Tag Archives: Adobe

Sky’s the Limit: Vasava Shows the Possibilities with Flash CS4 (Part 1 of 3)

NOTE: This is one of three articles commissioned by Adobe and written by separate design agencies to demonstrate the variety of techniques available in Flash CS4 Professional. In these examples, three techniques are shown for creating realistic fireworks effects; all require intermediate to advanced ActionScript 3 skills. Enjoy! —Jeremy Schultz

Introduction by Kristan Jiles, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Adobe Systems Incorporated

Three design agencies that are given an identical initial directive, using the same tool, will return with very different project results. The creative process is essential in determining the end result; it’s how professionals use their tools to bring their work to life. We asked design agencies AgencyNet, AKQA and Vasava to develop a tutorial on how to create a fireworks display using Adobe Flash CS4 Professional to demonstrate how the same tool used to design the same project can yield such unique and differing results. At Adobe, we’re inspired by seeing how each creative uses their knowledge of the product to create amazing and fun projects that can be shared with others. Flash was developed to provide a variety of design and development options for any project and this is only one example. With animation, 3D transformation, rich drawing capabilities, and ActionScript development, we encourage designers and developers to continue experimenting with Flash to produce amazing work!

Tutorial by Enric Godes, project manager, Vasava

To develop the fireworks we used the Tweener caurina Stable version 1.33.74, ActionScript 3 (Flash 9+) library. This library can be downloaded from http://code.google.com/p/tweener/downloads/list. And, of course, we used Adobe Flash CS4 Professional.

1. Change the flash movie to 800×600 and 65 FPS (see below).

vasava-image-1

2. Draw a 4 px circle and transform it on symbol by pushing F8.

3. Edit the MovieClip and animate it from left to right on a straight line: These are the sprinkles going away from the center of the firework. We used a shape interpolation; later you can try some different animation types and change the timing to see new results. Insert a stop on the last frame (see below).

vasava-image-3

4. Find the MovieClip on the library and use the right button to open the properties window on the class field and change it to “Particle.” (See below).

vasava-image-4

5. Make a new symbol and put it on the scene. On the properties window change it to “nightSky.” This is where we will put the fireworks.

6. And now the coding. First, import the classes we are going to use:

import caurina.transitions.Tweener;
import flash.events.*;

7. Next, define the movie vars:

var fwParticlesCount:uint=200; // particles in each explosion
var fwTimer:uint=2000; // time between explosions
var timer:Timer = new Timer(fwTimer); // this adds a timer, in each step of the timer it will call fire() function
timer.addEventListener(TimerEvent.TIMER, fire);
timer.start();

8. We want to use a lot of random numbers, so we created the following function to save some time:

function randRange(min:Number, max:Number):Number {
var randomNum:Number = Math.random() * (max - min + 1) + min;
return randomNum;
}

9. And now the main function which is putting the particles in a circle, animating them, and setting their opacity and position:

function fire(event:TimerEvent){
// the origin coordinate for the firework
var x0:uint=randRange(100,700);
var y0:uint=randRange(100,500);
// now i'm going to create and define the properties of each particle in the firework
for(var i:uint=0;i> onComplete:function(){nightSky.removeChild(this);delete this}});}
}

See the final result!

Enric Godes is a project manager at Vasava. Started in Barcelona in 1997, Vasava is a communication studio with 18 young designers who specialize in cross-media projects: print, web, motion, 3D animation, and video. To unleash creativity and meet the deadline-driven demands of clients, Vasava relies on the integrated, cross-discipline tools found in Adobe Creative Suite Master Collection software.

Adobe Web Apps, Part 2: BrowserLab

Adobe has become more and more aggressive in the field of web applications, producing various services like Photoshop Express and Acrobat.com to complement their shrink-wrapped software. According to Devin Fernandez, Senior Product Manager for Dreamweaver, the company’s “hosted services” strategy takes advantage of the convenience and quick development times inherent in online applications. Shorter production times means that these applications can be developed and improved faster and more often.

Betas for two new online applications were announced recently by Adobe. One is InContext Editing, a streamlined online content editing system that’s handy for Dreamweaver users. The first part of this series comprises an analysis and review of InContext Editing. The other application is BrowserLab, a service that allows website testing for multiple browsers. This practice is essential for any web designer and any tool that makes the process easier deserves a look.

Pain points

Adobe looks for “pain points” when developing products: I’ve heard this phrase more than a few times during various demos and discussions over the years. BrowserLab is Adobe’s response to several of customers’ pain points: speed, convenience, simplicity and productivity. BrowserLab is designed to improve these four points for users. The browser emulator concept is not new—BrowserCam and browsershots.org are two services similar to BrowserLab—but Adobe hopes to improve on the concept.

BrowserLab is currently in limited distribution. Adobe planned to accept only 3,500 users for the initial preview but demand was high enough that this was increased to 8,300. The service is being tweaked and improved in preparation for a full launch, at which point it will become a paid service. For now the development team is focused on improving stability and performance.

The BrowserLab experience

BrowserLab has the same professional black/gray design as most of Adobe’s other web applications. The application is easy to use, though BrowserLab has relatively few functions and doesn’t need much user interface to be effective. There are only three view modes: 1-up, 2-up and onion skin view. Onion skinning overlays one browser image on another, which is a good way to see small differences between browsers. Users can also zoom anywhere from 75% to 200% to get a close view of the results.

Onion skinning overlays one browser result with another—in this example, Designorati.com is being tested with Firefox 3 and Internet Explorer 7.
Onion skinning overlays one browser result with another—in this example, Designorati.com is being tested with Firefox 3 and Internet Explorer 7.

I like using BrowserLab, but for a product like this the big question is whether or not it can faithfully test all the browsers you need tested. At this time BrowserLab can emulate four modern browsers and one browser that I consider non-modern:

  • Internet Explorer 6 for Windows
  • Internet Explorer 7 for Windows
  • Firefox 2 for Windows and Mac
  • Firefox 3 for Windows and Mac
  • Safari 3 for Mac
BrowserLab already has most of the browsers I test for, and several others are in the works.
BrowserLab already has most of the browsers I test for, and several others are in the works.

Internet Explorer 8, Safari 4, Opera and Chrome and next up for addition to BrowserLab. I think BrowserLab needs to emulate all these browsers in order to be successful: the ability to test all needed browsers in one application is what will make BrowserLab popular. Fortunately, the BrowserLab team tells me they are working on this right now. For now BrowserLab has a limited browser set, and that’s one reason why I still use bonafide web browsers to test my websites. Dreamweaver’s Live View is also a nice tool for website testing, but it’s not always accurate.

Another reason why I test in actual browsers is because BrowserLab is not a browser emulator: it works by screen-capturing websites in various browsers and displaying the resulting images. These images are not interactive, so you can’t test JavaScript or CSS interactivity and you can’t see Flash or other animations. Flash can also give BrowserLab a false image: in one test, BrowserLab showed a Flash animation’s mask did not work in Firefox 3 for Windows. I checked it out in that browser and learned the browser applied the mask a split-second after rendering the rest of the page. BrowserLab captured the screen too soon to reveal this. Scott Fegette, Technical Product Manager for Dreamweaver tells me the BrowserLab team is looking to actual emulation of browsers in a web application, but for now they are going to stay with screen captures.

Top: A website I designed, tested in BrowserLab. Bottom: The same website viewed with the same browser being tested in BrowserLab. The Flash graphic and headlines (styled with sIFR 3) are not visible in BrowserLab but do work online.
Top: A website I designed, tested in BrowserLab. Bottom: The same website viewed with the same browser being tested in BrowserLab. The Flash graphic and headlines (styled with sIFR 3) are not visible in BrowserLab but do work online.

Top: A website I designed, tested in BrowserLab. Bottom: The same website viewed with the same browser being tested in BrowserLab. The Flash graphic and headlines (styled with sIFR 3) are not visible in BrowserLab but do work online.

Still, BrowserLab is a handy tool if my computer’s unavailable, and it’s online so I can use it anywhere. I want to see more available browsers (such as Internet Explorer 8) and it would be nice to be able to mark a particular capture as a model and have BrowserLab show where other browsers fail to duplicate it, but I think BrowserLab is on its way to becoming a good tool for web designers.

One more thing for Dreamweaver users

Dreamweaver users can leverage BrowserLab even further with an extension that allows screen capturing and testing directly from Dreamweaver CS4. The BrowserLab extension requires Extension Manager 2.1 and comes in two parts, but completing the installation process will add a BrowserLab panel to Dreamweaver CS4. From there users can send a local or server copy of the active page to BrowserLab for viewing. The combination of Dreamweaver’s Live View and BrowserLab allows users to preview dynamic interfaces, including JavaScript and Ajax, and also preview websites from behind a firewall. Other service-based solutions can’t do this.

Adobe Web Apps, Part 1: InContext Editing

Adobe has become more and more aggressive in the field of web applications, producing various services like Photoshop Express and Acrobat.com to complement their shrink-wrapped software. According to Devin Fernandez, Senior Product Manager for Dreamweaver, the company’s “hosted services” strategy takes advantage of the convenience and quick development times inherent in online applications. Shorter production times means that these applications can be developed and improved faster and more often.

Betas for two new online applications were announced recently. One is BrowserLab, a service that allows website testing for multiple browsers. This practice is essential for any web designer and in the second part of this series I analyze and review BrowserLab. The other is InContext Editing, which I first saw last year at Adobe headquarters in San Jose and has since been upgraded to version 1.5 in late April.

InContext Editing

InContext Editing is a streamlined online content editing system deployable by Dreamweaver CS4 or the InContext Editing website, incontextediting.adobe.com. While many content management systems are proprietary and others like Drupal are open source and web-based, InContext Editing is a standalone web application so it doesn’t require extra code or installed software to work—all it requires is a modern browser. The user interface has the same gray design style found in BrowserLab and other Adobe web applications, and it looks good and works well.

Editing with InContext Editing is simple and effective.
Editing with InContext Editing is simple and effective.

InContext Editing has more functionality than BrowserLab but that also creates some weak user interface elements: for example, in order to reconfigure a website’s settings you have to click its Manage Users button, which then takes you a screen where the Configure Site button resides. It makes more sense to have both buttons available from the main window. Another example is the Remove Site button, which I had to use when one of my client’s websites launched and the testing site was no longer valid. It’s possible to remove a site from InContext Editing, but it’s not clear that all users must be deleted and all invitations rescinded before the Remove Site button reveals itself.

Managing users with InContext Editing is easy, but it can be hard sometimes to find what you need to administer users or site settings.
Managing users with InContext Editing is easy, but it can be hard sometimes to find what you need to administer users or site settings.

The other difficulty I had with InContext Editing is some difficulty handling content modified with JavaScript or Ajax. I learned this after using InContext Editing with a website modified with sIFR 3, which replaces text with Flash text so designers can use fonts beyond standard web fonts. InContext Editing was set up to edit a content block with only headings and paragraphs, but it said it could not function because prohibited tags were in the content block. I learned after some troubleshooting that sIFR, which was modifying the headings, caused the fatal error even though the HTML code was not modified. InContext Editing works well for simple webpages running standard HTML code, but scripts and dynamic content can make it incompatible. Adobe hopes to improve InContext Editing’s handling of these components in the future.

Despite these usability issues, and what seems to be a lot of time loading pages and building editing screens, InContext Editing is a handy tool for web designers whose clients have small pages and want to revise some content. I like that it’s simple, quick, and doesn’t require any software installation. It’s supposed to be so easy that anyone can use it, but there’s a learning curve and I had to consult with the help files a few times.

InContext Editing + Contribute?

One thing that excited me about InContext Editing was the possibility of using it in tandem with Contribute. One of my clients in particular already uses Contribute in-house for content management and the combination of Contribute and InContext Editing would have allowed them to edit content inside and outside the office. However, it seems that Contribute CS4 will not allow editing if InContext Editing code is detected on a page. Adobe’s position is that InContext Editing is designed to make simple updates to basic webpages, while Contribute is designed for more sophisticated webpages and workgroups.

Two benefits for Dreamweaver users

Adobe has made both BrowserLab and InContext Editing especially tempting for Dreamweaver CS4 users. InContext Editing is easily deployed by Dreamweaver CS4, with editable and repeating regions available with a click in the InContext Editing panel. You can also manage the CSS classes available to clients with this panel. The code for InContext Editing regions is quite clean, with a single div tag around the editable content:

< div ice:editable="*" > Content here < /div > (spaces added for clarity)

Editable regions can be inserted with Dreamweaver CS4, very much like template editable regions.
Editable regions can be inserted with Dreamweaver CS4, very much like template editable regions.

The asterisk property for the “editable” attribute allows all available HTML formatting in InContext Editing, including strong/em, indenting, creating lists, inserting images and more. The web designer, working with Dreamweaver CS4, can restrict these however he or she chooses. Regions can also be created directly with InContext Editing from the web browser. The other treat for Dreamweaver CS4 users is the ability to set up a keyboard shortcut for invoking InContext Editing within a web browser—however, it involves editing a JavaScript file and looks like anyone with an HTML editor (or a text editor) can hack it. Here’s how it’s done:

  1. Open the ice.conf.js file. If you use Dreamweaver to set up a website for InContext Editing, this will be found in includes/ice/ by default.
  2. Rewrite the PC keyboard shortcut (found in line 43) and the Mac keyboard shortcut (found in line 60).

The future of InContext Editing

I’m curious to see how InContext Editing fares in the future, given the many choices available to web designers for editing and managing content. Adobe is currently meeting with InContext Editing customers for feedback for a version 2 to be released in the future, but we’ll see how that turns out. It’s hard to say how much InContext Editing will change from version 1 to version 2, but I think InContext Editing’s simplicity and its browser-based ease of use gives it a lot of potential. More robust editing and management tools will help InContext Editing secure a place in the web designer’s toolkit.

BOOK REVIEW: Three Books On After Effects CS4

I usually review books separately, but today I’m reviewing three books that cover Adobe After Effects, the video compositing software that’s popular for both special effects and web animations. It’s very rare to find a book that’s suitable for novices and experts alike, and for a complicated application like After Effects it’s best to learn with a variety of training sources. Here we look at three, all from Adobe Press:

Classroom in a Book

aeclass

The “Classroom in a Book” series is project-oriented and suitable for novices and intermediate users. I found this to be true in ActionScript 3.0 for Adobe Flash CS4 Professional Classroom in a Book and it also applies to Adobe After Effects CS4 Classroom in a Book. Knowing the fundamentals of working in After Effects CS4 is helpful, though the book covers some of the basics in its first pages.

I was surprised to see some advanced topics covered in Classroom in a Book, such as 3D, motion stabilization, Mocha, particle systems and Timewarp. This is only a sample of advanced After Effects topics, but that is enough to challenge some readers and entice them to some more advanced books. One of the strengths of Classroom in a Book is its broad appeal to readers with a variety of skill levels.

Classroom in a Book is well-designed and the projects are interesting: a couple use illustrations from professional illustrator Gordon Studer, giving the projects a professional feel not always offered in training projects. If you are just getting into After Effects, or have been using it for awhile and want to fill in the gaps in your training, Classroom in a Book is a good selection.

Visual Effects and Compositing Studio Techniques

aevec

This book has been around for years and is updated whenever a new version of After Effects is released—the current author, Mark Christiansen, has written the last four editions. Studio Techniques is a more advanced book that focuses on visual effects and compositing techniques, so it is more specialized than Classroom in a Book and applicable for some industries (video, TV, special effects) than others (web design, multimedia). You could go through your entire After Effects career and never need to know color keying or morphing, though these techniques certainly make for more interesting results and for some industries they are essential.

Just like Classroom in a Book, Studio Techniques is well-designed. The included CD-ROM has two extra chapters on scripting and JavaScript, both of which are valuable for advanced users. There are some example projects on the CD, which are walked through in the book, but it’s important to know that this book is not really project-based like Classroom in a Book. The projects are there for illustration but a lot of the knowledge is to be gained simply by reading. Some scripts and trial software complete the CD, but there’s no index for the scripts so you have to read the book to know what they do.

Despite some of these little quibbles, Studio Techniques is a great book that has filled an important niche for years. Mark’s writing style is very good and the content is excellent. Pick it up if you want to get into visual effects with After Effects or expand your general After Effects skills.

After Effects for Flash

aefl

Studio Techniques serves a niche, and a large niche at that. After Effects for Flash/Flash for After Effects serves a smaller niche, the intersection of After Effects video with Flash animation and ActionScript. But it’s an important niche, and even more important now that Adobe sells both products and has made integration a key factor of CS4. I’m very excited to see this book in the marketplace, and it’s written by Richard Harrington and Marcus Geduld who are both familiar to readers of Layers Magazine.

After Effects for Flash was written for both After Effects and Flash users, and the authors naturally could not guess what skill levels their readers would have with both applications, so the first 90 pages comprise a general introduction to both applications. This is fine but it also means a quarter of the book is beginner’s material. However, the rest of the book makes up for it with some very nice projects for intermediate and advanced users. After Effects for Flash focuses more on projects than Studio Techniques does. The projects provide a mix of Flash and After Effects projects, but overall they seem to skew more toward After Effects projects that produce content or improve upon SWF or FLV output. This makes the book ideal for multimedia artists and web designers.

Conclusion

All three books are well done and have a place in the After Effects user’s bookshelf. Each one serves a specific audience and covers aspects of After Effects and Flash, so I leave it up to the reader to decide what books he/she needs. After Effects for Flash is a special case because it has such a specialized focus that it seems to be applicable to all skill levels but only to those working with an integrated After Effects/Flash workflow.

Adobe After Effects CS4 Classroom in a Book
Adobe Press
US$54.99
Rating: 9/10

Adobe After Effects CS4 Visual Effects and Compositing Studio Techniques
Adobe Press
US$59.99
Rating: 9/10

After Effects for Flash/Flash for After Effects
Adobe Press
US$54.99
Rating: 9/10

BOOK REVIEW: ActionScript 3.0 Classroom In A Book

as3-classroom

Remember “Training From The Source”? This was the name of Macromedia‘s official line of training books for Dreamweaver, Flash and other design applications. When ActionScript 2.0 was released I bought the book Flash MX 2004 ActionScript Training From The Source to learn that new version of the Flash programming language. I carried that large book through many airports and conferences, chipping away at its pages over the course of a few years.

By the time I was finished with that book, ActionScript had moved forward again to version 3.0, Macromedia was no more (having been acquired by Adobe) and “Training From The Source” was folded into Adobe’s own “Classroom In A Book” series. I thought it fitting to review the series recently with a look at ActionScript 3.0 for Adobe Flash CS4 Professional Classroom In A Book.

Small, compact, solid

Compared to the Training From The Source book, which was a large book in both page count and size, Classroom In A Book is smaller in both respects. I actually appreciate the smaller size because it increases portability. The book design is sharp, with a matte finish cover that is easier to handle and a clear layout design that aids learning. I was surprised the author, Chris Florio, had a laid-back, informal writing style—one would expect a workbook like this to have a no-nonsense tone—but I could appreciate a bit of levity after working on the exercises for hours at a time.

A different approach to ActionScript training

Classroom In A Book has roughly half the pages of its Training From The Source predecessor, so either ActionScript 3.0 is less complex than version 2.0 or the book doesn’t cover everything. It’s actually a combination of three things:

  • ActionScript 3.0 really is less complex than ActionScript 2.0, though it’s more verbose; the distinction is comparable to HTML and the more strict XHTML. Syntax is streamlined and coding skills apply to everything in a more uniform way.
  • Classroom In A Book doesn’t cover everything. Some topics such as CSS aren’t covered at all, while others (like classes) aren’t covered in their entirety. That might be a good thing, since ActionScript has always been a large language with many classes and elements. It seems this book is designed to teach essential ActionScript skills and leave minutiae to other resources.
  • Classroom In A Book is project-oriented, while Training From The Source was skill-oriented. Both books have projects to work on (and ship with a CD-ROM full of good project materials) but Training From The Source focused on skills such as handling text fields, XML, conditional logic, debugging and so on. Classroom In A Book thinks more in terms of building preloaders, loading content, creating quizzes and working with XML and video. Both approaches are good and Classroom In A Book teaches a great deal if one completes the exercises, but it’s not necessarily a compendium of ActionScript knowledge like Training From The Source was. It complements other sources such as the ActionScript 3.0 reference files, accessible directly from Flash.

Conclusion

ActionScript 3.0 for Adobe Flash CS4 Professional Classroom In A Book is worth buying, and particularly helpful for new Flash users who don’t know ActionScript or experienced Flash users who have not yet upgraded their skills to include ActionScript 3.0. The language really has made a sea change from ActionScript 2.0 and learning it requires training. Classroom In A Book is a good place to start.

ActionScript 3.0 for Adobe Flash CS4 Professional Classroom In A Book
Published by Adobe Press
US$54.99
Rating: 9/10

REVIEW: Adobe Captivate Fills The eLearning Niche

els

I am sometimes hired to produce electronic learning (eLearning) products such as demonstrations, quizzes and “textbooks on a screen.” In the past I have used Flash and the other Creative Suite applications to create these products, mostly because there’s no other good application for building eLearning tools such as these. I’ve always thought Director would be a good choice for this, but Adobe has only updated the application twice since acquiring it from Macromedia and eLearning is not its primary focus.

I was naturally surprised when I stumbled upon news that Adobe had an application called Captivate and a suite called the eLearning Suite that did focus on eLearning, and just a few months ago Captivate was upgraded to version four (the eLearning Suite is a new product). I’ve been covering Adobe Creative Suite apps for years now and this was one suite that had escaped my attention! This is because it’s targeted to PC-using eLearning professionals and not available for Mac users, which I really can’t understand: Mac-loving designers are often called to produce eLearning products, and unfortunately most of them aren’t aware of the great capabilities the eLearning Suite offers. Fortunately, Adobe tells me a version of Captivate for Mac is already in the beta testing stages, so I hope to see a Mac version released in the future.

The sum of its parts

What struck me about the eLearning Suite was how similar it is to the Creative Suite 4: other than Captivate 4 and some other features, the eLearning Suite consists of CS4 applications including Flash, Dreamweaver, Photoshop, Soundbooth, Bridge and other supporting applications, including Device Central for developing eLearning products for mobile devices. Acrobat 9 Pro and Presenter 7 (normally available in Acrobat 9 Pro Extended) are also included.

The eLearning Suite distinguishes itself from CS4 by a few unique applications and features:

  • Captivate 4,
  • A “Learning Interactions” library available in Flash CS4 Professional. This library includes movie clips for drag-and-drop questions including multiple choice, interactive, true/false, sequential, yes/no and several other formats. Each movie clip comes with detailed instructions so any intermediate Flash user should be able to handle them, but total novices may find them difficult.
  • CourseBuilder Extensions available in Dreamweaver CS4. The extension adds a “CourseBuilder Interaction” item to the Insert panel, which can create the same types of questions produced by Flash’s Learning Interactions but built with HTML and JavaScript. CourseBuilder Extensions is more robust and shows a gallery of question formats to choose from (and some formats have more than one layout and button design). CourseBuilder Extensions produces a lot of code for what it does but it works well for drag-and-drop functionality.

These features, along with the integration inherent between the CS4 products, help optimize the eLearning Suite for eLearning productions.

Adobe is assuming that eLearning producers are not web designers or Flash programmers, and drag-and-drop tools are needed for them to produce successful projects. I would agree with this if their assumption is true that the eLearning community is a separate market from the creative professional market. However, I believe the eLearning and creative professional markets are much closer than that. Designers and multimedia producers using CS4 now will be very comfortable with the eLearning Suite. It’s likely Captivate 5 will be developed for both Mac and Windows, and I hope Adobe Presenter will be as well—if so, it would be great to see the eLearning Suite become a part of the Creative Suite product family. I think it will happen—you heard it here first!

Two workflows

The eLearning Suite is a full complement of applications, so Adobe wisely emphasizes workflow as the key to successful eLearning production. There are two ways to do it:

  • Rapid authoring workflow revolves around Captivate 4 as the primary authoring tool (with Presenter 7 as an auxiliary tool) while the CS4 applications produce content such as graphics, audio and interactivity.
  • Traditional authoring workflow revolves around Flash CS4 Professional and Dreamweaver CS4 as the authoring tools for interactive and online eLearning products, complemented by their Learning Interactions and CourseBuilder Extensions. Captivate and the other CS4 apps are relegated to content production roles.

Both workflows deploy content through a variety of methods, and I think deployment is the killer feature of the eLearning Suite. It supports all the best formats for eLearning deployment, including SWF, HTML and interactive PDF (made possible by Acrobat 9’s SWF support). eLearning products can be deployed via CD-ROM, the World Wide Web, e-mail, mobile devices or local network. Even better, the eLearning Suite can aggregate and package content so it complies with the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM), the standards for web-based eLearning. All this can be delivered with a learning management system (LMS) or an online presentation tool like Acrobat Connect Pro.

Adobe’s holistic approach to content deployment aligns well with today’s technology: companies and employees use many different kinds of devices to receive and send content. If the eLearning Suite focused on CD-ROM or online deployment I don’t think it would be as successful, but the convergence of Flash, PDF and online technologies makes it possible for learning to take place anywhere, on one homogenous platform, and in adherence to the industry standards represented by SCORM.

Captivate 4: Powerful application with familiar features

captivate-box

Working with Captivate 4 was an enjoyable experience, which is not always the case with applications designed only for Windows. Captivate 4 is a power application thanks to elements borrowed from several familiar applications:

  • PowerPoint: The slide-based structure and video/audio support makes Captivate a smart choice for presentation design as well as eLearning production.
  • Flash: Each slide has a timeline so elements can be interactive (and should be if successful learning is the goal).
  • Presenter: Presenter is basically a PowerPoint-to-Flash application anyway, and Captivate imports PowerPoint in the same way.
  • Acrobat: The interface design is mostly influenced by PowerPoint and Flash, but the main toolbar has the same look and feel as that in Acrobat 9.

captivate-screen

The round-trip PowerPoint functionality is excellent: users can import PowerPoint presentations and add content and interactivity not available in the PowerPoint application. I expected a method to export back to PowerPoint, but it seems this is not the case. The next best thing is a dynamic link between Captivate and PowerPoint projects, so elements of the project design can remain in PowerPoint and be updated as needed. However, I’m not sure why anyone would do this because Captivate’s functionality and ease of use is superior.

The coolest feature in Captivate 4 is on-the-fly converting of slide notes to speech! Only two voice are available (“Kate” and “Paul”) and they must be downloaded separately from the Adobe website, but it is a thrill to hear your notes read aloud. The voices are electronic, much better than MacInTalk’s monotone but not up to par with a real human voice—but it’s a helpful feature nonetheless. Paul’s voice seems a little more natural than Kate’s, which is ironic because my clients tend to want female voices in their presentations and eLearning materials.

captivate-reviewer

Captivate 4 includes a Send For Review feature to make it easier for instructional designers and subject matter experts to collaborate on eLearning products. This is facilitated by an AIR-based Captivate Reviewer app so collaborators can view Captivate projects and comment as needed. Adobe has really focused on big-picture improvements over the last few years, such as collaboration and productivity improvements, and the good news is that such improvements are applicable to a wide range of products including Captivate 4.

captivate-timeline

Audio and video is very important to Captivate and the eLearning Suite. Soundbooth CS4 ships with the eLearning Suite and helps produce audio, while video can be recorded on-screen within Captivate. Movie clips, including FLV and QuickTime, can be imported easily and Flash CS4 Professional’s video skins are available. I had no problems importing audio and video, which is to be expected. The one thing I did miss was a video application comparable to Soundbooth CS4.

The other major feature in Captivate 4 is the Table of Contents and Aggregator tools, which are handy for larger eLearning projects. These two tools create a table of contents for easier navigation and/or combine modular projects into one whole. Most of my eLearning projects are not large enough for the Aggregator but the Table of Contents is awesome—in a few clicks I can do what takes me an hour or two in Flash! I wish I could preview the table of contents within Captivate—the project must be published before the table of contents can be seen.

Widgets, mice, questions, interactivity

Captivate 4 comes with a bunch of widgets and other interactive elements, so an interactive eLearning experience can be produced even if a user doesn’t want to monkey with audio and video. The Insert > Mouse command inserts a mouse cursor on screen and can be animated to show movement and clicks. The Quiz menu can create and customize several types of questions, and it pretty much offers the same questions as the Learning Interactions and CourseBuilder Extensions. I prefer to add questions here since I adopted the rapid authoring workflow and most of my eLearning work is done in Captivate. However, I’m not thrilled by the default question designs—part of this is because I’m not thrilled by the way designs look in PC-only apps in general.

The other interactive feature available in Captivate 4 is Flash-based widgets, and they really make a Captivate project look good. Widgets include buttons, check boxes and radio buttons, combo and list boxes, a dynamic certificate and even a jumbled word puzzle. Some of these widgets will not please designers who want a really slick design, but drag-and-drop users will really love them. My big complaint is that widgets don’t seem to preview properly within Captivate: I had to publish my projects in order to test them. A “Live View” feature similar to that in Dreamweaver CS4 would be a great feature for Captivate 5.

Conclusion

Captivate 4 is an anomaly in the Adobe product universe—an application that employs technology from several CS4 applications but doesn’t exist in the Creative Suite family. Adobe had to build an eLearning Suite around Captivate and populate it with CS4 apps. I believe this is the wrong thinking: even though eLearning professionals may not be creative professionals, there are many creative professionals who build eLearning products and can benefit from Captivate’s broad toolset and ease of use. I think the release of Captivate for Mac will draw a lot of these creative professionals toward the eLearning Suite.

If you produce eLearning products as part of your job, Captivate 4 is a strong recommendation. Designers who know their way around CS4 should also consider the eLearning Suite, though for most designers and agencies it doesn’t make sense to carry CS4 and the eLearning Suite—most of the applications overlap. I’ll be watching this new suite closely and will be very interested to see how it evolves in the next few years.

Adobe Captivate 4
Adobe Systems
US$799/299 upgrade
Rating: 9/10

Adobe eLearning Suite
Adobe Systems
US$1,799/599 upgrade
Rating: 9/10

Adobe InDesign CS4 Family Drives Personalized Publishing for Historic Print on Demand Book, The Obama Time Capsule

PRESS RELEASE

SAN JOSE, Calif. – May 21, 2009 – Adobe Systems Incorporated (Nasdaq:ADBE) today announced that Adobe® InDesign® CS4 Server software, Adobe’s automated engine for professional page composition, is powering automated layout and rendering of the The Obama Time Capsule as part of an innovative HP solution for personalized, print-on-demand publishing. The historic, illustrated coffee table book is published by Rick Smolan, creator of the renowned “A Day in the Life” photography book series, utilizing HP technology. The book, which purchasers are invited to personalize, celebrates President Barack Obama’s journey to the White House and his first 100 days in office. Beginning today, it is available exclusively on Amazon.com.

The Obama Time Capsule blends professionally produced and user-generated content by using an intuitive, web-based interface to allow consumers to combine their own unique photos and text with the professional content.

Automated publishing, exceptional quality

The HP Print on Demand (POD) platform and Adobe InDesign CS4 Server software – integrated into the overall HP POD solution – automatically generate a unique book in Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) that is printed using HP Indigo digital presses, bound and finished, and delivered to each customer. Using templates created in Adobe InDesign CS4 software, Adobe InDesign CS4 Server automates the process of professional book design while maintaining exceptional quality, including a full range of creative effects and superior typography and composition.

“The customized Obama Time Capsule books will be as beautifully produced as the coffee table books seen on bookstore shelves today, yet each will reflect the creator’s own story and experiences,” said Will Eisley, director, product management for Design Segment at Adobe. “Adobe InDesign CS4 and Adobe InDesign CS4 Server are helping people express their ideas in rich and unique ways by enabling them to create their own personally meaningful books, without creative compromise. We are proud to provide key enabling technology for HP’s Print-on-Demand platform, and to be an integral part of this exciting project celebrating the run-up to the election and the first 100 days of the Obama presidency.”

“The Obama Time Capsule showcases how customization can bring personal value to books”, said Andrew Bolwell, director of new business initiatives for HP. “With Adobe’s support, we’ve been able to bring this key feature to life and create a new class of books for the consumer, enabled by print on demand.”

About Adobe InDesign CS4 Server

Adobe InDesign CS4 Server is a key component of many of the world’s leading automated publishing solutions, allowing publishers to replace manual processes and create new content and revenue streams. It can be integrated into publishing solutions using standard development tools, providing a robust, flexible, and scalable engine for professional page composition. While it saves time and effort, InDesign CS4 Server offers all the capabilities of the latest desktop version of Adobe InDesign CS4 software in a server-based environment. As a result, Adobe partners and in-house development teams can build solutions that combine all of the professional design, layout, and typographic capabilities of the desktop software with the power and efficiency of server-driven automation. Templates for automated publishing solutions powered by InDesign CS4 Server are created using InDesign CS4.

About Adobe InDesign CS4 Software

InDesign CS4 software breaks down the barriers between online and offline publishing. The application enables creation of compelling print layouts, immersive content for playback in the Adobe Flash® Player runtime, and interactive PDF documents. For more information on the Adobe InDesign CS4 family of products, please visit: www.adobe.com/products/indesign/family

For more information on the book, please visit: www.TheObamaTimeCapsule.com

About Adobe Systems Incorporated

Adobe revolutionizes how the world engages with ideas and information – anytime, anywhere and through any medium. For more information, visit www.adobe.com.

Adobe Releases InContext Editing 1.5

Adobe recently released Adobe InContext Editing 1.5, a new content management tool that allows clients and other users to edit website content in a browser and without coding skills. Contribute has traditionally been Adobe’s only product to allow this kind of editing capabilities, but Dreamweaver CS4 introduced InContext Editing last year and Adobe is developing it further.

From the press release:

“Adobe InContext Editing 1.5 is a fully hosted online service that extends the productivity and profitability potential of Adobe Creative Suite 4. InContext Editing enables the less technical client to easily update their Web site content from any browser without installing any additional software. In addition, this new hosted service gives professional Web designers the ability to enhance their business with long-term cost effective maintenance programs they can offer their clients, while enabling them to also have more time to spend on what they do best – design work.”

Editable regions are created in Dreamweaver with the same process used to create editable regions for Contribute, so InContext Editing can actually serve as an online substitute for Contribute (though Contribute has more capabilities). InContext Editing is available through a web application similar to what’s found at Acrobat.com, and web designers can set up websites at the InContext Editing Administration Panel found at http://incontextediting.adobe.com/.

Key benefits from the new InContext Editing 1.5 release include:

  • Ability for professional Web designers to assign editable regions to a Web site from directly within a browser;
  • Simplified administration controls for Web designers to easily safeguard design integrity;
  • Web-based editing capabilities for Web designers’ clients to make updates from virtually anywhere.

A free preview of InContext Editing 1.5 is available now at http://incontextediting.adobe.com/. More information about this hosted service can be found at http://www.adobe.com/products/incontextediting/. I’ve requested some extra materials from Adobe and I hope to speak with someone on the development team, so stay tuned for more information.

Adobe CS4 and ROI: Is Productivity The New Killer Feature?

cs4lineup

Last fall Adobe Systems released Creative Suite 4 (CS4) to good reviews, which was good news to Adobe since CS4 represents the bulk of their creative pro software products and includes industry standards such as Photoshop, After Effects and Flash. Adobe stayed true to their traditional upgrade cycle and released all the CS4 products simultaneously, 18 months after CS3 was released.

But over the past few years, the 18-month product cycle has forced Adobe to release upgrades that haven’t had as many groundbreaking features as those in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Many CS4 applications saw more improvements in efficiency and productivity as fewer new tools and cool technologies have been included. In my reviews I considered this shift detrimental, but according to third-party research commissioned by Adobe productivity may very well be the “new killer feature” that delivers tangible savings to CS4 users.

The methodology

Adobe commissioned Pfeiffer Consulting, an independent technology research institute, to benchmark the productivity capabilities of CS4 and compare them to CS3 to measure productivity gains. More than 125 benchmarks were conducted across the design, web, video and digital imaging (Photoshop and Lightroom) segments and tested a variety of large and small real-world tasks and assignments including:

Dave Burkett
Dave Burkett
Dave Burkett.

Dave Burkett, Adobe’s Vice President and General Manager for Creative Suite – Design and Web Segments, said the goal of CS4’s productivity capabilities was to improve “deep usability”—refinements of the small steps designers execute every day in their daily work. “When developing Creative Suite 4 we paid close attention to our customers’ needs and pinpointed common tasks that matter most to them. We then focused on adding features and improving upon existing features in order to make those tasks more intuitive and less repetitive. Put simply, it now takes less clicks to achieve the same results.” Andreas Pfeiffer, who conducted the research, wrote that “the cumulative effect of small productivity gains in everyday operations is almost universally underestimated.”

The benchmarks were performed by professional designers and measured by researchers. No scripting or automation was used. The research does not take into account the time and money spent in training, installation and continued learning after the initial purchase, since such investments apply to previous versions of Creative Suite and don’t affect the measurements in productivity. For more information about the benchmark methodology, visit www.pfeifferconsulting.com.

roi-chartPfeiffer’s benchmarks were quite thorough and takes very small time savings into account. All text and graphics ©Pfeiffer Consulting 2009.

The findings

Pfeiffer found that “CS4 increases efficiency in a vast variety of operations, including many routine, everyday production tasks.” In particular, the following CS4 features provided substantial time savings:

  • InDesign CS4’s Live Preflight,
  • Dreamweaver CS4’s Live View and Live Code,
  • Photoshop CS4’s Adjustments and Masks panels,
  • Tapeless video support in Premiere Pro CS4, and
  • CSS export from Fireworks CS4.

As an example, Illustrator CS4’s multiple artboards feature allowed designers to consolidate related projects in one file and become more efficient when experimenting with color palettes and designs. I’ve been using multiple artboards myself in my design business: handling one or two Illustrator CS4 files is a lot easier than handling one file for every illustration. I work with a lot of logos and brands, which often have several versions for size and color, and multiple artboards help me organize my clients’ branding. Burkett commented that multiple artboards, according to the research, can save designers three hours per month.

indesign-charts
The research on InDesign CS4 shows Smart Guides and Live Preflight can save a load of production time. All text and graphics ©Pfeiffer Consulting 2009.

Other examples, such as InDesign CS4’s Live Preflight, save time and money fixing printing errors by intercepting them early—research found that Live Preflight helped designers find and fix errors twice as fast than with InDesign CS3. Live Preflight is one of my favorite CS4 features because I haven’t had to mess with preflighting at the end of a project like I used to—violations are flagged immediately and I can fix them right away. Photoshop CS4’s Adjustments panel and Dreamweaver CS4’s Live View and Live Code features were shown to offer similar speed improvements.

CS4 was also designed with multiple media content delivery in mind, and is the first Creative Suite to fully integrate Macromedia software (Flash, Dreamweaver and Fireworks) so Pfeiffer also analyzed cross-application features such as Photoshop Smart Object support in Dreamweaver CS4, Flash CS4 Professional’s abilities in handling After Effects and InDesign content, and Dynamic Link technology that integrates assets between the CS4 video applications.

So how much money does productivity save you? Pfeiffer’s analysis estimates show a substantial sum:

  • $5,753 saved with CS4 Design Premium compared to CS3 Design Premium
  • $10,563 saved with CS4 Web Premium compared to CS3 Web Premium
  • $11,404 saved with CS4 Production Premium compared to CS3 Production Premium
  • $4,020 saved with Photoshop CS4 and Lightroom 2 compared to Photoshop CS3 and Lightroom 1

Burkett commented, “Ensuring that time- and cost-saving benefits were built into our Creative Suite offerings was always a priority, but is even more vital right now given the current economy. Users can now complete everyday tasks in significantly less time, allowing designers and agencies of all sizes to come in under budget, deliver ahead of deadline and maximize time spent on the creative aspects of the project.”

ps-chartsPhotoshop CS4’s OpenGL support and speed has always been one of its most promoted features, mostly because of its efficiency potential. Pfeiffer’s research supports this, but my view is that your mileage may vary. All text and graphics ©Pfeiffer Consulting 2009.

My view

I think CS4 is a major step ahead of CS3 when it comes to efficiency: it’s clear that many improvements in CS4 had efficiency improvements in mind. I’ve always thought this shift toward improving efficiency occurred because it’s become harder and harder to pack the upgrades with cool, exciting new tools when their toolsets are quite mature already. But it appears productivity might have been Adobe’s game plan all along.

As with many such objective findings in the industry, your mileage may vary. Photoshop CS4’s Adjustments panel was found to decrease the time making adjustments in half, but I actually do not like the feature: the new keyboard shortcuts are difficult and the panel is either too small to make adjustments or so large the panel strip takes up too much space. As another example, the research found Fireworks CS4 and Dreamweaver CS4 cuts down CSS creation and management time by over 80% but the CSS generated by Fireworks was not clean enough for my tastes and I still do quite a bit of coding in Dreamweaver.

fw-dw-chartsFireworks CS4 and Dreamweaver CS4 have various new improvements in CSS creation and editing that appear to save a great deal of time. However, my experience suggests not everyone will reap such productivity gains. All text and graphics ©Pfeiffer Consulting 2009.

But I am a fan of many other efficiency improvements, especially InDesign CS4’s Smart Guides and Live Preflight features and Dreamweaver CS4’s Live View feature. Flash CS4 Professional’s new object-based animation system, which was also cited as a major time-saving feature, can be difficult for experienced Flash users to get used to but does make sense in the long run. Ultimately, consumers should remember that Pfeiffer’s benchmarks were performed by experienced users of both CS3 and CS4—designers new to CS4 will have a harder time duplicating their level of efficiency—but, given training and experience, the time and cost savings could be substantial.

SIDEBAR: The Visionaire Group and Fast & Furious Show CS4’s Time Savings

Adobe is praising The Visionaire Group for leveraging the productivity benefits of CS4 in order to maximize the online campaign for the movie Fast and Furious. Universal Pictures, the studio that produced Fast and Furious, attributes the movie’s recent #1 position at the weekend box office to the online experience that sparked the enthusiasm of young car enthusiasts and hard-core moviegoers. An engaging Web site, rich-media advertisements, a downloadable desktop widget and a custom iPhone Web site were just some of the campaign’s key elements. J.P. Richards, vice president of marketing, said, “Our goal on Fast and Furious was to develop the most compelling creative content and Adobe Creative Suite 4 delivered way beyond my expectations, while doing it in half the development time.”

In an article published on Enhanced Online News, several CS4 features are called out including Flash CS4 Professional’s 3-D tools, a faster Adobe Media Encoder, Dreamweaver CS4’s Code Navigator and integrated Flash and AIR development with the Adobe Flash Platform.

Today’s economy

In the current economic climate, such findings are sure to command attention. “In today’s economy more than ever, investments in software need to be justified by clear business reasons,” said Andreas Pfeiffer of Pfeiffer Consulting. Adobe certainly showed good timing in paying close attention to efficiency and time-cost savings just before the recent economic downturn. According to Burkett, productivity improvement was a primary objective of the CS4 product line and it’s the first time product teams scrutinized this objective in such detail: “We took a new approach with CS4 and decided very early on in the development cycle to better understand how real-life projects could be enhanced with productivity improvements.” Customers were consulted to help pinpoint the most effective ways to improve workflow, and during development the product teams worked to improve raw performance and reduce steps required to complete a task. In some cases, the goal was to make it so users wouldn’t have to access a single panel to execute a command, although I’ve noticed that in some applications (such as Photoshop CS4) more commands have migrated to panels.

Even though productivity improvement was a primary goal, no metrics were developed internally to measure the applications’ success; despite this, Burkett and his team were pleased with the results. “We’re happy that these benchmarking tests were performed,” said Burkett, “as they allow us to gauge just how much of an improvement CS4 is over previous versions.” For more information on Pfeiffer Consulting, visit www.pfeifferconsulting.com. For more information on the CS4 ROI study, including the benchmark data, visit www.adobe.com/go/cs_productivity.

REVIEW: After Effects CS4 Tightens Things Up

aecs4-box

I’m an occasional user of After Effects, mostly for web design projects—I’ve restricted my daily work to design and illustration for print and the web, and advanced video projects are something I don’t do yet. However, I am running the CS4 Master Collection including After Effects CS4, and I figured a review from my perspective might help those looking at the application from a similar vantage point.

The After Effects CS4 upgrade is something of a mixed bag for me, though it’s clear the new version is superior to the version before it. Many of its improvements focus on integrating it with other CS4 applications and/or increasing efficiency and productivity. There is one new tool and several effects also new to CS4 but those who are looking for a lot of new technologies might be disappointed. Still, it’s an excellent application and a good buy.

First things first: performance

After Effects CS3 had difficulty managing system resources, especially multiple core processors, so I wanted to touch upon this first. After Effects CS4 is generally an improvement over CS3 when it comes to handling resources and handling multiple cores in particular. CS4 has a “Memory & Multiprocessing” preference pane that gives the user control over how much RAM and processing power is available to the application. It also allows rendering of multiple frames simultaneously, which is possible with multiple CPUs.

Unlike many video professionals working with dual quad-core monsters, I’m using a MacBook Pro running with two 2.33GHz processors and 3GB of RAM. To test performance I rendered a project I did a couple years ago that had a particularly tough time rendering with After Effects CS3. This time around the rendering finished with no problems. I rendered the same project with the multi-frame rendering available in Memory & Multiprocessing, but it actually increased the render time substantially (4:35 versus 3:24). After Effects CS4 does recognize and employ multiple cores, so users with four- or eight-core machines will enjoy radically improved performance.

One more performance feature is OpenGL adaptive resolution, which will subsample large images and scenes to speed things up on screen. It works well and reminds me of the various OpenGL-based improvements in Photoshop CS4. In fact, it comes into use when working with 3D layers brought in from that application: After Effects CS4 will use a lower resolution when working with the 3D layer and then increase resolution when the user is finished.

Increasing efficiency: The interface, CS4 integration and metadata

In After Effects CS4, you will find a lot more efficiency improvements than you’ll find new features and tools. The After Effects team has made it clear that this was a primary goal for this product cycle. There are several changes to the interface:

  • The Welcome screen gives easy access to the Tip of the Day, recent projects and several handy links. Ironically, I almost always turn these Welcome screens off because I usually need to do something not accessible in the Welcome screen.
  • After Effects CS4, like several CS4 apps, now have search capabilities—you’ll find the QuickSearch field in the Project panel. In After Effects’ case, one can search for elements, effects, properties, footage and more. This is really handy for large projects with a lot of assets, and I expect search to be further integrated with future versions of the Creative Suite.

aecs4-search
The QuickSearch field, found just below the “1.1 Search Timeline” tab in this image, allows for fast access to properties, effects, compositions and most any other element in After Effects CS4.

  • Flash users have long had a “breadcrumb trail” to help them navigate around the Stage and symbols in that application. After Effects CS4 now features a similar Composition Navigator at the top of the Composition panel. I’m very keen to keep my compositions organized and I use the Composition Navigator quite a bit to move up and down the asset trail. There is also a Mini-Flowchart accessible for each composition in the Composition Navigator: click the arrow and you’ll see how other compositions relate to the selected composition. However, I don’t use this feature as much.

aecs4-assets
The Composition Navigator provides great detail about a composition and its various assets and outputs.

  • The 16:9 widescreen Title/Action Safe overlays now show the 4:3 TV-safe areas as well. This is a new feature for those who find themselves republishing video content for the two screen formats. Since I do most of my After Effects work for the web this has not been a concern, but video professionals should find it useful.
  • After Effects CS4 can now calculate resolution automatically based on the user’s zoom settings, basically making it smarter when it comes to choosing how to render things on screen for the user. This is another one of those efficiency improvements that is great for the user but doesn’t necessarily extend After Effects’ abilities. Still, I’m glad to see this improvement because resolution is the type of thing I never liked handling manually, and I use auto resolution nowadays.

Flash CS4 Professional can import projects exported from After Effects CS4, with transformations intact, and users don’t have to handle the transcoding of some file formats such as FLV, PNG and JPEG—After Effects CS4 takes care of the process. This is all possible with the new XFL file format that InDesign also uses to pass files over to Flash. I think the Flash/After Effects integration is exceptional, with support for embedded cue points, changing footage width within Flash CS4 Professional and editing transformations within Flash. This really helps me improve my workflow for using After Effects in my web design work, because now I can create footage in After Effects CS4 and move it directly to Flash CS4 Professional, without an intermediate step such as rendering to QuickTime and encoding the footage as FLV.

aecs4-flv
After Effects CS4 and Flash CS4 Professional have come a long way with the CS4 upgrade, thanks to the new XFL file format and Flash Video (FLV).

There are also a lot of great After Effects/Flash integration features emerging that revolve around ActionScript. Michael Coleman, After Effects Product Manager, has an awesome tutorial here that shows how a Flash movie with ActionScript 3 can control the content in an After Effects CS4 project. This particular demonstration also employs Mocha, a new addition to After Effects CS4 that is covered later in this review. Flash and Flex developers will be particularly excited by these new features, and since the Flash runtime is now native to Acrobat 9 I see After Effects becoming more relevant to designers creating interactive PDFs and other PDF-based media.

aecs4-mobile
After Effects CS4 is fine-tuned to work with Device Central CS4 to create content for mobile devices.

After Effects CS4 ships with Adobe Device Central CS4, an application that aids development of content for mobile devices. Last year at Adobe’s headquarters I was given the opportunity to work with a composition in After Effects CS4 and test it for a variety of mobile devices within the application thanks to Device Central CS4. The workflow is similar to optimizing web graphics in Photoshop or Fireworks CS4.

The other major feature involving CS4 integration is new support for Photoshop’s 3D output, discussed in the next section.

The final component of After Effects CS4’s efficiency improvements come in the form of support for XMP metadata, which is awesome for larger shops with complex projects requiring project management support but may not be needed for small groups (and especially for sole proprietors like myself). But metadata support is important for anyone who demands organized assets and projects, and it converges with Speech Search (a speech-to-metadata conversion now possible in Premiere Pro CS4 and Soundbooth CS4) to allow something close to searchable video footage.

aecs4-metadata
After Effects CS4 does a lot more with XMP metadata than its predecessor. In the Output Module Settings, you can see how output can include source metadata.

Those who read my review of Soundbooth CS4 will know that I found it hard to get quality results with Speech Search, which of course will make it hard to get good speech metadata into After Effects CS4 projects. If metadata is important for your organization or work, then After Effects CS4 may be an essential upgrade for you; if not, then look at some of its other new features for a reason to buy.

Handling Photoshop Extended’s 3D output

Those who have Photoshop CS4 Extended and are looking to work its 3D features should consider purchasing After Effects CS4, because it’s become fairly easy to work with Photoshop’s 3D layers in that application. After Effects CS4 can work with cameras and such to create video with the 3D objects, though Photoshop can do similar things with its own Animation panel. But After Effects has Photoshop beat when it comes to special effects, and there’s obviously more flexibility when using After Effects to render footage to video.

aecs4-psd3d
Photoshop CS4 has improved its 3D features, and After Effects CS4 handles Photoshop’s 3D layers natively so it makes sense to put the two together in one 3D workflow.

I still do not use Photoshop CS4 for 3D work, opting instead to use Strata 3D or another dedicated 3D application. The 3D features in Photoshop CS4 are fun to work with and can do some cool things but it’s still not a dedicated application for that purpose. Those who like the idea of an integrated workflow for working with 3D objects (such as painting them in Photoshop) and then adding special effects with After Effects CS4 should look at these two applications, especially if they will be purchasing a CS4 suite anyway.

The Unified Camera tool and independent axes

aecs4-3d
The Unified Camera tool is fun to use and combines previous tool functions in one comprehensive feature.

After Effects CS4 has two other major improvements to its 3D compositing tools:

  • The Unified Camera tool, which basically will control camera orbit, x-y tracking and z-tracking with one tool. However, it’s somewhat complex and really designed for a three-button mouse. I use a Logitech MX Revolution and it has enough buttons, though I’ve never programmed one to be a middle-click button. Even though this is technically a new tool in After Effects’ arsenal, to me it seems like another efficiency aid: there are other (separate) tools to execute the same functions.
  • Independent x, y and z axes can be keyframed separately in After Effects CS4. This is a nice improvement that allows greater control over 3D animating. The independent axes can be combined again as needed.

New effects: Cartoon, Bilateral Blur and Turbulent Noise

For an effect-heavy application such as After Effects (it has more than 250 effects), I’m surprised Adobe found three new effects to add to it:

  • The Cartoon effect recreates an animated or painterly style, reminiscent of what I can get with Illustrator’s Live Trace feature or some of Photoshop’s artistic filters. I thought the effect worked well enough but made for some fairly rough artwork—those attempting to transform footage into perfect cel animation should probably lower their expectations. But other than that the Cartoon effect is slick and also GPU-accelerated which allows for fast rendering.
  • The Bilateral Blur effect is probably the most useful effect of this new bunch. Bilateral Blur will smooth a clip’s soft features while preserving sharp features—compare it with Photoshop’s Smart Sharpen filter. Users can create some nicely stylized video with this effect or clear up imperfections.
  • Fans of the Fractal Noise effect in After Effects will enjoy the new Turbulent Noise effect, which creates fractal-based noise useful for creating fog, clouds, fire and other natural effects. Turbulent Noise is basically an improved Fractal Noise effect, using GPU acceleration for smoother animation and rendering. While Bilateral Blur might be my most useful new effect, Turbulent Noise is definitely the coolest—natural effects come out really nice with this effect.

aecs4-bilateralblur
The Bilateral Blur effect softens soft features and preserves sharp features—the results are shown in the lower-right of this image.

Delicious Mocha

aecs4-mocha
Perhaps the most eye-popping feature of After Effects CS4 is Mocha, which is actually third-party software. Here Mocha has mapped the text to the door window.

One of the most exciting new features of After Effects CS4 isn’t even in the application: it’s Mocha for After Effects CS4, produced by UK-based Imagineer Systems. Mocha is a standalone application shipping with After Effects CS4 that allows for planar motion tracking; with it you can apply flat artwork to a two-dimensional shape in footage and animate it easily within the 3D space the footage occupies. It works great for things such as words on a paper, lettering on an door or art on a cell phone display. It works exactly as advertised, has an easy learning curve and creates some very powerful special effects! It looks like the Imagineer site still sells Mocha for versions 5–CS3 for $199.99, but After Effects CS4 offers it as a free add-on.

Conclusion

After Effects CS4 is a difficult product to judge—it’s an improvement over its predecessor but I feel some users out there will find it underwhelming. A lot of its improvements are focused on efficiency and there’s not many slick new features—though some of the things happening with After Effects/Flash integration is groundbreaking in my opinion. My favorite feature is probably the addition of Mocha, but it’s really just a standalone product bundled with After Effects CS4. I would recommend the upgrade to hardcore professionals who need to stay up with the current technology and need specific features such as metadata support or CS4 integration. For other users, it’s a harder sell but the upgrade’s $299 price keeps it a competitive deal—consider it a purchase of Mocha at full price and the After Effects CS4 upgrade for just a hundred dollars more!

After Effects CS4
Adobe Systems
Rating: 9/10
US$999/$299 upgrade