Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 9 (September 2002)

After Effects 5.5

By George Maestri

Adobe Systems' After Effects motion graphics and effects package has had a long history in the animation and motion graphics community. The software is the de facto standard for motion graphics designers, but After Effects has also found a solid following in the animation and special effects communities. Version 5.5 offers a significant number of advances that make it an even better choice for anyone involved in creating moving images.

After Effects is available for both 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 users with machines with multiple processors will get an added boost in speed.

The most important feature added to After Effects in Version 5 was 3D. Having 3D in a compositor can be a real lifesaver, as it allows you to easily animate the layers of your composite forward and back along the Z-axis. This means that artists no longer have to "cheat" the third dimension. Version 5.5 builds on this foundation with a number of tools to flesh out the 3D environment. Multiple viewports are now available, and the software has improved the way it handles intersecting layers.
Version 5.5 of After Effects includes an interface with multiple viewports, similar to that found in many 3D applications.

Another advantage of 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 can also cast shadows, and in Version 5.5, colored shadows are supported.

For those who use 3D software, the production bundle can now import camera data from Alias|Wavefront's Maya and Discreet's 3ds max, which enables it to seamlessly integrate with a special effects pipeline. In addition, the production bundle supports full 16-bit images, which makes the package usable in feature film production. The software can import and export industry standard Cineon and RLA files, and on the PC, After Effects now of fers full support for DV-based codecs.

Among the more important additions are enhancements to the masking tools, which are essential for special effects work. The Smart Mask keyframe assistant makes it much easier to animate transitions between complex masks. After Effects can now add motion blur to masks as well as duplicate mask shapes, and masks can also be created and edited on the fly in the composition window. Each mask can also be a unique color to make it easy to tell different masks apart.

For those dealing with complex projects, After Effects now allows you to link layers in a hierarchy. Moving the parent layer also moves the children. A lot of people have been using After Effects for creating cutout style animation, crafting characters from many layers. Hier archies will help stitch together characters, making complex character animation much easier. The Hierarchies feature works by providing a pulldown menu that allows each layer in a composition to select its parent. This arrangement can be a bit counterintuitive, because the arrangement of layers in the composition might not be the same as their hierarchical arrangement. It might be nice to arrange hierarchies in the flowchart view, project view, or in a separate window akin to Maya's Outliner.

After Effects now has over 90 different effects bundled with the software. Add in a few extra third-party plug-ins and the list becomes pretty hard to manage. To ad dress this, After Effects 5.5 offers a new Effects Palette that lets you organize items to your liking. Effects can be alphabetized or sorted by type, and you can create custom folders for groups of effects.

Another nice feature is Vector paint, which is part of the production bundle. Vector Paint allows you to paint color interactively on a layer. The brushes have soft edges, as well as opacity. Strokes can exist for a single frame or be animated over time. You can also use brush strokes to reveal an image over time, which is great for handwriting and wire-removal effects. Another application for vector paint is in the area of animation. You can literally draw animation into the system with a tablet, using an onion skin feature to see the previous frames.

Overall, this is a strong upgrade and the package would be a great addition to any animation studio. I'd recommend it to all After Effects users as well as those just buying a desktop compositing and motion graphics package. After Effects remains a standard, and it offers a great set of tools at an affordable price.

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

After Effects 5.5
Price: $649 basic; $1499 production bundle
Minimum System Requirements: Windows 98/ME/2000; 128MB of RAM. Mac OS 9 or X; multiprocessor G4 recommended; 64MB of RAM
Adobe Systems
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