Adobe After Effects Turns 20
David Simons
Issue: Volume 36 Issue 3: (Mar/Apr 2013)

Adobe After Effects Turns 20

During the past 20 years, the visual effects industry has evolved dramatically. From classic monster movies to action thrillers, visual effects and motion graphics have added magic to filmmaking and the viewer experience.

It's been quite a journey for film technology, with constantly changing formats, a rapid hardware release cycle, and a turbulent business climate, but one tool has weathered the change and has evolved into a staple of creativity in postproduction: Adobe After Effects.

The evolution of After Effects has mirrored the progress of the rapidly expanding visual effects industry, inspiring many movie creators and catapulting careers of those working in visual effects, motion graphics, and animation. After Effects is used by Hollywood's elite VFX artists, including Rob Legato, Ben Grossman, Stephen Lawes, Andrew Kramer, Paul Graff, and many others.

This year, After Effects celebrates its 20th anniversary. Every anniversary provides an opportunity to look back and reflect on accomplishments and to make bold plans for years to come. To this end, David Simons will help us take a look back at the developments in visual effects, while Steve Forde makes predictions about where he envisions the industry is heading.

The Beginning: CoSA

Twenty years ago, four young and ambitious Brown University graduates - Greg Deocampo, David Foster, David Herbstman, and I, David Simons - sat down with lawyers to incorporate The Company of Science and Art (CoSA), a small start-up in Providence, Rhode Island.

The master plan was for CoSA to become a world-class content provider for the new electronic age. The basic premise of CoSA's business plan was to have artists and programmers working side-by-side to produce multimedia content. CD-ROM production was the first task. Since Macintosh computers were the most advanced multimedia platform at the time, we planned out a system for authoring electronic magazines using Apple's HyperCard and custom plug-ins. Microsoft Word RTF documents with hyperlink information were "flowed" into a multipage, multicolumn layout, with space for in-line advertisements.

We decided to display our first CD-ROM, Connections: The CoSA Journal, at MacWorld Expo in Boston in order to showcase what the software could do. However, Connections was not a big success. As we later discovered, its abysmal performance was mainly caused by a certain extremely slow brand of CD-ROM drive we happened to use. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as the slowness of the animations was the impetus for us to write PACo, the PICS Animation Compiler. PACo enabled platform-independent, low-bandwidth streaming animation playback with synced sound.

While we were busy working on PACo, Apple Computer was secretly working on a new technology called QuickTime. This new development forced us to change the plan once again.

Beginnings of After Effects

The front-running ideas for CoSA's next big thing were a full-media indexer - similar to full-text indexing and retrieval but with extended capacity for images, sounds, and movies - and some type of animated effects program. In the end, the animated effects idea looked like it had the most promise.

The new product - code-named Lort after the team's favorite entrée at nearby restaurant Apsara - was designed to have the ability to process any type of media in any way, anything from MIDI musical data to a word-processing document, all of it time-based. The idea sounded promising, but because of its complexity, CoSA could have gone out of business before being even half-finished. We decided to gut the Lort design, leaving only the most crucial elements in order to ship the product in six months. Otherwise, the team feared, it would have been all over.

The next item on Apsara's menu was Egg Roll, so, following the tradition, we named the new product Egg. Although the name Egg was growing on us, we decided to give the software a real name. Top contenders were Video Banana, MovieTwist, and Effecstacy. However, none stuck like After Effects. The initial release of After Effects was January 1993. After Effects 1.0 was incredibly simple: no timeline window, one effect per layer, no transfer modes, no motion blur, and only one mask per layer.

With companies like Apple promoting the digital video field, larger software companies became more interested in CoSA and its newly released product. In 1993, CoSA was acquired by Aldus Corporation, and less than a year after the acquisition, the team moved to Seattle just as Aldus merged into Adobe Systems.

Jurassic Park: The Catalyst

Before After Effects' debut in 1993, digital motion-picture special effects were mainly created through proprietary software applications developed by production houses and studios, and were run on very expensive computer hardware. However, once After Effects became available, filmmakers were able to unleash a wave of creativity and bring motion pictures to new heights.

In June 1993, an action-adventure film about dinosaurs roaming the earth transformed the film industry. Jurassic Park's plotline was not the only element from the film that was revolutionary - so were the visual effects. The special effects used in Jurassic Park transported viewers to a prehistoric land with a thrilling reality. Dinosaurs, vegetation, and the gory scenes became a reality for viewers.

Scott Billups from Electric Sandbox used After Effects to combine aspects of 3D dinosaurs and 2D sketches to virtually preview movie scenes. Billups used After Effects because it was the only application that allowed him to combine all the 2D and 3D elements created to pre-visualize the scenes. After Effects was used during the creation process for a scene where a cartoon Dennis Nedry's (Wayne Knight) arm and finger moved back and forth on a computer screen, taunting Ray Arnold (Samuel L. Jackson) for not knowing the "magic word."

In part, the use of After Effects contributed to Jurassic Park's visual effects success. In 1994, the 66th Academy Awards gave Jurassic Park the prize for Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Sound Editing.

The technology used in Jurassic Park set the bar high for the visual effects industry. Since then, directors have demanded new technologies in order to create new realities for viewers. Filmmakers realized that new technology enabled the transport of viewers into different worlds and realms, which put the digital visual effects industry in high demand.

From Then to Now…

From Jurassic Park to The Avengers, the visual editing industry has progressed with technological advancements that have catapulted films to new levels. Advances have been made in all aspects of video editing: from greenscreen work, to digital matte painting as backgrounds to special effects, to title sequences. Many of these technical advances have been centered on transitioning from the idea to a result instantly, then allowing finer detail to follow on. Great examples of this have been in the art of footage stabilization, camera tracking, and 3D object insertion.

What used to require huge investments in set design, location, and construction can now be entirely virtualized within a compositor like After Effects.

…and in the next 20 years

Many of us on the After Effects team believe we are only "half" done. Our focus remains the same as it was the past 20 years, and that is to allow creativity to fuel the quality of content - and not in expensive technology. Artists bend, break, and push After Effects with every release, and this, in turn, fuels our creativity to provide technology that can accommodate these demands.

In tandem, the world is very different than it was when Egg made its debut. Devices you can carry in your pocket are dramatically changing how people consume, interact with, and create compelling content. Media that moves has never been in higher demand, and the ability to quickly create outstanding experiences puts After Effects at center stage more than ever before.

Although all of us who created After Effects believe the last 20 years have been nothing short of amazing, it's frankly the next 20 years that has us most inspired. In fact, it will be interesting to see how the next generation of storytellers shape devices, virtual 3D models, and photorealistic compositing in the Jurassic Park or Star Wars films of tomorrow.

David Simons is principal scientist and Steve Forde is product manager at Adobe Systems, Incorporated.