Any review of Adobe's special effects behemoth can only really scratch the surface of its capabilities. It's no surprise that AE has the fattest manual in the pack, there's so much to it. For the uninitiated, After Effects is a fully-featured motion graphics, animation and image compositing toolkit. Using a combination of timelines and keyframes, and some heavy math, it can turn a dull graphic into molten lava or create metor showers out of thin air.
The most obvious change to After Effects 7.0 is the new look interface characteristic of the Production Studio suite and greater integration with the rest of the titles in this bundle (see Adobe Production Studio overview). Changes such as the ability to create dynamically linked, motion DVD menus in After Effects for Adobe Encore DVD 2.0 or capture in AE7.0 using Adobe Premiere Pro 2.0's capture utility are especially welcome. Photoshop CS2.0 and Illustrator 2.0, which come with the premium version of Production Studio, are closely allied with After Effects 7.0 too.
Adobe Bridge, the file managing utility in this pack, comes in handy here for previewing and rating the various templates and animation presets that come with After Effects 7.0.
Throughout the Production Studio suite there have been some highly effective design changes that enhance workflow and ease-of-use. A new Graph Editor stands out as one of the highlights here. When building compositions in After Effects it doesn't take long before your timeline is stacked with layer upon layer and menu upon submenu of effects settings and keyframes. There were already features for managing this, like the useful hide shy layers toggle button for temporarily removing from view layers that you are not working on, but it's a constant battle to keep the workspace uncluttered.
The graph editor offers a colour-coded guide to the various components such as, for example, in 3D animations, a different colour for the X, Y, and Z axis. There's also an array of bezier and free transform tools for adjusting effects keyframes within the graph.
A new filter that comes with the premium version of Production Studio, and that I'm looking forward to experimenting more with, is the Timewarp. This is the effect that's often used in advertising for quickly speeding up and slowing down action, but in a non-jerky way. Other new filters that may be of use for styling footage include a new Lens Blur and a new Smart Blur filter. The first recreates the effect of an out-of-focus camera, the other softens colour but not detail.
After Effects 7.0 now supports 32-bit-per-channel floating-point HDR (High Dynamic Range) colour, which means much richer colour detail is now possible. Typically used for doing high-end work on movies, special effects, 3D work and ultra-high res photography, it will also ensure that blur and lighting effects look more realistic and less prone to blow-out.
In this latest version, After Effects includes support for a variety of new file formats including HDV, Cmea Raw, OpenEXR, AAF, 10-bpc YUV (v210), and 32-bpc TIFF and PSD.
Vectors and bitmaps
After Effects excels when it come to motion graphics, so it's good that Adobe bundles Illustrator CS2 with Production Studio. Illustrator's key app is its ability to generate vector based images, which can be infinitely magnified without losing image quality because the file is based on logarithmic co-ordinates. Not only do the vector based images scale magnificently, but they don't create large file sizes - it's why Macromedia Flash, the best-known vector based program, has become so popular in the low bandwith environment of the web.
One of the new features of Illustrator CS2 is its trace bitmap feature. Instead of importing and manually tracing a path from a bitmap image such as a photo or scanned hand drawing, you can call on Illustrator to automatically generate a vector outline of your image. Macromedia supported this feature in Flash years ago, and I found that it wasn't effective except where the outline was clear and bold. Most of the time it generated so many vector points that it was easier to go the manual way rather than tidy up the traced image. I haven't had time to compare how Illustrator performs yet, but I'll report back here when I do.
Traced or not, once you have an Illustrator graphic, you can import that path into After Effects and animate it over time. It's easier in After Effects 7.0 to work between the two programs: you can cut and paste paths from Illustrator, and with Adobe Dynamic Link, any changes that you make to an Illustrator composition will be automatically updated in After Effects.
Speeding up After Effects
Adobe continues to address After Effects heavy processing payload - a big drawback with this program - with more support for OpenGL graphics cards, speeding up processing of supported effects like blends, shadows, lights, masks, track mattes, and more.
After Effects is a challenge to master, but Adobe continue to make it easier for newcomers to get started with great presets, templates, and tutorials. Take the plunge!