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