After Effects 4.0

After Effects 4.0 is a major upgrade to a popular program, and manages to combine an increase in power, performance and features with improvements in usability and integration with Adobe’s other creative tools. It’s a remarkable feat, and Adobe is to be congratulated for satisfying the demands of the high-end professional user while providing a great introduction to digital video production. Given that Adobe already has a video-production tool in Premiere (see review of version 5.0, September 1998) it’s worthwhile taking a few moments to see how the two interrelate. Premiere is a top tool for importing, editing and sequencing video and sound, but its animation features are generally fairly weak. It’s great for working with source video, but not as a means of creating video footage from still images. Its effects tools are likewise fairly limited. After Effects is the opposite, which is why the two programs complement each other so well. While After Effects’ video-editing tools are pretty limited, it excels at creating video using static images and applying movement and effects to them. Its other key function is for the addition of visual effects to a piece of video. After Effects comes in two versions – the Standard Version and the Production Bundle. The latter, which requires a hardware dongle, adds a number of visual-effects features aimed at the video-production market. Without the dongle, the program operates in Standard mode – a nice touch. Version 4.0 reveals a tighter integration with other Adobe products, notably Photoshop, Illustrator and Premiere. Photoshop users in particular will feel right at home with the new interface with its tabbed windows and palettes. Let there be layers
As with Photoshop, layers are the key to building compositions in After Effects. The new adjustment layers in version 4.0 allow you to experiment with effects. You can turn any new or existing layer into an adjustment layer and any effect applied to one can be applied to all the layers that appear beneath it. Version 4.0 also has new masking capabilities. Now up to 128 masks can be added to a layer so you can mask out parts of an image. Individual mask layers can be named in the Time Layout windows so you can keep track of them. You can also copy and paste existing masks from Photoshop and preserve adjustment layers and effects when importing. Similarly, After Effects can now also import Illustrator files, and preserve layers, which makes it the perfect tool to animate drawings and graphics. Combining the new masking features with adjustment layers to make protection mattes also allows users to create unusual effects. Having previously used tools such as Director and Flash for this kind of work, the extra precision and layer effects that After Effects offers is a real boon to creativity. After Effects’ Time Layout window has a new look and you can assign a colour label to each layer name. The timeline aspects are reminiscent of those used in the animation part of many 3D modelling programs, such as Infini-D, though the level of detail here is generally higher. Version 4.0 sees a number of new audio-editing features, and the audio interface has been revised. New features include looping and time remapping, as well as downsampling. While not as comprehensive as a dedicated audio-editing suite such as Peak or Cubase VST, it does provide the basic functionality for video production. Previewing
Once ready, movies are rendered to the hard disk as QuickTime files. A powerful new feature, the RAM preview, allows the playback of compositions in real time without the need for rendering. On a fast Mac with plenty of memory, this is a great way of fine-tuning parts of a movie. While the basic functionality between the Standard Version and the Production Bundle is the same, the latter comes into its own for adding effects and applying filters. There are also a number of advanced audio capabilities accessible only in the Production Bundle, including Flange and Chorus, Parametric EQ, Modulator and Reverb. In total the Production Bundle adds 34 effects and filters to the Standard Version, the most powerful of which are undoubtedly the warping effects. The Bézier warp adds control points to an image, which can then be individually manipulated over time, producing great distortion effects. The Mesh Warp is similar, but uses a deformation grid rather than control points. The Reshape effect fits one image inside another shape – for example, a face being squashed into a bottle. Another powerful new effect available only in the Production Bundle is the Particle Playground, which allows multiple objects to be moved, either as a stream of particles or as a grid. By default these particles are dots, but they can easily be replaced with a composition, image, or text in order to produce some amazing effects such as a swarm of bees, flocking birds or exploding text.

OUR VERDICT

After Effects 4.0’s clean interface keeps the complexity of the program at arms’ length until you need to explore its advanced features. Experienced Photoshop users will feel right at home – although suddenly they have a whole new dimension to work with – time. Version 4.0 is the best tool I’ve seen for taking a bunch of still images and moving them, scaling them, transforming them and blending them. You can do it intuitively with drag-&-drop ease, or with microsecond, pixel precision. While the Production Bundle has some great high-end features, the Standard Version, at £500, offers stunning value for money. At this price Adobe could finally do for desktop digital video what Photoshop has already done for graphics.

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