After Effects CS4 review
After Effects CS4 has been revised to show a new user-friendly face to the world of motion graphics. You get the first feel for this when the new welcome screen appears. This provides a list of links so that you can quickly click on any recent projects and don’t have to navigate through your files each time you return to After Effects.
Acknowledging the increasing complexity of projects, Adobe has introduced a Composition Navigator, which offers a breadcrumb trail for nested compositions. To save time simply click on the links to access comps in the chain. A mini-flowchart offers another way to navigate nested sequences, using keyboard shortcuts to zoom up and down the nested compositions and the ability to hit the spacebar when you want to access one.
There are more productivity shortcuts in the Timeline and project panel, including a Quick Search facility in the Project Window. Now if you hold down the C key when twirling a layer, hit C-A to select everything that opens below and add a text string in the Quick Search box, you can filter all the words in that timeline selection.
Another big performance improvement comes from Auto Resolution. After Effects has always offered the ability to change the resolution of content in the comp viewer via a drop-down menu. Thanks to OpenGL this feature automatically matches the preview resolution of the content according to the zoom level. Not a big-ticket feature, but it’s a good improvement nonetheless.
The power of the GPU has also been harnessed for some new effects. The Cartoon Effect filter works in a similar fashion to Live Trace in Illustrator. We found it best to use footage that had distinct edges and good contrast, but appliance of the effect was rapid. Although there are extensive controls for edge and fill settings, a reasonable ‘toon’ effect can be had with almost no tweaking. The same holds true for the other new creative effects, including bilateral blur, which preserves edge detail while intelligently smoothing out low-frequency content. It delivers a dreamy, surreal look that has the added benefit of providing a good base for applying the Cartoon Effect. Turbulent noise is another creative effect, similar to Fractal noise but more attuned to the needs of animating loops.
Tighter integration with Photoshop means that 3D models in PSD format can be imported intact with lights and painted textures, but you still can’t import directly from a package like Maya. Related to this is the unified camera tool, which is activated by default to perform like the standard three-button mouse used by 3D artists. This allows faster interaction by assigning the three buttons on the mouse to X/Y camera tracking, Z camera tracking and orbit. You can also have separate keyframe timings for movement in X, Y and Z. The useful ability to separate dimensions can be activated via a special button on the timeline, enabling smoother results for scenes such as bouncing-ball animations.
You also gain creative control with the ability to export and preserve rich After Effects features in a layered composition to the new Flash Professional XFL format. An automated export feature renders out supported layers from After Effects to the XFL file, so that when opened in Flash CS4 you can add interactivity to each layer individually or edit them recursively back in After Effects. Layers with unsupported properties are rendered with user-specified settings, in either FLV or PNG formats.
Memory management has been enhanced with a multiprocessing panel, which allows preferences to be set for intelligent memory allocation, and allows monitoring of core performance. For example, our test machine, a MacBook Pro with 2GB of RAM, signalled it was insufficient for multiprocessing tasks until we assigned more memory to the application.
Last but certainly not least is the inclusion of Mocha, an advanced motion tracker based on Imagineer’s 2.5D planar tracking system. It uses splines to generate solid 4-point tracks, giving position, scale, rotation, shear and perspective matched data. The results are impressive, especially for less than perfect clips and this alone provides good value for the upgrade. However, Mocha is more complex to use than standard After Effects trackers.
Mocha and the new effects are great, but there’s not too many other ‘wow’ features. Given the product integration of CS4, the Photoshop 3D import features were obvious, but the 3D compositing improvements are very welcome. Productivity enhancement is the big focus, and it’s this aspect that will deliver real gains.