A Creative COW Book Review
In this article, David Bogie explores Angie Taylor's "Creative After Effects 5." In his review David looks at reasons why he thinks the book is of genuine value as a resource and points out areas where he feels the book missed the mark and could have been better. But overall, David concludes that this one is definitely worth the money and gives it a strong buy recommendation. Sprinkled with sub-headers athat are drawn from classic Beatle lyrics, it is also one of the funniest articles we've ever posted over the years. During his comments regarding Expressions programming in After Effects, we were laughing so hard that tears were running down our faces. Thanks for both a great review, Bogiesan and the laughter!
The more you go inside, the more there is to see
Peel off the layers of After Effects and all you find are more layers. Sure, that is easily said of many computer applications, even Microsoft Word. Mangling the vegetable metaphor I would say, "Yeah, but they're all onions next to this orchid." New metaphor: After Effects, like Salome cavorting in a fog-filled disco, is draped in veils. A veil drops but nothing is revealed. Only another gossamer covering comes into view. With time, the apparition becomes tangible, fetching, yet 'tis all for naught. The tender skin of this dancing angel is forever unreachable, mere inches beyond my grasp. Sometimes I reach too far and topple from my mount. Comprehension once more eludes consummation. I am unhorsed. Whew. If I smoked, I'd need a cigarette.
You think you know it but you haven't got a clue
Did you use After Effects when it was made by COSA? Did you follow it through the Adobe years, upgrading to AE3.1 and AE4.1? They were just the preamble to the latest revision. After Effects 5 is immense; it's one of those applications that will keep you up late at night pushing buttons and trying to break it. Hit the magical 3D switch and the level of complexity -- the number of things that can get all screwed up -- didn't just double. The number of things you have to keep track of in your head has been cubed, raised to the third power.
The problem with a toy box full of plug-ins is it so easily overwhelms. If you dump them all over your playroom floor and try to play with as many toys as possible you will never hone and polish your technique. The toys will remain toys; they never become tools. They never evolve into the mindless extensions of the heart and hands that can be wielded with little thought or effort by a skilled artist. That is why we buy training resources for After Effects, isn't it? So we can elevate our play to the status of craft; elevate our craft to applied technique; our technique to a highly evolved personal style.
Dear sir or madam will you read my book?
I collect After Effects training materials like other people collect Nicholas Cage DVDs. It's a harmless obsession and it's funded by my employer. My shelf full of videocassettes, books, and their accompanying CDs full of tutorials and freebies -- except for two of the volumes -- gathers no dust. I watch Brian Maffitt's tapes over and over, taking them home on weekends. (Wish now I'd bought the DVDs.) Trish and Chris Meyer's book, with its protruding stickies and dog-eared pages, is cracked and warped from dozens of abusive trips to the gym. Angie's book didn't stay new for long either. It, too, is sweat-stained and scratched.
It took me years to write, won't you take a look?
One must wonder, I should think, why anyone would want to write support material for After Effects. There can't be that much money in this niche market. Is it ego gratification? A misguided desire to kick start the slow of mind, the dull, the exhausted? Perhaps a need to guide those who find AE intimidating or who are incapable of finding their own inspiration?
Even if one is guided solely by the humanitarian desire to help the millions of AE neophytes past the install screens, one leaves oneself wide open to the unforgiving scrutiny of a huge user base. The old-timers include individuals whose experience and skills may transcend the author's. There are those users whose mental storage cups runneth over with ultra-cool ideas who lack the luxury of time to finely tune their work; we schmucks who grudgingly accept that "it will have to do" because our patience simply ran out. People like me who want to find the Ultimate AE Guide.
While we're asking rhetorical questions, what makes someone like me write a review of something I could never accomplish myself? Do I hope to have an impact on the future of the genre? Do I hope to be quoted on the dust jacket of Angie's next volume, "Bride of Creative After Effects 5.5"?
None of the above.
Her friends are all aboard
While Angie Taylor is the author, she was not working alone. Angie assembled a competent and inspiring crew of assistants. They don't get credit on the cover so here are their names: Paul Tuersley, Maia Sanders and Fred Lewis.
Try thinking more if just for your own sake
Angie and her crew have included a section on how to plan your After Effects projects. Chapter 3, "The Brief," is only 10 pages long but it is crammed with advice on how to manage the creative process and maintain good client relations. Beginners will benefit from seeing how a professional effects house handles its projects and anyone who has been in the business for a few years will appreciate the insights into another shop's methods.
Gather round, all you clowns
Flash is unquestionably cool but how many Flash clips do YOU wait for and then actually watch? How many Flash clips do you dismiss with a disgusted click of the mouse because they are just so-o-o lame? Let us assume for a moment an example of truly excellent animation can stand on its own and, in fact, can be recognized as excellent by almost anyone. What is it that separates good animation from that which merely attracts the eye? What separates it and from the base or unimaginably tedious? Just my opinion, of course, but as an avid visual content consumer, I think the distinquishing characteristic of good animation is the animator's acquaintance with his or her filmic tradition. Animators have been working with stop-action film for almost one hundred years. Animation has a rich history and a highly refined craft. Is it an art form? You betcha. Can anyone launch an "animation" application and suddenly be an "animator"? No freakin' way.
Chapter 8, "Animation" is sparse at 20 pages but includes enough history and essentials to give beginners an appreciation for what has come before. Animation fundamentals like anticipation, stretch and squash, exaggeration, and follow-through will be familiar to anyone who went to film school or who spent their early careers in analog video production. Add a bit of reflection on the dramatic conventions of timing, climax, and comic relief and Taylor fills a hole.
Quietly turning the backdoor key
After Effects ships with five keyers. Filters with confusing names like Luma, Color Range, Inner-Outer, Color, Difference, and the seemingly redundant Color Difference. These are bracketed by the Simple and Matte Chokers and supplemented by the Spill Suppressor. If you have installed any of the major effects packages you may find dozens of keyers in your effects menus.
Chapter Ten is all about cutting mattes for effective keying. Included are tricks for squeezing the best matte out of the regular version of AE's Color Key by using Levels. You get solid advice on how to tweak the densely packed controls of the Production Bundle's Color Range and Color Difference keyers. Rounding it out are simple techniques for using Vector Paint to replace keyed-out cans of beer. The keying methods are imminently practical. The practice footage is, of course, highly compressed and the keys you pull will be gritty. Together with the footage, this is one of the better explanations of Adobe's basic keying filters in print.
You only give me your funny paper
I enjoyed reading "Creative" tremendously. It's filled with idiomatic phrases from the Queen's English and quaint British-isms. I think you'll enjoy working with the footage, too. Once you've waded through three or four chapters of her prose, you will realize you are playing with video clips of someone you know. Angie plays the ingénue, selflessly offering herself as the player in -- or the victim of -- her own fantasies. Angie is served up as dancer, drinker, and hood ornament to be keyed, stretched, and accelerated.
Trying to make dovetail joint
After Effects 5 is cool. Understatement. However, there are three things that will keep getting in your way, preventing you from becoming cool too quickly. These three insurmountable obstacles are:
- 3D and
Anyone who buys a training resource for After Effects 5.0 will expect, and should receive, a thorough grounding in these three topics. They should expect to finish the tutorials with enough working knowledge to use these features effectively. I cannot honestly tell you whether or not Angie and her crew succeed here. After reading the material, slogging through the projects, and reviewing many other AE5 resources I remain utterly unnerved by these three new features.
Okay, I'll admit Ive got some internal issues with After Effects. It took me three years merely to grasp the difference between spatial and temporal keyframes so I'm not really disappointed in my personal lack of progress on these three topics. I can see the potentials; I just can't quite make them work and, like me, you may or may not find these parts of Angie's book helpful.
Your mother should know
Chapter 13, "Parenting," introduces the feature well, I think. The section includes everything you need to change how you use pre-comps and nesting. It starts easily enough with examples based on the two commonly seen parent-teacher vehicles: a robot arm and a paper cut-out puppet analog. You will also be shown how to introduce Null Objects to streamline the manipulation of your animations dramatically. They round out the chapter with some basic motion capture and a short bit on 3D.
We were talking about the space between us all
Do you remember the episode of "The Simpsons" where Homer suddenly finds himself in a three dimensional world? That's how I felt when I started work on the Chapter 12's "Tracking" projects. It got worse, much worse, as I tackled chapter 15, "3D." My hands felt just like two balloons. Adobe's 3D world has been dismissed as "postcards in space." That's not true. AE5's world is starched bed sheets hanging on clotheslines in a dark garage. If you plop into AE5's 2.5D space with previous experience in something like LightWave you're in for a tremendous disappointment.
I hate 3D. No, that's not fair. 3D is totally cool. I came to despise what dribbled out of my rendering engine. My 3D movies were not meant to be funny-looking. I struggled with Infini-D for years. It caused me physical discomfort. 3D made my brain hurt.
I watched the 3D sections of Brian Maffitt's AE5 tapes twice to allow to me slog confidently through Angie's tutorials. Sadly, I must say Angie and her crew have done little to improve my lot. The material in this section of the book is almost impenetrable for me. It is chock full of interesting projects and, truthfully, the movies I created boosted my 3D confidence. There's plenty of great material here. You will create a nighttime cityscape and drive through it at high speed with Angie at your side. You'll hang lights in your dark garage and track your camera past bed sheets decorated with southwestern missions and blades Z-buffered of grass.
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup
Chapter 14, "Expressions", is a big chunk of techno-gibberish. This stuff is thick and runs through your brain like treacle on a day in December. I enjoyed walking through the lessons but when I was done I still didn't know what I was doing. Every recent AE5 resource has a section on Expressions in which the author effuses simply gushes how "really simple" Expressions are and how, after only a little practice, you will be using them as easily as any After Effects feature. I keep hoping this enthusiasm will rub off on me. Hasn't happened yet.
Then you decide to talk a walk by the old school
If you are not genetically predisposed towards pataphysical sciences in the home and mindlessly resolving multi-variable compound equations, Expressions will leave you scratching your head and muttering, "How the heck did they do that?" or, more likely, "Right. I think I'll take a nap." I excelled in mathematics at school but this Expressions stuff just flat pisses me off.
Below is an Expression from Chapter 14. It is one layer in a complex stack of body parts that form a puppet. The expression is applied to the Right Arm layer. The idea is to adjust the Right Arm's position by moving the Head. The expression transfers the Head layer's X axis position to the Right Arm's position parameters.
This expression translates into English as, "I want After Effects to begin applying a formula to a property called 'Position' on this layer (which we can safely infer is the Right Arm). Begin deriving such information from the Head layer's properties according to the rules in the following statement: Use the Head's X position property (designated here by the zero (zero??)) but don't just stop there. Multiply it by five and then subtract 150 from the multiplication result. Take this new value and shove it into the X axis position data for the Right Arm layer and do so on a dynamic, frame-by frame basis, on the fly, till I tell you to stop."
You think I'm kidding?
He one mojo filter
An After Effects user who goes by the handle of Craig Lillard posted this question on at least two After Effects online forums in December of 2001: "Using only the Numbers filter, how can I count from zero to 40 million? The Number filter only counts up to 30,000."
If expressions can't handle this seemingly simple operation -- and if the general user can't figure out how to write one in less than three days -- I ask, what the heck good are they?
This doesn't work but I've got it figured this way: Apply one copy of Numbers and set it to increment from 0 to 9,999 and to do it in an endless loop. (I don't know how to program the loop, do you?) Apply a copy of the same Numbers filter settings and write an expression that increments the second copy one number every time the first Number's loop completes one cycle. Then you do it again, pick whipping the same expression to a third copy of the Numbers filter. The result of this conceptual brief is a linear number generator that counts to 10,000 over and over until it has done so ten million times. The result is, erm, 10 to the eleventh power, I think. That would be, umm, 100,000,000,000. Right. This expression should return one incredibly large freakin' number.
Now, go to your study, read Chapter 14 two or three times, and then write me an expression that does this simple job. Send it to me. I'll see that Craig gets it.
I've got something to say that might cause you pain
A review wouldn't be worth reading if it didn't include some nasty bits, now would it?
She's not a girl who misses much
Not much, man. You will find rich chapters on Time, Tracking and Type. But there are some holes in Angie's Albert Hall. References to other topics are either incomplete or completely missing. Evolution's effects, the render effects, Lightning, Particle Playground, displacement and compound effects, transfer modes, and the endless confusion over pixel aspect ratios -- all seem to have escaped this volume. However, some of these topics and many more are covered in technical PDFs included with the CD.
Picture yourself in a boat on a river
Pictures, that's what's missing from Angie's book. After Effects is all about stuff that moves and evolves over time. Stuff that cannot easily be captured as still images yet other AE books include hundreds of valuable illustrations. Perhaps FedEx misplaced one of Angie's Jaz carts while "Creative" was being set for printing.
Look, I'll admit that I am completely incapable of publishing a book on any software tool. I cannot imagine successfully nursing onto the bookshelves an instructional book about a bottomless application like After Effects. So who the hell am I to criticize Angie's book? Well, someone asked me to do it for them and I want to do a thorough job. To be complete, a review must make comparisons between the subject book and standards or classics in the same genre. I am going to compare the visual content of Creative After Effects 5 to Creating Motion Graphics by Trish and Chris Meyer.
Comparisons Between "Creative After Effects 5.0" and "Creating Motion Graphics"
|Number of pages
|Illustrations and sidebars on 50 randomly selected pages
|Image to page ratio
|Approx. total of helpful illustrations and sidebars
I'm just an old fashioned guy when it comes to pictures. I don't care if they are in a book or on a Web site. I want to know what it is a picture of, why it's there, and I want to be able to figure out instantly what part of the text references the image. There seems to be a trend in publishing, both in print and on the Web, that considers captioning an undesirable or possibly out of fashion design element.
Captions Compared Between "Creative After Effects 5.0" and "Creating Motion Graphics"
|Average number of captions per illustration
|Approximate total number of helpful caption
There is a similarly weird trend of spicing up text-heavy pages with eye candy; the odd visual non sequitur. The amount of space dedicated to illustrations is not the entire story, of course. One must also consider the value of the illustrations and their relevance to the associated text.
Relevant Illustrations Compared Between "Creative After Effects 5.0" and "Creating Motion Graphics"
|Number of images from BBC series "See You See Me"
Speaking words of wisdom
Why should you read any of the many After Effects books that are currently available? You can never stop learning, man.
Angie Taylor gives us another answer on page eleven of her introduction. "... as Web broadcasting becomes more popular ... we will all be essentially designing for television." [End quote from book, following is my own thought. bogie.] It follows then, if they wish to succeed and prosper, graphics and effects designers for all visual media will eventually need to understand and operate within the rules of television's delivery paradigm."
Television is not an absolute. Of course not. Heck, TV isn't even a good example of communication in most cases. Style, technique, changing trends, fads, consolidation of media ownership, the world's insatiable appetite for mediocrity, censorship, control of content by advertisers, and the introduction of new technologies will influence the evolution of television. Still, TV -- and its older, more elegant sister, film -- is the only solid model upon which to build your motion graphics. Take the time to learn why certain things work and why audiences see things the way they do. There are only a few artists who have successfully created new paradigms in total ignorance of their existing histories. Not many of us can fake it like that so develop your uniquely personal style only after you know what you're doing.
A splendid time is guaranteed for all
I don't want anyone who has gotten this far to think Angie Taylor's "Creative After Effects 5" is anything less than a great and useful tool. It could be more user-friendly, certainly, and she should have included a billion additional illustrations. Will your knowledge of After Effects be enhanced by an amount commensurate with the cost of the book? Absolutely. Will you enjoy reading it and working through the lessons? I think so. Is this an investment you can afford? That's up to you, of course, and I don't know how much allowance you get from your mum and dad. But if you are going to spend one thousand U.S. dollars on an application of After Effects' complexity and depth, then how can you not afford to invest a little of your time and money learning how to use it?
Buy Angie's book. No question. Buy it.
-- David Bogie, Boise Idaho USA
©2001 by David Bogie. All rights are reserved.