great for compositing animation with live action. And speaking of shadows, After Effects now supports alpha channels when creating shadows, which allows for accurate shadows on top of composited layers.

Since version 4.0, After Effects has supported file formats such as RLA, which contain 3D scene data. However, still missing from the After Effects lighting tools in version 5.0 is the ability to cast accurate shadows into layers containing 3D scene data. With this ability, if you had a simple RLA file with a sphere, for example, you could use the depth information within the file to cast a shadow on the sphere that accurately follows its contours. This feature is used a lot in 3D compositing and is supported by packages such as Discreet's combustion.

For those dealing with complex projects, After Effects 5.0 now allows you to link layers together in a hierarchy. Moving the parent layer also moves the children. A lot of people have been using After Effects for creating cut out-style animation, com posing characters from many layers. Hierarchies will help stitch together characters, making complex character animation much easier.

The addition of a paint utility has been long overdue for After Effects. Vector paint capability allows you to paint color interactively on a layer. The brushes have soft edges as well as opacity. The strokes can exist for a single frame or be animated over time. You also can use brush strokes to reveal an image over time, which is great for handwriting and wire-removal effects.

After Effects also now supports expressions. This allows you to create procedural animations automatically by linking together parameters from different layers. One example might be to tie the opacity of one layer to the position of another. As the second layer moves in, the first fades out.

For getting projects to the Web, After Effects now has direct support for Macromedia's Flash .swf format. The Flash format is mostly used for vector animation, which makes After Effects' masks and vector paint a natural choice.

Finally, Adobe has tossed in some extra effects to round out the upgrade. Shatter breaks up a layer like glass. Radio Waves creates a set of expanding "radio wave" circles, much like on the old RKO Pictures logo.

Overall, apart from the few limitations mentioned, this is a strong upgrade and I'd recommend it to all After Effects users, as well as to those just purchasing a desktop compositing and motion graphics package. The software remains a standard.

George Maestri is a writer and animator living in Los Angeles.

Price: $649 Basic Package; $1499 Production Bundle
Minimum System Requirements: Windows 98/ME/2000; Intel Pentium II. Mac OS 9/X Classic; PowerPC processor.
Adobe Systems