After Effects 4.1
It's only seven months since Adobe released version 4.0 of After Effects, its visual effects and motion graphics program, and the 4.1 upgrade looks suspiciously like a collection of features that weren't ready in time for the full version release. But 4.1 is a gift horse, so let's not look it in the mouth – if you're an After Effects user, this is the best £35 you'll ever spend.
There's a heap of new features, like Flowchart view – this gives a graphic view of how nested compositions relate to each other, showing source files, layers and effects for all compositions-within-compositions - use it to communicate a project to clients or colleagues. Then there's support for higher image resolutions – up to 30,000-pixels-square, if you've got enough RAM. Fill and stroke effects have also been extended, including start and end parameters for Stroke so you can animate words appearing on screen.
Version 4.1 also includes a few time-savers, and has had a few niggles fixed. Mask rendering is two- to twenty-times faster; you can select and re-order multiple layers in a single operation; quickly arrange layers in a staggered sequence in the Composition window. You can also set user-definable rules for associating file types with pixel aspect ratios and field order – now you can tell AE that all QuickTime Avid movies import with Upper Field First; and finally, dragging a footage icon from the Project window to the New Composition icon now makes AE take its dimensions, duration and frame rate parameters from the footage automatically. And at last there's support for saving favourite effects: to save a favourite, set the parameters, and AE writes it to a cross-platform file – that can be shared on a network. Your twenty most recently-used favourites appear in a submenu for easy re-application.
There are two levels of After Effects: the standard program and the Production Bundle, a souped-up version with extra features. The 4.1 Production Bundle upgrade includes an unlimited render engine license, allowing you to harness all the machines on your network for unattended rendering. Both versions now include a Collect Files command, that automatically gathers compositions and source material, dumping them to a nominated computer or folder – you could use this for archiving, or, if you're a Production Bundle owner you can set the 'Enable Watch Folder' feature, on a networked rendering machine, to check the dump folder for new items to render. In 4.1, Production Bundle owners also get a 3D Channel Pack, that imports 3D file information including Z depth, surface normals, texture co-ordinates, background colour and unclamped RGB – and allows those channels to be manipulated in AE.
Just £35 this is a seriously wonderful upgrade. Buy it.