After Effects CS3 Professional Review

After Effects (AE) is the Simpsons of motion graphics software. There are plenty of South Park, Family Guy and even American Dad style contenders, but just like Matt Groening’s yellow family, AE keeps on going. The secret to both is simple: keep doing what you’re doing, and keep doing it very well.

There are few surprises in After Effects CS3 Professional. On the surface, it looks pretty much like version 7. It’s more about refinement and workflow than trying to bedazzle and beguile you with ‘cool-factor’ features.

That said, there are some new additions that Adobe is trumpeting unabashed. Perhaps the must dramatic, in both name and capability is the Puppet tool. A three-in-one feature, the Puppet tool essentially enables you to animate a still image by articulating it with virtual pins that you can pull, push and stretch at will. At its most outlandish, you can stretch figures Mrs Incredible-like; of course the feature is key-framable, but can also be animated using captured mouse movements via Motion Sketch, which is now enhanced with a built in Smoother control.

We hate to say that there is a feature within a near-£1,000 box of software to be described as fun, but that’s just what the Puppet tool is. We suspect it will be of particular concern to the more experimental and 'out-there' creatives, but no doubt clever designers will find subtle ways to use it.

Slightly more practical is the new Shape Layer feature. This is far more in keeping with the previously mentioned focus on workflow and refinement; it enables you to create simple vector shapes within After Effects and animate them quickly. Previously such a task would have required a spell in Illustrator to make the shapes, which would then have been brought into After Effects for animation. Not any more. Using the Polygon tool, you can create vector shapes, replicate them as needed with the Repeater tool, animate them over time, add effects and so on. You can create shapes within shapes and merge paths to create compound shapes. And of course, once you’ve created your shapes, you can animate them, changing a range of parameters, including number of polygon points, position, rotation, drop shadow and more, not forgetting you can also add effects to spice up your concoction. In terms of wow factor meeting usefulness, this is probably the pick of the new features.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best new feature. That one is more tough and complex to call. Overall, like the rest of the CS3 Video tools, that honour would go to the simple logical things ways in which Adobe is gradually blending its products’ ‘engines’ together; in short, the power of its software portfolio does not lie within one product, but rather, in using them all together. In After Effects, this is noticeable in a number of ways. For instance, Shape Layers, previously discussed, uses the same keyboard shortcuts as Illustrator. In addition, After Effects will also preserve layer styles and video layers brought in from Photoshop.

Not only that, but you can also bring in scenes from Photoshop Extended’s Vanishing Point Exchange, preserving all 3D information, to be viewed from the perspective of an After Effects camera. If you’re working with Flash, you can preserve your alpha channel when importing SWFs into After Effects, and keep cue points within any Flash Video you export.

Not so much a new feature as a continuation of a previous phenomenon is the use of Bridge to, well, bridge the suite. This is still part of the package, and more robust than ever, enabling you to work quickly between After Effects and, say Premiere, or any other packages in the CS3 family that you use. For smaller projects it is perhaps a slightly clunky way of working; you’re actually constantly clicking into a separate application where before you’d simply double click on work or import from the finder. However, for larger projects, the wisdom of such workflow and asset management is more than apparent. And, of course, if all the packages fit seamlessly together, theoretically you’re more likely to spend your money on the suite in total rather than select your software a la carte from a range of vendors, particularly Apple’s Motion and Final Cut.

But back to the matter at hand. Another excellent new feature is the ability to manipulate individual letters in 3D space. This pretty much does what it says on the tin. You can create text and have each letter animate separately in 3D space. You can modify this yourself or choose from a range of presets available via Bridge. You can also make your lettering follow a path or paths. In reality, this is more refinement – good as it may be – than must-have: handy but not essential.

Then there is Brainstorm. Adobe has tried to provide After Effects to ‘free associate’ your ideas, to assist your creativity. It works like this: you pop a simple idea down in the composition window, and select effects parameters to be used in the brainstorming session. Then you click the Brainstorm button and in the flash of an eye and with the chug of however long it takes your machine to render a slice of the animation, you’re presented with a series of nine alternative takes. Mouseover and choose ideas that you would like to see further developed. Select the brainstorm icon and see another nine will be presented. Keep going, adjusting the ‘Randomness’ slider as necessary, until you get something you like, which you can then choose to include in your composition.

It definitely looks ‘cool’ when you hit the button – shaped like a tiny brain – and see an array of different ideas of which you were previously unable to conceive spring to life. However, is it practical? It’s not creativity in a can, but as a pretty quick way of helping you see new possibilities within your work, it’s not bad new addition.

Even the lowly PDF now has a part to play in the After Effects story. Previously part of Adobe Premiere Pro only, it’s now available for After Effects. Clip Notes is, for the uninitiated, a handy part of the approvals process. Basically, you send your client a ‘proof’ of a project via PDF. Clip notes enable the client to view a version of the project embedded, or streaming, to an Adobe Reader document, on which they can write comments at specific points in the timeline. Their comments are automatically returned to you, or whoever specified an email address in the clip note export document to receive comments. This too is a good feature. It can even be password protected, which is very much handy.

Other new and handy additions include improved handling of multiprocessor systems, though on a preview version, it’s tough to say just how much improvement there is in terms of handling time on snazzy new Intel Mac. In addition, you can preserve the colours of imported files, rather than have them be dependent on your monitor’s accuracy.

Judging After Effects isn’t an easy job, just because it has always been such a good piece of software. Shape Layers, Vanishing Point Exchange capabilities and, of course, the Puppet tool, make this a must have release, however. The new additions are fresh and exciting, but the rest of the package is now so refined and streamlined, that a little will go a long way.

While it is available for in G4 and G5 machines, you’ll probably want to upgrade to an Intel machine reasonably soon so you can really take advantage of all it has to offer. That would probably be our only criticism.

We suspect that the After Effects engineering team and the Simpsons animation crew will continue to have plenty in common for years to come.

OUR VERDICT

You won’t need to queue up outside your favourite software vendor upon release, but you will want to get your hands on the latest version of After Effects as soon as you can afford to buy it and a decent Mac on which to run it. Invest as soon as you can reasonably afford to do so.

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