Premiere Pro CS5 and After Effects CS5 Review

I use both Premiere and After Effects for a few different projects specific to my web design and DVD work, such as producing graphics and video for websites or building DVDs of clients’ personal photos and videos. As such, my review won’t be as technical as true video professionals but I hope it will show some things that become easier in my work now that CS5 has been released.

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Premiere Pro CS5: Performance and data

Premiere Pro CS5 is a totally different beast than its predecessor, thanks to its new Mercury Playback Engine and a GPU designed to fully leverage it (see my NVIDIA sidebar below). The Mercury Playback Engine represents a redesigned playback engine for Premiere that’s designed to handle HD footage and even ultra-HD footage coming from the newest cameras on the pro market. I’ve not handled such material in my work but I do shoot HD video and it’s never been very easy to work with until now. Premiere Pro CS5 gives you a performance boost even without a GPU, but when paired with one playback is practically in real time and there’s no need to grab a cup of coffee when rendering a project at the end.

The other major advancement is Premiere Pro CS5’s embrace of metadata from other applications to create a tighter workflow. Adobe Story, an online service for pre-production scriptwriting, will produce metadata that marks up a Premiere project with shot lists and placeholders for footage to be capture with OnLocation CS5. The metadata also helps Adobe Media Encoder CS5 transcribe better speech for captioning and other uses and even remains in Encore CS5 so Encore-exported video is keyword-searchable.

All the metadata improvements above foster a tapeless workflow, where footage and story can go from the camera straight to the computer and then out to DVD or online video. Like many groundbreaking features, I think all this will be better in CS6 than CS5, where it remains an incomplete solution depending on your needs. The shot lists aren’t too detailed and working with the metadata requires actors and actresses to stick with their scripts. Speech Search is much improved from CS4, but it can be improved further too. Still, I really like the thought behind the new paradigm and the buzzword of the digital photography industry for years—”metadata”—now has a potentially strong application in the video industry.

There’s several small improvements to Premiere Pro CS5 as well:

  • Automatic scene detection is now available for HDV tapes.
  • You can import assets from DVDs.
  • Premiere can find and remove gaps between clips on demand.
  • You can drag a clip on the New Sequence button to create a new sequence that matches the clip’s attributes.
  • Adobe’s keyed application, Ultra, is now included with Premiere. Ultra has also been enhanced to better tackle uneven lighting and real-world imperfections during capture.

Premiere Pro CS4 users may not find Premiere Pro CS5 to be a compelling upgrade unless they are working with ultra-HD footage—perhaps from a RED camera, which Premiere handles very well—or are interested in a tapeless workflow. Those who have the funds to buy a GPU like NVIDIA’s Quadro FX 4800 for Mac along with Premiere Pro CS5 should consider the upgrade even more just for the extreme speed increase. But CS3 users who skipped the CS4 upgrade should definitely make the upgrade—things have changed since 2007.

Sidebar: NVIDIA’s Lightning-Fast New GPU for Mac

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Performance is always one of the “new features” in Adobe’s creative applications—with every upgrade it seems they find new ways to eke out faster functions, though they’re not always as fast as hoped. Premiere Pro CS5’s Mercury Playback Engine is yet another new feature focused on performance, but this one delivers: it’s the greatest performance improvement I’ve seen in any of Adobe’s products ever.

What makes it truly awesome is GPU acceleration, and to achieve that users will need a GPU—a graphics processing unit that replaces the weak video cards that usually ship with all computers. The Mercury engine is designed to work especially well with NVIDIA‘s CUDA technology, and I had the chance to test Premiere Pro CS5 with the NVIDIA Quadro FX 4800 for Mac. NVIDIA supplied me with some extremely impressive charts and graphs showing unbelievable improvements. Playback that Premiere could run only at quarter-speed ran at practically the full frame rate. A HD timeline exported to MPEG2 Blu-ray took 75% less time than with the software alone.

I also tested the Quadro FX 4800’s performance with a sample project of my own, and I was impressed again. I had roughly 80–85% speed improvements to encoding to Blu-ray and also to FLV from a HD project. The Blu-ray export took seven minutes with Premiere alone and one minute with the GPU enabled. The FLV export also took seven minutes without the GPU and one minute with it.

As impressive as that is, my HD project performed better yet when I tested the full resolution playback. The target frame rate was 23.98 and the display frame rate was 23.00. Without the NVIDIA GPU, Premiere achieved only a 7.67 display frame rate and dropped 1,029 frames. The GPU restored the performance to 100%, achieving a 23.67 display frame rate and dropping zero frames. I don’t know how the GPU was able to score such a high display rate, but that’s what Premiere’s statistics reported.

What does this mean for everyday users? First, if you work with HD or other intensive formats like RED 2K or 4K, you will want to make the most of the Mercury Playback Engine. This engine is designed to handle the high-definition and ultra-high-definition video being produced today. Second, I learned that no one can really get by with the stock video cards anymore. I run a new Mac Pro and figured my video testing would perform well with or without the NVIDIA Quadro FX 4800, but the card Apple put into my machine was really a sorry excuse for the GPU. I think the GPU might be as important or more important for video producers than the machine itself. I’d wholeheartedly recommend the Quadro FX 4800 for Mac users serious about getting the most out of Premiere Pro CS5. Without it, Premiere Pro CS5 is half the upgrade it could be.

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After Effects CS5: Remastered for HD and ultra HD

Like Premiere, After Effects has made HD and ultra-HD video a primary focus in CS5. There’s no rewritten playback engine like what Premiere Pro CS5 has, but After Effects CS5 is now a 64-bit application and thus takes advantage of large amounts of RAM. RAM previews now run very smoothly, and I rarely have trouble with them anymore. I don’t work with ultra-HD footage so those users may still pine for a better solution, but for the average user working with a HD camcorder After Effects CS5 will work much more beautifully.

After Effects CS4 users received mocha for free, and at the time I said it alone made the CS4 upgrade more valuable because of its motion tracking abilities. mocha was really just an add-on to CS4, but now it’s updated with handling of hand-drawn masks and feathered masks with variable widths. The result is a more natural mask that can handle camera movement and more complex composites. mocha also works better with After Effects CS5 and now shares its motion blur data, making it possible to recreate the same motion blur with other elements in After Effects.

I was introduced to After Effects through my work with Flash, which at the time used a fundamentally different timeline. I still grapple with After Effects’ timeline sometimes, especially with the notion of creating keyframes manually all the time. After Effects CS5 offers an Auto-keyframe mode that will create keyframes whenever major parameters are changed (including position, rotation, mask properties and camera changes among others). The only thing I wish is that Auto-keyframing could be turned on by default on all compositions, but if you click the button in the Timeline panel you’ll be set for the entire project.

My favorite new feature in After Effects CS5 is the Roto Brush, which will automatically rotoscope objects from their backgrounds. I’m an old Photoshop user so to me it functions somewhat like that app’s Quick Selection tool. To use the Roto Brush, draw a stroke on the foreground object to keep it or the background to mask it out, and After Effects detects the object’s edges and modifies it with each frame. The end results always seem to come out wonderfully and After Effects even compensates for motion blur, background color in transparent foreground edges, and edge chatter across frames. After Effects’ paint tools provide any final touches to the mask.

And now some key features that I also like in After Effects CS5:

  • If you work with some high-end Panasonic or RED cameras, After Effects CS5 natively supports the AVC-Intra 50 and AVC-Intra 100 codecs, plus R3D files of various permutations.
  • You can align layers to a composition’s boundaries for a better layout.
  • Photoshop adjustment layers are supported in After Effects CS5 and can be applied to any After Effects layer. Other Photoshop features, including Repoussé 3D elements, are supported.
  • You can color-code panel tabs with colors from the composition, footage or layer’s label.
  • A new Refine Matte effect will apply the Roto Brush’s superior edge tracking to alpha channels, making cleaner keyed footage and masked elements.
  • If you like to script, After Effects CS5 has added some parameters to access motion blur, text tracking and per-character auto-orientation.
  • The Color Finesse plug-in has been upgraded to version 3 and includes new hue/sat curves, vibrance control and a highlight recovery tool designed for high dynamic ranges.
  • Another plug-in included in After Effects—for the first time—is FreeForm by Digieffects. FreeForm produces some nice 3D effects such as bent and warped layers and distorted text. I keep saying Adobe needs to produce a 3D application, but for now they seem content to add 3D tools to After Effects and Photoshop.

After Effects CS5 seems like a less necessary upgrade than Premiere Pro CS5, but that’s probably because After Effects doesn’t have a game-changer like Premiere does with its new Mercury playback engine. Still, the Roto Brush is a beautiful improvement that will change the way users rotoscope in After Effects and the 64-bit rewrite makes the application more powerful. All its other small improvements make After Effects CS5 a smart upgrade for particular users who need its specific features or hardcore users who can’t say no to an upgrade.

Premiere Pro CS5
Adobe Systems
US$
Rating: 9/10

After Effects CS5
Adobe Systems
US$
Rating: 8/10