Adobe After Effects CS6 revisited

After using After Effects CS6 for a month, we're hugely impressed with its new features and much-needed and long-awaited performance improvements.

The release of After Effects CS6 is proof that Adobe actually listens to customer requests and stays current with the needs of today’s filmmakers, editors, and motion graphics artists. Beyond this release's impressive list of new features, there are much-needed and long-awaited performance improvements.

Adobe has implemented several structural developments like the new ray-traced 3D rendering engine and Global Performance Cache that it rebuilt from the ground up, providing not only faster performance, but increased professional capabilities. New tools such as the 3D Camera Tracker, Rolling Shutter Repair, and variable mask edge feathering are serious professional compositing tools. The enhanced integration between After Effects CS6 and other Adobe tools makes the workflow faster and more fluid than before.

Greatly improved performance

The Global Performance Cache feature is the newfound power under the hood that makes After Effects CS6 perform better—even on older Macs. This is a set of technologies that work together: a global RAM cache, a persistent disk cache, and a new graphics pipeline.

The global RAM cache employs reusable frames recognized anywhere on the timeline—not just adjacent frames—as well as duplicated layers or sub-comps. Cached frames are restored after an Undo/Redo operation, when layers are hidden or revealed, or when timeline settings return to a previous state. The feature allows users to experiment or “nudge” elements without a performance penalty should they change their mind or accidentally hit something that would normally wipe out the RAM preview and force a re-render.

With the persistent disk cache, you can reopen a project you had previously rendered and have the cache remain intact and ready for immediate preview playback.

Selecting a dedicated solid state drive (SSD) on your system — whether an internal drive on a tower or an external USB or Thunderbolt drive — to be used as your disk cache, will greatly boost performance without further taxing your system hard drive. Additionally, this cache contains frames from all projects you have opened in the same or earlier sessions, so disk cached frames from one project will be retrieved for reuse in other projects that use those same frames.

After Effects CS6 also better harnesses OpenGL and your video card, resulting in a more responsive and immediate playback of large compositions—especially on larger displays. (Adobe says that earlier tests by Nvidia yielded acceleration by a factor of 1.5 to 2.5 times, with some graphic functions being up to 16 times faster than before.)

New 3D extrusions, bendable footage, and ray-tracing

Adobe has totally reworked the After Effects CS6 3D environment. Text and shape layers can now be extruded with beveled edges, and footage clips, images, and solid layers or even sub-comps can be bent in 3D space. And all 3D objects can interact with each other to cast shadows, reflections, transparency, specular and diffused light, and more. Ray-traced rendering enhances the 3D objects with much more realism than ever before, with environment mapping and light refraction through transparent materials.

The new ray-traced 3D feature allows you to add bevels and extrusions to vector layers like text and shapes.

While these significant 3D enhancements have been made, it’s clear that Adobe isn’t trying to compete in the 3D modeling or application space. The tools provided only generate some more realistic results without the need to rely on third-party plug-ins for basic animations and motion graphics, but you will still need something like Zaxworks to produce 3D elements featuring bump mapping and sophisticated texturing.

You can’t import 3D models with this release, nor will the Live 3D layers from Photoshop CS5.5 work with this new 3D environment: They never truly worked interactively with other 3D elements in previous versions, so no real loss there. I do wish Adobe would have included at least some simple primitive shape objects to build on.

The ray-tracer replaces the older scanline-based Classic 3D renderer, which supports refined rendering of soft shadows, light falloff, DOF, motion blur, and project through lights. The specular highlights can be intensified and focused on any object, and reflections can display focus and blur for added realism.

The new ray-traced 3D feature allows you to bend comps and footage layers with added realism.

Illustrator CS6 vector integration

Another huge leap into Creative Suite integration is the new Create Shapes From Vector Layer command, as applied to an imported Illustrator file. This allows you to import vector AI and EPS files with logos, artwork, and designs, and convert them to editable shape layers in After Effects CS6. You can manipulate the fill and stroke colors, edit the shapes, and apply shape operators including Wiggle Paths and Wiggle Transform. And since shapes can now be extruded in 3D, you can create animated, dimensional logos right inside of After Effects CS6.

Vector images such as Illustrator and EPS files can now be converted to Shape Layers and extruded and rendered in 3D space (see example video below).

Variable mask edge feathering

As a compositor, I find the new variable mask edge feathering feature extremely useful and something I’ve been waiting for. You can apply then new Mask Feather Tool to any segment of a closed mask path, which creates handles that can be adjusted to determine the amount of feathering along the path in those regions. This means that a single path can now be modified to accommodate both hard and soft edge surfaces such as motion blur in a moving object.

In earlier versions of After Effects, users would have to create multiple masks and stack them to obtain variable edge feathering, which is not only more tedious, but makes animating the paths over time a painful experience. With the Mask Feather Tool, the individual points can also be keyframed along the timeline and adjusted with the object being masked.

Variable edge mask feathering is now possible, which greatly helps when creating masks or roto work on objects with multiple types of edges.

Find the best price