After Effects 7 Professional Edition full review

For those who work in feature-film production, industrial video, or web animation, Adobe After Effects has long been the 300-pound gorilla of compositing and motion-graphics applications. While programs such as Apple Shake, Apple Motion, and Autodesk Combustion have presented excellent alternatives, no one has managed to unseat the program.

With version 7, the competition will have an even harder time taking market share away from Adobe’s compositing workhorse. While it offers major new features, such as support for 32-bit colour and excellent retiming effects, much of the improvement results from what Adobe has done in the form of interface fixes. Everyone will find something to like in this new release.

I tried the Professional edition, but there’s also a Standard version that costs £350 less. Geared toward users doing more basic compositing for the web or video, the Standard edition lacks advanced keying and matte tools, support for 16- and 32-bit colour, 3D features, motion-tracking tools, and advanced audio features.

Palette embargo
While Adobe has consistently added compelling new features to each update of After Effects, it’s usually done so by cramming more palettes into the program’s interface. By version 6.5, After Effects’ palette-heavy interface could make even a 30in monitor feel a little cramped. In version 7, Adobe has redesigned the entire interface, and dramatically improved the program’s usability in the process.

By default, the entire After Effects 7 interface resides in a single window that is divided into separate, resizable frames. In this regard, the After Effects 7 interface looks closer to Apple’s DVD Studio Pro and Final Cut than any of its predecessors. The overall configuration of the individual frames mirrors the placement of palettes from previous versions, so you won’t feel completely lost when you first enter the program.

Where the new interface shines is in its customisability. You can rearrange the panes, dock them to each other in many configurations, and save the different arrangements. The program ships with several layouts that are already optimised for particular purposes, such as animation and motion tracking. You can also assign keyboard shortcuts to layouts for quickly switching between them. By intelligently using layouts, you can easily manage After Effects’ tremendous number of controls. And if you prefer the original After Effects interface, you can drag panels out of the main window to recreate the floating-palettes interface of old.

Adobe has made other important tweaks throughout the interface. For example, the Comp window now includes a Fit Up To 100% option that lets you resize the window while still being able to see the full image – something the program has lacked for years.

Graphing your changes
After Effects has always provided powerful tools for editing animation keyframes. This is one reason it has maintained its dominance for so long. However, the program’s Curves editor – which you can use to fine-tune keyframes – has long been underpowered and cumbersome. Version 7 finally adds an excellent Curves editor to the After Effects timeline.

The program’s Function-curve editor lets you graph the values of any parameter you want to animate against time. Using simple beziér controls, you can easily reshape a parameter’s curve to alter how its values change. In previous versions, After Effects displayed a long list of separate curves for each parameter. But in Version 7, a single Graph view lets you see curves superimposed over each other. Not only is this a more practical use of screen space, it requires much less navigation while editing. The Graph editor also includes powerful free-transform capabilities that let you reshape an entire set of keyframes at once.

After Effects 6.5 introduced presets for text-animation effects. Version 7 extends the animation-preset capability to any effect that you can keyframe. This means you can create presets for backgrounds, behaviours, shapes, sound effects, transformations, and more, then easily apply them to any layer. This is a huge time-saver when creating repeating elements or animated interfaces.

After Effects 7 includes not only a huge assortment of presets, but a library of complete project templates for everything from DVD menus to bumpers and credit rolls. Even if you never use any of this pre-built material, taking apart the presets and templates is a great way to learn different After Effects techniques.

Blurrier blurs
The ability to blend frames together is essential for creating time-remapping effects – slow and fast motion. After Effects 7 includes the same frame-blending options as previous versions, and adds a new Pixel Motion option, which tracks the motion of every pixel in a frame. The result is higher-quality time-remapping effects than what you get with the usual frame-blending options.

The Professional edition also includes a new Timewarp effect, which uses the Pixel Motion feature to create time remappings with more sophisticated control. You can even use the Timewarp effect to add motion blur to non-blurry footage, with very convincing results.

Speed and colour
Adobe has improved After Effects’ overall rendering performance. The amount of improvement you’ll see depends largely on the complexity of the project, but overall the program feels noticeably snappier. The biggest speed improvement comes from the addition of OpenGL 2.0 support. With a powerful enough video card, you’ll be able to preview antialiasing, motion blur, and blending-mode effects in real time.
After Effects 7 also provides excellent support for 32-bit image elements. While some effects aren’t yet functional in 32-bit mode, Adobe’s commitment to making After Effects 7 work in the larger colour space is obvious. It supports Open EXR format, along with HDR images, Cineon, 32-bit TIFF and Photoshop formats, and more.
Despite the massive improvements, some parts of the program are showing their age. Adobe hasn’t upgraded the 3D engine, and I’d like to see the addition of more text features from Photoshop, such as Layer Styles.

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