After Effects 6.5 Professional Edition full review

It’s been a year since Adobe last revved After Effects, its market-leading compositing application, and though its latest release is only a “dot” upgrade, Adobe has packed a lot of value into the package, which should keep After Effects at the head of the compositing and motion-graphics pack – despite the program’s need for a fundamental interface overhaul.
To facilitate easy replication of complex effects, Adobe has added a new Animation Preset palette to After Effects. Unlike the previous version’s Favorites palette, Animation Presets let you save any keyframeable operation, from geometric transformations to mask animations to expressions. You apply an Animation Preset by dragging it from the new Animation Preset palette to any layer in a composition. The Preset automatically creates any necessary keyframes in that layer.

Though a simple mechanism, this drag-&-drop interface feels a bit like a hack. You can’t, for example, remove a Preset later without manually altering or eliminating each keyframe. Unfortunately, because After Effects lacks any type of “higher” view of your project, there’s no other sensible way of implementing this feature.

For easing workflow and creating uniform animations and looks, Animation Presets are a long-overdue addition. Adobe has sweetened the feature even more with the inclusion of 250 animated text presets. While canned content can often look cheesy, these professionally designed effects are extremely high quality.

Under the hood
After Effects has undergone some effective under-the-hood tweaks that noticeably improve its performance. In addition to better OpenGL support (which can greatly speed up previews of projects with 3D layers and effects), the program includes improved playback performance, and better options for controlling PAL playback.

The program’s Motion Tracker can now track scale as well as position, and offers one-dimensional tracking which is ideal for stabilizing one axis of a layer. The motion tracker also now generates a user-editable motion path, which allows you to edit the motion tracker’s output by moving individual keyframes.

Both painting and cloning have seen some much-needed improvements. Version 6.5’s painting tools now more closely follow Photoshop’s keyboard equivalents, and a Photoshop-style colour picker has been added.

The Clone Stamp tool’s new controls make it much easier to select source and offset points for your clone operations. You can now also choose to have the source layer displayed as an overlay. This allows you to see exactly what you’re cloning from, making it easier to quickly and precisely clone in just one area of your original frame. This is such a cool clone option, we’d like to see it added to Photoshop.

After Effects 6 introduced a new text engine to the program which, in addition to offering text creation and editing within the app, also offered cool new text animation capabilities. Version 6.5 improves upon this engine with several enhancements.

The new Randomize Order option lets you randomize your text animations so that letters appear in a random, rather than sequential order. When combined with
other text animation properties, the ability to randomize allows you to create very complex animations.

Other improvements include the ability to specify one of the standard transfer modes (add, subtract, multiply, and so on) for overlapping characters. So, when characters overlap, rather than one simply covering the other, they can blend together to create intermediate shades.

Version 6.5 also includes a much more sophisticated scripting engine. Rather than limiting you to simple render control, as in version 6, the new scripting engine lets you script actual animation chores.
After Effects 6.5 is bundled with an astonishing number of excellent plug-ins and assistants. The most exciting of these is the new X-Factor plug-in from GridIron, which lets you use other machines on your network to process preview renderings. Offering speed improvements of roughly 50 per cent per each additional machine, X-Factor is a tremendous productivity booster for complex renderings.

Also included in the package is Synthetic Aperture’s Color Finesse, an exceptional colour-correction tool; and Cycore FX, an update to the classic Final Effects, previously sold by MetaCreations.

This bundle is not only a tremendous deal strictly from a price point, it’s a tremendous value in terms of productivity. These are extremely useful plug-ins that you’ll use repeatedly.
And now the bad news...

Though version 6.5 includes some cool interface tweaks (like the ability to change the brightness of the interface, a handy facility for accurate colour correction), the program’s interface is sorely in need of a major overhaul. With version 6.5 the program
is even more palette-heavy than the last rev. And though the palettes are dockable, the interface is straining under the weight of the additional features.

After Effects has long had one of the best timeline interfaces of any compositing or animation program, but Adobe is trying to do too much with it, as exemplified by our Animation Preset complaint, above. At the same time, the ability to create true folders and groups of layers within the timeline – something users have requested for years – still hasn’t happened.

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