Keeping Them Guessing
1997 was a landmark year at my TV station. We got our first-ever nonlinear editing system, a Media 100 running on a PowerMac 8600 with a single 16-bit, 256 mHz processor and 512 MB of memory, running Mac OS 8.6. Forty whole gigabytes of storage, too! State of the art! All for the exclusive use of my promotion department!
Life in TV market 80-Something usually means not paying for trainers. You learn by doing. But the NLE vendor said something called Adobe After Effects was revolutionizing video production, so The Brass broke with tradition. I got actual training aids to learn After Effects version 3.1, train my colleagues, and do it quickly. One competitor had an NLE but not After Effects, and we wanted the edge.
The vendor was right: as our After Effects skills grew, we totally transformed the look of our station promos. A little mid-market TV station could look as good as a network O&O. The paradigm had changed. You didn't need fancy equipment any more. You could concentrate on using your knowledge and creativity.
And the competition took notice.
Station reporters would return from assignments with gratifying news. In chats with their brethren at other stations, we learned that they thought we were farming our promos out to a production house in Chicago! We would smile and say, "Let's keep 'em guessing."
Those early promos look crude now. But they were the best-looking and most effective work being done in the market, and they helped our station attain ratings leadership.
After Effects is 20 years old now. The basic user interface is almost as just as old. There's no denying that the software is long in the tooth. Some people ask, "Why can't they change this?" and point to other, newer applications that do things AE can't do. But those people seem to forget that the other, newer applications can't match AE's combination of versatility and reasonable price.
I have seen -- and admittedly cringed at -- a demo of After Effects version #1. I started using After Effects with version #3. I now use After Effects version #11. AE does such a wide range of things so well, has such a huge user base and offers so much that I cannot imagine being in an edit suite without it. It is truly the Lingua Franca of the post-production world. If you can think of an inanimate collection of code as a friend, After Effects is a good friend indeed.
After Effects gave us the ability to use as many layers of video as we wanted. Before AE, we could layer in our analog edit suite, but we would have to record onto an analog work tape, and the quality of our video suffered. After Effects gave us the luxury of using Alpha Channels: a true godsend for custom graphics and typefaces not available in the suite's character generator. No more keying graphics! No tear lines! Everything was razor-sharp!
And let's talk chroma keying, shall we? In the analog suite, we were at the mercy of the switcher's chroma keyer, and the results could be iffy at best. But with After Effects, we could choose among four different keying effects, create garbage mattes and even rotoscope if necessary. And all of this could be done in a single composition, creating a single video clip.
Okay, it DID take hours to render, but After Effects could work while we slept. In return, we retained pristine video quality. Our graphics and text were as clean as a whistle. We no longer settled for poor chroma keys -- we could make them clean and natural-looking. As our knowledge of After Effects grew, we kept discovering creative avenues that were never available before. Time and time again we would remark that we had died and gone to Heaven as our promos kept getting better. The competition had no clue what they were missing, and we weren't about to tell them.
For the first few years, no one else in our market really understood the power of AE, and the competition didn't feel the need to get it and learn it. Presumably, they thought we'd eventually drop the fictional production house in Chicago and revert to our old ways... but we didn't.
Happy 20th birthday, After Effects. Here's to another twenty years of ever-growing and ever-improving capabilities!