Adobe's Premiere might be fighting tooth and nail in an aggressive market of prosumer editing software, but its compositing suite, After Effects, seems unruffled. That's not to say that there aren't competitors. Discreet's Combustion, for example, is a great compositing tool with an interface that many find more intuitive. Even so, After Effects remains the big cheese at this budget-conscious end of the pro market.
But, past experience has taught us that big cheeses can often stagnate, as developers aren't pushed to keep their software ahead of the competition. So, we're curious when faced with new versions - keen to see whether they offer anything new or exciting.
Design and layout
After Effects has never been the most intuitive of media programs. It has familiar elements, such as a timeline and viewer, but their application is very different to those you'd find in an editing program. The interface and workflow can be intimidating to newcomers, but it's not that bad once you get to know it. The best way to approach After Effects is to think of it as Photoshop for video.
The interface is neatly laid out, with each window and palette tidily docked and tabbed for easy navigation. Project, media and effects palettes are self-explanatory. Everything can be resized, undocked, and grouped with other elements to suit your preferences.
After Effects has always had an impressive feature set, but many of the new additions to CS3 are genuinely useful. Possibly the most fundamental improvement (and arguably the most important) is the introduction of Photoshop Later Styles. Layer Styles have long been a mainstay of Photoshop, and serve to quickly apply shadows, glow effects, bevels, emboss, colour overlay or gradient overlays to layers.
The same tools are now available within After Effects. After Effects is also nicely integrated into Photoshop CS3 Extended, with mutual support for video layers in Photoshop files and vanishing point allocation in the creation of 3D compositions.
Having established the ways in which After Effects CS3 takes its lead from Photoshop, we then find a lot of Illustrator thrown into the mix too - particularly with the new Shape Layers feature, allowing users to create vector graphics within After Effects itself, rather than an external application. Simple shapes, polygons and stars can be applied in a few mouse clicks.
Drawing and shape creation tools are identical to those in Illustrator, so anyone coming from the print design field should hit the ground running with this feature. Again, most elements of the vector shapes you create can be keyframed and animated. Text can be converted to a shape layer too, to take advantage of the same animation features.
Now that Adobe has bought Macromedia, it is also keen to integrate the functionality of Flash into its video applications. In essence, keyframes set in After Effects can be translated to cue points when the project is exported for Flash. One of Premiere Pro's most innovative export features is now integrated into After Effects. Clip Notes exports work in progress as a PDF document with embedded video. Clients are invited to enter text notes, synchronised to the movie itself, providing immediate and unambiguous feedback.
The immediacy of animation is almost always lost in drudgery when working with compositing software: every individual attribute must be painstakingly plotted as keyframes against a numerical timescale. For the most controlled work, that's still the case, but After Effects CS3 allows a more tactile approach with its Puppet tool.
Just about any frame can be stretched, rescaled and manipulated in real time during playback. More than this, though, the Puppet tool animates joints set in layers, causing the image to bend and fold exactly where you want it. Keyframes are set automatically, and can obviously be adjusted and fine-tuned after the initial puppetry is complete.
Beyond the new features and crazy effects, After Effects still delivers first-rate 3D compositing tools, colour correction controls, masking and keying effects. Motion controls for each layered element go beyond the features you'd find in Premiere Pro. Multiple cameras and lights can be created for a composition. Points of interest can be specified, to help guide tracking and motion paths, and shadows can be coloured.
After Effects is a workhorse program, designed for a complex slog. The speed at which it does its job depends on the speed and power of the host PC. Matters are helped by the use
of a fast processor, loads of RAM and an up-to-date graphics card.
Much of the work is offloaded onto the graphics processor, making After Effects CS3 a speedier program that it was in earlier incarnations, and many simple tasks and effects will play solidly in real time, but complex composites will certainly demand rendering time. That given, After Effects proved stable and reliable on our test system.
Pricing alone makes After Effects a tool for working professionals. Even then, we doubt the majority of jobbing video freelancers will need the kind of features it offers. Weddings and the bulk of event video projects will have no place for 3D animation and compositing beyond that which you'd already find in an editing application.
There is a very real demand for swish title sequences, animations and montages in the corporate market, and for those purposes, After Effects is indispensable. The program integrates nicely with other Adobe applications, making it a no-brainer with designers working with still and moving image projects.