Tag Archives: After Effects

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

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

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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

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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

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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

REVIEW: After Effects CS4 Tightens Things Up

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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

Delicious Mocha

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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